February 27, 2008

Leadbelly's Nieces: an Interview

Several years ago I went to visit Irene Campbell (aged 86) in Marshall, Texas. She was a retired schoolteacher; she'd attended Bishop College in Marshall and taught at the local schools, starting in the 1930's, before integration, and retired 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 (aged 89.). This is a segment of an interview with the Batts sisters, Irene Campbell and Viola Daniels on March 14, 1991.

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 [Huddie] 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.

February 23, 2008

Chapter 7: Leadbelly & Lomax (1934-35)

John and Alan Lomax returned to Angola in July, 1934, only to find the irrepressible Huddie begging, pleading, and urging that they take his pardon song to Governor O.K. Allen (J. Lomax, Negro 32). He had written the song in 1932, had been revising, improving, and singing it to every white man he met ever since. He had tried to get it to the Governor (the hand-picked successor to then-U.S. Senator Huey Long) in the form of a poem, but it had been intercepted by "Tighty" Himes.
John Lomax was impressed with Lead Belly's shrewdness in his choice of tunes to go with his pardon lyrics, tunes which were "direct Negro modifications of white melodies, the sort of tunes the average white man likes best to hear Negroes sing" (232). It is difficult to reconcile this attitude of Lomax with his requirement that folk music be pure and unadulterated. If he was looking for a folksinger who had not been subject to white influences or to the music marketplace, Ledbetter seems like an odd choice; if he was looking for someone to attract attention, he found the right man.
John Lomax in the midst of interviewees.         

The song "Governor O.K. Allen," which the Lomaxes recorded and took to Baton Rouge for the Governor to hear, is more interesting for its overview of the whole political situation in regard to prison paroles than as an individual plea. It tells how general manager Himes, had seen the need to relieve overcrowding, and how he went to Warden Long (Huey P. Long's cousin) to tell him about the arrangements he and the Governor were making to free a certain number of prisoners. A personal note comes in when Huddie recounts seeing an article in the Times of Shreveport which told of the release of a certain number of prisoners, and how that made him think of his woman at home. He then praises Governor Allen for his kindness in reuniting so many men with their wives, talks about Lieutenant-Governor Fournet, and closes with a verse like the end of the Governor Pat Neff song:

Had you, Governor O.K. Allen, like you got me,
I'd wake up in the morning, let you out on reprieve.

It would be interesting to speculate on a meeting between Leadbelly and Huey Long, if the latter had remained governor instead of entering the national political arena. But tragically, as it turned out, Long's ambitions went far beyond the confines of Louisiana, so he never received Leadbelly's plea for a pardon in musical form. As far as we know. In fact, the plea may never even have reached the desk of O.K. Allen.

On August 1, Huddie Ledbetter was released from Angola and though Louisiana prison authorities denied that the song was the reason, John Lomax said he liked to believe otherwise (J. Lomax, Negro 232). In a letter dated 13 May, 1939, (see 1939 in this blog) Warden L. A. Jones of Angola wrote to the Chief Probabtion Officer of the Court of General Sessions in New York with the following information about Ledbetter.

“This man has been recipient of wide publicity in various magazines of national circulation, the story usually being that he sang or wrote such moving appeals to the Governor that he was pardoned. Such statements have no foundation in fact. He received no clemency, and his discharge was a routine matter under the good time law which applies to all first and second offenders.”

Huddie made his way back to Shreveport and renewed his relationship with Martha Promise. Martha (b.1906, and thus about 17 years younger than Huddie) was originally from Longwood, near the Jeter Plantation, and had known Huddie all her life. She had a twin sister, Mary, the mother of Tiny Robinson who has been instrumental in keeping the Leadbelly flame burning. (See Leadbelly Foundation).
He must have felt a strong connection to John Lomax, however, because he wrote him four letters asking for employment; he was eventually rewarded with a telegram arranging a meeting in Marshall, Tex., a city thirty miles west of Shreveport, close to Huddie's Texas family home.
Lomax enjoyed recounting the story of their meeting in Marshall on September 1; it appeared not only in the book on Lead Belly published in 1936, but also as a re-enactment in a March of Time newsreel (Ramsey, "Leadbelly" 17), in a Time Magazine article, and in a New York Herald Tribune story, 3rd January 1935:

I was sitting in a hotel in (Marshall) Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Lead Belly with his guitar, his knife and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, "Boss, here I is." I took him up to my room and asked him what he was doing there and he replied, "Boss, I came here to be your man. I belong to you."
I said, "Well, after all, I don't know you. You're a murderer." He said, "Boss, it wasn't my fault. They attacked me. I had to fight back." I told him that as a matter of fact I did need a driver for my car and might be able to use him, but I added, "If some day you decide on some lonely road that you want my money and my car, don't use your knife on me. Just tell me and I'll give them to you. I have a wife and children back home, and they'd miss me. ("Lomax Arrives")

However it came about, and it seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement, the two set off on a tour of Southern penitentiaries, looking particularly for Negro work songs still used by black gang labor. Their first stop was Little Rock, Arkansas, where Lomax, as was his custom, visited with the state governor to get approval for his quest. During four days spent in Little Rock, recording in the Negro district, Lomax found how useful Lead Belly's playing and singing could be: when other singers heard him, they came forward with their own material. The same thing happened subsequently in the prisons: through Lead Belly's singing, the convicts were quickly able to understand what was required of them (J. Lomax, (Negro 37).
In “Negro Folks Songs as Sung by Leadbelly,” Lomax says he had no idea what was going on in Lead Belly's mind (35), yet the written word constantly reveals the latter's thoughts. When new clothes were provided to take the place of his Angola prison garb, Huddie's "face was aglow with happiness." Lomax had him keep the prison clothes, "though he always hated to wear them" (36), so that he could don them for concerts, especially for white audiences. When Lead Belly managed to commandeer a free tank of gas from the State of Arkansas, over Lomax' mild protestations, he said, "Shucks! White folks always has plenty of everything. Dey won't miss a little gas." And more than all else, Huddie was clearly depressed by the constant visits to prisons: "I'm tired of lookin' at niggers in the penitenshuh. I wish we could go somewheres else" (39).
There were visits back to Shreveport for Huddie to see Martha Promise and to show off his new clothes and job — not a particularly strange desire on his part. There was also a trip to the Lomax home in Austin, Texas, where Huddie composed a song about the family. The song, "Elnora," was based on a prison work song; it was also the name of the Lomax maid:

El-nora/ O Lawd, Lawd/ El-nora/ O Lawd, Lawd.

The verses were simply names of family members: John the bossman, John Jr., Alan the little bossman, etc., and the address of the Lomax home, but everyone seemed to enjoy and appreciate it (Negro 95).
When John Lomax decided that the penitentiary tour was over, he dropped Lead Belly in Shreveport,  determined to have nothing further to do with him (43). There had been too much stress and friction beween the two; their backgrounds and agendas were simply too far opposed. John Lomax was a serious scholar in his mid-sixties who probably felt himself too old to be tramping around the countryside; Huddie was a compulsive musician, mid-forties, but in excellent physical condition due to years of hard labor; he liked to drink and party, especially with others of like mind. It was not an ideal match, yet together they accomplished a great deal, and at this point they were only half way through their adventure.
Lomax returned to Austin in November, and Huddie wrote him several letters begging to be taken on the upcoming New York trip. Lomax had been asked to make a Folk Song presentation at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia at year's end, and he was asked to bring Lead Belly. “American Ballads and Folk Songs,” meanwhile, had just been published, and there was some scholarly interest in the Lomaxes' activities. Alan urged that Lead Belly be included in the trip and at last his father threw "caution to the winds," and agreed (J. Lomax, Negro 43).
Early in December, 1934, Huddie was picked up in Shreveport and squeezed into the car which held the recording equipment, three people, two guitars (Alan played, too), and various personal effects. There were more penitentiaries along the way, in Georgia and North Carolina, before this odd trio arrived in Washington, D.C., where the attention started to come from white intellectuals. This was to be the core of Huddie Ledbetter's paying audience for the rest of his life; they did not pay well, but they did like his music.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the interest of newspapers had been aroused by his queer name. Reporters crowded into my room, while I hid Lead Belly. His singing and playing while seated on the top center of the banquet table at the smoker before a staid and dignified professorial audience smacked of sensationalism. (Negro 45)
Ninety-three people turned up the next day at 9:00 a.m., December 29, at the Popular Literature section, to hear "Comments on Negro Folk Songs" by John Lomax, illustrated by the singing and playing of the "Negro convict Lead Belly of Louisiana" (PMLA Supplement 1325). That evening a group of intellectuals in evening dress, at Bryn Mawr College, "listened curiously to 'Dicklicker's Holler' and 'Whoa, Back, Buck!'" (J. Lomax, Negro 45) The latter, an ox-driving song, contains grunts, yelps, and the unforgettable refrain:

Whoa, back, buck and gee by the lamb,
Who made the backband?
WHOA God-DAMN!

"Dicklicker" was the name of a fellow convict in Texas, and Huddie simply ascribes the "holler" to him. He offers no further explanation of the name (îNegroï 116). Several years later, Huddie made a recording of "Dick Ligger's Holler"; this may be a closer rendering of the convict's name, but Lomax evidently preferred the single word (Ramsey, "Sessions" 4).

On New Year's Day, 1935, the two Lomaxes brought Lead Belly to the "city of [his] dreams," New York. Apart from discovering that his color barred him from getting a hotel room south of 110th Street — he stayed at the Harlem YMCA — Lead Belly made quite a splash in the city. He played for a group from Columbia and New York Universities on New Year's Day and was given some media coverage. According to John Lomax, the term "bad nigger" only added to his attraction (Negro 49). Obviously, Lomax had hoped for something like this. After all, he had made him keep his prison clothes for future use ·—· a photograph of him thus attired appeared in the 14 January 1935 issue of Time Magazine (50) — and he had billed him as a "convict" at the M.L.A. meeting in Philadelphia. The New York Herald Tribune, said Lomax, described Lead Belly as "a saturnine singer of the swamplands," (îNegro ï49) but "saturnine" was Lomax's word; it was not in the newspaper article. To Lomax, Huddie was saturnine: gloomy and unfathomable. To the Herald Tribune reporter, he was
“a powerful, knife-toting Negro, who has killed one man and seriously wounded another, but whose husky tenor and feathery, string-plucking fingers ineluctably charm the ears of those who listen. . . His voice causes brown-skinned women to swoon and produces a violently inverse effect on their husbands and lovers.” ("Lomax Arrives")
Huddie was excited to be in New York and obviously planned to do more than be an exhibit for these curious white folks. He had gone off on his own to check out the Harlem nightlife, much to the concern of Lomax, who was trying to make arrangements that would benefit his enterprise and, he thought, his protege (îNegroï 48). But the protege returned the morning after to the Lomax's flat in the Village, somewhat hungover.
"Lead Belly sang in Manhattan last week for University of Texas alumni. And John Lomax was nervous. Theatrical agents and radio scouts insisted on hearing his protege who had been out on a wild 24-hour rampage in Harlem. Until it was time for him to sing Lomax kept his hell-raising minstrel locked up in a coat room." ("Murderous Minstrel" 50)
The performance went off without mishap, the report went on to say, and Lead Belly was praised for his rich, clear voice. As a result, he was featured in the March of Time newsreel, which was a re-enactment of Lead Belly's release from Angola, his subsequent meeting with John Lomax, and his marriage to Martha Promise; in articles in the New York newspapers and national magazines; in dispatches from the Associated Press; and in a poem, "Ballad of a Ballad Singer," by William Rose Benet (J. Lomax, Negro 49). The American Record Company (A.R.C.) recorded at least forty-nine sides by Lead Belly during five separate studio sessions in early 1935: on January 23, 24, and 25; on February 5; and on March 25 (Dixon & Godrich 381). For some reason, the bulk of this material was not released until Columbia Records, which had taken over A.R.C., put out an album called "Leadbelly" (Col 30035) in the 1970's.
The famous March of Time newsreel (3:39):

