December 14, 2018

Play Party Songs

Play Party Songs


The play-party typically used a song like "Skip to My Lou" or "London Bridge" as a game, combined with music. Participants and sometimes bystanders sang the songs. Play-parties took the place of dance parties for children and adolescents where all other dancing was forbidden. Also popular in less restrictive communities, the play-parties continued into the1930s as entertainment for young adults who could not afford to go to a public dance. As public schools developed, play-parties thrived on the playground. In the twentieth century playgrounds likely preserved many of the songs. Play-parties, common in most Oklahoma communities, only began to lose popularity in the 1950s.
A play-party could be held in a front room, on a front porch, in a schoolroom, or in any other open area. Participants dressed more casually than they would have for dances of the same eras, but play-parties that were planned in advance encouraged some girls to "fix up." Often the play-party allowed young women to take the lead in a social situation, as girls usually organized the party.
Oklahoma play-party song themes varied and included a range of references ranging from war, "Had A Little Fight In Mexico," to multiplication tables, "Twistification," and to obscure English history and lore. The words were well known, but the original meaning of the verses was often forgotten. A substantial part of the lyrics were falderal or nonsense. Lynn Riggs, a notable playwright from Claremore, Oklahoma, used several play-party songs in his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which later was used as the basis for the Broadway musical Oklahoma! The musical deleted the play-party tunes but did use some of the old "squares," figures used in play-party games, as a part of the choreography.
Benjamin A. Botkin conducted notable research on play-parties and in 1937 published The American Play-party Song. Conducted almost entirely in 1930s Oklahoma in more than fifty counties, the research has been considered by many to be the most complete collection of play-parties of any American state. The book also included variants of Oklahoma songs and interviews with play-party participants.


Interviewing two of his nieces about 25 years ago, I got the idea that he Leadbelly played a lot of children's songs. This is not a new thought; he has often been praised for his communications skills with young people. But to hear it directly from part of that audience was an eye-opener.

My wife and I do a program on Louisiana Music and Leadbelly plays a big part in that program. We've been inserting activities that go with the songs and, after 25 years, I found out what Irene was talking (singing) about with "I measure my love to show you."


An interview with Irene Campbell and Viola Daniels exists in a different place on this blog: "Leadbelly's Nieces"

Irenewe had a wonderful time with our hymns and songs that we sang. . . Games — what you call 

(sings)
I measure my love to show you
I measure my love to show you
We have a game to do. . .

Songs that you can act out. What is this you go "in and out the window?"

“In and out the window”  (This is the same song as “I measure my love to show you” and "Round and round the levee.")

Viola: I forgot that one. 
Irene: And what were some other play songs that we used to have? 
Viola: "Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer" - that sort of thing. "Skip to My Lou, my darling." We'd do the skipping. 
Irene: "I measure my love to show you" you know, those were the sort of things he would play for us and we would do them out on the lawn, out in the yard. And we'd have, uh, "Goodbye Mary, I hate to leave you,"
Viola: And then I notice in this children's book they've started this "Wild Goose." . . .
Irene: (takes up the recollection) . . . the bird would come from heaven a certain time of the year. He was so large that his wings would cover the sky. It would get dark. And he would say "QUA, QUA" (laughter) and when you see this bird coming over, you tell him what you want him to tell your loved ones in heaven when he gets back, and you give him what you want him to tell, and he'd say "QUA-K-QUA" and he just pass on over and then it get light again. Cause it was black as night while he was passing over. And I can't sing - can you remember some more songs we would sing when this bird was coming over? But the tale is that the group of them went hunting and the big eagle - big bird - came over and they shot him and it took - how long did it take him to fall? - 
Viola: I don't remember that. 
Irene: So many years, I think it was eight years to fall, and then he fell, and then - eight hours! it took him a long time to fall. And then they decided they would cook him and they put him on to cook and it took that same length of time for him to cook, and they cooked him and they got him boiled, done, and then when they got him ready to eat, he flew away (laughter). That was a tall tale!
Viola: That's what the children -
Irene: That's what Huddie would tell us and we were there spellbound, listening. 
Viola: You were listening, I don't know where I was, I didn't hear that one. I'd get part of it, I didn't get the other part of it. 
Irene: Boiled him and boiled him and he finally flew away. Now he has that in music. That record would get it straight, because I have it all twisted. I know it was a ridiculously long time. Falling and cooking and finally flew away. That was just a tale to make the kids laugh. (Leadbelly) loved children. I think, cause he took so much time with us.

