On December 13, 1917, Walter Boyd was charged with murder. He was in a jail near Caddo Lake in NW Louisiana.
Possibly the night before — the records are silent — he had been involved in a shooting in a black tavern. These taverns were known as sukey joints. Authorities arrested him for having shot and killed a friend, Will Stafford. Boyd denied the charge, but he was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Caddo Lake covers the Texas side of the border. Boyd was sent to prison in Texas, not Louisiana. This indicates that the tavern was on the Texas side.
The authorities did not know that Walter Boyd was not his real name. His name was Huddie Ledbetter. He is known to us as Leadbelly.
In 1950, a song he wrote in prison, “Goodnight Irene,” became the number-one pop song of the year, sung by a folk group known as the Weavers. He had died of Lou Gehrig’s disease a year earlier on December 6. That song launched a string of hits by the Weavers. This was the first major penetration of folk music into the popular music charts.
He had always thought that “Goodnight, Irene” would be a hit. He was right. Too late.
Ledbetter was, intermittently, a violent man. He was also the first great master of the 12-string guitar.
Sometime in the early 1920’s, the governor of Texas, Pat Neff, visited the prison where Ledbetter was incarcerated. Ledbetter sang a song he had written for Neff, asking for a pardon. In the last few days of his governorship in 1925, Neff signed the pardon. In 1932, Neff became the president of Baylor University.
By then, Ledbetter was back in prison, this time in Angola, the notorious prison in Louisiana. His crime was attempted murder . . . of a white man. He was convicted in 1930.
In 1933, John A. Lomax, the nation’s leading musical folklorist, came to the prison to record his songs. Lomax was being paid by the Library of Congress to do this. He had just begun his 10-year position as the libraries collector of American folk music. He returned in July 1934 with better equipment to record over a hundred songs. Lomax sent a copy of “Goodnight, Irene” to the governor. On August 1, the governor pardoned him.
Leadbetter volunteered to work for Lomax as his driver. Lomax accepted the offer, and the two of them toured the United States for years. These recordings became the backbone of the famous collection of American folk music in the Library of Congress. Leadbetter later complained that Lomax kept a lot of his salary from him. But Lomax also kept him out of trouble.
If Ledbetter had not been incarcerated in 1933, it is unlikely that Lomax ever would have been able to locate him and record him free of charge. Ledbetter’s violence had led to the transformation of American folk music.