fell into a series of scrapes with the law, first sentenced to thirty days on a county road gang in East Texas, escaping, and eventually acquiring a reputation as "the baddest ass nigger." He was not yet thirty when he was convicted of murdering a cousin and sentenced to a term from seven to thirty years in prison.
After five years of state prison farm labor, Texas Governor Pat Neff visited the prison in 1924, and Ledbetter got to perform for him. Wisely, he wrote a song pleading for a pardon, later saying:
I put Mary in it, Jesus's mother, you know. I took a verse from the Bible, around the twenty-second chapter of Proverbs, around the fourteenth verse; if you forgive a man his trespasses, the heavenly father will also forgive your trespasses.
Just before leaving office in 1925, Neff pardoned Ledbetter. By 1930, though, the man had landed himself back in jail after he was convicted of assault. While at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, he was visited by John and Alan Lomax, who were touring state prisons collecting folk and spiritual songs. After he was paroled, Ledbetter tracked down the Lomaxes, who he worked for several years before breaking into the New York City music scene. Here's a rather embarrassingly paternalistic 1935 recreation of the relationship between Ledbetter and John Lomax:
Ledbelly went on to pretty great musical success, including recording for the first time this tune, the melody of which Woody Guthrie borrowed and rewrote about a million times:
And of course if Leadbelly had stayed in prison we wouldn't have gotten this musical gem six decades later: