April 3, 2019

What's in a Name?

What's In a Name? The Strange Case of David Alexander

In the late 1980's I was doing my radio show, Louisiana Folk Music and I played a cut by a blues pianist called David Alexander. He had been born in Shreveport in 1938,  and raised in Marshal, Tx. Just after the broadcast I got a call from a local (Shreveport) piano man named Alex "Snooks" Jones. He wanted to know where I'd got that recording of David Alexander.
Alex "Snooks" Jones

I told him that I'd been gathering all the records I could for my program and I'd run across this one in the catalogue of Arhoolie Records. In those days the CD was in its infancy and we were still using vinyl at Red River Radio; most certainly for "folk" music.

"Well," said Snooks, "I knew David Alexander. I was wondering what had happened to him. He was a helluva fine piano man."

"When did you last hear him play?" I asked.

Snooks replied that he probably last saw Little David — he went by "Little" David Alexander — back in the 1930's. I explained that the liner notes on this record said this David Alexander was born in 1938 and went by a couple of other names, including Omar Shariff, and was currently living in San Francisco. Ah! Wrong David Alexander. But, according to Snooks, this new one reminded him of Little David. Could they be related?

Over the next year or two I ran across a couple more references to the 1930's David Alexander. Lead Belly, for instance, said he'd seen him in Shreveport in the 1920's and he was so impressed by him that he incorporated some of his left hand — his boogie woogie bass lines — into his own 12-string guitar playing. Also, Jessie "Baby Face" Thomas had seen Little David during the same time frame — the 1920's and '30's — before he, Jesse, lit out for California. Jesse also talked of using some of David's bass lines. This guy was becoming legendary.

In fact Little David was difficult to track down. For years there was nothing on the internet. I asked Snooks Jones what he knew of him; he said David had left town around 1938 because he got tired of being hassled by the police for "some things he did, and some things he didn't did." So he disappeared from the Shreveport scene, and this, my radio show, was the first time in decades he'd heard David Alexander. And it wasn't even the same David Alexander.

So, I didn't dig up anything new until last week. Looking on the Facebook page of the Blue Goose Blues Society, I was reminded of the book, "Shreveport Sounds in Black and White." In an article entitled "The Flying Crow Blues,"  there is a reference to a piano man named "Black Ivory King." And who should that be? None other than David Alexander.

I've now managed to locate, through You Tube and Document Records, eight sides by this man, Shreveport's premier blues piano player, recorded in the era between the two World Wars. Four sides were credited to Black Ivory King and four to David Alexander, who, it turns out, are one and the same person.

Which leads me back to the David Alexander I started with. After decades of toiling in California in relative obscurity, David, or Omar Shariff if you prefer, was summoned to Marshall, Texas, in 2010 to spearhead the movement which resulted in Marshall being proclaimed The Birthplace of Boogie Woogie. That's another story.

On January 8th, 2012, Alexander was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his house in Marshall, Texas. He was 73 years old. That's when I found out his full birth name was David Alexander Elam and he was the son of a piano player named Tom Elam.

Below: Flying Crow Blues by Little David Alexander.
           The Raven: Boogie Woogie by David Alexander (the younger)

For more speculation, reference my article "Lead Belly, Baby Face and Little David Alexander," elsewhere on this blog.

March 30, 2019

Dancing in the Streets of Mooringsport

            Dancing in the Streets of Mooringsport

When the subject of Leadbelly comes up, his criminal record is not far behind. I think this is unfortunate. The police records in Louisiana mention only one criminal case involving Huddie Ledbetter, and that stemmed from an incident that took place on Wednesday, the 14th of January, 1930. On this one, Huddie incriminates himself; but the closer you look into the incident, the less it seems like his fault.

The story Huddie told to John and Alan Lomax, [Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly], which they never confirmed, the one which has been generally accepted and told and retold in accounts of his life like the fictional "Midnight Special," goes like this:

   Huddie says he had a run in with "a gang o' niggers" as he was coming home from work that Wednesday, carrying his lunch bucket. "Lord God," he says,"I was cuttin' niggers fast the next while! Pretty soon they was six of them running down the street with blood just gushing out. The police ran up and caught me by the arm and got me down by the calaboose. Next day Sheriff Tom Hughes carried me down to the Shreveport jail and kept me there 'til I came to be tried."

