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Lead Belly's autograph

05 Aug 11 - 05:34 PM (#3202270)
Subject: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Big Ballad Singer

I have a chance (maybe) to own an item that is purported to be signed by Lead Belly. I have seen pictures of the item, and the signature on it. I don't want to describe the item in too much detail yet, but I have two major questions. One is whether the item in question was made before Lead Belly's death, which is still not determined. The other question is whether the autograph is legit.

Now, I know Huddie Ledbetter was illiterate for most of his life; he learned to write (and I suppose, to read) later on, from what I gather. I am sure that he wrote, because I have seen letters and envelopes in his handwriting. The problem is that I have never seen a personal signature nor an "autograph" (which in many people's cases is more stylized than a personal signature) from Mr. Ledbetter.

Does anyone have a link to a picture of a signature or autograph from Huddie Ledbetter? Thanks in advance... I am really excited to possibly be *this* close to owning some music history.

05 Aug 11 - 05:39 PM (#3202278)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Mark Ross

Check out the Wolfe & Lornell bio of Lead Belly, there might be a picture of his signature in there. Also, check with Smitsonian Folkways in D.C.   I would bet that they have copies of Huddie's correspondence with Moe Asch.

Mark Ross

05 Aug 11 - 06:23 PM (#3202317)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: GUEST,999

Have you tried Google images?

05 Aug 11 - 08:46 PM (#3202395)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Mary Katherine

Checked my copy of the Leadbelly bio, and there is no example of his signature in it.

05 Aug 11 - 09:14 PM (#3202405)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Lox

Does this help?

Letter ...

05 Aug 11 - 09:15 PM (#3202407)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: bobad

Another here

05 Aug 11 - 10:04 PM (#3202429)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Big Ballad Singer

I don't see his signature on either of those documents you linked to. The handwriting is certainly very similar in style to the signature I have seen recently, but it's hard to tell whether it's by the same hand or not.

I have seen the autographs of many old black blues singers, and many of them had what I would call a "sign something"-style autograph that may have been some of the only writing they really knew how to do. Muddy Waters, in particular, was basically illiterate for most of his life, and used to practice a flourishing, looping autograph style so that he would not appear dumb to people.

Here are a few clues that make me tend to think the sig might be real:

1) The handwriting is what I would call "sloppy cursive", brought on by a) trying to sign on a wobbly surface and b) not having very good handwriting to begin with. The signature looks like the work of someone trying to make a fancy-looking autograph, but who obviously did not have great penmanship.

2) The signature is "Lead Belly", two words, rather than "Leadbelly" which is the common, mistaken usage. In my opinion, the average person trying to forge this signature would probably have used "Leadbelly", as that is what was printed on so many song sheets, record sleeves and book covers. I, for one, and many other people did not know that Ledbetter himself used "Lead Belly", two words, as his moniker. I only learned that little fact recently.

These considerations lead me to think that this might be a legitimate autograph from a person who did not sign a whole slew of things like so many other performers.

The one serious question I have is whether he COULD have signed the item that has this autograph on it; I am not sure if it was extant before his death.

Anyone have an opinion or any info about Lead Belly's autograph? Is it considered rare or semi-rare? What kind of value might be associated with it?

Thanks again for the info so far... I hope this works out.

05 Aug 11 - 10:33 PM (#3202442)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Effsee

Without knowing what the said item is, I guess we're all in the dark!

05 Aug 11 - 10:52 PM (#3202449)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: 12-stringer

The two letters are in different handwriting though on the same stationery. The one linked by Bodad is pretty surely not written by Leadbelly though presumably dictated by him. The other looks like Leadbelly's hand to me (the one in an auction), though the repro is a little dim for my one good eye. The "H" in this is Leadbelly's, and he seems to capitalize "H," "B," and "P" regularly, as Huddie did in all the specimens I've seen.

There are two Oak publications from the 60s, "The Leadbelly Songbook" and "Folksinger's Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly." The latter reproduces a memo, unsigned, in which Huddie says "Because don't forget Because there is a Book writing About my Life and i dont think ofent [?] That Book The Book was any way Bobry [?] of of [sic] my Life Because Lomax did not rite nothing Like I told Him."

The songbook includes a photo of Huddie and Martha on p 6, and under it is an inscription "Lisen folks this Leadbelly talking to you How do you do." On p 18 is a letter to Moses Asch, on Astoria Hotel stationery, dated 12/6/1946. There's no signature but it begins "Dear Mr Moe Ash How do you do this is Your friend H.M. Ledbetter righting." All three of these items are in the same hand, and it looks like the one in the auction letter.

05 Aug 11 - 11:48 PM (#3202466)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Big Ballad Singer

The item is a guitar. The signature is on the back, I believe on the bottom right bout of the guitar. That's another thing that makes me think this sig MIGHT be real... it's signed in a rather weird place. It's as though the owner asked for an autograph, turned the guitar over, and Mr. Ledbetter signed the guitar in what would have been the upper right quadrant (if you were holding an acoustic guitar the standard way while seated, and then turned it on its face, so the strings were resting in your lap or on a table, face down). That would have been the most natural place for a right-handed person to reach to sign a piece of paper; it might not have occurred to him to sign the guitar somewhere near the top of the back. The way this signature is placed, you have to hold the guitar face-down, and the lettering follows the curve of the body of the guitar to some degree.

