December 2, 2007

Chapter 2: Sukey Jump (1889-1909)

According to Eric Partridge's “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” one meaning of the word "sukey" (circa 1820) was a general servant or "slavey." Hence a "sukey jump" referred to a dance or party in the slave quarters; after slavery, it was simply a term for a house dance. For Huddie's explanation of a Sukey Jump, see his 1940 interview with folklorist Alan Lomax, posted 12/10/15. It's probably best to stick with Eric Partridge. 

Huddie William Ledbetter was born on the Jeter Plantation, about a mile and a half southwest of Mooringsport, Louisiana, on the 20th of January, 1889. Perhaps it was 1888, but 1889 is the date on his grave stone. The telephone, the automobile, the electric light and the Kodak camera were all recent inventions, though none of these were manifest in the Ledbetter household.

The census-taker, the gatherer of family information, spelled the lad's name "Hudy," which is the way it sounded. Huddie is probably a variation of "Hugh;" William was either in honor of the baby's uncle, William Terrill Ledbetter, or of the owner of the plantation, William Jeter. The proud parents were Wes and Sallie Ledbetter, both of whom had been born into slavery.

The baby, Wes's first, was born in the ninth year of his marriage. By then Sallie's first son, Alonzo Batts, was fourteen years old.

Though Huddie's immediate family was small, his extended family was ample. His uncles and aunts all lived close by in the quarter, and he had several first cousins of his own age: Edmon, son of his Uncle Bob Ledbetter;  Percy, son of his Uncle Terrill Ledbetter; and George (Pugh), son of his Aunt Mary, Wes's sister who had married Ken Pugh.

By the time he was two years old, he had also gained two girl cousins, Edmon's sister Blanche and George Pugh's sister Queenie; he also had a sister by adoption. In 1891, Wes and Sallie adopted a baby whose mother had died in childbirth. This was Australia Carr who was born in Mooringsport. The quarter was home to dozens of field workers and their families and everyone benefitted from a built-in child care system.

The children began working in the fields of the plantation as soon as they were able. There were many light tasks which they were best suited for: feeding the family poultry; weeding the truck patch; and following along behind the mules in cotton-planting season, dropping the seeds into the furrows.

At certain times of the year the cotton demanded everyone's attention; men and women, boys and girls, all worked long hours during spring planting, summer chopping or weeding, and fall harvesting. After the crop was harvested, sometimes close to Christmas, there were about three months of relative calm before the cycle began again. In Louisiana, these were the three months when black children could go to school.

Huddie's musical education began before he was old enough to go to school, however. By the age of five he had already attracted the attention of the grown-ups with his singing and playing of the kazoo, jew's harp, reed flute and various mouth instruments. Then he started to agitate for a "windjammer," a small diatonic button accordion introduced to the region by German settlers and later popularized by South Louisiana Cajuns. According to Huddie, his Uncle Terrill brought him one when he was five years old. He was just "a little bitty fellow" when Terrill came up from Mooringsport, riding a mule, and gave him a present of a windjammer. But his cousin Queenie remembers it differently:

“Huddie come down to my daddy's house and he told my daddy he wanted an accordion. My daddy, Ken Pugh, was his uncle. My daddy said,

"Well, you help me find some of this fat pine and I'll carry it to Shreveport and sell it, and I'll get you an accordion." Well, my daddy did. He and Huddie got the pine — Huddie wasn't nothing but a boy — got the pine and they went on to Shreveport in the wagon, sold the pine, and got the accordion.” (Queenie)

"He was a natural born musician. His daddy bought him a little rocking chair and they said before his feet could touch the floor in that little rocker, he was playing the accordion." (Viola)

It soon became obvious that Huddie, small as he was, was deadly serious about his music. Uncles Bob and Terrill brought out their guitars and taught him many of the fiddle tunes that were so popular at the breakdowns or square dances; and Huddie transposed them to his little accordion and mastered them. Tunes like "Dinah Got a Wooden Leg," "You Can't Lose me, Charlie," and "Poor Howard:"

Poor Howard's dead and gone,
Left me here to sing this song.

These first few years in the communal atmosphere of the quarter, surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, shaped Huddie's whole life. He never liked to be alone; he always liked to be surrounded by music and friendly faces. But after the cotton harvest of 1894, when he was still five years old, the Wes Ledbetters made a move. In terms of distance, it was not far — about three miles — but symbolically it was a giant step. They had several reasons for moving, and one of them had to do with the new management at the plantation.

