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This is a folk standard, meaning no one knows who wrote it. Leadbelly's version has become the most widely recognized.
Leadbelly, whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter, developed this while he was in jail for attempted murder from 1918-1924. It won him his freedom when the warden let him go after hearing this.
In 1930, Leadbelly was once again jailed for attempted murder. Once again, his music won him his freedom when John Lomax and his son Alan convinced prison officials to release him. John and Alan Lomax were anthropologists and music historians who collected songs to preserve in the Library of Congress. They led a successful campaign to free Leadbelly and got him released in 1934. Leadbelly continued to record, and although he never made much money, his music is considered a big piece of US history, as it describes the struggles of black Americans.
Most recorded versions are much more tame than Leadbelly's original, with the line "I'll get you in my dreams" replaced with "I'll see you in my dreams."
In 1950, one year after Leadbelly died, this was a #1 hit for the Folk group The Weavers. Other artists to record the song include Ry Cooder, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, The Chieftains, Tom Waits and Peter, Paul and Mary. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
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