This next part I found online and it's a massive collection of "Ozark" folksongs with many original field recordings at:

The John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection
Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas
 Wolf Collection Homepage
©Copyright 2002 Lyon College


'Marching Round the Levee,' is very interesting. The crowd forms a circle, boy and a girl, boy and a girl, boy and a girl. And some girl takes her place in the center of the circle. And they sing, 'We're marching 'round the levee . . .' [etc.], and then we sing to her 'Go forth and choose your lover . . .',[ etc.] And she chooses some young boy from the circle. That young boy takes his place in the center of the circle with this young girl. Then they sing 'I kneel because I love you . . .', [etc.] And then they sing next, 'I measure my love to show you,' that's with crossed arms, hand to hand, arm to arm. Finally, then, we sing, 'I take a sweet kiss and leave you . . .', [etc.] That winds it up, unless the boy is inclined to kiss the girl goodbye. Is that it?"

Dr. Wolf: "Now go ahead and tell about the others, how they get a new partner, a new one in the circle."

Mr. Jernigan: "Then, when this one person leaves, then the one left in the center chooses another partner, and then it's repeated again."

Dr. Wolf: "Is the outer ring marching all the time, or do they stop?"

Mr. Jernigan: "No, they're standing.")

November 29, 2018

The Jeter Place: Briefly

The Jeter Plantation.

Among the antebellum white settlers in the region were the Jeter brothers from Virginia, William and James. They came as part of that southeast migratory pattern that opened up millions of acres of land to the cultivation of cotton in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and, finally, Texas; they came to help establish the Cotton Kingdom. The Jeters were from an affluent family; they brought money and possessions, including some slaves, and bought land in northwestern Louisiana. Their slaves cleared the land, planted cotton, built a large house for the owners and small houses for themselves.


William Nathaniel Jeter, born in 1824, first purchased property in Caddo Parish in 1849. This was a tract of three hundred and twenty acres of wooded land northeast of Caddo Lake; the seller was Richard T. Noel.


During the next three years, William got himself situated and then returned to Virginia in 1852 to marry Lucinda Ford. Later that year, William came back to Louisiana with his new bride and his younger brother, James Addison Jeter, who had just turned twenty-one. For the sum of $1,500, James bought four hundred and eighty acres from one Randolph Martin. This land was to the west of the village of Blanchard, which is halfway between Shreveport and Mooringsport. James Jeter was a surveyor and many maps of this area are based on "Jeter's Country Plat." 

In May, 1860, William bought 160 acres to the south of Caddo Lake. This appears to be the beginning of what was to become the Jeter Plantation, or the Jeter Place. A near neighbor of the Jeters, at the time, was seventy-five year old John Lowe, also a native Virginian. Lowe possessed fifty slaves and eleven slave dwellings; his real estate was valued at $50,000. By this time, a mere twenty-five years since the clearing of the Red River, Caddo parish was shipping record quantities of cotton to the international market in New Orleans.

When the Civil War began, both Jeter brothers went off to defend the Confederacy. James was Captain of an outfit known as the Caddo Lake Boys, who marched a hundred miles east to Monroe, Louisiana, in 1861. Both brothers were captured and then later sent back home in a prisoner exchange.

The Jeters were farmers and businessmen, and they were among the white leaders in their isolated part of the country. They may have been members of the White Camellias. After the defeat in 1865, they returned to raising cotton and dealing land. William and Lucinda Jeter gave birth to nine children, though only four survived to maturity. The eldest was Alice, who was born in 1853; one of her sons, Sam Caldwell, was to serve twelve years as mayor of Shreveport. Virgil Jeter would become a physician and move to Atlanta, Texas, and the second son, Frank, was to take over and operate the Plantation. The youngest of the four Jeter children was Hulda who married locally and stayed in the area all her life.


Like most planters in the region, the Jeter's livliehood had been barely affected by the war. Their slaves were "freed," but most of them "knew their place" and continued to live on the land and work for the Jeter family. Those freedmen who preferred to leave the plantation but couldn't afford to buy land "farmed for halves." Landowners supplied land, seed, and perhaps mules, housing and tools; in return they took half of the crop in lieu of rent. The Jeter holdings grew considerably during the twenty-five years which followed the Civil War. The number of workers increased until the area occupied by blacks on their plantation became known as "the quarter." In the 1880's, the residents of the quarter included Wes and Annie Ledbetter and at least two of their married sons, Wes, Jr., and Bob.



