Huddie William Ledbetter is born on a Louisiana plantation, the son of a sharecropper. As a boy, he picks cotton with his parents. He gets his first guitar in his mid-teens.
After a fight, Lead Belly is sentenced to a short stint in prison. He served longer terms — once for killing a man — at Texas’s Central Unit prison in 1918 and Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm in 1930.
Folklorist John Lomax and his son, Alan, discover Lead Belly while visiting Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm and are the first to record him. Lead Belly’s relationship with the Lomaxes would be productive musically but complicated.
Moses Asch, owner of what would become the Folkways label, signs Lead Belly, who will record with Asch for the rest of his life. Though critically acclaimed, the records do not sell. Lead Belly’s royalties from his first two releases: $11.58.
Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Lead Belly cuts short a European tour and returns to New York. Only months after his death, a cover of “Goodnight Irene” by the Weavers, a group that included his friend Pete Seeger, would hit No. 1 on the charts.
Lonnie Donegan records “Rock Island Line,” which becomes a Top 10 hit in England. Donegan introduces Lead Belly to a generation of British youths, among them John Lennon, Paul McCartney and future Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.
Creedence Clearwater Revival includes two Lead Belly songs, “The Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields,” on its Top 10 album “Willy and the Poor Boys,” and the Beach Boys have an international hit with their version of “Cotton Fields.” Other musicians who have since covered Lead Belly: Lucinda Williams, Nirvana and Jack White.
The Smithsonian Institution acquires Asch’s Folkways label, hires archivist Jeff Place and curator Tony Seeger, and begins sorting through thousands of recordings. The first Lead Belly recording released after the sale comes out in 1989.
Nirvana plays “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” during the wildly popular “MTV Unplugged” series. Kurt Cobain had played guitar on the song, also known as “Black Girl” and “In the Pines,” when fellow Seattle musician Mark Lanegan recorded it in 1990.
At a Lead Belly tribute organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss play a pair of Lead Belly songs. That leads to the two working together on their Grammy-winning 2007 collaboration, “Raising Sand.”
The “Legend of Lead Belly” documentary premieres on the Smithsonian Channel, a day before the release of a five-CD career-spanning box set, “Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.”