William Jeter died in 1893 and left his plantation to his second son, Francis Ford (Frank) Jeter. The eldest son, Virgil, had become a physician, and had no interest in running a cotton plantation. Frank Jeter moved to establish his authority early, and both Wes and his younger brother Terrill found themselves in conflict with the new boss. Terrill moved with his wife and son to the fresher fields of Terrell, Texas, about twenty miles east of Dallas (150 miles away), but Wes didn't feel the need to go so far. He called on an old friend, a black man named Henry Sims, and made a deal to rent some land just across the state line in Harrison County, Texas. Sims had left the Jeter Place some years earlier and accomplished the rare feat, for a black man at that time, of buying his own land.

There was a feeling of freedom in Texas, renting from a fellow black and dreaming of actually owning land. All around them, landowners and renters alike, were African-Americans. Huddie started at Lake Chapel school where he made friends like York Bickham, Clarence Ruffin, and Sterling Myers, some of whom kept in touch with him all his life. Out in the fields the children started learning "hollers," the rhythmic songs that accompanied the work and made it more of a social activity.

When I was a little boy, (said Huddie,) going to a country school, we was living in the woods about three and four miles apart from each other. First little boy gets up in the morning, he wants to let the other one know he's up, wants to see which one beat the other. They had a little "echo" called "Ho-Day." And the first one get up, he'd run out and start hollering,

Ho-day! Ho-day! Ho-day!
The other one, way over yonder, holler,
Ho-day! Ho-day! Ho-day!
One right up close,
Ho-day! Ho-day! Ho-day!
Then I would say,
Ho-day! Ho-day! Ho-day!
Then I would say,
Ho-de-eddla-ay! Ho-de-eddla-ay! Ho-de-ay! (Huddie)

And from way over yonder came the echoes of the young boys within earshot in the Caddo Lake country. This was Huddie's own description of a holler from the 1890's, though he greatly exaggerated distances beween houses, which were a quarter- to a half-mile apart at most. It was only three and four miles back to the Jeter Place.

Neighbor Preston Brown remembered Huddie as an integral part of a close-knit community.

“I knew him for a long time. Huddie Ledbetter and them [the other Ledbetters] used to use water out of our spring when their well went bad. They had a well on their place, didn't have a spring. We had a spring on our place. Back then, this country was thick with houses, they was just all around everywhere. All out there, you'd see them plowing. Farmers, dogs and hogs a-hollering and singing everywhere. It weren't lonesome, cause we stayed too close together.” (Preston)

Not as close as the houses in the quarter, which were only a few yards apart, but it was still a close-knit community on the Texas side. Often the cousins came to stay with Wes and Sallie, and often Huddie and Australia went back to the Jeter place to sleep over at Bob and Ada's, and visit with Uncle Ken and Aunt Mary. Within the community, first cousins were practically like brothers and sisters. Having only one boy and one girl, Wes and Sallie were short of hands around the farm, so the cousins served a practical, as well as a social, purpose. Likewise, Bob and Ada Ledbetter had only the two children, so they borrowed Huddie and Australia when they needed additional help on the land. The Pughs, Mary and Ken, had six boys including George, followed by Queenie and five more girls. See Queenie's interview for more perspective on that!

More musicians were flowering in the family. Edmon learned to play the guitar from listening to his father, Australia began to show an interest in playing, Queenie took up the organ, and all the children sang. Huddie preferred to be unique and refrained from taking up the guitar for the time being. Instead he learned the mandolin, piano and organ and his parents encouraged him to play in church.

During their first few years in Texas, Wes and Sallie were able to save up enough money to achieve their dream of owning land. In 1897 they bought sixty-eight and a half acres down the road from Sims, near the south shore of Caddo Lake. The seller was "Doc" Wascom, a white man who had come into possession of large swaths of land in Harrison County. He was gradually selling off portions to the blacks who moved in to the area, many of them from just across the Caddo parish line.
The acreage that the Ledbetters bought from Doc and Sue Wascom was known as Block No. 1 of the John Carroll survey, one mile south of Caddo Lake, and about nineteen miles from Marshall in Harrison County, Texas. The total purchase price was $240, to be paid off in four annual installments of $60, due each year from 1898 through 1901 on New Year's Day. The original deed and certificate of authentication were filed at the county courthouse in Marshall in February, 1904, indicating that the land was bought and paid for. The price may seem low, but only a few years earlier William Jeter had bought 160 acres, more than twice as much land, for only $300.

