Despite never landing a hit record in his short lifetime, Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter turned out to be one of the founding fathers of 20th-century popular music. Following his death in 1949, Lead Belly’s music inspired a raft of seminal artists not only in the US but in the UK as well, one of whom was John Lennon of The Beatles.
The sad irony of Lead Belly’s life is that just months after his death The Weavers, a folk group featuring Ledbetter’s friend Pete Seeger, hit number one on the pop charts with his song ‘Good Night Irene’, which was first recorded by Lead Belly in 1933 during his incarceration in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Prison.
Lonnie Donegan, a British musician widely regarded as the godfather of British pop music, heard The Weavers’ rendition of ‘Good Night Irene’ and used it as a template for the ‘skiffle’ style of which Donegan became an important advocate. Throughout the 1950s, he inspired British teens to form skiffle groups, one of whom was a 15-year-old John Lennon who founded The Quarrymen in 1956, later adding Paul McCartney and George Harrison to its ranks.
Noting just how influential Donegan and Lead Belly were for The Beatles, John Reynolds, author of Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, writes: “George Harrison once said: ‘No Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles'”. And, according to Reynolds, Lead Belly’s influences goes far beyond The Beatles. “There’s been nobody that has a repertoire quite like Lead Belly,” he continued. “He really knew about 500 songs and was like a human juke box. He’s more relevant than ever. Jack White sings his songs, so did Kurt Cobain and some rappers like Wycliffe Jean.”
While Lead Belly’s unflinching musical exploration of injustice saw him become an essential fixture in the political folk scene of New York – where he joined Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger – it was Donegan who bridged the gap between American protest music and British pop. ‘Skiffle’ might sound a little twee by today’s standards, but it was utterly transformative at the time. The first guitar-led music to gain traction in the UK, skiffle lay the foundations for British rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and arguably the band format in general.
Its success was largely down to its accessibility. Skiffle music was very simple, often utilising just three chords at a time. It was also founded on a DIY sensibility, with young skiffle musicians crafting homemade basses out of tea chests and using washboards for percussion. The simplicity of the style offered the likes of Robert Plant, Roger Daltry, Jimmy Page and countless others their first taste of collective music-making. And none of it would have been possible without Lead Belly and Lonnie Donegan.