October 16, 2018

Leadbelly : The Titanic

The Titanic by Huddie Ledbetter.

Leadbelly remarked in the 1940s that "The Titanic" was the first song he ever learned to play on a 12-string guitar, which was later to become his signature instrument. He first played it in 1912 when performing with Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929) in and around Dallas, Texas.*** Leadbelly noted that he had to leave out the verse about Boxer Jack Johnson when playing before a White audience.
 The song was recorded, with the Jack Johnson part, 70 years ago: Oct 15th, 1948. Leadbelly started singing the song in 1912, not long after the sinking of the Titanic, and as part of a massive amount of poetry and song that accompanied the event. In the days before radio, many people got their news from ballads and songs carried by songsters such as Leadbelly. That era started to disappear with the advent of radio in the 1920's. Leadbelly continued to compose news-story songs right up to the 2nd World War and beyond: Zeppelin, Hitler, etc. He died in 1949. 
***The information about playing with Blind Lemon is questionable, though it came from a recording he made about Blind Lemon. 
The Titanic
Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly")
    It was a midnight on the sea,
    The band was playing, "Nearer my God to Thee,"
    Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well!
    Titanic when it got its load,
    Captain, he hollered "all aboard!"
    Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well!
    Titanic was comin' 'round the curve,
    when it run into that great big iceberg,
    Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
    Titanic was sinkin' down,
    Had them lifeboats around,
    Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
    Had them lifeboats around
    Savin' the women and children lettin' the men go down,
    Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
    Jack Johnson want to get on board,
    Captain he says, "I ain't haulin' no coal!" 
    Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!

June 21, 2018

Bigotry in Bronxville. 1946.

     My area of expertise is: some knowledge of the region Leadbelly inhabited in his younger days, along with some people that Marsha and I have personally met and interviewed. Relatives and friends of Huddie Ledbetter who give a different perspective on his life. For instance, the idea that he was some sort of itinerant bluesman, a homeless wandering minstrel with a beaten-up old guitar [ghee-tar] is countered by local impressions that he was much more of a family man, a homebody and a community member.
     
     His community was the environs of Caddo Lake spanning the Louisiana-Texas state line. His family included Ledbetters, Pughs, Promises, and members of the Shiloh (La.) Baptist Church. His closest "village" was Leigh, Texas, which hardly exists any more, since the emigration of cotton farmers to the North, or to cities like Houston and Shreveport around the time of World War II. There was once a vibrant community covering parts of Caddo Parish [around Mooringsport] and Harrison County [Marshall.]

     But for much of my information I have to rely on written sources; like most historians I scour the sources, hoping to find interesting information that ties in with my own view of the subject. For the last few years of his life, Sean Killeen gathered lots of first hand knowledge and, apart from collecting it in his Lead Belly Letter, I'm not sure what he did with it. Here is the story of Leadbelly's visit to Sarah Lawrence College.

Part 1.
     Forty minutes by train from Manhattan's Penn Station is Bronxville and Sarah Lawrence College. In the summer of 1946 Lead Belly was invited to perform there in a special summer session program. He had been living and playing in New York City for about a decade with travels to Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana and  California. In fact he had recently returned from an extended stay on the West Coast. 

     In Washington he had run up against racial discrimination and immortalized the experiences in his song "Bourgeois Blues" with the lyric "Home of the Brave, Land of the Free/I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie." In Bronxville in 1946 Lead Belly ran into the same old thing. With WWII victoriously decided by the defeat of the fascists, Bronxville was still a bourgeois town.

     Lead Belly sang and played for a small group of students attending the summer session. Harold Solomon, director of Field Work at Sarah Lawrence and a native of Georgia introduced Lead Belly who performed in front of the Karl Roesch murals on the walls of the faculty dining room and lounge in Bates Hall. Joe Papaleo, a returning veteran, was a student in the audience and remembers that he had never "heard such a pure performance as if the music he sang was being created out of the person that he was." Lead Belly's music for Papaleo was a "creative construction of the man."

     "In his performance, Lead Belly's expression was both calm and alive. His face in repose seemed heavy like a statue, more stoneish than boneish. But as soon as he started talking to us, Lead Belly lit up, counting on his words and melody to do the major defining." For Papaleo at that summer concert in Bronxville, Lead Belly was most eloquent when speaking about his 12-string guitar and recalling before each of his tunes historical legends of bygone times.

     After the concert, Harold Solomon and a group of students took Lead Belly to a popular Bronxville gathering place called The Tap. The management refused to seat Lead Belly because he was black; another public place was tried but again the same refusal of service. The group walked to the Bronx River, and under the bridge on that hot summer night in 1946, Lead Belly sang a few more songs.