During Huddie's 1935 New Year binge, he apparently ran across bandleader Cab Calloway, arguably the most popular black performer of the era. The Herald Tribune stated that Huddie claimed to have received job offers from Calloway, but in return had expressed his contempt for Cab. "He don't know nothin' 'bout singin'," said Huddie, according to the newspaper report.
Members of the New York press were fascinated by the prison record of the performer and they were charmed by his music. They could hardly understand the lyrics because of Leadbelly's thick plantation accent, but they were moved by the power and raw emotion of his performance. (Brand 74)
In mid-January Huddie, no doubt feeling like a fish out of water or, perhaps, in a goldfish bowl, sent for his lady-friend Martha Promise of Shreveport, and the two were married in Wilton, Connecticut. John Lomax had borrowed the country cottage of a friend in Wilton, and he and Alan had moved Huddie there, away from Harlem. Jerrold Hirsch (personal interview) points out that Lomax deliberately set up house in Wilton because he thought of Lead Belly as a "country" Negro, unable to cope with the poison of the big city. Of course, the genteel Connecticut countryside would have been a far cry from the backwoods of Caddo Parish. Also, John Lomax wanted to keep his "subject" to himself.
The wedding between Martha and Huddie was widely reported; even the Shreveport papers, usually oblivious to the social lives of "negroes," mentioned the occasion, though not on the bridal page. "Negro to Join Radio Artist Mate in New York," announced the Times of Shreveport:
Martha Promise Ledbetter, 30-year-old negro, will leave Shreveport next week to join her husband singing cowboy songs in the east for John A. Lomax, folk song composer. The woman formerly worked in a local laundry. (18)
That was the whole story and, brief though it was, it gave a rather skewed picture of what was happening. Martha was actually going to get married; she and her husband were not likely to be performing cowboy songs together; and if people do "compose" folk songs, John Lomax certainly didn't, he collected them. Although pretty harmless, the story is a good example of how information can be misleading. The Shreveport îJournalï took more interest in the event, running a four-paragraph story:
"Martha Promise Ledbetter, 30-year-old Shreveport Negro, will lay aside her duties checking garments at a local laundry next week and go to New York, where she will join her husband in singing for John A. Lomax, writer of cowboy and folk songs.
"The Ledbetter woman, who is one of the principal sopranos in the Silver Leaf Jubilee Choir, local negro singers, will have transportation provided by the Macmillan Publishing Co. and Lomax through C.M. "Red" Leman of the Hirsch and Leman Co. Lomax, the song writer, hails from Austin, Texas, and he recently published a book of cowboy and folk songs. Lomax heard Ledbetter sing and had him come to New York last November shortly after he and Martha Promise had married. Ledbetter is reported to be giving Lomax 'inspiration for his negro songs.'
"A few days ago Mr. Leman received a telegram from the Macmillan company asking if he would make transportation arrangements for the Ledbetter woman. He agreed to do so and later Lomax communicated with him. Money for the woman's expenses was wired here. (3)
Apparently the reason for announcing that the Ledbetters were already married had something to do with Lomax's fear of being accused of white slavery (J. Lomax, Negro 50). The term "white slavery" seems odd in this instance. The Herald Tribune had the most colorful article on the wedding celebration.

GAY LEADBELLY IN CINNAMON SUIT

WEDS MARTHA ON 46TH BIRTHDAY
Sheds White Gloves After Ceremony in Connecticut,
Seizes Guitar and Has Preacher and Deacon Tapping Feet.

WILTON, Conn., Jan.20 - Precisely at high noon today the saga of Lead Belly, which had begun forty-six year ago to the hour in the bayou swamps of Louisiana, reached an emotional climax in a 200-year-old house perched on a Revolutionary Connecticut hill near this village.

There was a picture of the bride and groom (above) and a solid two-column article which described their clothes, listed the guests, and gave an account of the party which followed the ceremony. Huddie was attired in "an enchanting" double-breasted cinnamon suit with red checks. Martha wore a black silk frock with a brightly striped yoke and sleeves. She had bought it "on sale" in Norwalk for three dollars, reduced from $12.95. They both wore white gloves for the ceremony, but Huddie removed his immediately afterwards, took up the guitar, and sang,

I'm in love with you, honey
You said you'd love me, too, honey
I'm in love with you, honey
It's funny but it's true, honey
None but you will do, honey.

The ceremony was performed by the bespectacled Rev. Samuel Weldon of the Bethel A. M. E. Church of Norwalk, who arrived in the company of three church deacons. John Lomax gave the bride away and Alan was the best man; he dropped the ring at a critical moment, but other than that, the ceremony went without a hitch. Alan's brother John, Jr., was also there, with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, who owned the house, and two Lomax friends, Margaret Conklin and Gertrude E. King.
After Huddie sang his love song, one of the deacons let out a "Whoopee!" and everyone smiled and applauded. Then Huddie sang one of those blues songs in praise of darker skin-tones:

A yellow-skinned woman keeps you worried all the time
A yellow-skinned woman makes a moon-eyed man go blind
But a dark-skinned woman makes a jack rabbit hug a hound
And makes a brown-skinned preacher lay his Bible down.

Martha was slim and tall, with a large, infectious smile and dark skin. As Huddie finished the song and the applause died down, the Rev. Welden clutched his Bible tightly and uttered an embarassed, but good-humored, "Oh, my!" Deacon Leonard Brown laughed and told him he'd better "hold that Bible tight."
Lead Belly laid down his guitar and went into a tap dance. With a broomstick on his shoulder he shuffled and slapped and clicked his glistening heels in the ineffable rhythms of an impromptu buck and wing.
"Man, oh man, look at that boy dance," said Deacon Brown.
"Step it, step it!" cried Deacon Maurice Podd.
"He's goin' to town," shouted Deacon Sol Nichols.
"I never saw him dance like that before," said Mr. Lomax in astonishment. "He pulls new rabbits out of his hat every day."
"I never been so happy in my life," said Martha. ("Gay Lead Belly")

According to Lomax, Martha Promise adapted well to her changed circumstances. She was, indeed, a happy bride. She and Huddie divided up the household chores while the Lomaxes went about their ethnography. John was in the process of putting together the book which would come out as "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly". They made many recordings of Huddie at Wilton, and deposited them in the Library of Congress (Dixon & Godrich 380). Huddie made the fires, carried the water, cleaned and drove the car, shoveled the snow, and helped Martha wash the dishes; Martha was the maid, cook, and laundrywoman. (J. Lomax, îNegroï 53) "He's a fine driver and keeps the car looking like new," said the elder Lomax. There's not a lazy bone in his body." (Lomax Arrives)

John Lomax set up a tour of colleges, mostly in New York state but including Harvard and Yale, and he and Huddie set off together once again, leaving Martha behind at Wilton.
For some of the audience, it was more fun than a bear-baiting, but just about as culturally valid. But many remembered that vital figure on the stage beating out the rhythms and pounding out the lyrics of "Goodnight, Irene," "The Rock Island Line," "The Muleskinner Blues," and "Silvy." When Leadbelly sang "Midnight Special" and "Boll Weevil," they began to foot-tap to their own surprised delight. Perhaps he was rough and crude, and his guitar-playing was often untutored, but Leadbelly was a man. And his music was full of a joyful singing that was rare among the choked-up megalopolitans.
(Brand 74)
There may have been good moments on the tour, but the overall impression from the Lomax narrative is that the relationship between the two men quickly deteriorated and John remembered why he wanted to leave Huddie in Shreveport in the first place.

"I reminded him that I was trying to help him, that I had made only a few requests of him, and these for his protection in a strange country; that I wanted him to eat good food, to take plenty of rest, not to play and sing for groups of Negroes late at night, and not to drink too much." (Negro 59)

Lomax felt that he had failed, that someone else would have to help Lead Belly. He was "threatened" over a money incident; Lead Belly "had swapped his comfortable black overcoat for a gray and green combination with loud checks;" and he was not one to moderate his drinking habits or stay away from the black sections of the cities they visited (60). Lomax had always considered Lead Belly to be a "natural," a sort of primitive who had no idea of money, law, or ethics, and who was possessed of virtually no self-restraint. ("Lomax Arrives") Eventually the whole sad business affected the poor man's health and he became "deathly sick," while Lead Belly had become sullen, demanding, overbearing and unreliable (see: saturnine); by the end of March, they all agreed to part company (Negro 62). Monday, 25 March, was the last A.R.C. recording date, and Tuesday was the Ledbetters' day of departure from New York. "The last glimpse we catch of this incorrigible wastrel and his woman, is to see them depart, in a Greyhound bus, for their beloved and more congenial Shreveport" (Engel 388).

This last sentence is taken from a scholarly review of Negro Folk Songs. The review is a harsh condemnation of Ledbetter combined with sympathy and reverence for the work of John Lomax. Possibly that is what Lomax was going for, because it is easy to interpret the book that way. A Time magazine writer in 1976 felt that the "Lomax version shows Leadbelly as both a genius and a dangerously wild creature" ("Cinema" 76). Huddie is said to have been very unhappy about Lomax's book, feeling that he was completely misunderstood by the author. According to Arnold S. Caplan, Ledbetter managed to stop distribution of the book and later wrote, "Lomax did not write nothing like I told him."

Chapter 6: (1930-35) I'm Sorry, Mama

This chapter covers the period January 1930 to the summer of '34. The title refers to the fact that Huddie's mother died, perhaps of a "broken heart," only a few weeks after Huddie was locked up at the Louisiana state penitentiary, Angola.

Irene: He got sent to prison in Mooringsport and then my grandmother came to live with us — my husband and me. She lived with him until he got into trouble. She was living with him in Oil City and we were living here in Marshall on Alvin Street. So, she came and lived with me until her foster daughter, Australia Carr — she never carried "Ledbetter," (never called herself Ledbetter) she would always keep her family name, "Carr" — she finally came and got her from my house. Grandmother went to live with Australia until she passed. Australia was living in Dallas but she moved to Marshall and took care of my grandmother until she died. And after that, she went back to Dallas.

