Preston: (Huddie Ledbetter’s neighbor near Leigh, Texas, Preston Brown ) I'll tell you what [Huddie] was — a good time man, that's all he was. You didn't bother him, he wouldn't bother you. He'd treat you nice. But he wasn't scared of nobody! If you fooled with him, he'd fight you. He went to prison twice. Twice to my knowing. They sent him [up] for fighting, you know. Louisiana and Texas.
The woman he married — he left here and went to West Texas, — and when he come from West Texas, he brought this lady with him. Little woman named Elethe. I mean she was little and low. I know Queenie's brother, George Pugh — Huddie and George was first cousins — and Huddie and him married two sisters from West Texas. They'd go out there and pick cotton. Yes, Huddie could pick cotton. He made plenty money picking cotton, and so they would go out west and they got going with these girls and he married Elethe, and he brought her here. Farmed right up the road there. And then, come picking cotton time, she'd go with him up there to West Texas and they'd pick, make a lot of money up there. And then they'd come on back home.
Preston Brown grew up next to the Ledbetters, and remembers them well. It was all cottonfields around the south shore of Caddo Lake, and when a farmer had picked his own cotton crop, he was free to help pick the neighbors’ crop, or hire himself out to one of the larger plantations. There were plenty of these plantations to the east in Caddo parish, around Dixie and Belcher, or further west towards Dallas, and northwest towards DeKalb.
Huddie met Elethe Henderson in Terrell near where his Uncle Terril (or "Tell") lived, and they married in 1909. Elethe's sister, Alice, married Huddie's cousin George Pugh at about the same time and her brother, Gritt Henderson, proposed marriage to George's sister Queenie. Queenie declined, opining that there were enough Hendersons in the family already.
During these years John A. Lomax, a tall, scholarly Texan in his early forties who had only recently earned an M.A. in English from Harvard, was putting together his collection of “Cowboy Songs, and Other Frontier Ballads.” The work was published in 1910.
Lomax was born on the frontier in Mississippi in 1867, and his family pushed westward into Texas two years later. Growing up on the Chisholm Trail, he became intrigued by the idea of folk songs as literature quite early in life, though it took him a while to get the idea accepted by anyone else. In fact, English professors at Harvard accepted the idea more quickly than the folks back in Texas.
“Very few of my associates at the University of Texas expressed sympathy or took the project seriously,” Lomax later wrote. “For them, this crude product of the West had no interest, no value, no charm whatever. Governor Jim Ferguson quoted stanzas of my cowboy songs in political addresses to cheering crowds, and sneered at the University of Texas for having me on its faculty, just as he sneered at a teacher of zoology, asserting repeatedly that this professor was trying to make wool grow on the backs of armadillos and thus bring down the price of sheep! Both of us were sorry fools to him.” (J.Lomax, “Adventures” 41)˘
Lomax persisted with his project, however, and with the aid of some annual $500 grants from Harvard, was able to travel extensively through the cattle regions of Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming, collecting songs from the cowboys in stockyards and saloons. He carried a fifty-pound Edison recorder which transferred live sound to cylinders through a microphone which resembled one of those large speaker horns pictured next to the dog in His Master's Voice advertisements. Most of the ballad contributors were either scornful of the horn, or frightened off by it, and preferred to transmit the tunes to Lomax by ear. At a cattlemen's gathering in San Antonio, Lomax was jeered and hooted at for his troubles. Said one conventioneer,
“I have been singin' them songs ever since I was a kid. Everybody knows them. Only a damn fool would spend his time tryin' to set 'em down.“(41)
But set them down he did, in the first collection of American folk songs to include both words and music. And in a meeting with former President Theodore Roosevelt in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he picked up an endorsement, and a preface, for his book. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Lomax was able to pursue his other major folk song interest — the songs of American Negroes — which led to a fortuitous meeting with Huddie Ledbetter.
Most summaries of the life of Ledbetter, including the one later published by John Lomax, refer to Huddie as a rambler who left home at an early age and traveled extensively throughout the Southwest. In fact, though, outside of his trips to Dallas and Terrell, Tex. to see family and friends, and to pick cotton with them, he traveled very little. When someone from out of the region hears the term "West Texas," for instance, they may conjure up images of El Paso or Amarillo. But when someone — especially an African American — from Shreveport or Marshall says "West Texas," they simply mean anywhere in Texas that is further to the west than themselves. Like the way New York City dwellers refer to anywhere in the state north of Yonkers as "upstate." Dallas certainly qualifies as West Texas in these terms; so, too, do Tyler and Terrell.