Time magazine reported that he "had been convicted of stabbing six Negroes in a fight over a can of whiskey." Frederick Ramsey, Jr., who knew Ledbetter in the late '40's and recorded the wonderful and highly praised "Leadbelly's Last Sessions," with Huddie and Martha in his New York apartment, repeated the Lomax version in an oft-reprinted article for the "Saturday Review of Literature." Ramsey wrote that "he was attacked as he was coming home from work by members of a gang who said he had whiskey in his dinner pail. The gang demanded whiskey; he eventually produced a knife and defended himself."

Many years later, Ramsey was to postulate a theory based on Huddie's never having challenged a white man, and thus never having challenged the system. "All his convictions and all his sentences were for assault, or for assault with intent to kill, but never against a white person. He wouldn't have lived to be tried." (If he had attacked a white person.)

In fact Huddie was challenged by a gang o' whites in Mooringsport that Wednesday in January, and he lived to tell the tale — tho' perhaps not to a white person. However, one could have read the story on the front pages of both the Shreveport daily papers, the Times and the Journal.

Deputy Sheriff Bert Stone was one of the two deputies delivering Thomas Rivers to the Bossier Parish jail back in August, 1922, when Rivers was abducted from the law and lynched by the mob. If Huddie was aware of that fact, or similar situations, he may have realized how precarious was his predicament. The Shreveport Journal of 16 January, 1930, also carried a front page report of Huddie's arrest. There was no mention of hog-butchering.

A month later, Huddie was convicted of assault with intent to murder one Dick Ellet, which was the white man's real name. "The verdict was reached a few minutes after the completion of testimony," according to the Times of 18 February, 1930. The story continued, The testimony showed that Ledbetter had resented the efforts of white men to prevent him dancing on the streets of Mooringsport while a Salvation Army religious service was in progress. Ledbetter, who was said to be drunk, after quarreling with the man, went away and returned with a knife, it was charged. In an encounter which ensued, Ellet was severely cut about the arm.

 No matter what the true facts of the case were, Huddie was not likely to get justice. The Ellet family owned land near to the Bob Ledbetters; they were a prominent Mooringsport family and had probably known all the Ledbetters all their lives. Dick Ellet's father served for some time as Justice of the Peace. Ellet had served in the Ambulance Corps during the Great War.

The basic elements of the story are: 1. A Salvation Army band was playing publicly downtown Mooringsport. 2. A mainly-white crowd was present. 3. Huddie was dancing. 4. Some white people, including Dick Ellett, objected to the dancing and that's when the trouble started. Years later, Huddie thought it necessary to concoct an entirely fictional account of the event, one which deleted all racial overtones. He made the story dangerous and lurid, but he limited it to the black community.

Another light is shed by a remark of his cousin Blanche Love; in her interview with Loree Ousler, Mrs. Love said that she hadn't told many folks what really happened because she was "scared they might come and get her." Huddie likely feared for the safety of his family. He told John Lomax that while he was in the Shreveport jail, none of his people came to see him. However, he didn't blame them because they were worried that if they came to the jailhouse, they might get into trouble.

To give some indication of the racial situation at the time in Louisiana, here is a quote from a black Louisiana informant, a contemporary of Ledbetter's, in Alan Lomax's "The Rainbow Sign:"

       "They were always running after the colored folks down (in Louisiana). When they would hear of a colored man doing wrong or practicing anything they didn't like, they'd go around with a crowd and call him out and warn him and tell him what they wanted him to do. Some places they'd go and take a fellow out and whip him. Some places they'd turn him loose. But the thing was they wanted to keep us afraid and keep us down.