     In the early fall of 1946, Harold Taylor, President of Sarah Lawrence College (1945-59) was approached by the Student Council to take steps to redress the matter of racism and discrimination in Bronxville. A Committee was established which included campus and community representatives. Local ministers were invited to join the Committee's effort; both declined.

     The students on the Committee visited every food and drink place in Bronxville explaining why the College had created the Committee. Furthermore Bronxville hospitality proprietors were advised that New York State legislation forbade refusal of service.

Part 2.

     On February 4, 1947, a few months after the summer experience, Lead Belly again played at Sarah Lawrence at a Tuesday evening College Assembly. His fee was $33. As Arthur Edelman noted in his Feb. 12th, 1947 review in the student paper, The Campus, Lead Belly's "program was very well appreciated." The people who heard him realized that "his was the kind of music you don't always hear." Edie Boorstein and Lenore Fuerst applauded Lead Belly in a letter to the editor, saying he "has a richly varied stock of material" which he uses "freely and with originality." The "splendor" of Lead Belly's guitar tone was admired as well as his exciting "expedition into the origin of the blues." Most importantly Boorstein and Fuerst recognized that by bringing Lead Belly to campus "new areas of cultural understanding" had been opened, and more remained to be done.

     After the performance, two faculty members and a few student members of the Committee, entertained Lead Belly at a Bronxville restaurant. They were all seated, and served. Lead Belly took the forty minute train trip back to New York City. 

     As Arthur Edelman had said in his concert review: "Here was authenticity backed by a driving force so imbedded with song that people couldn't help moving along with him when he sang." Edelman continued, "We also felt that here is a Negro who tries to speak for his people, too; prefacing the 'Bourgeois Blues,' Lead Belly said, 'This is a request, and a request is best' . . . and then the song spoke for itself."

     Lead Belly was like an oral history; almost everything he said and sang was a tale of his journey, remembered Joe Papaleo. The way he talked "showed he had a strong awareness of his important place in music (sometimes referring to himself in the third person, a mark of people who see themselves in history already.)"

     For Lead Belly at Sarah Lawrence College, many, many years ago, he sang his song, which continues today, without end. He was consistent in his principles; committed to his craft; and unswerving in his opposition to unfair practices. Lead Belly demonstrated in Bronxville that belief in oneself and in the continuing betterment of the human condition was the message he brought to Sarah Lawrence, and the mission of his life.

      Written by Sean Killeen after speaking with WWII veteran Joe Papaleo in 1992. Bronxville remains one of the wealthiest enclaves in the USA. I guess you might expect some bigotry. These people have a lot to lose. 

     

       

July 13, 2017

New York City blackout

Today is the 13th of July, 2017, forty years to the day that New York City experienced a complete electricity blackout. It happened in the early night, I think sometime after nine. In print and film it is being cast as a moment of truth, when we finally saw the city for what it had become: a pit of filth and a harbor of iniquity. The blackout brought us looting and ravaging hooligans who had been gathering and lurking on the mean streets until that moment when the lights went out and anarchy reigned.

I say it's just too convenient to create such a watershed in New York history. First of all, as the actress said to the Bishop, "You ain't changed all that much, Big Apple." Oh, there are new buildings and it's probably a better tourist experience than it was 40years ago, but that's true of every era of New York's spotted past. It's had to become more competitive and it's come through again. It's (still) the most interesting American city to visit.

It's too expensive, as always. I couldn't live here any more on the money I make, though it was the same feeling forty years ago. I lived near the City Hall on Chambers Street during the 1970's but I was forced out by someone who could afford the rent for the loft I had converted from a work space. I moved to Hoboken and paid $250 a month for a very suitable apartment. Then I went West and that's a story I'm not telling now. I'm talking about my blackout.

The Happy Trails Dance Band, of which I was the rhythm guitarist and principal singer, was playing a gig at the Lone Star Cafe on 5th Avenue at 13th Street. It was a low slung building with a giant armadillo on the roof and all the popular Texas musicians played there when they came to town. Most nights they hired local bands, and it was a prestigious gig for a New York country musician. In those days there weren't a lot of places for a cowboy to play, though there was a kind of Western fad going on. Even Andy Warhol had hired our band to play a gig at a defunct old bank building, downtown. Now there's some historical irony for you.

The summer of '77 was a particularly good one for me, monetarily. A little bar at Penn Station was hiring country musicians for about ten hours a day on weekdays. There were two shifts: the afternoon one began at 1 pm and ended at 7 pm. The the evening shift was 7 to 11. I liked playing in the afternoon: it was a single,  a weekday, a half hour on, a half hour off, and you could still do an evening job with the band, if one came up. Also, I had a regular gig at the Blue Ribbon Inn in Elizabeth, NJ.

