The L Gallery in downtown Nashville’s Arcade on the Fifth Avenue of the Arts will be host to an amazing evening celebrating a music legend on Thursday, July 9. Born over 125 years ago, Lead Belly was an American Folk and Blues musician known for his strong vocals and twelve-string guitar. His musicianship has influenced generations of artists, but even today, with recent notoriety that includes a Smithsonian exhibit and boxed-CD-set, many Nashvillians are not aware of the local connection to this legend.
Come learn from his family and others about his legacy and impact on the music industry. There will be a panel discussion, moderated by Henry Hicks, that will include family members of Lead Belly, curator Levon Williams of NMAAM, and executive director Dr. Gregory Reish of the MTSU Center for Popular Music. The program, free and open to the public, begins at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 9 at L Gallery, 73 Arcade. L Gallery is owned and operated by Lena Carol Saffell, Nashville’s premiere female African American abstract expressionist artist.
The National Museum of African American Music is sponsoring the program as part of a series on African American musical artists. For more information, visit NMAAM.org
Who was Lead Belly?
Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter on January 20, 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana, and died December 6, 1949. Lead Belly usually played the twelve-string guitar, but he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and “windjammer” (a diatonic accordion); sometimes he sang while clapping his hands or stomping his foot. The pronunciation of his name is “HYEW-dee” or “HUGH-dee.” Ledbetter.
The topics of Lead Belly’s music covered a wide range, including gospel, blues about women, liquor, prison life, and racism, as well as folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, and dancing. He also wrote songs about people in the news, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes, and boxer Jack Johnson.
Due to a violent temper in his early life, he spent time in various correctional institutions, and there are several conflicting stories about his nickname. Some claim his fellow inmates called him “Lead Belly” as a play on his family name and his physical toughness. An inmate stabbed him in the neck (leaving him with a fearsome scar he covered with a bandana); Ledbetter nearly killed his attacker with his own knife. Others say he was wounded in the stomach with buckshot. Another theory is that it refers to his ability to drink moonshine. Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it came from a supposed tendency to lay about as if “with a stomach weighted down by lead” in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working. Or it may be simply a corruption of his last name pronounced with a southern accent. Lead Belly is honored with a statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.