A Choyce Interview.

A Choyce Interview March, 1991. Working on the Plantation.


Liz (L) and Leonard (C) Choyce: M is interviewer, Monty or Marsha.
Leonard Choyce was born on May 22nd, 1911. In a couple of months he would be 80 years old.
Our first question to Leonard Choyce was, "where were you born?" and the answer was immediately controversial. He said, "Jonesville," and Liz contradicted him. "Wascom," she said.
"Well, it was Jonesville then," he said. Jonesville, Wascom — it's a community on the Texas side of the line, east of Shreveport.
Since we're trying to dig out some information about Leadbelly's early life, we asked if and when Leonard's parents moved the family on to the Jeter Plantation? (The Jeter Plantation was Huddie Ledbetter's birthplace, and his home until the age of five when he moved with his parents to East Texas.)

The Choyce family, when they left Jonesville, moved to the Jeter place, and that's where Leonard lived, basically, until he moved down to his current location in Mooringsport.

M:  Did you farm on the Jeter place?
Choyce:  Farmed all my life while I was there. 
M: You moved on to the Jeter plantation about 1920, then?
Choyce: Somewhere like that, yes. About 1920.
M: And your parents farmed there?
Choyce: Yes, my mother did. She wasn't married when she move there. She married afterwards. Married a Lacey. She didn't marry my dad. They wasn't together.
M:  How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Choyce: I had two then. But those are dead.
M: What sort of crops did you raise?




Choyce:  Cotton and corn.
M: Tell me about the raising of cotton . . . how do you start the year?
Choyce: We would start in January when the weather was favorable. We'd start breaking up the crop. We'd get the whole thing planted somewhere in May. Corn and cotton.
Liz:  Old people like to plant that corn and cotton in March.
M:  Where did you get the seed?
Liz: The man you were working for bought the seed.
Choyce: That's where we got feed for the mule. Furnished us food, too. Furnished the whole plantation food. Frank Jeter.  F.F. Jeter.

M: Frank Jeter furnished you the food and the seed, and in return for that,  
you raised the cotton? 
Liz: We worked for him for half. You'd raise the cotton — you'd get half of the cotton and he'd get half. And the corn, too.
Choyce: That was what you call "working for half." When you pull the corn, you carry a load to his barn, carry a load to your barn. Then when the cotton crop come off, he got half of it, and you got half of it.
M: Did he have a gin there?
Choyce: No, we hauled it to the gin in Leigh, Texas.
M:  Who owned the gin over there?
Choyce:  Taylor and Howe. [T.J. Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson’s father]   
M: T.J. Taylor owned a whole lot of Texas, didn't he?
Choyce: He sure did. (smiles) Most of it. (laughs) So that's the way it was . . . but we got along alright.
M: You've got the cotton planted. What do you do next?
Choyce: Like when we ain't planting? Worked around there on the farm. Clean up the farm, clean up the ditches; kept the water draining . . . you know, drained the water off the farm. Kept something to do all the time.
M: Did you have animals?
Choyce: I had cows.Two milk cows.
Liz: Mr. Jeter had horses and cows. Mules and horses.
M: So you got up in the morning and milked the cows?
Choyce: Sometimes my wife milked.
Liz: He didn't get up milking cows. He got up going to the field. See, he'd get up early going to the field, then I'd be getting up doing everything, you see. Cause I'd even fix breakfast and take him his breakfast in the field after I got at the house. I was the one did the milking.
M: Did you use the milk for other things; like cheese?
Liz: No. Didn't use it for no cheese. Just used it for drinking and cooking with. Then butter and stuff, never did make any cheese. When the milk turned, you'd churn it and made plenty of butter. Good old home made butter. That's the best kind.
M: You had your own churn for butter making?
Liz: That's right. Sure did. Had my own churn and had all my milk stuff. Like when you milk you strain the milk up and put it up til it turns, get ready for churning.