Not every musician could play out-of-town gigs because of transportation difficulties, but I had an old Dodge van that had belonged to Ma Bell before me, and I managed to keep it running for years. Anyway, it was about half-an-hour's drive from Chambers Street, through the Holland Tunnel, and out to the Blue Ribbon Inn, which was owned by a colorful character named Freddie the German Cowboy. That's another story. I had two gigs a week there, Wednesdays and Sundays. I mostly played for men who were fans of country music and alcohol. As you might expect. Decades later I thought of this gig whenever I watched the opening credits to "The Sopranos."

The other regular gig I had was just around the corner from where I lived: Morgan's on Duane Street (or was it Reade St.) near West Broadway. Morgan's was two businesses, a grocery and a bar and they were into the meat trade, too, if I recall correctly. I played on Thursday nights and a guy called Bob Horan played Fridays. (Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-Bob Horan. And yes, he'd heard that "joke" before.)

Morgan's was a family-run enterprise and while there weren't really any country music fans in the neighborhood, I was tolerated and sometimes appreciated. My biggest fan was a truck driver who ran an eighteen-wheeler between Wisconsin and Manhattan. He wore a ten-gallon hat and delivered cheese to certain Italian customers. One time his rig full of cheese was stolen while he was listening to me sing. The story made the papers and after a day or two, the cheese was quietly returned. I guess somebody found out whose cheese it was and gave it back.

These regular single gigs each paid about $50, and the Sweet Sue's was a real windfall: you might get three or four of them each week. (We knew that couldn't last forever.) I was there for the commuter crowd the afternoon Elvis died and I played every Elvis song I knew. It included "A Fool Such As I" and "Long Tall Sally," both of which I learned from Elvis albums, though they're not strictly his songs. I knew lots like that.

Then there were the band gigs. They usually paid $200 or less, so I'd make less money but the places we played were more prestigious, and playing with a band was a hoot. O'Lunney's on 2nd Ave. in the 60's, I think, was the number one real country bar; Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin used to come in there with their Yankee pals. O'Lunney was a leprechaun and his bar was long and thin and he always maintained that I was better value as a single than with one of my "experimental" bands. (That's another story, too.) It was a good place to play, as was the City Limits, which came later, like 1978, maybe. The City Limits was a dance hall in Sheridan Square, downtown.

Anyway, we were taking a break after the first set at the Lone Star Cafe, when the lights went out. When the news came that the whole city was black, my friend Carl Lowe and I decided we'd better protect our pay by playing some songs on acoustic guitar and fiddle; the employees brought out some candles and we held onto our crowd; maybe built on it with the addition of passersby looking for something to do. Our bass player was a new addition that very gig and I didn't like the way he'd played in the first set. What a relief that the blackout happened, and what a service we provided to the Lone Star, really. Helped us get more jobs there, too.

So, I loved the blackout. I loved New York in those days. I had a long walk home through Washington Square and Soho and what is now known as TriBeCa. The Triangle Below Canal. But it was a nice quiet summer night and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. In winter this would happen when there was a big snow. Looting? In our sparsely-populated area of artists and lofts, I never saw it.

We got our only mention ever in Rolling Stone Magazine, and we were real proud of it. During an article on what happened to the live music when the lights went out? "The Happy Trails Dance Band" played an acoustic set at the Lone Star Cafe.

June 30, 2017

Tiny Robinson One

Queen "Tiny" Robinson, Leadbelly's niece. 
(May 27, 1923-March 12, 2017) 
Interview Dec.7th, 2004.
Tiny in 2007.
Tiny Robinson was the daughter of Mary Promise, whose twin sister, Martha, was Mrs. Huddie Ledbetter. Tiny graduated from High School in Shreveport in 1941; she then moved to New York City and lived in the apartment below Huddie and Martha. By the time Huddie died in December, 1949, Tiny had become his agent and business manager. After his death she continued to promote his music and was responsible for keeping his achievements in the public view.  Interview was at her house in Murfreesboro, TN.
Q is either Monty or Marsha Brown. Tiny is TR.

Q:   Whereabouts in Shreveport were you raised?

TR: You know Allen Avenue? (Yes) You know Ashton Street? (No)

Q: How about when you were smaller. Were you into music a lot?

TR: No, but I was around it every day and night. I wasn’t a singer or a musician or anything.

Q: Do you remember children’s games when you were real little. Did you ever play children’s games?

TR: I remember Leadbelly's children’s albums. Like “Skip to M’Lou.” That’s one famous one, then “Little Sally Walker.” Play that game, you’d walk around and they’d try to catch you. And there’d be a partner. We’d play games like that. We didn’t have no television to look at, so we did those kind of songs.

Q: What would you do for “Skip to M’Lou?”

