Lead Belly is one of the most outstanding figures of the folk world and his influence on the music of the 20th Century and beyond is immesurable – “No Lead Belly – no Beatles” George Harrison once said.
And yet he was a man who served two prison terms – one for murder – one for attempted murder – and legend has it that his singing won him a pardon each time.
While serving his second term in the state pen he came to the attention of John Lomax and his son Alan who were recording songs from prisoners as part of their Amrican folk song collecting project. Lead Belly so impressed them with his repertoire of folk and blues songs and his own compositions that they went on to record hundreds of songs from him.
There have been hundreds of covers of his songs – the songs he wrote like Bourgeoise Blues and Jean Harlow and the traditional and minstrel show songs he made his own like Goodnight Irene and Midnight Special
His topics covered women, liquor, prison life, and racism, cowboys, sailors, cattle herding, and he also wrote songs about people in the news, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes.
He hardly made a penny from his recordings during his lifetime – whatever he made was from perfomances yet one of his songs Goodnight Irene was covered by The Weavers,J udy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Jerry Garcia, The Chieftains and Willy Nelson, Half Man Half Biscuit, John Martyn, Tom Waits and Ronnie Drew