M: Okay. Back to the cotton: when the cotton starts to grow, you have to chop?
Choyce: Chop cotton. Plow it. Pick it, too.
Liz: Had to hoe it;  had to do all that. Chop it, hoe it. I'd be hoeing and chopping while he plowed and he had some hands that'd help. Mr. Jeter did. But, you had to do all that before the picking come around. Then you laid by. You're through with it til you go back to pick it.
M: Different people had different parts of Jeter's land?
Choyce: Yes. Different people had different parts. So many acres, each one worked. It was a big-sized place. Was a lot of people on the place. I can't tell you exactly how many, but it was a big place. Plantation. That's what it was.

Liz: He was already on there before we got married (in 1929.) He practically finished growing up there. He was there a long time before I went over there. I can tell what happened while I was there.
M: Where did you come from?
Liz: I come from over Mr. Tilly Kerr's place (?) Not too far from off the Jeter place. Over across the road. Tilly Kerr. He had a big plantation. I was living with my grandparents — Sarah Thomas and Joe Thomas. That's where I got married. My mother was named Willie — Willie Thomas.
M: They came from a plantation, too, then? Were they farming for halves as well?
Liz: Yes. Sure were. Back in them days, that's the way everybody worked.
Working for half. He had a lot of people on his plantation, too.
M: What's the difference between that and "sharecropping?"
Liz:  I don't know about the sharecropping. A lot of people owned it. They had their own land. They're not working for half, you see, that's their own. See, they do what they want and like they want with it. That's the difference. But if you're on somebody else's and working for them, well, they get the half and you get the half. 
M: What did you think about it at the time? Did you like it alright?
Liz: I didn't have no other choice. I didn't like it, but I went on like I liked it. Matter of fact, they started me out at eight years old. And I used to cut bushes, replant cotton, corn...they'd plant it and it'd be cold, wasn't coming up to suit 'em, they'd have us with them pockets on, replanting cotton, corn; if not that, cutting bushes out of the field. And then we had to cut wood, pack it up, us children, us grandchildren. It was rough. We didn't have no easy time. So, no sir, I didn't like it, but I didn't have no other choice.

M: Did you get much time to go to school?
Liz: No sir, not in them times. They robbed us out. They didn't go to school longer than three months. Some of them could go three months, if they were children with their mother and father, they'd send them to school, but you with your grandparents . . . they'd keep you out. Most of the time. It wasn't but three months. I come up the hard way. Ain't seen no easy time,  but I didn't have no other choice.
M: You (to Leonard) didn't go to school much either, then? 
Choyce: No. I didn't. It was just like she said. You had three months. Schooling. And I went to school, had 30 days, and all them wasn't school days out of the month. So I guess I made it to school a little better than half of the time. Had to get out there and cut sprouts. Clean up sprouts out of the way. . . I guess you know what that is?
M: No, you'll have to tell me that. 
Choyce: (Laughs) That's the same thing. Sprouts grow up over the field, instead of me going to school, I had to stop and cut sprouts out of the way. 
Liz: You had to do that to get the land ready, get those bushes out. Then the next thing, they started me out plowing. I wasn't no higher . . . at eight years old I had to hold up on the handle like that (gestures) and that  (?) cross that handle of that plow would touch me and I had to push up on the handle like that. And they had me dragging off and the planter behind be planting. 
M: And the plow was pulled by mules?
Liz:  Yes sir. Horses and mules. It's the way it was.

Liz moved to the Jeter plantation at seventeen years of age. That's when she got married to the seventeen-year-old Leonard. They were married on the 22nd of January, 1929.
It was almost their anniversary.

Liz: Yes. Be 62 years, been married that long.
Choyce: 63, won't it?
Liz: No. You counted too fast.
M: That's right, it's 62. 1929 to '91.
Liz: 62 years.
Choyce: Yes.
M: You're jumping ahead.
Liz: He counted too fast. (Laughter)
Choyce: I know it's been a long time.
Liz: But I keep up with it, you see, it was 61 last past one. It'd be 62. That's after the third Sunday. He's got a doctor's appointment that day. Anniversary Day. (Laughs)

November 28, 2018

Leadbelly's Nieces


Leadbelly's Nieces: an Interview
Several years ago (circa 1990) I went to visit Irene Campbell in Marshall, Texas. She was a retired schoolteacher well into her 80's; she'd attended Bishop College in Marshall and taught at the local schools, starting in the 1930's, before integration, and retiring in the 1970's; which would have been about the time that segregation was ending in Texas.
Irene had caused a bit of a storm with the Louisiana relatives of Leadbelly when she'd requested that his grave site be moved over the line to Texas, because she felt that was really his home. So I went to talk to her about her Uncle Huddie. She was related through Huddie's half-brother Alonzo Batts, Irene's father. She surprised me at the interview by introducing me to her elder sister, Viola. So this is a bit of a interview with the Batts sisters, Irene Campbell and Viola Daniels circa 1990.

