More than any other black folk-blues artist of his time Leadbelly helped expose his race's vast musical riches to white America, and, in the process, helped preserve a folk legacy that has become a significant part of the nation's musical treasury. He was not a blues singer in the traditional sense; he also sang spirituals, pop, field and prison hollers, cowboy and childrens songs, dance tunes and folk ballads, and of course his own topical compositions. It has been said his repertoire was at least 500 songs. He never saw any commercial success during his lifetime. Not until after his death did a broader public come to know his songs and the amazing story of his life.
Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 29, 1889 on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the only child of sharecropper parents Wesley and Sally. Huddie and his parents moved to Leigh, Texas when he was five and it was there that he became interested in music, encouraged by his uncle Terrell who bought Huddie his first musical instrument, an accordion.
Over the years he became fluent on the piano, harp, mandolin and harmonica but he is best remembered for his 12 string guitar. By the age of 18 he had two children and had smashed his father over the head with a poker during an argument.
Though little is known about Leadbelly's early life - he rarely spoke of those days - he left home at 20 and over the next ten years wandered throughout the southwest eking out an existence by playing guitar when he could and working as a laborer when he had to. Sometime around 1915 he met the seminal Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and worked and traveled with him as his lead boy (guide, companion and protégé) on the streets of Dallas.