In July 1933, while Huddie was serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary on attempted homicide charges (he'd previously served two sentences in Texas for assault and murder), he was recorded by folklorist John Avery Lomax and his son Alan. The Library of Congress was collecting folk songs and the Lomaxes had discovered Southern prisons to be a ripe place for collection. When the Lomaxes returned in 1934, Leadbelly gave them a song that had gained him a pardon in Texas. They recorded it, brought it to the governor, and within a month, Huddie was a free man. (Good story, but state records suggests he was released under a "double good time" early release program and not the song).

He worked for the Lomaxes as a chauffeur and recording assistant, and by 1936 was performing in colleges and theaters. The Lomaxes cashed in on his convict status by having him wear prison uniform on stage. Disagreements over management and Huddie's carousing led to a split with John Lomax. He moved to New York to play in clubs and at political rallies (the musical climate of jazz and swing made his music a favorite only with the trade union movement, college students, and the liberal establishment).

The two principal sources of Leadbelly's music these days are Rounder Records (re-issuing the complete Library of Congress recordings) and Smithsonian/Folkways, although his recordings for Capitol Records and the American Record Company are still available (the latter from Sony).