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Leadbelly is a 1976 film chronicling the life of folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (better known as "Lead Belly").[1] The film was directed by Gordon Parks, and starred Roger E. Mosley in the title role.[2] The film focuses on the troubles of Lead Belly's youth in the segregated South including his time in prison, and his efforts to use his music to gain release.

Wide movie poster for Leadbelly
Directed byGordon Parks
Produced byMarc Merson
David Paradine
Written byErnest Kinoy
StarringRoger E. Mosley
Music byFred Karlin
CinematographyBruce Surtees
Edited byHarry Howard
Thomas Penick
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
May 28, 1976
Running time
126 mins.
CountryUnited States


Huddie Ledbetter leaves his father's house just barely into his twenties and arrives at a brothel on Fannin' Street ran by Miss Eula, who nicknames him Leadbelly and has him play at the bar. For a while, she takes care of him until the police arrive, breaking up a party. Leadbelly and an old man escape via a train and Leadbelly buys a twelve-string acoustic guitar from the old man. Seeking work, he takes a job picking cotton. He soon leaves on a train to Silver City where he meets Blind Lemon and they start playing shows together.

At one show, a drunken man tells Leadbelly to keep playing, and threatens him. Leadbelly responds by smashing his guitar onto him and is arrested. He escapes from jail and leads a normal life until he and a drunken friend are playing around with a gun, and Leadbelly accidentally shoots him. He is thrown in prison where he is forced to work in a chain gang. When he tries to escape, he is caught and put in a box. His father arrives and tries to bail Leadbelly out, but fails. Before leaving, he manages to convince the warden to get Leadbelly a twelve-string acoustic guitar.

After getting the new guitar, he plays a song for Governor Pat Neff who reassures Leadbelly he will be set free. After he leaves prison, he returns to Fannin Street, sees it has lost its former glory, and he is reunited with Miss Eula. He returns to his father's home only to find that a new family lives there. A group of men attack Leadbelly and slash his throat. Leadbelly happens to stab and kill a man in self-defense but is thrown back in prison. John and Alan Lomax visit the prison and interview Leadbelly, having him play all his songs for them. After he finishes telling his life story, they tell him they will see what they can do about getting him out of prison. The film ends with a title card stating that Leadbelly was released from prison and pursued his music career.


Further readingEdit

  • Kevles, Barbara. "The Marketing of Leadbelly." Cineaste Fall 2003: 34-35.
  • Boyd, III, L. Roi. "Exploring Gordon Parks' "Leadbelly": Thirty Years Later"
  • BTNews Vol.16, No.1 Winter/Spring 2006: 15-20.


  1. ^ Ebert, Roger (1976). "Leadbelly". Chicago Sun-Times.
  2. ^ "Leadbelly".

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