One of blues’ finest chain-links to the African griots that birthed rhythm into traditional gospel and field songs, Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter passed away on this day in 1949. In and out of jail his entire life for particularly violent altercations – murder, stabbings, – the “King of the 12-string guitar” made a career out of persuading people that confined him that he was a good man, slinging howling tales of struggle and sardonic reappropriations of traditional folk numbers like the quick-fingered “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”

A fitting remembrance paralleling the day of his death, with the 13th Amendment being ratified on this same day in 1865, Life magazine published a feature on Lead Belly in 1937 titled “Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel,” with this telling opening sentence: “The easiest way to avoid or at least to mitigate the consequences of sin is to entertain your fellow man.” If it wasn’t for folklorist John Lomax, who’s credited with discovering him in the early 30s, professionally recording him for the first time while he was incarcerated, who knows if his story would’ve been told the same way. But since it was, everyone from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain have some thanking to do. So here’s to Lead Belly, and his true blue entertaining charm, turnin’ the contentious act of cotton-picking into something all his own:

Oh lord, I can pick a bale of cotton

Oh lord, I can pick a bale a day