Irene's father had died in 1929. Alonzo Batts had earned a dual living as a preacher and a barber — he preached and he worked in a barber shop in Marshall. He was a relatively young man — in his early fifties — when he died of a kidney condition. The elder son of Sallie Ledbetter, his death was a blow to her. But when her younger son was convicted of assault to murder a few months later, it was too much for the old lady. She was grief-stricken. She and Huddie had always been close; there was an almost mystical attachment that overcame the superficial differences on religious matters. She would certainly have preferred Huddie to be the preacher and Alonzo the entertainer, but these last few years had found Huddie settling in to a routine — his day job at Gulf; Saturday nights at the country suppers; and lots of family visiting. But now, arrest and conviction on a trumped-up charge that would put him away for perhaps ten years. Sallie Ledbetter passed away early in 1930 and Huddie, impotent in prison, was guilt-ridden.

Lynching.


He was lucky not to be lynched by the white citizens of Mooringsport who had been so offended by him. According to the Times of Shreveport, it was only the prompt response of Sheriff Tom Hughes' office to a call for immediate assistance that saved Ledbetter from mob violence at the hands of a "band of men" who stormed the Mooringsport jail that Wednesday night. The mob was held at bay by officers Stewart and Arnold until Bert Stone and A.C. Collins, deputy sheriffs, drove up from Shreveport. ("Deputies Rescue")

The Shreveport Journal reported that "there was some talk of violence against the negro" ("Charge Negro") Lynchings were still a common occurrence well into the 1930's. In the fall of 1930, a federal commission was appointed to investigate lynchings and a year later, a report was issued: "Lynchings and What They Mean — The Report of the Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching."

95% of all lynchings during the previous five years had been in Southern states, and 90% were mob murders of negroes. In the states with a dense negro population, the rate was least in the old black belt counties; the negro was found to be in most danger in sparsely settled areas and in newly-developed territories.

In half of the cases there was real doubt as to the guilt of the victims, and there was a direct relationship between lack of education, low economic status, and lynching. Of the twenty-one persons lynched in 1930, for instance, only one had gone beyond fifth grade, and eleven were considered illiterate. As for the lynchers, indictments were returned in only six of the twenty-one cases, and only four of the forty-nine persons indicted had been convicted of a crime as of November, 1931. In other words, blacks were being lynched by whites, who were being protected by the legal system in the South.

None of this was surprising, though an interesting statistic involved the amount of money spent on the "separate but equal" education system. In a group of Southern states where blacks made up 40% of the population between the ages of six and thirteen, they received only 10% of the total education dollars. Statististics like this eventually helped to end segregation in the public schools.

In February, 1933, a black man named Nelson Nash was lynched near Ringgold, in northwest Louisiana's Bienville parish. Mrs. J. P. Batchelor reported to Sherriff Henderson Jordan that her husband had been murdered in a wooded area near their home. The couple, she said, was roused by an intruder in the middle of the night. When the intruder, who she later identified as the lynch victim, tried to attack her, J. P. came to her aid and was beaten to death as a result. The Sheriff assembled a posse of five hundred locals who rounded up Nash, strung him up by the neck, and fired fifty bullets into his slumping form. There was no further investigation into the case.

Music Recording.


Between 1910 and 1933, impressive advances had been made both in the technical development of recording equipment, and in the reception given to folk song collection (J. Lomax, "Field" 58). To a certain extent, both advances were due to the success of the commercial recording industry, which had sent those field recording teams all over the United States during the 1920's and had mined a rich musical vein among the hillbillies and bluesmen of the South. By the early 1930's, however, radio was infringing on the territory of the record companies by unearthing and showcasing local talent. At the same time, the Depression was causing cutbacks in recording activities. Field recording survived in the hands of regional radio stations (such as KWKH in Shreveport), scholars, and folk song collectors.

John Lomax had first recorded folk songs on his fifty-pound Edison phonograph between the years 1907 and 1910, traveling through Texas and other western States. He added these field recordings to the songs he "had collected in his memory during a boyhood on the Old Chisolm Trail south of Fort Worth during the heyday of the American cowboy, and published a book of "Cowboy Songs" in 1910.

By 1933 Lomax had acquired, through his association with the Library of Congress, five hundred pounds of state of the art equipment: a one hundred pound amplifier; a one hundred pound turntable; two seventy-five pound batteries; and microphones, tools, and cables. Recordings were made on 8- or 12-inch aluminum discs; although acetate discs, which used steel needles and registered a wider frequency range, were used by the professional companies, Lomax preferred the aluminum discs, which used wooden (!) needles which had to be sharpened frequently. For his purposes, the latter were less fragile, yet gave a dependable record of the music (J. Lomax, "Field" 59).

In June, 1933, John, now 66 years old, and his son Alan, 17 years old and a college junior, packed this equipment, and their camping gear into the back of their Ford and set out from Dallas on a three-month quest that took them through five states. The main object of the journey was to record, for deposit in the Library of Congress, the folk songs of the Negro; songs that "in musical phrasing and in poetic content, are most unlike that of the white race, the least contaminated by white influence or by jazz." (J. Lomax, Hunter 112). John Lomax felt that in the remote logging camps, plantations, and penitentiaries of the Deep South they were most likely to find blacks who were living in a world out of touch with contemporary popular culture, where traditional songs would have been passed on through the generations in a pure state.

Portable recording machines are necessary for a folk song collector who wishes to secure music in its native habitat, where there is least likelihood of the inclusion of jazz influences, and where the singers feel at ease in their own homes or amid scenes familiar to them for a lifetime. Unless the collecting work can be quickly done, it is my opinion that the influence of good roads and the radio combined will very soon put an end both to the creation and to the artless singing of American folk songs. (J. Lomax, "Field" 60)

He clearly felt that time was running out. Contamination was imminent.

A folksinging Alan Lomax, probably in the 1940's.

On July 21, 1933, John Lomax wrote from New Orleans to the "folks back home" that he and Alan had spent four hard days at the Angola Prison Farm, eighty miles north of Baton Rouge, where they found that the prisoners were not allowed to sing as they worked. This was a great disappointment since the Lomaxes were hoping to find work songs and field "hollers" dating to earlier times; but they had met one man who almost made up for the deficiency. "Lead Belly," wrote Alan Lomax, "was some consolation."
"I is de king of de twelve-string-guitar players of de worl'. When I was in Dallas, walkin' de streets an' makin' my livin' wid dis box o' mine, de songsters was makin' up dat song 'bout Ella Speed. Bill Martin had jes' shot her down an' lef' her lyin' in her blood up near de ole T.P. station. An' dis is de way dey would sing:

Bill Martin he was long an' slender,
Better known by bein' a bartender.

Ella Speed was downtown a-havin' her lovin' fun,
'Long come Bill Martin, wid his Colt forty-one.
("Sinful" 126)

John Lomax was so impressed with Ledbetter's vast store of folk songs that he checked the prison records in Baton Rouge to see if he could get him out on parole. He was "so skillful with his guitar and his strong baritone voice that he had been made a 'trusty' and kept around Camp 'A' headquarters as a laundryman so as to be near at hand to sing and play for visitors." (Adventures)
Ledbetter not only sang the kind of songs the Lomaxes were looking for, he also sketched in the origins of the songs, and gave long, elaborate narrations to go with them. In the earliy years of the 21th century, we might call it "rapping." He seemed to be a walking folksong encyclopedia, complete with descriptive footnotes.
Lomax has a habit of calling prison inmates by nicknames. Two oft-mentioned characters in the “Adventures of a Ballad Hunter,” for instance, are Clear Rock and Iron Head; in Jackson, Mississippi, he jotted down several nicknames of convicts: Rat, Tight Eye, Log Wagon, Goat Face and many more (Hunter 124). No doubt these are the names that were given to him, or understood by him; it would be easy to interpret "Ledbetter" as "Lead Belly," given the regional pronounciation, and it certainly caught on as a name for Huddie. It is part of the Ledbetter legend that the name had meanings to do with strength or sexuality, but it may be that Lomax simply misheard it and and found it suitably colorful. He always wrote it as two words, though later on it was often contracted: Leadbelly.

Huddie had sold John Lomax a line of talk during this first visit to Angola. He told Lomax that he was in jail because he had drunk too much corn whisky and gin (that part was probably true), but he denied having any prior convictions or being guilty of misconduct while at Angola. Prison records at Baton Rouge revealed Ledbetter's thirty-year Texas prison sentence as well as two whippings in Angola: ten lashes for laziness in 1931 and fifteen lashes for impudence in 1932 (Ramsey, "Leadbelly" 16). He was thus not eligible for parole, and Lomax frankly worried about the mental picture of himself and his teenage son (Alan) asleep in the swamps with "this particular black man on his cot near by" (J. Lomax, Negro 45).
During the week following the Angola experience, John Lomax came down with a case of malaria in New Orleans, and Alan carried on the song collecting activities alone. They had little success in collecting secular folk songs, which they dubbed "sinful" songs, from blacks in the South before they arrived at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana that summer.
"We had found the educated Negro resentful of our attempt to collect his secular folk music. We had found older Negroes afraid for religious reasons to sing for us, while the members of the younger generation were on the whole ignorant of the songs we wanted and interested only in Blues and in jazz." (A. Lomax, "Sinful" 105)
According to Alan Lomax, the Negro churches placed a stricter ban on the singing of non-sacred music than they did on theft. One night in New Orleans, Alan got two policemen to accompany him to some black bars in the hope that this would help him gather music. He had no luck that night but the next day he met a customer from the night before who explained that having cops with him had caused everyone to clam up. "I didn' know how to trus' you," said the man, who had been arrested once before and sent to the penitentiary when he had not been guilty of any offense ("Sinful" 117). It seems very naive of Alan, in retrospect, to expect cooperation from barroom customers under such circumstances; but he was only seventeen and doing his best to help his Dad. When they worked the penitentiaries, of course, the Lomaxes were dealing with people who were already in jail and could perceive some benefit in being co-operative.
Later, Alan also came down with malaria, though he kept on working through a visit to Parchman Farm, part of the Mississippi prison system. Anyone who has spent a summer in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Texas will attest to the difficulties presented by the heat and humidity; the Lomaxes' task cannot have been an entirely pleasant one. Nights spent on camping cots in the open air wouldn't offer much respite from an unrelenting climate. No doubt it was hellish for the prisoners who spent long hours chained together in the cotton rows.
After their summer of collecting, the Lomaxes took up residence in Washington, D.C., for a few weeks and put together a volume entitled"American Ballads and Folk Songs" in which Lead Belly was first introduced to the public as the self-proclaimed "King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World." Several of Huddie's songs, including "Bill Martin and Ella Speed," "Julie Ann Johnson," and "When I Was a Cowboy," were in the book, which came out a year later, in October, 1934, just three months before Lead Belly was introduced to the media in New York to help promote the book.
The book includes songs from lots of sources, not just from that summer's field trip. John Lomax, as has been noted, had been collecting American folk songs since he was a youth, and since his previous book of
"Cowboy Songs," many other collections had been had published. The Lomaxes drew heavily on the work of others and this helped to make "American Ballads" a definitive work. But they were particularly entranced
by the songs of African-Americans, who had "created the most distinctive of folk songs - the most interesting, the most appealing, and the greatest in quantity. . . ."
The Lomaxes delivered the manuscript to their publisher (MacMillan) and by the end of December,1933, were attending the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in St.Louis. John addressed the Popular Literature section on the subject of Negro folk songs and was approached by a representative from the Rockefeller Foundation who was eager to provide some form of financial assistance. Lomax asked for a small amount of money, which he got, so that he could build a special frame to hold the recording machinery in the back of his car. He was preparing for another field trip during the summer of 1934.
The second field trip would result in a second book, this one devoted entirely to the songs, and the life, of Huddie Ledbetter. Huddie's cowboy song provides an ample warning to his potential biographers not to take his own words too seriously as fact. In the song, "When I Was a Cowboy," he presents the following biographical data:
He made a million dollars as a cowboy on the Western plains; the hardest battle he ever fought was at Bunker Hill, when he and a bunch of other cowboys ran into Buffalo Bill; and, when he and a bunch of cowboys ran into Jesse James, also the "hardest battle" he ever fought, the bullets fell like a shower of rain. John Lomax, of course, didn't take it seriously as biography; he called Huddie's adventures in the West "purely imaginary."