Me: Do you remember the songs that Huddie sang?
Irene: Some of them.
Me: When you were kids.
Irene: "Goodnight Irene," I know that.
Me: (With a laugh) Sounds like he wrote that for you.
Irene: Yes he did, he did. Really, this Mr. Myers, we called him Miles - Sterling Miles, but later I found out his name was Myers, said he was there when Uncle Huddie wrote the song. They came through, they'd been out, and passed by my mother - he called her "Big Sister". "Big Sister, I'm drunk, and I'm hungry, fix me something to eat." She told him, "Well, you keep the baby while I fix something to eat." He was keeping the baby and wrote this song. "Goodnight Irene." Now that's what Mr. Myers said.
Me: Who's Mr. Myers?
Irene: He was his friend. Sterling Mi - well, we said Miles, but his name was Myers. He hasn't been dead so long either.
Me: Is there anybody else who's still living who was there?
Irene: There's a man, I think his name is Russell, but I don't know him. He says he knows Uncle Huddie. And he can play something, but he doesn't play it with the same tune that Uncle Huddie had. He can't even play "Goodnight Irene" with the same tune. (Irene turns to her sister, Viola.) Do you know anybody living now that knew Uncle Huddie?
Viola: The one I know would be already dead I guess - Roscoe Jamieson ?
Irene: He's dead.
Viola: He would be the one that would come into the house, regularly. See, all these people would meet him 'down yonder' didn't come to the house, you know. Cause what they had going down there, those songs, he didn't play at the house. So we had a wonderful time with our hymns and songs that we sang. . .
Irene: Games - what you call (sings)

I measure my love to show you
I measure my love to show you
We have a game to do. . .

Songs that you can act out. What is this you go in and out the window?

In and out the window, for we have a game today.

Viola: I forgot that one.
Irene: And what were some other play songs that we used to have?
Viola: "Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer" - that sort of thing. "Skip to My Lou, my darling." We'd do the skipping.
Irene: "I measure my love to show you" you know, those were the sort of things he would play for us and we would do them out on the lawn, out in the yard. And we'd have, uh, "Goodbye Mary, I hate to leave you,"
Viola: And then I notice in this children's book they've started this "Wild Goose." . . .

Irene: (takes up the recollection) . . . the bird would come from heaven a certain time of the year. He was so large that his wings would cover the sky. It would get dark. And he would say "QUA, QUA" (laughter) and when you see this bird coming over, you tell him what you want him to tell your loved ones in heaven when he gets back, and you give him what you want him to tell, and he'd say "QUA-K-QUA" and he just pass on over and then it get light again. Cause it was black as night while he was passing over. And I can't sing - can you remember some more songs we would sing when this bird was coming over? But the tale is that the group of them went hunting and the big eagle - big bird - came over and they shot him and it took - how long did it take him to fall? -
Viola: I don't remember that.
Irene: So many years, I think it was eight years to fall, and then he fell, and then - eight hours! it took him a long time to fall. And then they decided they would cook him and they put him on to cook and it took that same length of time for him to cook, and they cooked him and they got him boiled, done, and then when they got him ready to eat, he flew away (laughter). That was a tall tale!
Viola: That's what the children -
Irene: That's what Huddie would tell us and we were there spellbound, listening.
Viola: You were listening, I don't know where I was, I didn't hear that one. I'd get part of it, I didn't get the other part of it.
Irene: Boiled him and boiled him and he finally flew away. Now he has that in music. That record would get it straight, because I have it all twisted. I know it was a ridiculously long time. Falling and cooking and finally flew away. That was just a tale to make the kids laugh. He loved children. I think, cause he took so much time with us.

It's always been said that Huddie Ledbetter was a great children's entertainer and these two ancient ladies gave a glimpse into that aspect of Huddie's life.
POSTED BY MONTY AND MARSHA BROWN AT 2:28 PM 3 COMMENTS LABELS: LEADBELLY, LEADBELLY, LEADBELLY'S KIDS SONGS, LEADBELLY'S NIECES LINKS TO THIS POST

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.

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