TR: We’d skip around, skip around each other until you’d find an opening to the circle. There’d always be a partner in there. Was a nice little skip and hop dance.

Q: So, Allen Avenue and Ashton Street. . .

TR: Yes. Ashton Street runs across Pierre Avenue and Norman. 

Q:  When you were raised there how many brothers and sisters were raised with you?

TR:  There was four of us. Me and my sister, the one nearest to me, a year and a month older. Then we had another sister she was about five years older, then we had a brother who she was about a year, two years older than. And when her husband died, she remarried, and that was children that he had before and he had a big farm out by the Republican (?) Church.

Q:  So they moved out there?

TR: We was in High School then.

Q:  Which High School?

TR: CCHigh. (She leans forward, underlining) Central Colored High School. The only one in Louisiana! Yes, I graduated from there. It says “Central Colored” High School, ‘cause there was a Central High School out in Hollywood, but it was all white. They put “colored” in there so that we’d know which one we’re supposed to go to. 

Q: Is the building still there?
Central. (Now, Elementary.)

TR: On Weinstock, coming down from Norman. We have a class reunion every two years, but we don’t have it there. We have it in different cities. We have a historical event that I’m on that we collect things and bring to the group that hasn’t been able to find anything about Central, anything at the high school. It lasts a week and we do it every two years. And everyone’s there except the one’s who’s been dead and died so we never know. . . we have a big program and we get a lot of people to speak. . . now we had in Shreveport, I think four years ago, we had Donald Aytch speak, you know Donald Aytch?

Q:  Yes. He’s died, too, hasn’t he? 
(Born April 17, 1930, died. July 24, 2004, just about four months prior to this interview.)

TR: Donald Aytch? (Yes) I figured Donald Aytch was dead, coz I have called there and got no answer.

Q:  (Monty) used to work with him. At the radio station. (KDAQ, Public Radio. Donald DJ’d a blues music program. Monty did  “Louisiana Folk Music.”)

TR: He did quite a lot of things there before he died. He was the one that put that thing together. On the Mooringsport Road going down from Mooringsport. That group he was in, Congressman? 

Q: He was a Caddo Parish Police Commissioner (which is like a being on a County Council in other states.) 

TR: well, they put those plaques up there on Mooringsport Road, as a marker, and then (there was) a big thing down in Natchitoches at the . . .

Q:  Folk Festival? Natchitoches Folk Festival at the college? (Northwestern State U.)

TR:  Northwestern, that’s it. We had a thing down there and Donald came to that, too.

Q: And Sean (Killeen) was there. too

TR: Yes, Sean was there and John

Q:  John (Andrew) Prime? 

TR: No, John Reynolds. He’s a card. Let me see what else? When I bought the new stone to go on Leadbelly’s grave, we had Donald Aytch come and speak. I don’t know if you’ve been out there: have you seen it? the tall headstone?

Q:  Yes, I was out there a month ago.

TR: Then we have that long plaque on top of the grave that’s carved like a guitar, and up here on the headboard has a lot of his awards and just lately my brother called me and told me somebody had stole the gate from around it.

Q:  Now your brother takes care of it?



TR: Yes, I have a brother who takes care of it. He never was a talker, nuh-uhn. But he wouldn’t mind if you met him out there at the grave. Coz a lot of people go there every day from all over the world. We see articles in the paper that . . . I’d like to see some articles that John (Andrew Prime) puts in there (The Times of Shreveport).

Q: He did one about Robert Plant one time, that was about fifteen years ago, I don’t know if Robert Plant’s been there recently. (Tiny is going to try to get in touch with John about his Leadbelly writings.) Now this Central Colored HS, which I’ve never heard of before, was it the only . . . 

TR: . . .only high school for blacks, as far as I can remember, from Mooringsport to Texas and down to Shreveport. People from Bossier went there and over in Ruston, Louisiana, that whole group of people down there, where those creole people live (Cane River), they all came to that school, it was the only high school. People from Texas went there. 

Q:  So, it included a whole big area, not just Shreveport.

TR: A lot of parents couldn’t afford to bring them there, and stay, now some of those people had family live there and they lived with the family. But if they had no family they’d have to pay to live and they couldn’t afford it. They just could not afford it and go to school, too.  

Q:  This was just a regular High School, except for colored people?

TR: You graduate from High School in them days, it was just like college. You went to grade school until 9th grade and then you went to High School for three, four years, just like college. You came out of high school in those days you could get a job anywhere, not like it is now, four years of college and there ain’t nothing out there.

Q:  I guess the only actual college (for blacks) was in Baton Rouge, was it Southern?

TR:  Southern.

Q:  What were the parties the children would have at the end of their school year? These big parties where the girls would wear white dresses. At the end of the year. The school closings!