In the middle of April, 1912, the White Star ocean liner "Titanic" sank in the North Atlantic. One thousand, five hundred and three passengers and crew members perished in the disaster, which was the result of the ship hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Most alarming, to many people, was that the ship had been declared unsinkable, a marvel of modern engineering. The sinking of the Titanic was an incident of mythic proportions at the time, and for many years to come; widely-circulated ballads emerged and remained a part of the popular culture well into the 1920's.
For the black community, there was a further dimension to the disaster, which involved the world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. The story goes that Johnson had planned to book passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage, but was refused on account of being "colored.” Huddie, like many minstrels of the time, had his own Titanic ballad:
|Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson|
Captain said, "I ain't hauling no coal,"
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well. . .
“Jack Johnson was so glad he didn't get on there.
“When he heard about that mighty shock,
Might have seen the man doing the Eagle Rock,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well. . .
“Nineteen hundred and twelve: Blind Lemon [Jefferson] and myself, we used to do this [song]. And I want to say something about Jack Johnson. [He] was a prize fighter about the time of Jim Jeffries, you know, 1912, or something like. . . but this is when the Titanic went down. . . and down there — the people use the name "crackers" which I don't use that name. [They’re] just people, you know.
“But anyhow, this is the song about it, this tells the true story of what happened on that ship in nineteen hundred and twelve. It's the first number I learned how to play on the twelve-string guitar, nineteen hundred and twelve.”
There is a beautiful symmetry in Huddie's learning to play the 12-string in 1912, and it may have just occurred to him on the spur of the moment. And it is revealing that he gratuitously introduces the term "crackers" in referring to white people, a term he says “he” doesn't use. The Jack Johnson story, true or not, apparently put the black community in a state of shock; they thought they'd been making progress against racism, but now one of their most prominent citizens is treated with contempt. Of course their attitude changed a couple of days later when the unsinkable white ship hit the famous iceberg in the mid Atlantic, and sank. Then, the catastrophe was seen as divine retribution for the captain's decision not to accept Jack Johnson as a passenger.
It is clear in Huddie's spoken introduction to the song, that he was trying to communicate the bitter feelings of blacks. One can imagine the celebrations that might have occurred when the Titanic sank.
Blacks derived particular satisfaction from the irony of the disaster. Jim Crow laws had guaranteed that no black person would be among those aboard White Star's acme of floating luxury and technological achievement.
Black interest in the disaster led to a milestone in black underground literature known as the "Titanic Toast." This long narrative poem tells the story of Shine, a black stoker aboard the ill-fated ship. (Wade 435)
There were many variants of the "Titanic Toast" in ciculation for decades. The "toasts" were recited at parties and gatherings in much the same way as jokes are told. The most popular toasts are "Stagolee," "The Dirty Dozens," and "The Titanic," and in many versions they sound like long, rambling dirty jokes, lavishly laced with explicit sexual language and innuendo. Shine, for instance, jumps off the sinking ship and starts swimming for shore, but the Captain's daughter tries to get him to save her by lifting up her skirt and promising sexual favors. Shine knows what's best for himself, however, and by the time the news of the disaster reaches New York, he's in a saloon getting drunk. In reality, there was no such person as Shine, because even the humblest members of the Titanic's crew were white.
The toasts highlight a strong or wily quality in their heroes, and fall into the same broad African tradition as the Brer Rabbit stories.
Huddie continued to sing "The Titanic" long after there was any currency to the news; he was comfortable in the knowledge that few of his white listeners had any inkling of the underlying references in the song, but he knew the resonance for his black listeners. When the Cunard liner Queen Mary was built in the late 1930's, Huddie tried to adapt the song to fit the new ship, but since the Queen Mary never sank, the song doesn't make too much sense.
