Watch the Only Known Footage of the Legendary Bluesman Lead Belly (1935 and 1945)

Hud­die Led­bet­ter, bet­ter known as “Lead Bel­ly,” was one of the great­est blues musi­cians of all time. His songs have been cov­ered by hun­dreds of artists, rang­ing from Frank Sina­tra to Led Zep­pelin. Lead Bel­ly is also famous for what his biog­ra­phy at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes as “the myth­ic out­line of his life”:

Born cir­ca 1885 in rur­al north­west Louisiana, Lead Bel­ly ram­bled across the Deep South from the age of 16. While work­ing in the fields, he absorbed a vast reper­toire of songs and styles. He mas­tered pri­mor­dial blues, spir­i­tu­als, reels, cow­boy songs, folk bal­lads and prison hollers. In 1917, Lead Bel­ly served as Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son­’s “lead boy”–i.e., his guide, com­pan­ion and protégé–on the streets of Dal­las. A man pos­sessed with a hot tem­per and enor­mous strength, Lead Bel­ly spent his share of time in South­ern pris­ons. Con­vict­ed on charges of mur­der (1917) and attempt­ed mur­der (1930), Lead Bel­ly lit­er­al­ly sang his way to free­dom, receiv­ing par­dons from the gov­er­nors of Texas and Louisiana. The sec­ond of his releas­es was large­ly obtained through the inter­ven­tion of John and Alan Lomax, who first heard Lead Bel­ly at Ango­la State Prison while record­ing indige­nous South­ern musi­cians for the library of Con­gress.

In 1935 the March of Time news­reel com­pa­ny told the sto­ry of John Lomax’s dis­cov­ery of Lead Bel­ly in the short film above. Although the script­ed film will strike mod­ern view­ers as dubi­ous in some respects (March of Time founder Hen­ry Luce once described the series as “fak­ery in alle­giance to the truth”), the news­reel is nev­er­the­less a fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­ment of Lead Bel­ly, who was about 50 years old at the time, along with Lomax and Martha Promise, Lead Bel­ly’s wife. At one point Lead Bel­ly sings his clas­sic song, “Good­night, Irene.”

Accord­ing to Sharon R. Sher­man in Doc­u­ment­ing Our­selves: Film, Video, and Cul­ture, the 1935 Lead Bel­ly news­reel is the ear­li­est cel­lu­loid doc­u­ment of Amer­i­can folk­lore. Lead Bel­ly did work for Lomax after his sec­ond release from prison, as the news­reel says, accom­pa­ny­ing him back East to serve as his chauf­feur. In New York Lead Bel­ly per­formed in Harlem and also came into con­tact with left­ist folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Lead Bel­ly became known as the “King of the Twelve-String Gui­tar.”

Three Songs by Lead­bel­ly, the only oth­er film known to exist of the great blues­man, was made ten years after the news­reel. The footage of Lead Bel­ly per­form­ing was shot  in 1945 by Bland­ing Sloan and Wah Mong Chang, and edit­ed two decades lat­er by Pete Seeger. The film begins with scenes of the grave­yard in Moor­ingsport, Louisiana, where Lead Bel­ly was buried after his death in 1949, accom­pa­nied by an instru­men­tal ver­sion (with hum­ming) of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Lead Bel­ly actu­al­ly per­formed six songs for the film, but only three could be sal­vaged. Seeger is quot­ed by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lor­nell in The Life and Leg­end of Lead­bel­ly as describ­ing Sloan’s work as “pret­ty ama­teur­ish”:

I think that he record­ed Lead­bel­ly in a stu­dio the day before, then he played the record back while Lead­bel­ly moved his hands and lips in synch with the record. He’d tak­en a few sec­onds from one direc­tion and a few sec­onds from anoth­er direc­tion, which is the only rea­son I was able to edit it. I spent three weeks with a Movieo­la, up in my barn, snip­ping one frame off here and one frame off there and jug­gli­ing things around. I was able to synch up three songs: “Grey Goose,” “Take This Ham­mer,” and “Pick a Bale of Cot­ton.”

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Relat­ed con­tent:

Leg­endary Folk­lorist Alan Lomax: The Land Where the Blues Began

Hear 17,000+ Tra­di­tion­al Folk & Blues Songs Curat­ed by the Great Musi­col­o­gist Alan Lomax

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Comments (8)
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  • John Conolley says:

    His name was­n’t Hud­die. It was Hudie. Hew-dee. I have a record­ing of Lead­bel­ly singing with Josh White, and White calls him Hudie to his face. Or ears. I think he would know.

  • Mike Springer says:

    Geez, John. It’s as if you read a sto­ry about Sean Con­nery and you said, “His name isn’t Sean. It’s Shawn. I heard him say it once on the David Let­ter­man show.”

    Lead Bel­ly’s first name was indeed pro­nounced “hewdee,” but it was spelled “Hud­die.”

  • KevinLKoehler says:

    Had a rela­tion­ship in N.Y. sett­tings with author Patri­cia High­smith who also pre­sum­ably dat­ed Stan ‘The Man” Lee

  • hikeshi randalph says:

    This is per­fect, beau­ti­ful, I love it.

  • Natalie Bustillos says:


  • louis says:

    Wow ! What an awe­some col­lec­tion of a time gone bye…

  • Ted Kaplan says:

    I grew up lis­ten­ing to the “King of the Twelve String Gui­tar” and tried to adapt my style to his. Some friends have said I came awful close, but there was only one Hud­die Lead­bet­ter!!

  • Jay Pearlman says:

    “Wah Mong Chang” was actu­al­ly Wah Ming Chang, AKA Wah Chang. He was an artist, sculp­tor, and worked in Hol­ly­wood for many years. A friend of mine owned a minia­ture 1:12 scale bust sculp­ture he did of Sher­lock Holmes.

    He has a biog­ra­phy on Wikipedia.

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