TR: Now when we graduated from Central High School, we had our Commencement at the Municipal building (Auditorium.) I was so glad to go back in there last year when we went back in there for something Ron Hardy had. It was the first time I’d been in this building since, we’d go there and we’d have our gowns on, that was a big thing — to graduate from high school. We went there, and we’d have our gowns and we got our certificates and everything, and we’d have a beautiful program, somebody’d speak to us 

Q: We’ve been told that Huddie use to play at school closings out in the country.

TR: He did.

Q:  I mean, they would be the small schools.

TR: Small schools from first grade to, like, seventh.

Q:  And he would come and sing for them. How big were the classes (at CCHS)?

TR: My class had 141 people.

Q:  When did you go there?

TR: I went there in the late ’30’s and early ’40’s. ’41 when I graduated.

Q:  And how much longer did it go on?

TR: It’s still going on. They moved it down, they built Booker T. Washington, you know where BTW is? Well, they all go there.

Q:  Do you remember some of your teachers?

TR: I remember practically all of them. Two of them just died, believe it or not, since we went. . . When we first started having the classmate re-unions, there was two teachers still alive. And they started teaching in that school in 1917, something like that. And the two of them used to come to all the re-unions, and one of them just died, I would say about maybe 20 years ago. Quite a few of them live up a long time.

Q:  What about music. They have music at the school?

TR: Oh yes. They taught music. Her (the teacher’s) name was Ethel (?) Doherty. She taught music, piano, and she had a choir going. She was very good. Big Major, he had all the bands that used to come in. Like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. All those big band people used to come in to play.

Q:  Do you remember seeing anybody like that when you were growing up ?

TR: I couldn’t go to a place where they was playing at. Coz I wasn’t old enough. They was playing at a place called Palace Park and your mother and father would not let you go there until you was 30 years old, practically (laughing). No, it wasn’t 30 but they wouldn’t let you go to nothing like that.

Q: It was like a big dance hall?

TR: It was a big dance hall. That’s what it was, a tremendous dance hall, they used to have the best bands there. Like, Duke Ellington, Jay McShann, Louis Armstrong, all those guys was there. Those who was there were people who were drinking and dancing and we weren’t allowed to go there. We’d sometimes sneak around and stand outside and hear the music . . . that’s when . . . you know about Fannin Street, don’t you? 

Q:  Sort of heard rumors.

TR: Fannin Street was a red light district. It was a lot of prostitutes lived there, the whole street, Fannin Street. They just about has torn down the majority of the houses there, and they’re naming it Ledbetter Heights. Coz Leadbelly remembered when his father would take things to Shreveport to sell, like fruit, vegetables, he would be in a wagon with him and when they come in through that street, his father’d make him lay down in the wagon coz he didn’t want him to see the women’d be sitting in the window with negligees on and that’s why Huddie said when he was grown he’s going on Fannin Street, and the first place he went when he got grown was on Fannin Street. And then he made a song about Fannin Street. Very popular song.

Q:  Well, it must have been, was it like also bars and music?

TR: No bars there. Maybe a bar on the corner. But it was those old shotgun houses, all the way from Ford Street up to, O God, to Allen. Little houses in there.

Q:  So, if you got caught on Fannin Street, pretty much people knew what you were there for.

TR: You on Fannin Street, you knew what you were there for. And the thing about it, it was all white people. Living there. Until later on in years, I think about ’30, middle ’30’s, some blacks started moving in. And then when the blacks started moving in, the whites started moving out. 

Q:  So when it was Fannin Street the Red Light District it was white people . . .?

TR: Yes, ma’am, that’s for sure. And they was begging for anybody who had pants on (laughs)

Q:  So if you were black or white you could go to Fannin Street?


TR: Sure you could. (As long as you had some money).


June 4, 2017

Leadbelly's Horse


Huddie’s "Booker"

"Did I know Huddie Leadbetter? He was my next door neighbor."








[This article, written in 1992 by Marsha Brown, was originally published in the Leadbelly Letter, Sean Killeen's wonderful publication which ran from 1990 to 1996.]