The late Anna Patterson, born in 1932, an African-American from Belcher, owned land in Caddo Parish, rich in oil and cotton. At her house seven miles Northeast of Mooringsport, she had vivid youthful recollections of white-on-black violence, of terrorism, and of the Ku Klux Klan:

       We had about six or eight Klansmen that lived in Belcher. They killed one of the black men here, out where I live. They carried him, they cut him up, they cut his private out and rammed it down his throat. He had gone into the cafe in Belcher the front way. We were supposed to go in the back and they thought he was being smart. That's the kind of thing that they were killing people about. If they wouldn't say "yassir" and "nosir" then they thought they were being smart.

       She named "respectable" people in town who were Klansmen. There were quite a few of them including the local sheriff. "Black people couldn't walk the road at night. They'd run them off the road. And If they'd catch 'em, they whup 'em." Anna Patterson was interviewed by me in 1991.

                                                     The case ➥
The State of Louisiana versus Huddie Ledbetter (La. state court number 28640), was based on Ellet's testimony and charges. The all-white jury, not surprisingly, believed him and not Huddie. The sentence was 6 to 10 years at Angola, the Louisiana state prison north of Baton Rouge. While incarcerated at the sprawling, swampy penitentiary farm, Ledbetter bitterly complained of lawyers and "justice;" in the words of his song, "The Shreveport Jail,"

   I think about how the lawyer done me.
                     Send for your lawyer
                     Come down to your cell,
                     He'll swear he can clear you
                     In spite of all hell.
   He gonna get the biggest of your money and come back for some more.
                     Get some of your money
                     Come back for the rest
                     Tell you to plead guilty
                     For he know it is best.

It was Angola, 1933, in this bitter mood, that Huddie met John Lomax.

March 11, 2019

Harold Leventhal

Harold Leventhal

Interview with Harold Leventhal (b. 1919, d. 2005).           
Leventhals' office 57th Street, NYC. Sept., 1992.

Harold Leventhal was closely involved with Pete Seeger, was the manager of the Weavers. Known as the 5th Weaver, he later worked with Joan Baez.

Q:  What about Leadbelly? You mentioned you knew him slightly.
 L:  Slightly. But that again was because I remember going to a concert he was part of at Town Hall, it might have been '48 or something, and I loved the way he was dressed, a debonair dresser with spats on and a bow tie and a very handsome man. I wasn't used to that music, I didn't know much about that kind of blues, but I was taken by him. 

Q:  Did you meet at parties or anything like that?  

L:  I didn't, but he died early on. Actually, when the Weavers recorded "Goodnight, Irene" he had been dead at least a year. [just 6 months] 

Q:  Did they do any other music by him? 

L:  Oh yeah, "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line," they did a lot of his stuff. As they did Woody's stuff. And that's the first time that both Woody and Leadbelly earned money from their songs. 

Woody and Lead Belly (with bow tie.)

L: I originally came from the music publishing business, out of high school, and this is going back to 1939. When I left school, I worked in a factory, gave that up and was able to get a job with Irving Berlin music company. I was there for a number of years and worked my way up very rapidly, becoming what's called a "song plugger." After I left the Berlin outfit I worked for Benny Goodman's music company — music publishing — and I was one of the rare political guys in that scene at that time. 
When I came back from the army in 1946, I met up with Pete Seeger because what we had in common was a political background, and an interest in music. It was that time — you had People's Songs going, which I was slightly involved with, and then it was later, in late '49, when Pete asked me would I take over and manage the Weavers, which I did, and that kind of led me into that [folk music] area. I worked with Woody Guthrie at that time although he was not really fit as a performer. He was pretty sick. I knew, very slightly, Leadbelly, at that time, and with the rise of the Weavers and the great interest in folk music, I branched out and began to manage other people.
Q: Were you in at the beginning of People's Songs?
L: No I wasn't. I became more involved in 1950, because of my managing the Weavers.
Q: When you talk about being a "song plugger" — how did that work?
L:  We would go around with, say, an Irving Berlin song and bring it to the bandleaders, cause the swing bands were the big things of that day, and because they had radio time. See, records were not a big factor — it was radio time — and we would go around to them and try to promote the songs of the company we were with. This meant you'd go to Harry James or other big name bands, Glen Gray etcetera, and they would see you and you'd plug your songs; exactly what it says.
Q:  Presumably, to be successful at this, you'd have to have some pretty good songs, and I guess people would rely on you?
L:  Yes. Well they relied if you're coming from the Irving Berlin company, if it was an Irving Berlin song they paid attention to it. Not all of his songs made it in that sense. A lot had to do with the quality of the song you had. 
Q:  And with the Weavers you found yourself interested in Pete Seeger's kind of music?
L:  Yes. Up to then I was mostly involved with the jazz scene in New York or what you call the, er, Benny Goodman music, the pop stuff.  TIn Pan Alley. I was marooned on Tin Pan Alley. 