I am trying to do some research into the brand name that is on the guitar, to see whether it could have been in production in 1949 or earlier.

It's a parlor-sized guitar, similar to those sold under the Harmony, Stella, Kay and other names back then. It is supposed to have what looks like a narrow 'floating' bridge, which is missing, and a metal tail-piece, which is there and in seemingly very good condition considering the age of the instrument. It's not a 'trapeze' tailpiece; not sure what to call this kind. The guitar is certainly not any more recent than the VERY early 1960s, and I would put it in the 50s if I were just guessing, without the addition of the signature.


I JUST (11:30 PM US Eastern Time) found a VERY similar guitar, same brand name, only with a fixed bridge, on a vintage guitar website. The dealer's site says this particular guitar is from the 1930s!!! The guitar I found with this signature on it MAY very well be from that time period!

I've also just found some other models, WITH the tail-piece exactly like the one I am looking at, that are all described as 'pre-war' instruments... obviously, pre-WWII, so late 30s/early 40s.

I'm almost trembling... this could turn out to be a huge find.

06 Aug 11 - 01:15 AM (#3202481)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: GUEST,Guest

Whew where to begin, off topic. Long time Leadbelly fan. About1972 I was introduced to Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and her husband Tillman Cadle at thier home at the peak of the mountain which was just outside the Smoky Mountain National forest on a dirt road leading out of the park from Cade's Cove going over and down the mountain to Townsend Tennessee. Mary was a musicologist from Bryn Mawr and who's home in Greenwich Village while teaching at NYU was a center for folk music. Friends with Huddie (pronounced whodee), John and Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and many many others. God I wish I had recorded it. Tillman sang for several hours. And yes Huddie played a Stella 12 string which was a popular and inexpensive guitar.

06 Aug 11 - 03:48 AM (#3202514)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Will Fly

What matters in these things is provenance - even more than age and appearance. Who owned the guitar? How did the signature get there? In what circumstances? Any accompanying letters, photos or other documents?

Remember the famous case of Robert Johnson's guitar being offered for sale for several million dollars? All based on a photograph. The claim was eventually discredited by Bruce Conforth.

06 Aug 11 - 06:16 AM (#3202563)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: GUEST,Hootenanny

Reminds me of the story of a well known old time fiddle player from back in the thirties. Even after his death people would make the trek up to his home place to pay homage. Whenever a visitor asked if his widow had his old fiddle in her posession she always brought it out to show them. When asked if she would consider selling it she usually agreed after a little negotiation on price. It would surprise you how just how many fiddles the guy had owned.

Just a word of warning


06 Aug 11 - 06:49 AM (#3202567)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Lox

You know if the price isn't too unreasonable, it could be worth takking a chance ...

... On the other hand ... would Leadbelly have signed a guitar?

Did guitars have the romantic popularity in Leadbelly's time that they have today?

Autographed guitars sounds to me like something more contemporary ..

... I would of course distinguish my point as being highly spurious conjecture and recommend that it be treated as nothing more than a thought ...

Not sure what else to add ...

06 Aug 11 - 09:56 AM (#3202629)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Mary Katherine

I agree that provenance is critical. Is the seller reputable, and well known to you? Does her/his story about how s/he came to own the guitar seem credible? If you're interested, PM me and I will put you in direct touch with Kip Lornell, co-author with the late Charles Wolfe of the Lead Belly biography; if this instrument has surfaced before, he will likely know of it.

06 Aug 11 - 10:43 AM (#3202656)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Big Ballad Singer

Actually. the instrument is being sold by a clearinghouse that does not even usually deal in musical instruments. I just happened to be browsing and saw that they had an "old guitar with a signature". The guitar looked interesting and old, and the description said they couldn't make out the name. I looked at the picture and was shocked to see "Lead Belly", again, in a sloppy script, but with a style that is definitely old-fashioned. Whoever signed the guitar learned their penmanship back in the day.

Thing is, since there are a lot of people who don't know who Lead Belly was, there's a very good chance that people could have looked right at that signature and not recognized it.

I have a feeling that this guitar may have belonged to someone that has since died; their family, not seeing anything but an old, dusty, cheap guitar, just got rid of it.

Mary Katherine, I shall indeed PM you. I appreciate your help. :)

06 Apr 13 - 11:46 PM (#3499863)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: GUEST,T.Dean

I'm curious -did you get the guitar.?

07 Apr 13 - 08:25 AM (#3500001)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: mayomick

Slight thread drift . Does anyone remember which of the bluesmen it was who had a rubber stamp made for signing his autograph with ? I think it could have been Muddy Waters.

07 Apr 13 - 12:39 PM (#3500075)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: PHJim

I'm sure most blues fans have noticed that the popular photos of Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson are both autographed with "Cordially Yours" and are both done in the same flawless penmanship. Very odd since Lemon grew up in Texas and Blake in Florida and both are blind. Are there any more bluesmen with this same signature?

08 Apr 13 - 03:35 AM (#3500340)
Subject: RE: Lead Belly's autograph
From: Rusty Dobro

I have John Lee Hooker's autograph, signed 'J.L.H.' and a cross - very shaky, but then he was very, very drunk. Also that of Sonny Boy Williamson (II) - very nicely written.