The Titanic disaster had a major effect on the development of radio since many of the survivors, the people who fitted into the inadequate supply of lifeboats, owed their lives to the radio distress signals sent out from the bridge. A nearby ship heard the signals and picked up survivors, and the news spread quickly. Marconi, the inventor responsible for the Titanic's communications system, was highly praised, and radio was brought to the forefront. Marconi had been experimenting with wireless for more than a dozen years before Titanic. His idea was to sent messages from one point to another point, but within the next decade, radio was developed into an entertainment medium where the signal was, to use the agricultural term, "broadcast."
Queenie Ruffin Batts got married to Huddie's half-brother Alonzo in 1896. They lived with their three children in the next farm over from the Ledbetters. In 1913, Queenie died. The elder daughter, Viola, was just 11 at the time; Irene was 8 years old; and the boy, Alonzo, Jr. — Lonnie — was 5. A family conference took place and it was decided that following the funeral at Elizabeth Church, the children should go to live with their grandparents, Wes and Sallie Ledbetter, on the Ledbetter home place.
A retired teacher in Marshall, Tex., at the time of this interview, Irene Batts Campbell was approx. 85 years old, but you'd never guess it. She seemed to be 10 years younger, as did her elder sister Viola who would have been about 88 years old back in 1990. They never admitted to their age but I looked them up in the Harrison County, Tex., census rolls.
Irene: My father Alonzo Batts was a preacher and Uncle Huddie is my uncle — that was father's half-brother. Their mother was Sallie Cassandra Ledbetter. Uncle Huddie's father was John Wesley Ledbetter, but that was not my real grandfather. Alonzo's father was Batts.
Viola: There were the three of us kids. We had a brother, Alonzo — we called him Lonnie. My sister, Irene, and my brother and I. Irene was in the middle and Lonnie was the youngest. There were other youngsters in the neighborhood, like the Davisons, and the Browns five or six miles away —
maybe two or three miles away [Several hundred yards would be a closer estimate.]— really country, miles apart nobody just next door, like now. But anybody living a mile was close. Through the woods. You could run a mile in a minute, almost. Run! We didn't do nothing else. They'd tell you to hurry up, and you knew that meant, "go fast." So we'd run. We — my sister, my brother and I — lived with my grandmother and grandfather Wesley Ledbetter until — must have been 1919. Something like that. We went to live with them when our mother died. Stayed with them from that day, after church. In 1913. From the funeral at Elizabeth church to their house. That church is right there now. It's a small brick church just down the road from the lake, going south — they bricked it.
Irene: We never lived with my mother's family; we always lived with my father's family when my mother died. The question was, now who will take the children? And it was decided that my grandmother would. She was the one that said, "I'll take the children," and my grandfather said, "Yes, if I have a piece of bread, they will have a piece of bread." We were all poor; very, very poor.
But, not all that poor. He was a good farmer. He owned his own land. It was nice fertile land. It raised good crops. And, he lived well. Horse and wagon days, that's what it was. He had his horse and wagon and he'd go to town, weekends. They raised just about everything they had — they ate — had to have. But clothing. It was a hard life, but it was a good life. We were happy. It was fun because we thought that's the way life was.
Viola: There were mostly cottonfields around there. Just cottonfields and woods. And a small board house. The kitchen was log: at that time, the kitchen wasn't built in the house. Even my grandfather, where my mother's father lived, had a plank walk to the kitchen from the house. And that kitchen was a great big log house. Well, it was a good-sized log, but it was log. Perhaps the first thing they had for the church was a log cabin. Then they built the [permanent] church, later.
My father wasn't the pastor when my mother died. Someone else was pastor, but he did pastor there at one time. I can't remember what the preacher's name was when my mother died.
The school was right on the church campus. And we went to school with Preston's wife, Mary Jenkins. Yes, she was our friend, we had school with her. Mary Jenkins. Seems to me I lived there til I was about thirteen years old. Uncle Huddie? He'd help his father raise the crop, pick it, and leave to pick cotton in West Texas. That's how he did it. And he could pick! Twelve yards of ducking in his cotton sack — he got it on like suspenders on his back this way. And wore knee pads. And crawled between two rows just like he was [hearing] music, you know, to a rhythm. Pick it.