I love horses. I have always loved horses and my strongest memory of growing up in upstate New York was wanting to have my very own horse, but that didn’t happen until years later, after moving to Shreveport, Louisiana. “Mack’s Pride” was his name, and he was big and beautiful: all black, except for a white blaze face and four white stockinged feet. I fondly recalled Mack when I heard a description of Huddie Ledbetter’s favorite horse, “Booker.”
We heard about Booker, my husband and I, from one of the Ledbetters’ Texas neighbors. We were driving down a dirt road looking for Swanson’s Landing, the supposed site of an East Texas riverboat disaster in the late 1800’s when we stopped by a small wooden house to ask directions. Preston Brown, a sprightly 93-year-old with a twinkling eye and a friendly manner, told us which way to go. For some reason it popped into my mind to ask him if he knew of Huddie Ledbetter.
“Knew him? He was my next door neighbor!” said Preston. “We used to draw water out of the same spring.
Needless to say, we were thrilled at this chance meeting with someone who actually knew Huddie and we stayed for a long chat. We have been invited back several times and this has led to a warm acquaintanceship with Preston and his wife Mary Jenkins Brown. She is in her eighties but prefers to be thought of as a spring chicken of perhaps seventy. That’s the way she looks and acts, and she has a delightful sense of humor.
Preston was the baby of the Brown family. He was born in 1897, eight years after Huddie, and he had several older sisters including Matilda, Clara and Cora Brown.
“Huddie went with Cora,” says Preston, thinking of a simpler, more innocent time. “He courted her. He used to come up here in the summertime, sat there and played guitar, and us kids, we’d sit out there on the front porch.” His face breaks into a smile here. We weren’t allowed into the room, you know, we’d be outdoors, dancing, and they’d be in the house.” He and Mary both laugh and we laugh with them.
But the horse? Huddie’s horse?
“He was black as a crow,” Preston recalls. “He had a blaze and four white feet and his name was ol’ Booker. I used to ride behind Huddie, you know, on him. Used to go down to help him wash in that spring down there that runs right through their place. Used to take rags, take ol’ Booker down there, lather him all over, wash him, you know, and we’d have brushes. He’d look so pretty. He had a curly mane, curly tail. He was pretty.”
We all compared Huddie’s grooming and pride in Booker at that time to a teenager today, polishing the chrome on his first Ford.
Preston helped with Booker in other ways, too. When Huddie had a trip to take on the train, to play a house dance or just visit Dallas, Jefferson or Shreveport, he’d come and ask Preston’s father if he could take the youngster along to the depot. Many times they rode together to the station in Leigh, Texas, about two miles away. Huddie caught the train and Preston brought back the horse. He took care of Booker until Huddie returned and then he’d ride to Leigh to meet the train.
“He’d be gone two or three days, “ said Preston. “That was fun for me ‘cause I liked that horse. Liked to ride that horse.”
Preston and Mary still have horses today, two of them grazing next to their small house. They are among the few remaining inhabitants of what was once a thriving African-American farming community on Caddo Lake. They continued farming until retirement and witnessed the many changes in the area. In the 1920’s, people started working in the nearby oilfields, or going off to Dallas and Houston. In the early ‘40’s an ammunition plant was built in nearby Karnack, luring more workers from the land. Huddie Ledbetter left the farm in 1915, and he left the area in 1930 and eventually moved to New York. But he’s still remembered fondly in the beautiful countryside of North Louisiana and East Texas as the favorite local musician. And ol’ Booker is still remembered, too.

March 14, 2017

Leadbelly & Babyface & Little David Alexander

 


Lead Belly: King of the Twelve String Guitar Players of the World

[This article, written by me (Monty Brown), was originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of Sean Killeen’s Lead Belly Letter. It was also published on this blog on 14th October, 2007. Sean Kileen was an ardent fan of Lead Belly and his magazine, (which also can be seen elsewhere on this blog) lived from 1990 to 1996, and reflected his passion. Sean, who hailed from Ithaca, New York, eventually gave up publishing the Letter, partly because there was not a large circulation, but mostly because he was battling for his life. He eventually lost that battle, but his legacy lives on with the back issues of his publication.]

