Born in 1888 on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, a small town near the Louisiana/Texas border, Huddie Ledbetter was an able child, both academically and musically and he took up music when he was five years old. His first instrument was an accordion and he began playing the guitar seriously when he was in his teens.  With his singing and dancing he was soon playing parties and dances in the area around Mooringsport.  By 1904 he was playing in St. Paul’s Bottom, a notorious red light district in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was exposed to a variety of music styles in the juke joints, brothels, and dance halls of the area. Between 1906 and 1908 he drifted through Louisiana, hearing Jelly Roll Morton in New Orleans, before arriving in Dallas, Texas. After a period back home with his parents he returned to Dallas when he changed from a six-string to a twelve-string guitar. Shortly afterwards he adopted the working name Leadbelly and started playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who taught him slide guitar. However Leadbelly soon began to have serious troubles with the law and in 1916 he was on the run using the alias Walter Boyd. During this time he shot and killed a man and in December 1917 he was sentenced to Shaw State Prison in Texas for thirty years.

He spent the next eight years in the Texas penal system where he established a reputation for his prodigious work ability and his singing, finally being granted a pardon by the State Governor in 1925.  Leadbelly returned to his wandering lifestyle around Louisiana and Texas and for the next five years he continued to develop his wide and diverse repertoire of songs. However he was never far from trouble and in 1930 he was arrested for attempted homicide and sentenced to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, again for thirty years. Huddie played his guitar in his spare time while imprisoned, gaining popularity with prisoners, guards, and most importantly, with the all powerful Prison Warden. When folklorist's John and Alan Lomax arrived at Angola in 1933 to record "Negro folk songs" for the American Library of Congress, the Warden recommended Leadbelly. The Lomaxes were so impressed with Leadbelly’s ability that they returned a year later to record him again, and they were instrumental in hastening his release from prison in 1934 for good behaviour.

Leadbelly's relationship with the Lomaxes was established and he became their chaffeur and companion, helping them gain the confidence of other 'performing' inmates in the institutions and work farms in many southern American States. Leadbelly's colourful  and somewhat notorious background made him a folk sensation in linguistic societies, clubs, and colleges. He made his first commercial recordings for the ARC label in January 1935 and as his success grew, his relationship with the Lomaxes became more strained. Leadbelly eventually moved to new York where he recorded an enormous range of work although his commercial success was limited to a fairly small following by folk enthusiasts. He was dogged by health problems during the latter part of the 1940's and he died in New York in 1949. Ironically two of Leadbelly's best known songs brought success to others not long after his death. In 1951 the Weavers had a Stateside hit with 'Goodnight Irene', and in early 1956 Lonnie Donegan charted in England with his song 'Rock Island Line'.