Q:  The Weavers — Did they do any other music by Leadbelly?

L:  Oh yeah, "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line," they did a lot of his stuff. As they did Woody's stuff. And that's the first time that both Woody and Leadbelly earned money from their songs.

The Weavers
  The Weavers' records sold in the millions. As songwriters, they earned no money. They earned money as performers. But that was limited to the Union scene and to the radical circles who were more interested in that music. And the public at that point wasn't interested.

 Q:  So they were playing mostly for Union Halls. . . ?
L:  That's right, for the Union rallies, meetings and so forth.
Q:  Which weren't necessarily the biggest paying gigs.
L:  No they weren't. I mean, I have references to Woody getting $15 if he went somewhere. Well [laughs] if you do make $30 a week, it ain't bad. I mean, I used to make $12 a week when I got out of high school, so if you made thirty, you were in the upper middle class [laughs].

Q:  You said Woody Guthrie was pretty much out of commission as a performer by that time? 

L:  In 1950- '51 he was showing signs of the illness. Unfortunately, those of us around him, myself included, were not quite aware that this was a disease, and, we used to berate him for being drunk all the time because he would waver in walking and tremble a little and we thought, he's drinking again. There you go - drinking! That's given us a tremendous guilt
Q:  What did he answer to that?
L:  Well, he'd, er, it was probably partly drinking, it was partly drinking, but this continuous movement of his body was pretty much constant.
Q:  You began to suspect something?
L:  Marjorie Guthrie looked into it and it was finally diagnosed as Huntington's Chorea, for which his mother died, years ago, and he was the only member of his family to get it. He has two brothers and a sister, none of whom got the disease.
Q:  Were you familiar with him as a performer before that time?
L:  To a limited extent. A lot of us in the New York scene regarded him as a kind of imported hillbilly. New Yorkers couldn't quite take to that style of music. [Pause] Some of us.
Q:  He was quite a character though, wasn't he? [Yep] When you say he was a "hillbilly," didn't he put that on a bit, too?
L:  He would exaggerate all of that because he knew that New Yorkers would look at him and wonder —what kind of guy? — we didn't see these guys! [laughs] He'd go to Chicago and do the same thing. Put it on. Yeah. And it worked for him.
Q:  What sort of places did the folk music evolve in - like it was in the VIllage?
L:  I think a lot of it began in the Village in these little clubs, little cafes, or what they would call coffee houses. I mean Dylan started there, Peter, Paul and Mary started there, Woody Allen started there. Philadelphia had one or two clubs and Chicago, and the folk scene began to spread from there. In Colorado I remember a club where I first saw Judy Collins perform, so the major cities, each of them, had a circuit to work.
Q:  Were you one of the main bookers then?
L:  I wasn't booking as much as I was actually managing, but at that point the so-called "agencies" didn't know where the things were anyway, and it was too petty for them, so I would get on the phone and I knew the guys in Philadelphia, and book them into these places. However the Weavers did have major booking - William Morris Agency booked the Weavers and then later on we went to Joe Glaser who booked Louis Armstrong, people like that, who booked the Weavers into night clubs or into these hotels that had big rooms which doesn't exist anymore.
Q:  But there's a big distinction here. You're the manager, they're the booker. Where do you draw the line in what sort of things you do?
L:  Well, a manager literally does everything to see that his talent can function properly, always with the consent of the artist. We'll never book somebody into a place they don't like, they don't want to go or what have you, the manager has to be the co-ordinator of somebody's activities. 
Q:  You're almost like an extra member of the group that doesn't perform.
L:  I was called the "fifth Weaver." I shared in their income and all of that.
Q:  Did you have any thing to say about the songs?
L:  If I didn't like 'em I'd say it. [laughs] But I certainly respected them artistically. There were one or two things I never did care for, I'd say so, and they either paid attention or didn't.
Q:  After you got involved with them, you didn't have much more to do with swing bands? Well, I guess swing bands were on the way out . . .
L:  They were on their way out, and also you have a change in the fact that the LP was beginning to function, and that revolutionized the communication of recorded music. Before that, you had breakable records, you know, nobody bought them to that extent. Then you had the transistor radio, you had a lot of elements of communication, and even airplanes going to LA, didn't have to take the train anymore, made it easier to get the message out. 