The death of Jesse “Baby Face” Thomas (1911-1995) was reported in the Lead Belly Letter (5,3:2), appropriately, I thought, because of the shared musical heritage of the two men. Lead Belly and Baby Face were two very different characters whose lives, like their nicknames, were often poles apart. The last time their names appeared in such close proximity was in the pages of England’s Melody Maker (12/31/49). There it was reported that Jesse had been “assistant vocalist” to Troy Ferguson in Atlanta in 1929. The death of Lead Belly — Huddie Ledbetter (1889-1949) — was reported in the adjacent column.
I was a friend and a fan of Jesse’s and we spoke many times during the last decade of his very productive life. He was a small, almost frail man, the twelfth of thirteen children born to a sharecropper family in Logansport, Louisiana, thirty miles south of Shreveport. In contrast, Huddie Ledbetter was hefty and muscular, the only child of Wes and Sallie Ledbetter of Mooringsport, Louisiana, twenty miles north of Shreveport.
Huddie played the raucous music of the country house dances, pounding out basic, compelling rhythms, singing, dancing and generally overwhelming his audiences with the power of a one-man minstrel show. He charmed Governor Neff of Texas into a pardon in 1925. He could always charm a gang of children with whimsical words and rhymes recalled from his own childhood. Several people remembered him as being at least six feet tall, though he was only five-seven. Neff was alone in remembering him as a banjo picker; others recalled his ability on the mandolin and church organ. There are recordings of him playing the piano and Cajun accordion in addition to his trademark twelve-string guitar. It’s easy to see how he became a legend in his own time.
Jesse’s instrument was the six-string guitar. He was constantly refining his technique, striving to play in the more sophisticated style of the jazz-oriented musicians of his prime. Though he usually recorded solo, in live performance he was comfortable in the confines of a well-tempered combo. He was an early exponent of the electric guitar and later in life played a double-neck guitar/bass. During his lifetime, Jesse never ceased to be a student of music and the craft of song writing.
Baby Face at 80
Jesse Thomas was a naive fifteen-year-old when, in 1926, he arrived in Shreveport to stay with relatives. He was straight off the family farm. At the same time, Huddie was a bruised and battered thirty-seven, recently released — pardoned — after eight hard years on a Texas prison farm. Like Huddie, Jesse was raised with the guitar. Unlike Huddie, he was surrounded by older siblings who played. His father, Joel, played the fiddle at local house dances. One brother, Willard, was about to land a recording contract with Paramount records under the name Ramblin’ Thomas.
But at fifteen, Jesse became fascinated with the piano, and this is where his life brushed up against the life of Lead Belly. At the time of his arrival in Shreveport, he couldn’t get enough of the piano. He went to movies at the palatial Strand and the other big downtown theaters primarily to hear the players who accompanied the silent pictures.
Did he have any favorite piano players?
“Yeah, there was a guy here named Dave Alexander,” said Jesse in a 1991 interview at his Abbie Street house in Shreveport. “He was good and I wanted to play like him. But I never did play piano like I would’ve like to played, ‘cause I didn’t have a piano to practice on.”
The name of this almost-forgotten piano man reverberated in my mind. Was this “Little” David Alexander who turned up in some lists of old blues recordings? Maybe. It certainly wasn’t the Dave Alexander who recorded for Arhoolie — too young. But there, in an old interview, was Huddie Ledbetter telling about the influence of a piano player named Dave Alexander. Huddie was sure he had incorporated some of Dave’s bass runs into his guitar style, but he couldn’t remember was it Houston or Shreveport? 1906 or 1926?
“I would see (Dave) playing all the time,” said Jessie, who also imitated those piano sounds on his guitar. “He would play in homes where people had pianos. He would visit different places where a piano was. That’s where I heard him playing. Mostly in homes.”
So, he played for house dances — that sort of thing?
“Yeah. And minstrel shows, places like that.”
Did you go to minstrel shows then?
“Oh, yes, it cost ten and fifteen cents and like that to see a good show. The minstrel show would be in a tent going from town to town, traveling. But they’d often pick up a local musician to play piano or maybe some other instruments for them. I played one time in a little minstrel show like that.”
How old was Dave Alexander then?
“Oh, he seemed to be in his twenties. He was a young man in his twenties, I was fifteen.”
This had to be around the same time Huddie had seen him!
Jesse went on, “Dave was pretty popular around here with people at that time. And at that same time those guitar players like Ed Shafers and (Oscar) Woods, they were here but I never did meet them. I’d just hear a lot about them. Never ran across them. And I don’t know where Ledbetter was at that time, either. He probably was in and out of here I guess.”
Jesse never heard Huddie play — he would have remembered — but it’s entirely possible that the two were in the same shotgun house together, enjoying the magic of Dave Alexander. From 1925 to 1930, Huddie was indeed in and out of Shreveport, but not well-known there. He was based some twenty miles north, living in the Caddo Lake area of his youth, working for an oil company and in great demand at Saturday night suppers.
“He was the one they used to follow,” said Liz Choyce, who was in her teens at the time, “Mister Huddie.”
When you say “they used to follow,” you mean his guitar playing?
“People, when they heard tell he was playing somewhere,” she said emphatically, “they would always go.”
“He’d have a crowd. Have a big crowd,” added her husband Leonard. “Awful good music player. When you say you’re going to have a dance there, you’re going to have Ledbetter . . .”
“. . .they’d say ‘Who?’,” Liz cut in, “and you’d say, ‘Huddie.’ Boy! you’d hear them say they were going. Mister Huddie — yes, I knowed him good.”