Wes began a few months of unprecedented hard work. He was still farming the Sims land, bringing in the cash cotton crop, when he set about clearing brush, cutting trees, and building a house for his family on his own land. He was working sixteen-hour days. Sallie worked at his side and the extended family helped. Edmon and Blanche spent many days and nights at the new "home place" in Texas. Huddie and Edmon were both eight years old when Wes bought the land, and Blanche and Australia were big enough to do chores.

To make things more difficult, however, the Ledbetters lost one full-time helper in the midst of all this furious activity. Sallie's son Alonzo married Queenie Ruffin, older sister of one of Huddie's new Texas friends. (Not to be confused with Huddie's first cousin, Queen Pugh.)  The newlyweds rented a place nearby, and kept in close touch. While he was farming for halves, Alonzo began a part-time career as a preacher.

Alonzo Batts would have been the perfect son for Wes; he was the image of his step-father: serious, religious, reliable, and hard-working. Huddie, by contrast, was fun-loving, free-thinking and mischevious, though certainly capable of bouts of industriousness. Wes would have been happier if Huddie, not Alonzo, had become a preacher. Though he was never a devoted churchgoer, Huddie became an accomplished cotton-picker and shouldered his share of the chores around the home place.

Chores varied from family to family, but it didn't always mean less for those in a large family. Queenie Pugh, for instance, was the eldest of six girls who came in succession after a string of six boys. Her father, Ken, died when she was ten; the youngest Pugh boy had grown up and left home. Queenie helped her mother out by taking over the family plow. She was forever stuck with it.

“Cause the others claimed they didn't know how to plow! I knew how to plow. I had to get up in the morning, go to some people's cow pen and milk, for to get milk for us, and then I had to come back and get my plow.” (Queenie)

At night she did the sewing for the rest of the girls. Apparently, her sisters never learned how to sew, plow, or even to milk a cow; but whoever she was sewing for held the light while Queenie operated the turn-of-the-century Singer sewing machine.
“I'm sewing on my machine my daddy bought before he died. I used to have to iron. My mother, she washed and ironed for white people, and I would have to stand up on a box and iron." She pauses, breathes out and shakes her head. "I been working hard all my days.” (Queenie)

Preston Brown remembers not having to work too hard when he was small. He was the youngest member of his family. After school, the "grown" kids went into the fields while Preston tended to the family geese. His job was to keep the geese around the pond and see to it that they didn't get into the crops and eat the growing corn. "We had a great big bunch of geese," said Preston, "and we had to mind them geese!"

Huddie often got so involved in his music that he neglected his chores. At times, Wes was exasperated by his son's attitude, and Sallie was called upon to mediate. From the very beginning, Huddie loved to sit around with his uncles, learning reels and breakdowns and watching the joyful faces of the dancers and listeners; he particularly enjoyed the attention from the grownups who marvelled at his diverse musical talent.

At age fourteen, Huddie finally decided he must have a guitar. When Wes bought it for him, he had no trouble learning to play some of the popular local square dance pieces; "Green Corn," he got from a player named Bud Coleman.

More and more, now that he had his guitar, Huddie spent Saturday nights playing at sukey jumps, especially at the Jeter Place where he and Edmon often appeared as a duo. The accordion was becoming a thing of the past. "Sometimes he played a mandolin and I'd second him with a guitar," said Edmon, "and sometimes we played the guitar together. Used to play all round here. Up to Mooringsport, over to Leigh, and back on the Jeter Plantation." When Huddie got the guitar, he taught Australia to play.

“I didn't ever play with him, but Australia and Huddie — them two played together. Played guitar together. When Huddie learned [taught] Australia how to play guitar, she have a good time and he would have a good time. Huddie learned Australia how to play guitar.” (Queenie)

Wes was sure there would be trouble at the sukey jumps. He personally did not attend, and he and Huddie got into countless shouting matches about the music. Wes thought he was helping by buying his son a pistol for protection. "Only for self-defense," said Wes. His fears may have been somewhat overstated, but Huddie was delighted to own a gun. At the same time, (it was 1905,) Wes bought a new horse and saddle for Huddie, which made it easier for him to get to the dances; like getting a new car for graduation. Huddie kept the horse for years; he took great pride in "Booker," a black stallion.