Bonnie & Clyde
In the spring of 1934, while Huddie was languishing in Angola, the stuff of legends, folksongs, and Hollywood movies was being played out in northwest Louisiana. It was Jesse James all over again: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, (Bonnie and Clyde on Right) a couple of gun-toting outlaws from Dallas had been robbing banks and staging shootouts with law officers for a couple of years by the time they were tracked down to the Majestic Cafe on Milam Street in downtown Shreveport. Jack Brown delivered milk to the Majestic from the Nelson Dairies in Stonewall, south of the city. He also delivered to the Inn Hotel two blocks up the street where two Texas lawmen on the trail of the marauding couple were staying.

Jack Brown: I didn't find out til a couple of days later when they was gunned down, but Bonnie and Clyde was waiting outside the Cafe while I was carrying in the milk cans. I must have been standing as close as I am to you. Suddenly, they revved up that engine and they was gone and I remember thinking that was strange, but that's all I thought. Seems they'd seen these police go by and they just wasn't going to wait around for a sack of sandwiches — I guess they figured they'd take their chances starving to death rather than catch a few bullets.

Jack Brown's story essentially matches that of the lawman who wrote of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. One of the Barrow gang came from rural Bienville parish, where Henderson Jordan was still the sheriff, and there they found relative safety. They never robbed or killed in the area, so none of the neighbors was inclined to turn them in. Bonnie and Clyde, together with their Bienville parish confederate, were on their way from Texas to the safe house when they stopped in Shreveport to get some take-out food. The couple waited in the car on Milam street while the third member of the party went in for sandwiches. But when they saw a police car cruise by, the couple lost their nerve and whizzed out of town, planning to meet up at the Bienville hideout. The pursuers got together with Sheriff Jordan and set up an ambush on a lonely country road about forty miles east of Shreveport. On 23 May, 1934, the bullet-riddled bodies of Bonnie and Clyde were laid out in Arcadia by Ed Conger at his funeral parlor next to the furniture store where Victor Records' Ralph Peer had auditioned the Grigg family six years previously.
Lawmen framed in the driver's window of the bullet-riddled car.
Word of the killing of Bonnie and Clyde spread quickly and thousands of curious folks from all over the region descended on the little town, perhaps hoping for a souvenir or a glimpse of the corpses. For Arcadia it was the biggest news event ever in the town’s history.

February 17, 2008

Chapter 5: Leadbelly's Backwater Blues (1925-30)

Queenie Davidson, Huddie’s cousin who was about 100 years old at the time, is being interviewed at her house on the Ledbetter home place. Her daughter Mary, a youthful 70, is with her. Marsha talked to Queenie and Mary because Queenie was reluctant to talk to me. Didn't trust men? I had to wait outside.

Queenie: (Huddie) was in prison when his daddy died, but he played guitar and sung his way out of that one. It was way out yonder somewhere, I don't know wherever it was now, but the governor — what was the governor's name?

Mary: Governor Neff. He sung his best song, and I mean he was really picking that guitar. That's the best song I heard him play. I mean it. And he sung,

"Governor Neff, if I had you like you got me,
I'd wake up in the morning and set you free."

He really was picking that guitar, I'm telling you. He wanted to get out, and he did!


Queenie at 100.
Huddie was released from the Texas prison system after serving seven years of his thirty-year sentence. (Or thirty-five year sentence, according to the pardon proclamation.)
Queenie at home

He was granted a full pardon, "restoring him to full citizenship, giving him the full right to testify in any and all courts, and the full right of suffrage." What an entertainer!


Preston Brown, (of the next-door-neighbor Browns), sixty-five years after the fact, was still amazed and fascinated by the whole story:
Preston: I heard him sing that song. After he come back. (From Jail in Houston) Sitting as close to him as I is to you! He was here for a while after he got out of the can, you know. He went to the penitentiary and he played himself out of the penitentiary. Just singing and playing. He was playing, and when he got up to the governor, the governor started (to turn) away. He seen he were fixing to leave and he got there and he told Governor Neff —‘you hear talk of Governor Neff? That was the governor's name - when he saw him, he said,
"Governor Neff been here and gone,
Left me here singing this same old song."
Then he told the governor,
"If I got you like you got me, I'd get up in the morning and I'd set you free."

Talking with Preston Brown at his home, which is next to Huddie's home place.

“The governor come back and turn him loose.”


It seems that everyone who knew Huddie, his friends, neighbors, and family, are fascinated by the pardon story, and everyone has an individual variation on the theme.

Upon his release, Huddie said he went to Houston to meet up with a woman named Mary, whom he had met while in prison. According to the Lomax's chronology in the Negro Folk Song book, Huddie stayed in Houston until 1926, working for a Buick automobile agency.
The only Buick dealer in Houston in 1926 was the Brazos Valley Buick Company, 1315-21 McKinney. Mr. A. D. Sory was the president of this company and not only has the company been out of business for a long number of years, but Mr.Sory has long since passed away.
(Letter from the Houston Chamber of Commerce, 1964.)
McKinney is in downtown Houston, now the site of modern skyscrapers.

While Huddie was in Houston, he said, he went to theaters and saw such currently popular blues singers as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Soon he was playing in local barrelhouses and performing in vaudeville (Russell interview). When he returned home to the Caddo Lake region, he got a job with the Gulf Refining Company and a house in Oil City, Louisiana.
The picture of these next few years (1925 to 1930) that emerges from friends and relations of Huddie is quite different from the one painted by John Lomax. The two pages Lomax devotes to Lead Belly  tell the stories of three violent incidents.
The first occurred at Oil City, about 20 miles north of Shreveport, where Huddie was playing a dance. A man came up behind him while he was playing "Mr.Tom Hughes' Town" and "stuck his knife in my neck an' was pullin' it aroun' my throat jes' tryin' to cut my head off."
This is one of about three stories Huddie tells to account for the "smile-shaped scar" referred to in the Shreveport Journal of 1988. After having his throat slit, Huddie walked down to the police station "bleedin' like a stuck hawg" and was told to go home and not play in Oil City any more (Negro 22). Oil City is just across Caddo Lake from Mooringsport. The oil boom of 1910 had spawned a red-light district that came close to rivaling Shreveport's; though much smaller, it was, perhaps, much rougher. "You could get killed real easy in Oil City." (Stuck 64).

Pinky Williams paints a much more placid picture of the Oil City years. A widow, Pinky is one of cousin Edmon Ledbetter's daughters, and as such refers to Huddie as her uncle. Technically, he is her second cousin, but since Huddie and Edmon were like brothers, the technicalities hardly matter. Pinky recalls Uncle Huddie coming to pick her and her grandmother up in his car, and taking them to his house in Oil City for weekends. He lived there with his mother and, for a time, with a woman named Era Washington. Pinky's grandparents were Bob and Ada Ledbetter. She thinks Huddie's job was "general laborer," working on the grounds of the Gulf Refining Company. Others have said he was a driver. Pinky also remembers him visiting her family home, playing guitar, and chatting with her father.
“We lived near the Shiloh Church and Huddie used to come out there. He was first living in Mooringsport; then he left Mooringsport and went to Oil City. He lived in Oil City a long time, and he used to come to our house and they'd get out in the yard. He'd play the guitar and sing. I can remember ‘Irene Goodnight,’ ‘If I had you like you had me, I'd unlock the jail door, set you free,’ and ‘Take me back to Mary.’ I can't remember any more. I did know lots more when I was young cause I used to could sing them. But since I got up in age I just forgot them, you know. That's another one he used to sing - ‘Mama, mama, look at Sal, eating all the meat soppin out of the pan.’ I remember that one.
“He liked to play for kids. He used to play funny little songs, kids songs. He used to love to play for us, and we'd sit out and listen cause it wasn't then like it is now. The grownup would dance, but the kids would stand back and look.”

Pinky has lived in Shreveport since 1941. She moved into town with her husband Sam Williams because times had gotten kind of tight in the country. Sam got work with the railroad and later opened his own auto body shop. Pinky in her seventies, looked much younger, and she looked very much like a Ledbetter. She lived next door to her sister and still maintained a membership in Shiloh Baptist Church, out in the country. She started singing in the Shiloh choir at the age of seven and she still sang there at the time of this interview. Her father is buried in the churchyard near to her Uncle Huddie.

Edmon Ledbetter's grave at Shikoh.
Pinky said, “We were living back of Shiloh Church. That's where I was born, in 1917. And when I got around fifteen years old, we moved to Longwood and that's where my father was living when he passed. The roads are the same now, but where we moved from has grown up, there's nothing but woods back there. Used to be cotton fields. I don't think I could even find where we used to live.”

On Saturday nights during the "Roaring Twenties," Huddie played music, but not at dance halls or public juke joints. He played house parties in the Caddo Lake area. In fact, they weren't even called "house parties" at the time; they were called "suppers." He played at Edmon's house, Blanche's house, and at Uncle Bob Ledbetter's house. Also at the houses of friends and neighbors.

Liz Choyce

“He was the one they used to follow. Mister Huddie. He buried up there to Shiloh. That's my membership. My mother buried not too far on the other side.” (Liz Choyce)

Liz and Leonard Choyce live in Mooringsport. Leonard is retired now, but he used to work for Frank Jeter, managing the Jeter place where Huddie was born. He has had a case of hiccoughs for several years, and he is somewhat incapacitated by it. Liz is active — she takes care of the house and garden. She decorates her outdoor cactus plants with brightly colored sections of egg crates, making them look like flowering plants from a pychedelic fairyland. Leonard was brought up on the Jeter place, and Liz on the Currie place, which was just down the road.

Leonard: "People, when they heard tell (Huddie) was playing somewhere, they would always go. He'd have a crowd. Have a big crowd. Awful good music player. When you say you're going to have a dance there, you're going to have Ledbetter, they'd say 'who?', and you'd say, 'Huddie,' boy, you'd hear them say they 'We're going!'  Mr. Huddie? — yes, I knowed him good.

"I couldn't tell you how many times I heard him play — I heard him so many times. We never did have him to the Jeter place. He was round in the neighborhood, all around from Shiloh on and in Texas. He was down to my Uncle Ben's; Uncle Ben gave a party and he played. He'd go to different places, and he'd be playing by himself. I remember some of his songs — 'Goodnight, Irene.' And there was another one, I can't think of it. I used to could think of a lot of them.

"He used to be in the penitentiary, so they said he played his way out of prison. That song was — his Captain was Governor Neff — and he sung it to Captain Neff. Singing this song about,

Woke up this morning,
had Governor Neff like he got me,
I'd wake up in the morning,
and I'd set him free.