Irene: Pick a bale of cotton." You've heard that song? "Pick a bale a day." We thought everybody picked cotton! We enjoyed picking cotton. Uncle Huddie had a game with it. He would have two rows. He had a long sack and had the strap so it would go over both shoulders; and he'd pick with both hands. He'd pick this row and he'd pick that row and he'd put it into his bag. He was a “professional” cotton picker. Yes. He went out to West Texas. During the harvesting season, he'd go out and pick cotton and make good money. Make what he thought was plenty of money.
Picking cotton came way down near Santa Claus time. Winter time. That's when he would make his money. Well he made plenty money — some money — picking his guitar all the time. Weekends, he'd always have a sukey jump [laughs]. Like a barn dance.
He played for church programs. Religious songs. And school closings. Huddie Ledbetter always played for the school closings. That was a great time. The schools were glad about that. He played the music that's good for schools; and he had music appropriate for religious services; and he had his music for his dances. He played them all!
Viola: I remember Uncle Huddie playing the mandolin! I wanted to play it so bad but it just wasn't in me to play. I liked the mandolin, you know. "In the Good Old Summertime" — he could play it so pretty, SO pretty on that mandolin. He could play a tune on just about any kind of instrument. We didn't have a piano, but if he went somewhere there was a piano, he would play it.
Irene: And he could play the organ. The piano, the banjo and the - what's that? the mandolin. He was talented for playing music. He said the first instrument he had was a weed [reed]. There is a weed out there that is open — it has a hole in it. If you break it at the joint — it's jointed, like cane, and in that weed, you'd have some white filler. You'd push [the filler] out and then it'd be hollow. And he would cut holes where it needed to be to play music. He'd put his hand over one hole, kind of like a flute instrument; and that was his first instrument that played for him. [laughs] I think though, really, the mandolin is said to be his first instrument. He started playing that before his feet could strike the floor in his little child's rocking chair. He had an accordion, too. His uncle, his cousin — Ledbetter, what's his name? His uncle's name that gave him the windjammer? Tell. Terrell Ledbetter, I believe.
Viola: Sometime he would go visiting, he would take us kids, "We're going visiting today," he'd say, and it happened that this particular place I'm thinking about now, it had a piano. And he played it. When we went visiting, we went walking. Or in the wagon; sometime in the wagon. Or on the horse, but all of us couldn't ride the horse.
Irene: Caddo Lake at that time, on the bed of the lake, we could find the mussels in the sand, and they would take a day off, stop working on the farm one day, and have a picnic on the lake and hunt mussels. Well, we were getting the mussels because we were looking for jewelry — pearls! Sometimes they did find them and they would get some money for them, and anytime anyone would get money, that would boost us to go and hunt for pearls. Uncle Huddie would carry us down, and we would go down to the lake in the wagon. The children would just sit right down in the bed on the floor. And grown people would sit on seats and chairs and whatever, and he would be among the ones to go. We'd have a party. We'd have a guitar-picking and dancing and plays, and of course, we had meals. We always had a picnic lunch; spread the table. We call it "dinner on the ground." They were good times.
There was a Mrs. Betty Wilson. She lived a long time, too, she lived after we were married, my husband and I. And, Myers - Sterling Myers and Jamieson, Roscoe Jamieson. And Tom Marshall.
Tom Marshall finally came to Marshall and bought property, just down the road here, across from the church, the first church you get to. Black church on the right hand side going — it's called St. Paul. He bought property across from St. Paul; he bought all of that. And of course he maintained his home in Leigh, also. And he had a store in Leigh. He was one of the prosperous ones. In Leigh there, where Antioch is, Tom Taylor had a store and then Marshall had a store. Marshall looked just like he was white, too; somebody was his daddy, I don't know who. And he had a store there, down from the church. When we had homecoming day at the church, we'd always go to those stores and purchase soda pop and candy. Things to eat. We had peppermint, great big sticks, and it was stripes. Do you ever see large peppermint sticks, now? They had the small and the large, too. But the thing that's gone now is the soda pop. They had the pop where you hit the top to open it. And it fizzes out when you hit the top. Then you have to hurry up and drink [laughs]. That was fun.
I must have been about nine years old the first time I went to Louisiana . We went in a wagon. And that seemed so far away, that was a long distance then. Right now it's an hour, maybe forty-five minutes. But it was a long ways away then. It was our mode of travel, it was the way we had to travel. Got into the wagon and went. The wagon would be pulled by two mules. They'd get a day off from the field and they'd carry us to town. Only way we had to go. Boy, that's a long way back in time. We would go to Shreveport for the parade. You know, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey? They'd come through, and everybody went to see the parade. In the wagon. Right down on the Avenue. Texas Avenue.