“He was black as a crow. He had a blaze face, and his name was Ol' Booker. I used to ride behind him, you know, on him. Used to go down to help him wash in that spring down there, further from the house that run right through their place. Used to take rags, take Ol' Booker down there, lather him all over, wash him, and we'd have brushes. He'd look so pretty. He had a curly mane, curly tail. He was pretty.
(Huddie)'d go around to those dancing places and he'd come around and put me on the back of Ol' Booker; we'd go to the dances. He'd come around and ask my daddy to let me go with him. We'd go everywhere. All around over the country wherever they had those dances on Friday night and Saturday nights. I'd come in when he come in. (laughter) All of us danced. We were all dancing.” (Preston)

Huddie had an active adolescence. By the time he reached his full height of five feet, seven inches, at the age of sixteen, he had been playing at house dances for several years. He developed a strong personality and, as an obviously talented entertainer, he was attractive to many girls his own age. Cora Brown for example, one of Preston's older sisters, was courted by the young Huddie. Preston laughs gently at the memory of the two teenagers who had to contend with the younger children kibitzing nearby.
“Huddie went with Cora. He courted her. He used to come up here in the summertime. Sat there [we are in the front room of Preston's house] and played guitar and us kids, we'd sit out there on the front porch —we weren't allowed in the room, you know. We'd be outdoors dancing, and they'd be in the house.” (Preston)
During his sixteenth year, Huddie began dating a neighbor named Margaret Coleman. Margaret's parents were Jim and Adline Coleman and they had four daughters. The oldest was named Pearl, then came Margaret, who was a year younger than Huddie, and the two younger daughters, Jiffy and Essie. Huddie began hanging around the Coleman household more and more during his last school term in the early part of 1905, and by early spring, Margaret was pregnant.

When Huddie finished school and got his horse, he started thinking about what he was going to do with his life. The most natural thing was farming, and Wes and Sallie suggested that he build his own house on the home place and start his own family. As the cotton grew taller and Margaret's belly grew larger, it became clear that some sort of decision had to be made. The young couple talked it over, the families discussed it, Huddie started building a two-room house but eventually, it seems, Margaret didn't want to get married.
Huddie could have started a professional musical career, if it had occurred to him, but he had no idea where to start. The Caddo Lake area was so isolated from the mainstream. He had seen nothing of the world beyond Shreveport, which the family visited, at most, once a year.

T.J Taylor home. Lady Bird (Taylor) Johnson grew up here. 
He knew the Caddo Lake country well. There were two general stores where local people did most of their shopping: T.J. Taylor's in Leigh, and Joe Morgan's on the Louisiana-Texas border, and there was a cotton gin in Jonesville, not far from Leigh. On the Louisiana side there was the small lakeside community of Mooringsport, the Jeter Place, and the Shiloh Baptist Church where Wes and Sallie had their membership. Huddie had an adolescent yearning to see more of the world. All of these destinations were within about half an hour's drive, even by mules-and-wagon. But a trip to Shreveport was an occasion and a whole day had to be set aside for it.

Margaret gave birth to a daughter, Arthur Mae Ledbetter, on the 28th of January, 1906, and Huddie took the opportunity to exile himself to Shreveport. Years later he wrote about leaving home in one of his most enduring songs, "Fannin Street." His mother was horrified at the idea of him going to work in Shreveport.
“She said something might happen to me, but I wanted to go down on Fannin Street. You couldn't go down there with short pants on, you had to put on long pants. When I walked up my mama caught me by the arm:

My mama told me
My sister, too
Women in Shreveport gonna be the
DEATH of yooooou.” (Huddie)

Fannin Street and the Bottoms
Shreveport was the big town and Huddie found it totally fascinating. He had seen the State Fair parade down Texas Street; the country wagons gathered to sell their produce on Commerce Street; the white folk in their finery, entering the hotels on Market and Spring; and he had heard about the night life on Fannin Street.

