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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

Good Night Irene

by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Since Shreveport and Caddo Parish were once members of the old East Texas Chamber of Commerce, it is appropriate for the East Texas Historical Association to consider Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, as part of our pastóespecially since at least one of his prison sentences was served in this region.

Leadbetter was born in 1888 on a farm near Mooringsport, Louisiana, the son of an African American tenant farmer and his half-Indian wife. The family later purchased a farm of its own in Texas, and even after he became an entertainer Leadbetter continued to do farm work in the summertime.

When Leadbetter learned to play the guitar he returned to Shreveport to begin a career in music as a blues solo singer. He performed in black nightclubs and saloons in various places in Louisiana and in Texas, where he got into trouble with the law for murder in 1918.

While serving a thirty-year prison sentence Leadbetter acquired his famous nickname, Leadbelly. Various stories attempt to explain it but the most colorful is that Leadbetter was shot in the stomach, hence "Leadbelly."

Texas Governor Pat Neff pardoned Leadbelly in 1925 after hearing him sing and play "Blues," especially a song the convict wrote in Neff's honor. He went back to entertaining and the often underworld atmosphere in which such segregated entertainers lived and performed then, and in 1930 once again began a sentence for assault and attempted murder in Louisiana's infamous Angola Prison.
While there, Leadbelly was visited and recorded by the Texas-based but nationally significant gatherer of folk music, Alan Lomax. Leadbelly once again won early release from prison through Lomax' intervention, and for a time traveled with Lomax, performing his unique blues style accompanied by playing a twelve-string guitar. Eventually he performed in New York and Washington with singers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and continued to compose blues, including his best known piece, "Good Night, Irene," which became a hit when the Weavers recorded it after Leadbelly's death in 1949.
Huddie Leadbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, has been inducted as a member of the Nashville Song Writers Associationís International Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. None of his wives were named Irene.


© Archie P. McDonald
All Things Historical

October 1, 2007 column
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.



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