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.|
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.