After he left home, Huddie got a taste of life in the Bottoms, but he also found out that it was a tough place to make a living as a musician. He could still make better money playing at sukey jumps than he could in the saloons of Shreveport, and he never learned how to get on with a traveling minstrel show. Consequently, when Wes and Sallie suggested he finish building his own house and share the harvest on the home place, he moved back and started to work. Margaret Coleman, in the meantime, had moved to Dallas and taken a job as maid in a white household.
During his late teens, Huddie moved into his own house and helped to run his father's farm. Although raising cotton was labor-intensive, it was not a full time job and he began to go further afield. He discovered that he could pick up a lot of extra money by joining the itinerant cotton-pickers on the big plantations near Dallas, where his uncle Terrill was living. He generally traveled with his cousin George Pugh and his friend Clarence Ruffin, and all three of them made lots of extra money. While he was staying with Terrill and his cousin Percy, he ventured into Dallas and stayed with Margaret Coleman and his baby daughter from time to time.
Dallas was a much larger center than Shreveport, but Huddie's visits there were more concerned with family affairs, or with picking cotton, than they were with music. At the corner of Central and Elm, the crossroads of the large black community, workers gathered every morning during the picking season and waited for the white men's wagon to roll up and recruit day laborers for the plantations, and Huddie got in line.

And he could pick! Twelve yards of ducking in his cotton sack — he got it on like suspenders on his back this way. And wore knee pads. And crawled between two rows just like he was in music, you know, to a rhythm. Pick it. (Viola)

On Christmas Eve, 1907, Australia Carr married Allen Davis. The officiating minister was Huddie's half-brother Alonzo Batts, and one of the witnesses was Miss Cora Brown. Huddie played for the wedding celebration and the newlyweds moved into Huddie's house. Soon after Christmas, during the slow season, Huddie and his cousin George went back to their uncle's place in Kaufman County, and shortly after that, they found themselves courting the Henderson sisters, Elethe and Alice.

September 26, 2007

Introduction to Leadbelly by Monty Brown

Saturday, September 8, 2007

When I started to write about black music in North Louisiana, I decided to begin with a chapter on Huddie Ledbetter. He is certainly the best known folk musician from the region and is thus a logical departure point. I assumed that there was a great deal of easily accessible information which could be compressed into a few pages so that I could move on to the more obscure players, Jesse "Babyface" Thomas, Willard "Ramblin'" Thomas, and Oscar Woods, who would comprise the meat of my thesis.

Huddie Ledbetter's name appears in dictionaries: look in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1971) and you will find him; in the American Heritage Dictionary (1973) there is even a photograph accompanying the entry. Folk song anthologies tend to mention his name — he is usually called Leadbelly — with reverence: he is "the great negro folk singer" or "the great bluesman," or he is simply mentioned in the same breath as Woody Guthrie or Josh White. He is held in high esteem by such icons of rock'n'roll as Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

I became acquainted with his music when I was an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver during the early 1960's. I spent many evenings listening to his songs, drinking beer, and discussing philosophy with my friends. I didn't know exactly where he came from, but I knew that it was the South, I'd heard hat that he had spent some time in prison camps, and that he was a potent symbol of the strength and perseverance of an oppressed people. He was also a lot of fun.

When I moved to North Louisiana in 1980, I was intrigued to discover that this was Huddie Ledbetter's birthplace. Most people in the area didn't know or care but a few were aware and even proud of the fact. The Red River Revel Arts Festival, an annual event in Shreveport, produced a tribute to the man in 1984 that featured Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry and several other singers or folklorists who were associated with Ledbetter during his lifetime. At about the same time, the Shreveport city fathers changed the name of one of the oldest and poorest districts of town, reputedly an old stamping ground of Huddie's, from St. Paul's Bottoms to Ledbetter Heights. The topography remained the same in spite of the aspiration inherent in the new name. In fact, by the year 2016 the area had lost quite a bit of its former charm and become an economic disaster zone.

Most people who heard that I was writing about Ledbetter assumed, as I had, that his life was already well documented. It is not unusual, for instance, to run across such remarks as, "A number of books have been written about Leadbelly over the years" (Prime 13F). The truth is that only one book, "Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly", had been written about him; that book, by John A. Lomax, was published in 1936. One quarter of its 242 pages is devoted to biography and the rest contains transcriptions of songs. About one half of the biographical material comes from Ledbetter himself and concerns his life until his mid-forties; the other half deals with the six-and-a-half months that Lomax and Ledbetter spent together in 1934 and 1935. It would be the early 1990's before a real bio of Leadbelly appeared; that one the work of Kip Lornell and Charles Wolfe.