"And they say he kept playing that, and they say he did sing his way out of prison."

Liz: "There was another song he used to sing. Leonard's brother what died used to sing too, about 'Becky Dean, she was a gambling gal.' His brother could sing it. That was one of Mister Huddie's songs. What was it? Win all the money, something, and the skinner lay . . . and the skinners laid it down. He tickled me. Singing. He could really play, though, I used to love to hear."

When Huddie played a house party, that was the place to be. He had a devoted following; was the most popular musician in his community. He did not play taverns, saloons or public dance halls; just as he had before his seven years in prison, Huddie played at private houses. This is not to deny the possibility of violent incidents at these affairs. But it was the violence which grows out of long-standing feuds and grudges, not the random, impersonal violence of strangers.

Liz: "He told me, one time — I was a big girl then at the party — he called me to him, and my Uncle Ben told him that I was his brother's daughter, and he called me and he talked — he always talked soft talk, you know, — he tell me, he said,
'Listen, baby, listen here to Mister Ledbetter, if I had've been there, the day your daddy was killed,' he said, 'I'd've saved your daddy.' That's what he told me. He know my daddy well. He know my daddy, my daddy used to go all around up in Texas fore they moved from up there. He remembered."

A man with a guitar was always welcome at a party in those pre-jukebox days. He would be welcomed into stores, houses and even cars, plied with food and drink, tipped and applauded. It was easy to move from town to town, and many musicians traveled between New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas searching for the elusive recording session with Paramount, Okeh or Victor.

There is no indication that Huddie pursued a musical career in this way during this Golden Age of blues recording, though he must have been aware of the possibilities. He played his music at house parties and worked at his day job; he may have felt himself too old — he was in his late thirties — to pursue a full-time musical career. Or he may have been contented to be living in his home stomping ground, amongst relatives and old friends. Perhaps he'd had enough rambling and trouble for one lifetime.
Obviously, he spent some time in Shreveport during these years, because he recalled hearing a piano player named Dave Alexander (Russell 12. Also see article “Lead Belly and Baby Face” in this blog archive.) Alexander was very popular on the local scene during the late 1920's and spent some time on the parish farm (jail) himself. "Some for things he did and some for things he didn't did," says a contemporary. Alexander eventually left Louisiana because he was tired of the continual racial hassles.

By the mid-1920's there was a non-stop rail service between Oil City and Shreveport, a trip which took less than a half hour. Huddie also had his own car, so it was easy for him to drive to the city. He met his future wife Martha Promise during these years. Actually, he had known her when she was a young girl growing up in the Shiloh-Longwood community near Mooringsport. Martha had moved into the city and was sharing a house in the Bottoms with her twin sister, Mary. Martha worked for the Excelsior Laundry next to the brand new (1925) Strand Theater on Cotton Street, and Mary worked as a cook for a family in the posh Highland residential district. Martha was also a soprano in the Silver Leaf Jubilee Choir.
Many country folk were moving to the cities in search of higher pay and release from the relentless labor of the small farms. They often found that work as maids or day laborers was just as relentless in the cities, but by that time it was too late to return. Meanwhile, country life in the 1920's and '30's was much the same as it had been at the turn of the century.
Pinkie Ledbetter recalled: “We worked in the fields until I got grown. Go to school some days, and some days I had to stop and work in the field. Cut bushes, sprouts; thin corn, chop cotton, pick cotton, pull corn, pull peanuts. all of that. Dig potatoes in the fall of the year. My daddy did most of the planting; but when they came up, we had to get the hoe.
“We had mules. I didn't do any ploughing, though. My daddy would do all the ploughing; we would do all the chopping. Chopping cotton, picking cotton, pulling corn . . . which my kids don't know anything about. I was raised up on the farm.
“My mother used to do a lot of laundry. We had rubboards, tubs; we had to carry the water to wash with. My daddy would cut the wood to heat that smoothing iron to iron clothes with and we would have four or five families of clothes. We'd work in the fields and then wash those four and five family clothes, and my mother and dad would take them to Mooringsport on Saturdays. I didn't come up on a feather bed.
“You had to heat the smoothing irons by the fire. My daddy cut the wood, set the irons to the fireplace, and we heated irons like that. My grandaddy used to make those rubboards out of wire and wood. We had the rubboards and we had the big Number 3 tubs to wash the clothes. Had a big black pot. We boiled those clothes in that pot and washed them. Then we'd rinse them in two waters and hang them on the line to dry. Then we'd get those smoothing irons and iron them.

"We really had to work hard when we were coming up. We had to. We didn't know nothing else to do.” (Pinky)

On the Louisiana side of the line, the school year was much shorter for the black children in the country. Many people talk of spending three months or less in the classroom. But in Texas, school began in the fall and broke up for the summer in May.
Huddie played at school closings, the year end celebrations in the region's black schools. Mary Jenkins remembers him for his tap-dancing — playing and tap-dancing at the same time — and for accompanying the marches and dances at the graduation ceremonies.
Mary Brown, Preston’s wife: “We had songs and little plays, we called them "dialogues" — like these soap operas on TV, that's what they was. We practised marching every Friday, and on The Day, we marched. 1,2,3,4, and we'd have a hoop under our skirt, and we'd get the hoop to swing thisaway and thataway. . . we had lots of fun! In the daytime we had a dinner. There'd be a big turnout with all the schools meeting together, feeding kids from the little tots to the seventh grade. When you got to seventh grade, you couldn't go to school out here in the country, you had to go to Marshall . . . and then, that night! That's when we'd show off. (Laughs) Everyone have a beautiful dress with big bows back on our hats, long dresses and hoop skirts.” (Mary Brown)

Huddie's cousin Queenie, also remembers Huddie at her daughter Mary's school closing:
“At the school closing, my cousin named Irene Batts had done got Bo Pete to play guitar. She couldn't catch up with Huddie. My sister Mattie was making Mary's dress for the school closing, so the man drove up who she had done got to pick. He was sitting on the front seat there, and my sister come up bringing the dress, and Huddie come up with her. Huddie come in there walking with his guitar on his shoulder, and Bo Pete eased on out of doors and he didn't come back in there. He left, and didn't show up back in there no more, 'cause Huddie could play a guitar! “(Queenie)

“Nobody fooled with no guitar when he was around. I knowed two who used to play a little bit, but they couldn't play with him, you know. You had Manse Powell, he used to play guitar; Frank Gill used to play the guitar; and some others, but all of them was scared to play with him. They was scared because he beat em so bad, you know. If you was just learning to play, you wouldn't want to put yourself up there, and put yourself against the crowd, he'd just tear you all to pieces. You wouldn't do that; you do your cutting up when he's gone.” (Preston Brown)


The latter part of the 1920's was a boom time for the recording industry. The genre which has been variously known as black, soul, or rhythm-and-blues by the record companies, was then called "race." The early part of the decade was ruled by women blues singers who followed in the footsteps of Mamie Smith — Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith, (photo) the most popular of all. These "Queens of the Blues," the Divas of the day, were generally accompanied by small jazz combos, pianists or guitarists. Bessie was obviously a favorite of Huddie's. He learned her "Backwater Blues" from listening to the record and incorporated it into his repertoire. He even used the woman's point of view when he sang the song, which was about the catastrophic floods of 1927.


In June, 1927, David Sarnoff linked together fifty radio stations to form the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to broadcast, LIVE, the homecoming of Charles Lindbergh from his solo transatlantic airplane flight. Two weeks before Lindberg's achievement, the French fliers, Charles Nungesser and Francis Coli, had attempted the Atlantic crossing from Paris to New York, but their "White Bird" was last seen over the Normandie town of Etretat as it passed over to La Manche — the English Channel. In 1989, NBC broadcast an investigation of the Nungesser and Coli disappearance on its program, "Unsolved Mysteries."

The latter part of the decade saw the rise of solo bluesmen who accompanied themselves, generally on guitar, and the prototypical bluesman of the era was Blind Lemon Jefferson. His brief but successful career began in 1926 when J. Mayo Williams, an African-American who was in charge of the Paramount label's Race recording operations, brought him to Chicago to cut records. Many followed in his footsteps — Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Ramblin Thomas, Lonnie Johnson and Texas Alexander. The photo shows Blind Willie McTell in an Atlanta, Georgia hotel room. The photo is taken by Ruby Lomax, John Lomax's wife, as he records the blues singer for the Library of Congress in 1940. Blind Willie, like Leadbelly, played a twelve-string guitar. He had begun his commercial recording career in 1927.
The record companies sent out scouts and portable studios to those parts of the South which yielded the best crop of bluesmen. Ralph Peer was Victor's traveling producer: he first hit paydirt with country singers Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family when he called for musicians in Bristol, Tennessee, in the summer of 1927. Over the next three years Peer arranged sessions on a regular basis in Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, and New Orleans. There he discovered a wide variety of blues entertainers including Blind Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, Sleepy John Estes, Tommy Johnson and Yank Rachel.
Guitarist Jesse Thomas of Logansport, Louisiana, spent some time hitch-hiking between Dallas, San Antonio and Houston in search of the elusive recording session, but he eventually got one with Ralph Peer in the summer of 1929 at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas. Jesse recorded four "sides" by himself, and also worked as a sideman with Bessie Tucker and her pianist, K.D. Johnson.

The experience of the Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers reveals the way the system worked. The Melody Makers were basically the Grigg family band from rural Bienville Parish, augmented by a lawyer named Foster Taylor from the town of Arcadia. Taylor played the fiddle and enjoyed the music of the Griggs — a father, two sons, and three daughters. The owner of the local furniture store-cum-funeral parlor in Arcadia was Ed Conger, a friend of Taylor's who often listened to the group during practice sessions. Conger liked music, but he also sold Victrolas and the 78 r.p.m. records that played on them, so he had a business stake in keeping the product attractive. He was familiar with Ralph Peer through his dealings with Victor, so he telephoned him in Dallas and asked him to stop in Arcadia to audition the local band. Peer agreed.
The musicians set up their instruments in the furniture store and were ready and waiting when Peer's train arrived at the little station on its eastward run from Dallas. Ed Conger brought Peer across the street to his store where the record man alternately sat listening and paced the floor as the group ran through a few numbers. At length Peer asked, "Can you folks come and meet me in Memphis in September?"
"This was music to our ears," said Ausie Grigg, the eldest son who played the big bass fiddle. Eight of them traveled from Bienville parish to Memphis where they stayed at the Peabody Hotel, where the ducks walk daily into the lobby. Foster Taylor's nephew Clavie brought his Chevrolet and Foster drove his Model T Ford. Robert Grigg was a breakdown fiddler and he brought along his two sons, Ausie and Crockett, and three of his musical daughters, Ione, Johnnie Maude and Lorene.
“I was seventeen, then. It was a wonderful trip, but it was dusty! We had no air-conditioning in the car and we like to burned up all the way and when we got there that night at the hotel, I'd looked at Ione, I'd look at Ausie and Crockett, and my daddy, and they had circles around their eyes. I got so tickled I couldn't stand it. It was all that dirt, you know, traveling. And we was sweating. We just looked like monsters!”(Lorene)
“We went to a makeshift studio on the second floor of the City Hall in Memphis,” said Ausie. “In this room they had big, thick curtains hung all around about two feet from the wall. There were no cooling systems. They had electric fans, but they couldn't use those fans when we were recording. So they'd pull those curtains over the windows. It was as hot as it could be! There was a red light over in the corner and this engineer came in and he talked to us and said, ‘When that red light comes on, just be quiet. When that green light comes on, start playing. Let it be over two minutes but not more than three.’ And we played.
“He came back in and said, ‘I want you to see how it sounds,’ but he told me before he went out, ‘Don't put the bass in there.’ I thought, my goodness, am I not going to get to play? He saw that I was confused about it and he said, ‘This test is cut on wax, and the vibrations from that bass violin will shatter that wax. So we can't take it on the test.’ So he played it back and the rest of it sounded pretty good. I didn't know what I was doing on the bass, though, so he said, ‘I'll show you what I'm talking about.’ He went back, set up again and said, ‘Play your bass violin,’ and I did, and played it back for us. Oh! The screeching and scratching and going on you had never heard. It sounded like cats and dogs.” (Ausie)
The first sessions of the Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers were released in the fall of 1928 and sold remarkably well, especially in northwest Louisiana. Conger's store in Arcadia sold out of "Big Ball Uptown" several times, so another session was arranged for the following year. In the interim, most of the Grigg family gave up on musical careers. Ausie returned to Memphis with Foster Taylor and a couple of friends who played guitar and mandolin, but without the Grigg family, the Melody Makers were not as interesting or accomplished. By the fall of 1929, however, the studio technicians had learned how to record the bass on tests.