I don't remember going to the circus when I was a child, but we saw the parade. And we ate the popcorn and we ate the peanuts, and a stick with something good on it. Cotton candy! Oh, that was a great day. That's once in a lifetime! Didn't go every year, but we went sometimes. With grandfather and grandmother. I don't remember ever going with my parents. I don't remember much about my parents. I guess we were just so young. I remember going to church, I think. My father was a preacher; he preached. My grandmother was a song leader, in the Amen corner. That was a place where the ladies sat when they're going to say "Amen" and they're going to lead songs and they're going to pray, and they going to carry on the worship service. They're instrumental in giving leadership to the worship. We don't have that anymore. Sometime, some places they have the Amen Corner, but we don't have that anymore. We had it then at Elizabeth, and Antioch. Antioch at Leigh. (it's still there at Leigh). Elizabeth's still there, too, down near Caddo Lake. It's still there. The buildings, of course, have been changed a litle bit, but they're there.
Grandfather [Wes] was a worker in the Sunday school. He was a Bible scholar. He could read, you see, very few of them could read, but he could read enough to teach the lesson and learn the lesson, and learn enough to tell others the story of the lesson for today. So that's what he did. He was a Bible teacher.
Viola: My father [Alonzo Batts] had a buggy. That's how we got to church and that's how I got to school. Once we had a buggy, we'd go in the buggy. Didn't have it long. You walked where you had to go, even if it was five or six, seven or eight miles, you walked. That's how you got there. That time of my life when we were living with my grandmother and Wes Ledbetter, that was happy. Oh, beautiful, because you see you didn't know — children nowadays knows everything — but, of all we shouldn't know, we didn't know!
Uncle Huddie'd play music for us; and the songs he wanted us to know, he'd play them. But all that stuff he'd play over there — those blues and party songs — my God, we didn't hear that. One thing about it, we didn't know the people, where he's going to play and have these suppers and things. My grandfather's laying into him about that, "you got to stop this, you don't carry that gun with you cause you looking for trouble," and he'd get a lecture; grandfather was a lecturer.
Uncle Huddie used to tell grandfather, "I won't be bothering nobody, but if they bother me, I will. My name is 'Will'." He will shoot it, that's what he was saying. And that would end the conversation and he'd be gone. These people [the unsavory sort] didn't come to the house; he'd go to another one who'd planned to have a party. He'd go, but we didn't ever see them.
Uncle Huddie had a horse — what I call a black horse.
[See the blog entry on "Huddie's Booker."]
My husband that raised horses, he'd call it a mahogany bay, but it was black. And two white front feet, socks, you know. He may have had a white spot on his forehead, I don't remember, but I know these feet. And he had that horse shining all the time. And a lap robe across his lap keeping his suit from getting hair or whatever on it. And that's how he traveled. With his guitar.
He was a real snappy dresser, everything had to be just so. His overalls were washed, starched and ironed. Clean pair every day. Aunt Elethe — his wife? — that's the one who would do the ironing. She was a beautiful person. To us, you know. She loved children. And we were crazy about Aunt Elethe. "Don't leave me." I remember that part of it. We were crazy about Aunt Elethe. We call her Aunt Elethe.
They met out there somewhere near Terrel, I think, but some of her people were in Big Sandy. But she said Terrell. They said Terrell. That's not too far from Big Sandy, anyway. They're not too far apart. Little towns, close together.
[Viola has not got her facts straight here: Big Sandy is in Upshur county and Terrell is in Kaufman county, seventy miles further west. From Marshall, they are both in "West Texas".]
Grandfather's brother lived there. We never did see him. He played guitar, we were told. Showed Uncle Huddie how to play the mandolin, didn't he? I don't know who taught him. . . The windjammer! What's the windjammer? That's the accordion, isn't it? Accordion's what he had — and gave me the rocker — Tell bought him a little rocking chair when he was little. And when I came into the world I had the chair. And they said before his feet could touch the floor in that little rocker, he was playing the accordion. He played. . . when he be here, too, he played.