After he parted company with John Lomax, Ledbetter lived for fifteen more years, years in which he gained his place in the dictionaries, folk song anthologies, and hearts and minds of college undergraduates and aspiring British rock musicians.. Various writers took an interest in Ledbetter and thus several excellent articles have appeared over the years since his death in 1949. There have been a novel and a Hollywood movie based on his life, but there was no biography. Most of the writers, too, have had a tendency to accept the information contained in the Lomax book uncritically, so there has been no re-examination of Ledbetter's early life. Strangely, there are certain basics upon which there is no agreement, even among the people who knew the man: these include the date and place of his birth, the pronounciation of his name, and even his height. Little wonder he is often thought of as a legendary figure.

According to John Lomax, Huddie Ledbetter said he was born in 1885 (J. Lomax, Negroï xi). Ross Russell, who interviewed Huddie in Los Angeles, puts the date at 20 January 1889, "not 1885 or 1886, as has appeared elsewhere" (Russell 12). Frederic Ramsey, Jr., who recorded Leadbelly's Last Sessions in New York, seems totally confused: in a magazine obituary, Ramsey mentions Huddie's death "at sixty years," in 1949, yet states four paragraphs later that he was born circa 1882 ("Legacy" 60). One jazz historian quotes two different birth dates, 1885 and 1888, on the same page (Tirro 127).
The tombstone in Shiloh Baptist Church's graveyard places Huddie's birthdate in 1889, but two census reports - 1900 and 1910 - both claim 1888 as the year of his birth. He was listed as twelve years old in 1900 and twenty-two in 1910. The most accurate date would have been provided by the 1890 census, which has been lost to posterity, but Huddie had clearly settled on the 1889 date by the time he spoke to Ross Russell.

The place of his birth, which his cousins clearly put between Mooringsport and Longwood in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, is generally accepted. As late as 1974, a group of Harrison County, Texas, residents planned to have Ledbetter's remains disinterred and moved to Karnack, where they would then erect an historical marker (Wilson 5). Texans have a good claim: the Ledbetters moved to Harrison County when Huddie was a boy. However, if he belongs to any region, that region is the Caddo Lake country, which has no regard for state borders. His Louisiana relatives, the Bob Ledbetters, lived only two or three miles away from the Wes Ledbetters who moved over the Texas line and bought land from Doc Wascom. The Texans apparently spurred the Louisianians into action - an historical marker was erected near Oil City, Louisiana, in the late 1970's.

There has been a certain amount of controversy over the pronounciation of the name Huddie. Blanche Love pointed out that her cousin's name was pronounced "Hew-die," not "Huddie" as some people say (Windham 97). At the Red River Revel tribute I heard Pete Seeger very carefully pronounce the name Hew-die. On the other hand, I have heard Ledbetter himself pronounce it both ways in different recordings. The census records him as "Hudy," which is the way the census-taker heard the name, and everyone who knew him in Louisiana uses the long "U."

There are also two different ways of writing his nickname, Lead Belly and Leadbelly. John Lomax, the man who probably invented the nickname, used two words but many people, myself included, have since contracted it to a single word. I will use Lead Belly only in direct quotations. As far as I can tell, the singer always referred to himself as "Huddie Ledbetter," and his cousin Blanche Love stated quite adamantly that his name was not Leadbelly, "it was Ledbetter" (Windham 97).

The question of Ledbetter's height is an interesting one: the legendary character is a "big powerful Negro" (Price 20), "one mean mountain of a man" ("Cinema" 76). The fictional accounts, both the novel and the movie, emphasize great size, and the most common perception is that Ledbetter was tall and husky. However, Ross Russell said that he "was not exceptionally big — in the 6-foot, 180-pound category" (Russell 12). Hector Lee, who met the singer in Salt Lake City in 1946, wrote that he was surprised to find Huddie was shorter than average (Lee, "Lead Belly" 135), and Pete Seeger, a fellow folksinger, wrote, "He was not tall — perhaps five feet seven or eight" (Asch & Lomax 7). His neighbor, Preston Brown, agrees with Pete Seeger. "He wasn't any taller than me," said Preston, which would place him at about five foot, seven inches. All agreed, however, that he radiated power and athletic grace. Journalist Ralph J. Gleason, who met Ledbetter several times in New York, put it this way: "He was not a tall man at all, but he was broad and chunky and gave an impression of terrific strength."

