19. He left school at just 12 to work the land
Leadbelly enrolled at his local school at the age of 8, but barely 4 years later, he ceased his academic studies forever. Aged just 12, Leadbelly instead went to work on his father’s farm. With money tight, despite the Leadbetters owning their own land, and opportunities for African-Americans being so limited, the decision to swap school for farm labouring made a lot of sense. But this relatively dogmatic decision was to be the real start of Leadbelly’s legend: free of academic study, he spent his time learning musical instruments and writing songs in his spare time.
Although he actually began playing music back in Louisiana at the age of just 2, it was in Texas that Leadbelly became the musical colossus we remember him as. His uncle, Terrell, fostered his nephew’s natural aptitude for music, and introduced Leadbelly to the guitar. He also learned to play the accordion, mandolin, and piano in between his agricultural duties. Like most bluesman, Leadbelly nurtured his talent in the rural South, and his hard existence – remember, he was just a child when he dropped out of school – produced the hard-hitting songs that were to make his name and legend.