He was a natural born musician. Just natural born. He'd take a reed — we had the reeds, you know, with the hole in the center? - he'd break the joints, they had joints in them, and clean that out, and you had a hole in there, and he'd cut just enough notches in it to make the tune he wanted to make, and he'd play a song on it. It was just natural.
Irene: We played yard games like "ring round the rosie," "here we go round the rosebush," and "London Bridge is broken down." Then we had a song, "I measure my love to show you," and we would march up and down and all around and then we'd get to the end and we measured our partners love.
(sings) O! we have a game today
O! we have a game today
I can't remember all the songs really.
(sings) Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
So early in the morning!
We were skipping and dancing, and he would play. The guitar would be going all the time — strum! strum! — and we would keep time with the music.
The life of Huddie Ledbetter in these times seems fairly settled. He was living with Elethe in his own house; his mother and father lived in their house on the same 68 and1/2 acre home place. They were raising their three grand-children, and Huddie and Elethe also pitched in and helped. Like their neighbors, the Ledbetters raised cotton as a cash crop, and several vegetables and farm animals for home consumption. They owned mules for ploughing and pulling the wagon; Huddie had his horse for transportation. They did most of their shopping in Leigh at Morgan's or T.J. Taylor's store, though they visited Shreveport once a year, and Marshall perhaps more often.
[Note: The T.J.Taylor referred to above was the father of the, then, future First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson.]
The church was a strong element in the lives of Wes, Sallie and Elethe; it also played a role, albeit a less important role, in the life of Huddie. He played music in church on an occasional basis; he played for church suppers and picnics, and for school closings. He was a respected member of his community, and his playing for Saturday night sukey jumps may have been a cause of irritation within his family, but in no way did it diminish his standing among his peers.
All seemed to be going fairly smoothly until June 1915, when he was indicted by a Grand Jury in Marshall, in Harrison county, on a charge of assault to murder. The incident in question took place after a house party on June 13th at the Akin place near his home. Although the details are sketchy, Huddie apparently argued with, and shot, a neighbor named Jim Coleman. Six witnesses, including the said Jim Coleman, testified against Huddie, and Sheriff John Sanders was given an arrest warrant (Capias) which he executed on June 24th. The other witnesses to the altercation were named John Lee, T. J. Miles, Charles Jones, Celeste Lee, and Tobe Jerry.
The grand jury indictment read that "[Huddie Ledbetter] did unlawfully and with malice aforethought make an assault in and upon the person of Jim Coleman with the intent then and there on the part of him the said Huddie Ledbetter to kill and murder him the said Jim Coleman."
"Well, the first time he killed — he didn't kill the man. He shot him in the stomach, and he had a bullet in his stomach. He was named Jim Coleman." (Queenie)
I remember one Saturday night, just before day, he shot Jim Coleman. Got fighting over a, you know, female. Quarreling over girl friends. Shot him twice, and that's the cause of Jim Coleman being dead today. Shot part of his liver off. He lived about four, five years [afterwards.] Sunday morning, 'fore day, down here in the Akin place. That's when his daddy put the place up. Huddie got out when his daddy sold that property, got him clear. He got Huddie out right away. He didn't go to jail at all. (Preston)
Every Saturday night he'd go play somewhere. That's the way they'd enjoy themselves in the area, you know, and this particular Saturday night, he was playing and somebody. . . well, I have to say it like he said it — "My trouble, when I got into it, was my music — and women." — well, these women, you know how they, I don't know how they do it, but anyhow a man got mad, and he came at Uncle Huddie with a knife —
(“I'm listening! I'm looking at him tell it after he got to the house, jaw was ripped open”)
— and he always had his gun, somewhere, somebody was holding it for him this night, you know, and he says he threw his arm up, he didn't want him knifing him, cutting him anymore, and grabbed this person with the knife, and it was a woman holding the gun, and I don't know which way she went, but anyway, he took the gun and shot and he got the man in the arm, he didn't miss him, but he got the arm, and he got in trouble for shooting somebody that night. Saturday night.