Posted by Monty Brown at 7:10 PM

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Chapter 1: King Cotton

Chapter 1: King Cotton: Pre-1889
Roque House, Natchitoches, LA. Circa 1790.

The cotton business received a tremendous lift from the invention of the cotton gin, a simple, yet efficient machine which separated the seeds from the fluffy white part. The gin was invented in 1793 by an American named Eli Whitney. The invention led to the clearing of millions of acres of forest lands, lands which were turned over to the growing of cotton. The Cotton Kingdom was thus established in the states bordering on the Gulf Coast, and the institution of slavery was revived during the first half of the Nineteenth century. As late as 1808, when slave importation into the United States was outlawed, popular wisdom said there was no need for any more slaves. It is estimated that 250,000 slaves were imported between 1808 and 1860, and had the practice not been illegal, there may have been many more. Slave labor made the Cotton Kingdom possible.
Caddo Parish, Louisiana, became a leader in cotton production in the years leading up to the Civil War. The population of the parish in the latter part of the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly black, particularly in rural areas like Mooringsport on the southern shore of Caddo Lake. The reason for this is simple: many of the white settlers who arrived from the Southeastern states prior to the Civil War came with their slaves. Thus a family made up of four or five white members might typically be accompanied by four or five times that many black people. Not all the white settlers were slave owners, of course, but there were enough to account for the population ratio.

"The early settlers were nearly all rich men with many slaves and some fine cattle." (O'Pry 141). “A man named Erwin, founder of Erwin's Bluff in Shreveport (circa 1836), brought 100 negroes with him and a quantity of fine Kentucky stock.” (O'Pry 144) The 1870 census, the first to enumerate blacks as people rather than slaves, shows 15,799 blacks and 5,913 whites in Caddo. The 1880 census shows 19,283 blacks out of a total parish population of 26,303. That's a ratio of roughly three blacks to each white in the years following emancipation. The ratio actually widened during the 1860's, possibly reflecting the westward exodus of slave owners, and their possessions, to safer environs. [The decade of the Civil War.] It was 1920 before the census showed a majority of white residents in Caddo parish, and in the late Twentieth century, the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

There were two ways of getting to northwest Louisiana from the Atlantic states. Some families traveled overland in wagons, while their slaves were linked together in "coffles," like chain gangs, and made to walk the thousand miles to their new homes. Other families went by ship to New Orleans; there they transferred to riverboats which, after the clearing of the Great Raft, went all the way to Shreveport and beyond, to the town of Jefferson, Texas, on Caddo Lake.

The city of Shreveport, Louisiana, was founded on the Red River; it lies about twenty miles east of the Texas border, and thirty-five miles south of Arkansas. Shreveport calls itself the hub of a region known as the Ark-La-Tex. To the north and west of Shreveport lies Caddo Lake, half of which is in Texas, and half in Louisiana. The Texas half features cypress trees, cypress knees, and Spanish moss, peculiarities more often associated with Louisiana. The northwest part of Louisiana, with its non-Catholic and non-French population, has always felt an affinity for East Texas.

Shreveport is named for Captain Henry Miller Shreve of the U.S. Army engineers. He arrived in 1833 to survey the Red River and see what could be done about the massive logjam which blocked navigation for two hundred miles upstream. He and his men set about clearing the jam, known as the Great Raft, and by the middle 1830's the Red was navigable to the Mississippi. Settlers started to pour in. The Caddo Indians, guardians of the land since time immemorial, were overwhelmed by the flood of immigrants. They "sold out" in 1835 and moved to the temporary safety of Oklahoma.