Me & Harold, 1992
Q:  Were you involved with Bob Dylan?
L:  I was when he came to New York because of his interest in Woody Guthrie. We used to hang around a lot and I'd see him from time to time. Yes.
Q:  Cause he used to do Guthrie songs?
L:  He came to physically see Woody, and he did see him in Jersey; Woody was getting worse and worse, and then we put a stop to him seeing outsiders. Only the immediate family or close friends 'cause it was a burden on him.
Q:  I have a recording of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly together, where Woody is kind of introducing Leadbelly, it sounds like a radio show?
L:  Probably taken off a radio show. Only I'm not too familiar with them - is that on a recording?
Q:  Yes - it's not Folkways, it's Biograph.
L:  Biograph is a label that took over some of the Folkways stuff that was not put out.
Q:  They might have recorded it from the radio, do you think?
L:  Unlikely. He was on radio, but when he was on radio, we have pictures of it here, Leadbelly was not with him. I don't know, unless it's WNYC, which was the public station in New York, and he might have been on that. He was on that, and he might have been with Leadbelly. Oscar would know. It was Oscar Brand's program. 
Q:  Oscar didn't know about that particular one - it seems to be a mystery as to where it comes from.
L:  There's a lot of mysterious things. Particularly in Woody. Every year somebody sends us something that he wrote, that he left behind, and we just recently, two years ago - for years, almost thirty years, Marjorie Guthrie had been looking for a manuscript of a children's songbook that she and Woody did. Woody did the drawings, all of Woody's songs, didn't know what happened to it. Two and a half years ago I got a call from a college, would I come up there and look at a manuscript of Woody's that they got, and that's the book we were looking for. Well, they gave it back to us and now it just came out. Harper put it out. He was a prodigious writer, never stopped. Songs, letters or memos, wherever he went he wrote, either left it with people or what have you and they sent it to us. Some do, some don't [laughs] I don't know what's out there. We keep Woody's archive here - there's a lot of it!
Published  in 1992

Q:  Has anybody ever used the archive to . . .
L:  We just got out a book called "The Pastures of Plenty,"  Harpers put it out. A collection of his writings. Drawings, letters, stuff like that. And there could be ten more books like that. 'Course Woody had a tendency to be repetitious. If he'd write one song he'd do it ten different ways. So a lot of it is repetitious. We try to pick the best of it. 
Q:  What are the favorite songs of his?
L:  Well I think the big song in this country is "This Land," and you have "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," er, "Pretty Boy Floyd" is big,  those are the three biggest, but all kinds of his songs are constantly played; the children's songs. 
Q:  Do you get people from overseas enquiring about him?
 L:  No. That's interesting because I believe his songs are so rooted in America and they're forty to fifty years old at this point, no, Woody's songs in Europe are not big. Never have been. Whereas you take a Pete Seeger song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" well that's a tremendous international song, whereas Woody's songs about the dust bowl or about unemployment became topical, and while they're of interest to this country, they're not to foreigners. It's never been a big market there.                                      

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What's in a Name?

What's In a Name? The Strange Case of David Alexander In the late 1980's I was doing my radio show, Louisiana Folk Music and I pl...