While all this recording activity was going on, Huddie Ledbetter was the most popular musician in his community; he was familiar with Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, and Dave Alexander — musicians who did make records; and he could have driven to Dallas to audition for one of the traveling producers. All he needed was the burning desire to do so. But he was approaching the age of forty; he had his mother to take care of; he had a regular job at Gulf; and he lived in a community that loved and appreciated his talent. Perhaps he was contented with his life.
All that was to change as the new decade began. The second violent incident referred to by John Lomax is dealt with so off-handedly that it is difficult to know what to make of it. Huddie claims he shot someone in self defense and successfully pled not guilty in court, but the police records in Louisiana mention only one criminal case involving Huddie Ledbetter, and that stemmed from an incident that took place on Wednesday, 14 January 1930. The story Huddie told to Lomax, the one which has generally been accepted and retold in accounts of his life such as the fictional “Midnight Special,” involved a run-in with a "gang o' niggers" as he was coming home from work that day, carrying his lunch bucket:

“Lord God, I was cutting niggers fast the next while! Pretty soon they was six of them running down the street with blood just gushing out. The police ran up and caught me by the arm and got me down to the calaboose. Next day Sheriff Tom Hughes carried me down to the Shreveport jail and kept me there till I come to be tried. “(Negro 24)

Time magazine reported that he had been "convicted of stabbing six negroes in a fight over a can of whiskey" ("Lead Belly," 77). Frederick Ramsey, Jr., who knew Ledbetter in the late '40's and recorded a highly praised series of records in his New York apartment (Leadbelly's Last Sessions), repeated the Lomax version in an oft-reprinted article for the Saturday Review of Literature (60). Ramsey wrote that "he was attacked as he was coming home from work by members of a gang who said he had whiskey in his dinner pail." The gang demanded whiskey; he eventually produced a knife and defended himself.
Many years later, Ramsey was to postulate a theory based on Huddie's "never having challenged a white man," and thus never having challenged the system. "All of his convictions and all of his sentences were for assault, or assault with intent to kill — but never against a white person. He wouldn't have lived to be tried if he had [attacked a white]” (Ramsey, "Leadbelly" 10).

 The fact is that Huddie did challenge a white man and lived;
but apparently he never told the tale to a white person. The graphically lurid tale told by Huddie of the "crime" which led to his imprisonment in Angola, is at odds with contemporary newspaper accounts. These are accounts of a potentially terminal racial incident on the streets of Mooringsport. Cousin Blanche was aware of this incident: it seems that a Salvation Army band was giving a concert from the porch of Croom's store, across from the train depot, and Huddie, hearing the music, got the urge to dance. As he was singing and dancing in the street, "the law" stopped him and demanded to know what he was doing. Said Blanche, "All them folks around was white and Huddie was black; so when the law jumped on him, he sassed them back." (Windham 98).

DEPUTIES RESCUE NEGRO FROM MOB AT MOORINGSPORT

Dick Elliott, 36 years old, is in the Highland sanitarium suffering from severe cuts inflicted by a drank (sic)-crazed negro who attacked him late Wednesday afternoon at his home near Mooringsport where the negro was butchering a hog.
The negro, Huddie Ledbetter, 43 years old, is in the parish jail charged with assault with attempt to murder and only the prompt response of the sheriff's office for help saved the negro from mob violence at the hands of a band of men who stormed the Mooringsport jail Wednesday night. The mob was held at bay by officers Stewart and Arnold until Bert Stone and A. C. Collins, deputy sheriffs arrived. Elliott's condition was said not to be critical by hospital attendants Wednesday night.
A bottle of rubbing alcohol was found on the negro with more than half of its contents gone. Ledbetter incurred a gash on the top of his head during the altercation that took place. It could not be learned what caused the difficulty.

The above is reprinted from the front page of the Times of Shreveport for 15 January, 1930. The Shreveport Journal of 16 January, 1930, also carried a front-page report of the arrest of Ledbetter, though it said nothing of the butchering of hogs:

CHARGE NEGRO WITH STABBING WHITE MAN IN AN ALTERCATION
______
Alleged Drink-Crazed Black Starts Trouble by Dancing During Religious Service
______
The trouble with the negro started when he, while in an alleged intoxicated condition, was disrespectful to a Salvation Army meeting that was in progress on a Mooringsport street. According to reports, Ledbetter insisted upon doing a dance during the service, which aroused a group which included Elliot. In a scuffle which followed, Ledbetter drew a knife and slashed Elliot's arm.

A month later, Huddie Ledbetter, "negro," was convicted of assault with intent to murder one Dick Ellet, which apparently was the white man's real name. The Ellet family owned land near to the Bob Ledbetters, in Louisiana, and Dick Ellet was five or six years younger than Huddie. They had probably known each other all their lives.
According to the Times of 18 February 1930, the testimony showed that Ledbetter had "resented the efforts of white men to prevent him dancing" while the Salvation Army band played, and the resulting scuffle led to Ellet's arm being cut and Ledbetter being jailed. There was testimony to the effect that Huddie was drunk ("Negro Guilty" 9).

Viola Batts, Huddie’s niece: “When I saw him I was in Kilgore. He walked up with Martha one day. That's the first time I saw him after DeKalb, lots of years later. And he said at that time — let's see, how was this — I didn't ever see him, because he landed in Mooringsport and worked for the Gulf, I think, and this is where he got into the second thing.
“He was coming from Angola prison when he came to me in Kilgore. Cause he was with Martha, then. And they only wedded in New York City. He said ‘I'm going to New York. And that's where they're gonna — they want me there, for my music.’ And they left, and that is my first time seeing him since DeKalb.
“Didn't see him that Christmas when he got into trouble, and went to the prison, and we didn't get to see him, and he came back and somehow or other he was in Mooringsport working for the Gulf. But I'm in Arkansas so I didn't see him; that's where we was living at the time. But I'd hear about him - where he was, you know, and then, he told me about this incident and getting into Angola.
“He came from work and a group of people — and this white person — they were trying to sing one of our spirituals. And he got into voice and started getting it right, like it should be, and they were just singing away and that made the man mad, and he walked up and kicked him. You don't do that to Uncle Huddie. That was the end of that —he was out with his knife and started cutting him. And they sent him to Angola.
“That's the only incident he talked about. He'd talk about that — that much. He didn't tell you much. And then in that conversation he said, ‘Most of my problem has been with music and women. For the people that I killed.’ Period. I didn't have a question. My mind was just blank — I didn't ask nothing. That's just the statement that he made. Now he'd never talk about it.
“But Mooringsport was neither women nor. . . he was meddling. Many people don't sing songs the same way, but you don't just butt in. “(Viola)

Viola’s sister, Irene Batts: “I saw him in Oil City in the late 1920's. I was living here in Marshall, going to school, and grandmother — his mother — came to live with him, and, yes, I was there, too, ‘cause she finally came to live with me when he got in trouble again — these people singing the song wrong and he's going to correct it — and he got sent to prison, in Mooringsport, and then my grandmother came to live with us. My husband and me. We were living on Alvin Street. Yes, I do remember. But I just saw him a short while, I didn't live with him.” (Irene)

For some reason, Huddie found it necessary to concoct a mostly fictional account of his "offense," one which deleted all racial overtones. He may have believed he had no chance of success in the white world of the Lomaxes if the real story were told. The Lomaxes could accept him as a "mean nigger" amongst his own race. A different light is shed by a remark of Bessie Love: in her interview with Loree Ousler, Mrs. Love said that she hadn't told many folks what really happened because she was "scared they might come and get her" (5). Perhaps Huddie feared for his family's safety. He told John Lomax that while he was in the Shreveport jail, none of his people came to see him; however, he didn't blame them because they were scared that if they came around to the jailhouse they would get into trouble (Negro 24).
Alan Lomax, John's son, was later to quote a black Louisiana informant, a contemporary of Ledbetter's:
“They were always runnin after the colored folks down there. When they would hear of a colored man doin wrong or practicin anything they didn't like, they'd go around with a crowd and call him out and warn him and tell him what they wanted him to do. Some places they'd go and take a fellow out and whip him. Some places they'd turn him loose. But the thing was they wanted to keep us afraid and keep us down” (A.Lomax, Rainbow 143).

Anna Patterson, born in 1932, is a black woman from Belcher, Louisiana, rich oil and cotton land about seven miles northeast of Mooringsport. She has vivid recollections of white-on-black violence and of the Ku Klux Klan:
“We had about six or eight Klansmen that lived in Belcher. They killed one of the black men here, out here where I live. They carried him, they cut him up, they cut his private out and rammed it down his throat.
“He had gone in the cafe in Belcher the front way. We were supposed to go in the back and they thought he was being smart. That's the kind of thing that they were killing people about. If they wouldn't say "Yassir" and "Nossir" then they thought they were being smart.
"Mr. Ed Cox, Mr. T.D. Conn, and Mr. - whatisname - it's W.H. Green brother and him and his brother Alonzo, there was quite a few of them. Klansmen. Mr. Ed Cox was the sheriff of Belcher. I don't remember [Caddo Parish Sheriff] Tom Hughes. I remember Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns was one of the sheriffs, because the black people couldn't walk the road at night — they would run them off the road. And if they'd catch em, they'd whup em.” (Patterson)

The case, The State of Louisiana versus Huddie Ledbetter (La. state court number 28640), was based on Dick Ellet's testimony and charges. The (all white) jury believed him and Huddie was found guilty. He was sentenced to 6 to 10 years at Angola, the Louisiana state prison north of Baton Rouge. While incarcerated at the sprawling, swampy, penitentiary-farm, Ledbetter bitterly complained of lawyers and the law; in the words of his song, "The Shreveport Jail," to the tune of “Birmingham Jail.”

