In July of 1933, when John and Alan Lomax left Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA, Huddie Lebetter stayed behind. He would be continuing his 6 – 10 year prison sentence for “assault with intent to murder” that he had begun serving on February 25, 1930.
(Again, all quotes and information in this post are from the book; The Life & Legend of Lead Belly by Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell.)
In July of 1934, the Lomaxes were back in Angola and on July 1, they recorded Lead Belly again. This time they cut 15 performances: 6 songs that were repeats from the first session (including 2 more takes of “Irene”) and 8 new songs, including “Governor O.K. Allen.” This song was written by Lead Belly as a plea to the Louisiana governor to commute his sentence. At Lead Belly’s request, the Lomaxes delivered the disc recording of the song to the governor’s office in Baton Rouge, LA, in the days after their visit.
On August 1, 1934, Huddie Lebetter was released from jail. According to a letter written by Warden L.A. Jones in 1939: “He received no clemency, and his discharge was a routine matter under the good time law which applies to all first and second offenders.”
On September 22, 1934, Huddie started working for John Lomax as his driver and assistant, travelling with him through Arkansas on another song collecting and recording trip.
On December 28, 1934, Huddie Ledbetter gave his first public performance in the North at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in the Crystal Ballroom of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia, PA. The performance was listed on the program as: “Negro Folksongs and Ballads, presented by John Lomax and Alan Lomax with the assistance of a Negro minstrel from Louisiana.”
Over three days in January of 1935, the 23rd, 24th and 25th, Lead Belly had his first commercial recording sessions. He was under contract with the American Recording Corporation also known as ARC Records. He cut 10 songs a day, each day, using the same 12-string Stella guitar that he still had from his days in prison.
There are one or two movies/documentaries about Lead Belly that I know of, and have seen. The true “documentary” has some actual footage of him playing. To see him play, one would never think of him as a violent man. How fortunate for him, and the Lomaxes, that they were to meet, considering the circumstances.