From an early age, Leadbelly was prone to use violence as a means to settle his disputes, no matter how minor. In 1916 he escaped from a jail in Texas where he was serving time for an assault charge. For two years he lived under the alias of Walter Boyd until he killed a man in a fight and has sentenced to thirty years of hard labor at Texas' Shaw State Prison Farm outside Houston. After only seven years, Huddie sang a song for Governor Pat Neff begging for his freedom. Leadbelly convinced Neff he had changed his ways and was released. But by 1930 he was once again behind bars, this time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for attempted homicide.
Long about 1933, the great ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax was touring the South for the Library of Congress collecting folk songs when he heard Leadbelly play. Lomax had discovered that the prisons of the South were some of the best places to collect the traditional work songs, ballads, and spirituals. Lomax made hundreds of recordings on that trip and returned a few years later for a follow up session. On one trip, Leadbelly told Lomax of his pardon years earlier by Governor Neff by way of song. Lomax decided to record Leadbelly’s request for a pardon and press it on the reverse side of one of his favorite ballads, “Good Night, Irene”. Lomax took the record to Louisiana Governor Allen and on August 1, 1934 Leadbelly got his second pardon.
Lomax took Leadbelly North where he became a musical sensation, with a long string of hits. Unfortunately, Leadbelly’s violent nature, although mellowed over the years, was to play a part in his life once again. In a disagreement with Lomax, Leadbelly pulled a knife. No one was hurt, but the incident ended their long friendship. By this time Leadbelly was a well respected entertainer and the episode with Lomax had no effect on his career. He continued to tour until he fell ill during a European Tour. Huddie Ledbetter died of lateral sclerosis on December 6, 1949.