(speaks) I think about how the lawyer done me. (sings:)
Send for your lawyer
Come down to your cell,
He'll swear he can clear you
In spite of all hell.
(speaks) He gonna get the biggest of your money and come back for some more. (sings:)
Get some of your money,
Come back for the rest.
Tell you to plead guilty,
For he know it is best. (J. Lomax, Negro 230)

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







January 31, 2008

Chapter 4: Gov. Pat Neff (1917-1925)

If you ever go to Shreveport, Louisiana, you'd better walk right
You'd better not quarrel and you'd better not fight
Coz the sheriff will arrest you, and he'll take you down
You can bet your bottom dollar, you're penitentiary bound.
(The Midnight Special)

The case against "Walter Boyd" was a lot more serious than quarrelling or fighting, but the sentiment in the song, a favorite amongst prisoners in the southern penitentiaries, is clear: a black man had better watch his ass or he'll end up on the "farm."
The legend had it that if the headlight of the train — "The Midnight Special" — shone on a prisoner, he would soon be set free. There was no escape for Ledbetter this time: at the beginning of 1918 he embarked upon a thirty-year sentence which would eventually find him on the Imperial prison farm at Sugarland, near Houston.
The effect on his family was dramatic. His father and mother had already given up thirty acres of their land to defend him, fruitlessly, in the 1915 case. Elethe was left alone and realized that her marriage was a lost cause. She headed back home to Terrell, and eventually became a preacher. Cousin Blanche said the last she heard of her, Elethe, was in Kansas City. The two nieces, Viola and Irene, were taken back by their grandparents after their year in DeKalb. Viola had wanted to go to college in Marshall but she now had to give up that dream. In 1919 she got married to an oil field worker and spent the next twenty years in the boom towns of northwest Louisiana and East Texas. The next time she saw Huddie was fifteen years later when she was living in Kilgore, Texas, and he washeading for New York.
"We've had a hectic life. It's all mixed up in little pieces," says Irene, who eventually worked her way through college doing domestic work, and became a school teacher. She saw Huddie again about ten years after DeKalb. Both Irene and Viola spent some time with their uncle in New York during the last year of his life. [1949]

The year 1918 is mainly remembered as the year the Great War ended, with the Armistice on November 11. There was also a major world epidemic of influenza that year. In the United States alone, 548,000 deaths were attributed to the virus.
On 16 January 1919, the Prohibition Era began with ratification of the constitutional amendment by the 36th state, which happened to be Nebraska. Prohibition led to an increase in illegal activities such as moonshining, though many towns and counties in Texas — including Harrison county — had enacted their own "dry" laws long before the Federal government did so. During Huddie's youth, it had been necessary to cross the Louisiana line to buy liquor. For the people of the Caddo Lake region, this was not a long trip. The state line ran through the middle of Morgan's General Store near Leigh, on the Latex (Louisiana/Texas) Road. Liquor could be purchased on the Louisiana side, but not on the Texas side, of the store. But that was before Prohibition, and before Huddie's prison term.

Queenie: [Huddie] was in prison when his daddy died. Me and my husband bought this place from my uncle Wes — that's Huddie's daddy. My uncle Wes had a house on that knoll up yonder beside them pines right there. He was on his death-bed and I came over to see him. I was staying on the other side of them woods and I come over one day after I cooked dinner. I come on down to see how he was.
He said he wanted to see me so I come on down here and he say — he called me "Sis" — he say, "You the onliest one I believe will keep this land and I want you to buy it. I done willed so much to the girl I adopted." That was Australia Carr. The girl was in the kitchen and he called the girl out and said, "Now I know you ain't going to keep that land what I already deeded you. You let Sis have it when you get ready to sell it, cause you ain't going to keep it."
So she said she would sell it to me and come one evening I was way up in the field, I heard the car horn blowing but I didn't have time to go to the house to see who it was cause I was chopping cotton. And so the next morning I was chopping down next to the road and York Bickham came by and asked if I heard the car horn blowing and I said, "Yes," but I didn't have time to come down there. So he told me Australia said she wanted to sell that land, so I say, "Alright, I'll tell my husband when he comes in for dinner." York say he take us to town if we want to go cause he's going to carry his mother to the doctor. So when he come on back I said, "Yes, my husband said he'll go." So when you get there all you got to do is call Australia, and Australia come to the office and so we bought.

Queenie married Early Davidson in 1912; five of her nine children survived past infancy. She and her family have lived on what was once the Ledbetter home place ever since Wes's death in the early 1920's. Later in that decade, she bought the remaining land which was owned by Huddie and Sallie.

In August, 1920, the first regular radio broadcasting license in the United States was issued and in November, radio station KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, broadcast the results of the presidential election. The Republican ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge was victorious. The radio broadcasting business exploded during the next few years until, by 1924, there were about 1,400 stations on the air in the United States, and one-third of all the money being spent on furniture went for "wireless" sets.
In those early days, radio didn't know whether to view the record business as an accomplice or a competitor. Commercial radio has now become a promotional arm of the record companies, but in the 1920's, the two fledgling industries were jealous of their own domains. There was a close association between the furniture business and the recording industry: Columbia and Victor both manufactured records to go with their gramaphones, or talking machines; the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, begat the Gennett record company; the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington started Paramount; and the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company of Chicago, which manufactured billiard tables and bowling alleys, created the Brunswick label.
In the area of black popular culture, there was no problem between radio and the record business — radio simply ignored blacks. The recording industry, meanwhile, had begun to take an interest in black performers. In February, 1920, "contralto" Mamie Smith recorded a couple of songs, "That thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down," written by a black music store owner from Chicago named Perry Bradford. They were "jazzy" numbers with a kind of old-time show business bounce to them, and the original idea was to get Sophie Tucker to record them. But Bradford pushed for Mamie and prevailed. Mamie Smith wasn't a blues singer, she was a vaudeville entertainer, but she accomplished the task of breaking the color ban in recording, and setting the stage for the era of the "Classic" blues singers that followed.
"There's at least fourteen million Negroes in our great country," Perry Bradford had said. "A lot of them own phonographs, and they will buy records if they are recorded by one of their own." Nobody paid much him much attention until he went to OKeh, then an aggressive, independent company that was a bit more willing to take chances.


Okeh agreed to record Mamie Smith singing the two Bradford songs, though they prevaricated for a while before finally releasing her record in August, 1920. And although she was not advertised as black, Negro newspapers like the Chicago Defender let out the news, and the record took off and sold an estimated 75,000 copies. The lesson was not lost on OKeh: they got Mamie Smith into a recording studio immediately, cut another record, and released it, this time proclaiming her as black in advertisements. It went over better than they had hoped — and all of a sudden the "Race" race was on. (Cook130) The way was paved for popular singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who were touring the country's black vaudeville theater circuits.
Perry Bradford, who subsequently did well for himself as a songwriter and entrepreneur, had been proven right. There was a black audience out there and they were willing to pay plenty. Those first records by Mamie Smith on the OKeh label, for example, cost a dollar each. Bessie Smith records on Columbia towards the end of the twenties went at seventy-five cents each and sold better that 20,000 copies. In spite of inflation, the price of a single record did not change appreciably between 1920 and the 1980’s when CDs started to appear in the musical marketplace. In other words, they were originally quite an expensive item which Afican-Americans were willing to purchase.

The Ku Klux Klan was officially revived in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915. The original organization, which thrived briefly after the Civil War, was all but eliminated around 1870 when the Federal government's reconstruction policy got underway. The new Klan had a slightly different purpose than the original: it set itself up as the national arbiter of morals, not so much as a tool to keep blacks in place. Klan members helped to enforce Prohibition and kept a close eye on gamblers, pimps, adulterers, and generally rowdy folk. It was like a resurgence of violent puritanism, and there was a prepoderance of preachers and policemen in this new movement. Not all white-on-black violence was perpetrated by the Klan in the years after 1915, but the re-emergence of the Klan gave the violence a certain legitimacy. There is a kind of familiarity to the incidents which occurred, and the case of Thomas Rivers is unfortunately typical. The New York Times ran the following brief story on page 17. The year was 1922.

Louisiana Mob Lynches Negro
Shreveport, La., Aug. 30 - The body of Thomas Rivers, a negro, who
confessed he was the assailant of a young white
woman of this city, was found this morning by
Bossier Parish authorities hanging from the limb
of a tree near the Shreveport-Bossier highway
in Bossier Parish, about twelve miles from
Shreveport. He was taken from officers by a
mob late last night as he was being transferred
to Benton, La., for safe-keeping.