Among the antebellum white settlers in the region were the Jeter brothers from Virginia, William and James. They came as part of that historical western migration which 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, 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 Addison Jeter was a surveyor and many maps of this area are based on Jeter's Country Plat." (A. Moore 32)

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 an exchange of prisoners. (A. Moore 32)

Shreveport had not been ravaged by the Civil War, had not been captured by theUnion, and for that reason, it became the capital of wartime Louisiana. By early 1865, the town was home to a substantial Confederate force and surrounded by forts, barricades, trenchs and earthworks, in readiness for a state of seige. The most famous remaining Civil War landmark is known as Fort Humbug, where, for lack of the real thing, wooden cannons were placed in hope of fooling the Yankees. The Rebel commander at Shreveport was General E. Kirby Smith. He described it as "a miserable place with a miserable population — swarming with refugees, slave coffles, state legislators, and surplus colonels." (Stuck 4)

The southern part of the state, particularly strategic New Orleans with its command of the Mississippi River mouth, had been secured by Union forces early in the war. Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Louisiana's eastern border, eventually toppled to General Grant's forces after being under seige for more than a year. Alexandria, in the center of the state, had been torched during a battle with Union forces. The nearest actual battleground to Shreveport was twenty-five miles away.
General Nathaniel P. Banks

In the spring of 1864, Union forces under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks forged northward from Alexandria to mount an assault on Shreveport, now a busy depot for men and supplies. Banks was a former governor of Massachussetts, a Republican political appointee who was not highly rated as a military commander. In retrospect, his Red River Campaign might have been more successful had it been waged by a soldier, but in fact it made little difference to the eventual outcome of the Civil War, and Banks's style may have spared a few lives.

At the Battle of Mansfield, the Union forces were met and held off by a smaller, more mobile Rebel force under the command of General Richard Taylor, son of (former U.S. President) Zachary Taylor. At the Battle of Pleasant Hill, a day or two later, the Union forces staged a comeback, but General Banks failed to follow up his advantage. He retreated to the south and Shreveport was left unscathed.

During the postwar Reconstruction era, racial tensions were extremely high. Black troops were included in the garrison of Federal troops which arrived in Shreveport, in 1865, to begin a ten-and-a-half year occupation. When the troops first arrived they restored order where there had been anarchy, looting, and random violence; they were welcomed by law abiding citizens. But once order was restored, stories of black demons lording it over white men and raping and insulting white women became part of the popular mythology. There is little evidence of such behaviour in reality. In fact, blacks seem to have behaved with restraint; they had, after all, been subjected to considerable violence and humiliation during slavery.

Most of the documented postwar violence continued to be commited by whites against blacks. John Johnson, the son of a white plantation owner, apparently murdered a black woman in August, 1865. He escaped arrest and was never brought to trial. Two white men in Shreveport were found guilty of the murder of a freedman and sentenced to ninety-nine years each. However, after sentencing the two rose from the prisoners' dock and strolled out of the courtroom unhindered. They were simply allowed to go free. In October, 1868, two whites were killed in a dispute with freedmen, which is what former slaves were called, and Shreveport's white citizenry retaliated by going on a rampage, killing nineteen blacks.
Blacks were not only saddled with the reputation of being violent and insolent; they were also thought of as too ignorant to vote intelligently. And as for taking over the reigns of government? To a loyal white Southerner, nothing could be more ludicrous!

As members of Republican administrations, blacks generally attempted to enact progressive legislation such as unsegregated public education, and distribution of land to former slaves. The Republican party in Louisiana, the party of Lincoln, was a coalition of blacks, a handful of white progressives, and white Northerners who came to carry out the policies of the Federal government. Supporters of the Confederacy referred to this latter group as "carpetbaggers." The name derived from their luggage, a large bag made from carpet material. The white progressives were called "scalawags." The blacks were simply "niggers." In fact, most Louisiana black legislators, men like Caesar C. Antoine, were from an educated class of free men or creoles of color. Antoine, who became a Shreveporter, was elected lieutenant governor in 1873.

Caesar Carpenter Antoine
CC Antoine circa 1873
Born September 10, 1836 in New Orleans; C. C. Antoine served as a Captain in the Union Army – Louisiana, during the Civil War.  However, his most impressive accomplishments came in the arena of politics.  In 1868, during the period of Reconstruction, Antoine was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature as a State Senator, and served until 1872.  In 1871, he sponsored CHARTER legislation that granted the unincorporated town of Shreveport  the legal status of CITY.  Additionally, in 1873 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, and served in that capacity until 1877.  He was Louisiana’s 3rd Black Lieutenant Governor, and also served as Interim Governor in 1876.  Antoine was also an entrepreneur, property owner, human rights advocate, and newspaper publisher/editor.  At the end of the Civil War, Antoine moved to Shreveport, purchased land, opened a family grocery store, and became a farmer. C. C. Antoine died of natural causes on September 12, 1921, at his home in Shreveport.

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