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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1 comment:

Chris said...

Okay, the Oscar Woods note grabbed my attention! I am interested in hearing what you dug up on him past the surface level facts. I never had much luck. Are you familiar with the movie -- Chloe, Love Is Calling You (1934)? There are some frustratingly vague internet claims that the Shreveport Home Wreckers are the blues band in the film. My detective work yielded no solid answers.
-Chris Brown
email: hotdonuts at gmail dot com

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