There are certain elements that are common to all such stories. First, the "negro" confesses to his crime. Rivers was arrested at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of August 29th by Shreveport Police Chief D.D. Baser. There had been a complaint by a young white woman, and the woman's family was determined to teach the offender a lesson. During questioning, Rivers also conveniently stated that he had tried to attack a young girl in Marshall, Texas, the previous month. He was identified as the attacker by the Shreveport woman, thus "guilt" was firmly established.
At that point, it was deemed by the authorities that the Shreveport jail is not a safe place for Thomas Rivers, because an irate mob is likely to storm the place, capture him, and lynch him. In reality, of course, there was collusion between the police and the mob. In order to make it easier for the lynch mob, the police decide to drive Rivers to the Bossier Parish jail in Benton. It was 11 p.m. and the mob knew exactly where to intercept the police car.
The official story states that Detective John Hudson and Deputy Sheriff Bert Stone were driving along the road to Benton at a high rate of speed when they were suddenly confronted by an armed band of masked men. Rivers was kidnapped by the marauders and the officers were ordered to turn around and go back to Shreveport. There were about twenty-five of these masked men, but who they were, or where they came from, was a mystery to everyone. Sheriff Adair of Bossier Parish stated that he was positive that there were no Bossier citizens in the party, because nobody in Bossier knew about the transfer until the Shreveport police told them about the seizure, after the fact. And, of course, nobody in Shreveport had the slightest idea how the news of the transfer might have leaked out.
A newspaper reporter from the Times of Shreveport spent the whole night searching for Rivers. Early in the morning, someone mentioned that he might want to look at a place known locally as "lyncher's stamping ground." The reporter was directed to a small side road in the cottonfields between the hamlets of Brownlee and Willow Chute. At the time he thought that the mob must have known the territory very well; it was difficult to follow the twisting trail and the reporter got lost a couple of times. There were small decrepit bridges spanning the creeks which were watering holes for the cattle which roamed about, and he worried that one of these bridges might collapse under the weight of his Model-T Ford. Eventually, the reporter came upon the grisly scene.
The rope that held Thomas Rivers' body was tied to a young oak tree that bent over the trail and entwined with an elder tree on the opposite side of the roadway. In stark contrast to the violence, the trees formed a peaceful arbor which provided the only shade from the blistering sun for miles around. It was a place where the field-workers sought shelter during their noon-time breaks.
The dead man was dressed in the same clothes he had on the day before. His checkered cap was still on his head, pulled halfway down his forehead. His hands were hanging limp at his side. His neck was swollen at the back and appeared to have been broken. His ragged shoes were about eighteen inches from the ground and a small notebook was in the right rear pocket of his khaki trousers. He was wearing wrapped leggings, which suggested he may have been a veteran of the Great War. A three-ply knot was hitched at the back of his neck; the rope was looped over a sturdy limb and tied to the trunk of the elder.
There was a small group of blacks gathered near the body. The younger men kept a respectful distance, but one ancient gentleman hobbled over to the hanging form, stared at it over his glasses, and then touched one of the lifeless arms a couple of times. The ancient shook his head and muttered sadly to himself.
According to the Times reporter, it was a fast and efficient lynch job. The several cars which carried the masked men easily found their way to the lynching ground where they prepared the rope, and ordered the victim to step up to the running board of a car. With the noose securely in place, the car drove away and left the body struggling in thin air. The verdict of an on-site inquest was that Rivers had come to his death at the hands of "parties unknown," and no further investigation was considered necessary.
The Shreveport newspapers, the Times and the Journal, usually reflected the Southern white supremacist opinions of the era, though there was an occasional bow to the growing national consensus against lynching. On 19 February, 1925, for instance, an editorial in the Journal praised the citizenry of Natchitoches, Louisiana, for its law-abiding behaviour during the arrest and trial of Sam Prater and Almo Smith. These two black men had been convicted of murdering a popular white high school student named Dan Barr.
The Journal spoke too soon, however. The following day, Prater and Smith were dead, each shot in the head by the Sheriff and his Deputy who were taking them to the state penitentiary at Angola. The officers' version of the incident could hardly be repudiated since there were no witnesses. They had stopped to change a flat tire when the two prisoners, who were handcuffed together, had attempted to escape. Dr. Phelps, the coroner, exonerated the officers.
There was a tremendous amount of activity on the part of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920's. Wendy Russell, a white woman who later became an international fashion model and patron of the arts, grew up in poverty in Marshall. She said there were regular Klan meetings opposite the house in which she was raised. The young girl watched in awe as the white-sheeted and hooded figures, many of them "respectable" citizens by day, gathered, burned crosses, and marched on some hapless victim. Russell witnessed two blacks burned alive on a courthouse square, and several incidents of tarring-and-feathering.
On Mardi Gras, 24 February, 1925, seven thousand Ku Kluxers held a parade in Shreveport. Cars were parked all the way from the State Fair grounds to Flournoy, Louisiana, a distance of six or seven miles. The number one man in the Caddo parish Klan, the "Exalted Cyclops" if you please, was Reverend E. L. Thompson of Central Christian Church.
The next day, a lynch mob got hold of Joe "Son" Airy, a black man who allegedly slew a state highway officer in Bossier Parish. According to a report from the Bossier Sheriff's office, Airy was surrounded by a posse when he drew a revolver and was promptly wounded by a deputy. The mob then strung him up, said the report. As the body lay on the ground, it was mutilated for souvenirs. The victim's fingers, toes and ears were cut off, bits of his clothing were torn, and the rope with which he was hanged was cut to pieces. The coroner reported that "Joe Airy came to his death from gunshot wounds while resisting arrest." The incident took place outside the house of one of Airy's relatives, who was too terrified to claim any part in it.
Just a few weeks prior to this incident in his home region, Huddie Ledbetter was released from the Texas penitentiary. Almost unbelievably, he received a pardon from outgoing governor Pat Neff.

Gov. Pat Neff
Pat Neff had been a "reform" governor. There has been a tendency in both Texas and Louisiana politics to alternate populists and reformers in the governor's office. The populists, like the Fergusons in Texas and the Longs in Louisiana, appeal to the common people but have a tendency towards ostentatious corruption. This leaves an opening for reform governors to be elected periodically on a "clean-up" platform. Neff had decided that there were to be no pardons on his watch. According to the Austin American of 5 April 1925, Neff abolished the board of pardons, and would only pardon in very extreme cases, "where the convicts were friendless and penniless and no voice of mercy or persuasive lawyer could speak for them."
The pardoning policies of Neff’s predecessors, Jim and Ma Ferguson, have been termed "liberal." Jim Ferguson made penitentiaries his hobby and was far more liberal in giving pardons than was Neff. While in the Governor's office, he issued pardons to 3,000 convicts, while Neff, in his four-year term, extended pardons to a grand total of two men. “The former was criticized in the last political campaign for being too lenient and the latter is being lampooned for being too strict.” ("Honor")
The popular image of southern penitentiaries prior to World War II is of almost medieval institutions where men in striped outfits were chained together and driven like animals to work in brutal conditions. It is surprising, then, to discover that the public utterances of such governors as Pat Neff and Jim Ferguson display a liberal attitude towards the prisoners. It may be true that Neff pardoned only two prisoners during his four years in office, but he certainly took an interest in his prison system. He initiated a program for the maintenance of State Parks which employed prisoners working on an honor system. At Boerne, 30 miles northwest of San Antonio, twenty convicts serving terms from five years to life worked on beautifying a state park under the suveillance of a young Texas Ranger. Outside of working hours, the men were permitted to come and go as they pleased.
Neff also started an "honor farm" at Sugar Land. One hundred and fifty
prisoners were selected from prisons all over the state, guards were transferred, bloodhounds removed, and the men informed that they were free to come and go outside of the eight-hour work day. There were wake-up and bed times, however, and during the first two months of operation, eleven inmates walked away from the farm. Forger Charles Miller was the first to escape. He was a leader among the prisoners who made a speech and presented a gold fountain pen to Neff when the governor appeared at the launching ceremonies. Miller disappeared from the honor farm the following week but later relented and opted to return. In his absence, the other prisoners had vowed to punish Miller if he was recaptured, but since he returned voluntarily he was let off the hook.
Jim Ferguson, in his role as "Deputy Governor" to his wife Miriam, better known simply as “Ma,” vowed to continue Pat Neff's parks program. During his previous terms as governor, Ferguson had the prison system paying for itself, and he had always taken a particular interest in it. Perhaps there were fewer duties for governors in those days to account for their interest in prisons. In an article in the New York Times, Ferguson uttered remarks which would be unthinkable for many contemporary Texas politicians.
“Upon one visit to the Imperial Farm,” he said, “I made a speech to the men and told them that if they worked for the State and behaved, I would examine every record sent in to me when a pardon was requested. I promised them I would pardon where I could and shorten their terms.
“One fellow got up and made a better speech than I did. ‘You really mean that, Governor ?,’ he asked, and when I told him that I was serious he declared that he was guilty of theft, that his punishment was just, and that he had a wife and three children, and that he intended to work hard for his freedom. He got it, too.
“I could not be so hard-hearted as to refuse to listen to the plea of a human being, trapped up in a prison asking for a hearing and pleading the cause of his family. ("Honor")
During Neff's tenure, the prison system started losing money and he had to borrow $800,000 to keep it solvent. He was hoping that some of his reforms would put the system on a more secure financial footing. Money, apparently, was the major problem faced by the Texas prisons at the time. Pat Neff was a serious and determined man who had been a county prosecuting attorney and Speaker of the Texas house before being elected to the governorship. He later served for fifteen years as president of Baylor University in Waco, a Baptist institution. In his 1925 autobiography “Battles for Peace,” Neff described the circumstances which led to his pardoning one particular prisoner:

On one of the farms, during my administration, was a negro as black as a stack of black cats at midnight. I visited a number of times, during the four years, the farm where he worked, and on each visit he sang a song which was a petition for pardon set to music. This negro would pick his banjo, pat his foot, roll his eyes, and show his big white teeth as he caroled forth in negro melody his musical application for pardon. In one verse he mentioned his wife; in another, his home; and I recall the third, closing with these words:

I know my mother will faint and shout,
When the train rolls up and I come stepping out.

Then, with much negro pathos and in full confidence, he sang:

If I had the Governor where the Governor has me,
I would, before morning, set the Governor free.

I listened to this song every visit for four years, and the day before I went out of office I pardoned the singer. He had been in the penitentiary some seven years, and had provedhimself to be a trustworthy convict (Neff 177).

Neff’s musician was, of course, Huddie Ledbetter (alias Walter Boyd) who had been in the penitentiary seven years when he was pardoned (pardon #18141) by Governor Neff on 16 January 1925. It was the day before Neff left office. Huddie told John Lomax that he decided, after a couple of failed escapes, to become a model prisoner and a leader of the chain gang. He worked harder and faster than anyone else, he claimed, and was highly regarded both by his jailers and by his fellow convicts. Then, in 1924, he had an opportunity to sing for Governor Neff.
“This here's a song I composed to Governor Pat Neff so that he would reprieve me from the thirty years I had in the Texas penitentiary. When he come to visit Camp A, Imperial State Farm, he had his wife and a carful of ladies with him. They all listened when I sing the song I had composed to Governor Pat
Neff:
"Had you, Governor Neff, like you got me,
I'd wake up in the mornin', and I'd set you free", (Negro 200).

Once, Neff entertained folk song collector Dorothy Scarborough, at the˙ Governor's mansion in Austin. He told her the story of a convict who approached him after supper during an official visit to a prison farm and asked if he could sing the governor a song. Scarborough quoted Neff who was reciting from memory:

If I had the gov'ner
Where the gov'ner has me,
Before daylight
I'd set the gov'ner free.
I begs you gov'ner
Upon my soul:
If you won't gimme a pardon,
Won't you gimme parole.

Scarborough was collecting for her book, “Negro Folk Songs,” at the time, but apparently Neff did not mention the prisoner by name, and did not say whether the pardon song was successful (Scarborough 30). And even though there is no other mention of banjo playing anywhere in the Huddie Ledbetter canon, we can safely assume that he was talking about our man. Perhaps the idea of a banjo fitted in best with the rest of Neff's picture of the black minstrel, or maybe Huddie was, in fact, playing a banjo. It would not be beyond his capabilities.

Twenty years later, In 1945, Pat Neff, then president of Baylor University, wrote to Mr. Huddie Ledbetter at a Hollywood, California, address:

Friend Ledbetter:

Do you remember me vividly and distinctly? Do you recall how at the Imperial Penitentiary Farm you picked the banjo many times for me as I visited the penitentiary system? Do you recall that one of the last things I did as I left the Governor's Office was to sign a pardon for you?

Neff went on to say that he had heard good things about Huddie and to
suggest that he should come and give a free concert for the faculty and students, if he should ever pass that way. Huddie gave a concert at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1949, but there is no record of him accepting the invitation to visit Waco.

It became part of the legend of Huddie Ledbetter that he had sung his way to freedom twice. Such journals as Time magazine and the New York Herald-Tribuneï repeated it as fact during the 1930's, and though Ledbetter's release in Louisiana nine years later is an entirely different matter, it appears that he did, indeed, sing his way to freedom in Texas.
This was certainly an unusual and unorthodox way of achieving release from a murder conviction. Was Governor Neff acknowledging, by this whimsical act of mercy, that black prisoners in the Texas system were more akin to political detainees than serious criminals? Or was there something about Huddie Ledbetter's (Walter Boyd's) trial and subsequent conviction that made Neff realize that he shouldn't have been in prison in the first place? There were 3,600 convicts in Neff's prison system; he extended pardons to just two of them.

Leadbelly's Horse

Huddie’s "Booker" "Did I know Huddie Leadbetter? He was my next door neighbor." [This article, written in 19...