While Huddie was confining himself to the familiar Texas-Louisiana border country north of Shreveport, young Jesse was striving to get onto record. In Fort Worth he roomed with his big brother Willard. In Dallas he saw successful performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. They taught him you could make money with the guitar, so he dropped his dream of being a pianist. Single-mindedly he hitchhiked from place to place — Shreveport to Fort Worth to Houston to San Antonio to Dallas — in pursuit of the portable recording studios. In small towns along the way he bartered music for lodging and a few dollars. Often he took temporary work in the cotton fields. Eventually, persistence paid off: Victor Records sent him a train ticket and he rode from Oklahoma City to Dallas to record four of his own tunes, including Blue Goose Blues.
“Blue Goose?” Jesse smiled a knowing smile. “Oh that’s a little place here in Shreveport, a little area they used to call the Blue Goose. You remember where the Union railway station used to be? Well that was just the name of that area. Like Mooretown, South Highland, Blue Goose. So I just thought of that ‘cause that’s where I stayed when I first came here, and I just — made up some words, put it on record.”
Blue Goose is like Silver City, I thought, the place that Huddie sang about traveling to with Blind Lemon in Dallas back before the Great War. I wondered why Huddie couldn’t have got himself on record just like Jesse did. Here was this green youngster, fresh off the farm and new to the business, getting onto Victor Records at age eighteen. Why not Huddie? The astonishing success of Blind Lemon during the latter part of the 1920’s had encouraged the record companies to scour the Southland for talent. And Huddie certainly had the talent. Plus, he was an old friend of Blind Lemon’s, wasn’t he? Led him around and played duets with him?
Oscar Woods and Ed Shafers got themselves recorded several times during the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s. They even broke through the color bar on one occasion by providing backup for the white country-bluesman and future Louisiana governor, Jimmie Davis. Ramblin’ Thomas made quite a hit on Paramount and would probably have done much better had he not been addicted to the bottle. None of these performers was superior to Huddie, yet Huddie remained undocumented during this first Golden Age of blues recording. Why?
It’s true he had himself a steady job and maybe couldn’t get away to Dallas, San Antonio or Memphis for a few days, but there was even one recording session in Shreveport in 1928, and there’s no evidence that Huddie tried out for it.
Could it be that he had no wish to leave his safe and friendly environment? He’d been off in the world before and it had brought him much pain. The eight years in a Texas penitentiary, the subsequent estrangement of his first wife, the heartbreaking death of his father, and his commitment to his aging mother, all of these combined may have led him to re-examine his life. He was approaching middle age, perhaps thinking it was time to settle down. Whatever the reasons, Huddie never recorded during the 1920’s when all around him, artists of lesser talent were busy making names for themselves.
This is not to say that Jesse Thomas was a lesser talent. Listen to any of the spate of sides that he recorded in Los Angeles during the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s and you’ll be delighted with his drive and originality. But Jesse would be the first to admit that he didn’t possess anything like the charisma of Lead Belly. He was Baby Face, a cute little guy who charmed his early audiences with his ingenuousness. He was also known as “Careless Love,” not because of any tendency to womanize, but because he did such an appealing rendition of Lonnie Johnson’s hit recording of that name.
After he told me about Blue Goose, Jesse picked up his guitar and played Blue Goose Blues instrumentally. Even though his hands were often cramped by arthritis in his last five years, he still played with fluidity and distinctness. He finished with a flourish and a laugh.
“Got to get the words down. The music still sounds alright.”
“That’s a good song,” I said.
“Think so?” he laughed. "You know, I didn’t even know what I was talking about at that time. I think I saw some old man and he was real good on the guitar, on the chords. He didn’t sing that good, just play something like that, and I copied some of that and put the words to it. And Blind Blake used to have something kinda in that style. He would play in that style and I thought he was a real good guitar player. Nice chords. Played finger style.”
Jesse picked his guitar a little more and ended by singing the line, “I’m going down to old Blue Goose, got no time to lose.”
That’s it, I thought. Young Baby Face, with the impatience of youth, figured he had no time to lose, so he pursued the recording companies relentlessly. Lead Belly, on the other hand, was patiently biding his time. Which finally arrived.
In 1935, after a further five years of penitentiary time, Lead Belly was given his chance, and his musical career began in earnest. He recorded abundantly through 1948, which was the year Jesse Thomas took up his recording career again, after a nineteen year hiatus. For most of the years Huddie lived in New York, Jesse lived in California. They were both on the West Coast for one of those years, and both of them tried and failed to get into the movies.
Lead Belly returned home to Louisiana in 1949. He was in a coffin. Jesse returned in 1957 and kept on playing for thirty-eight more years. For many of those years he performed with a blind piano player named Peaches, led him around, drove him to and from the gigs. Like Huddie with Blind Lemon. The duo “Jesse and Peaches” was very popular in the Shreveport area. I suspect that Peaches played piano the way Jesse once wished he could.
Lead Belly and Baby Face — poles apart in many ways, yet in some ways quite close. Most of Huddie’s success has been posthumous. Jesse’s success may be bounded by his lifetime. But for those of us who knew him, like for those who knew Huddie, that will be quite sufficient.

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