And, of course, when they had the trial they put him on what they call the "farm" county road. He had chains around his ankles, and of course, the chain ate a sore in there, like that. . . and that's when he ran away. He was working on the farm, county road, I imagine it was this road out here. . . between Marshall and Leigh, and he ran away, he jumped the fence. . . and Sallie - my grandmother - she felt it somehow (I guess she saw it like vision). A little before the sun went down that particular day he left the road where they had him, and at that same time grandmother put the hoe down. She said, "My child needs me and I'm going to him," and she walked away, out of the field. And we were all shocked. Grandfather went with her finally, after he got to thinking about what was happening, and we got her back to the house, and that night at 12 o'clock, he walked in.
Grandmother had walked the floor up until 12 o'clock. She'd just walk the floor and look out the window.
He told about how he got away and what all he went through to get there. He found a space to make a run for it — had these chains on him, you know — and he made it to a farmer's house. And he did what it took to get the chain loose. He came home with one — one on his leg, and one in his hand . . . The farmer got these chains off his leg, and then he was just running. He ran and he heard the dogs, but we have some big creeks in that area — had big creeks, they've dried up now — so he got him a cane and went down under the water, used the cane to breathe, and when they left, he ran some more. Finally made it home. It wasn't all that many miles, but we walked and ran anytime wherever we were going. Anyhow, he made it home at 12 o'clock that night. (Viola)
These are competing versions of what happened after Huddie was indicted for assault: Preston Brown plays down the melodrama, saying simply that Wes Ledbetter made the whole charge go away by paying a certain sum of money raised by selling part of his land. On the other hand, Viola paints a vivid picture of a man escaping from the chain gang, running from tracking dogs and a sheriff’s posse in his striped clothing, hiding underwater with a reed to breathe through. True or not, Viola’s version has become part of the legend of Leadbelly.
Although Huddie was arrested on June 24th, the case was not scheduled for trial until October 11th. His father and mother had put up thirty precious acres of land to pay legal fees to the attorneys, W.C. and William Lane of Marshall. Viola’s story continues:
And when he left, he went to New Orleans; and that's the beginning of him making his moves, from the farm, cause he took to West. . . well we say West Texas, but it's Central Texas, I guess, up around Dallas and Terrell. Cottonfields. He'd slip home and help his father raise the crop, and leave, and pick cotton around Terrell, and get the crop in, that's how he did it.
That's when he started his traveling. Up until then, we were just family. Family and community. He'd go jamming every Saturday night, and many other nights, he'd go picking the guitar. And we didn't know about Uncle Huddie's life then. They just didn't let us know it. All we knew is, Uncle Huddie's home. Or he's not here.
Of course, I saw that. . . . Saw him coming back from that Saturday night when there was blood on his jaw and his face was wide open. The man (Jim Coleman) opened this slit and the blood was running down. I saw that. That was a cut on his jaw. Did you see him? [She’s asking Irene, who didn’t see it.] You never saw him? He wore that scar the rest of his life, and it just barely missed his eye. Barely missed his eye.
Up until that time it was a pretty peaceful life. When my mother died in 1913, that was a sad time. But straightaway we went to live with grandmother and that was a happy life. They loved us and they were kind to us, and he, we'd see him every now and then, cause he'd stay out most of the time. . . but he was around, working on the land. Yes, he'd work on the farm.
After he escaped from the county farm, he took on an alias, "Walter Boyd." Eventually, he rejoined Elethe and they farmed near DeKalb in northeast Texas. Uncle Huddie had a cottage on that farm in DeKalb. He was sharecropping with somebody and calling himself Walter Boyd. I don't know how it was shared, but it was not his land.
Grandfather left the home place and went to work to get some money to pay for Huddie's legal problems and us kids left because he was going away and my grandmother left the farm and went down Louisiana where her folks were, you know? Her aunt. We stayed there a year with them. I know we went to school there, so we stayed that long. And that's when Uncle Huddie found out what was going on and he sent his wife, and her niece came because it was Christmas , and where we were staying there wasn't a lot of room, cause we were staying with my grandmother's cousin, and Elethe asked to let us go visit with them for Christmas. And we did. We left Burch's house in Mooringsport and went to DeKalb with them. I think we must have ridden a train, cause we didn't have cars, and no buses running, and we sure didn't walk! I would have to say train. A train out of Mooringsport.
That was the beginning of us leaving the area. We went with Aunt Elethe when she went back to Huddie after that Christmas. They had arranged to get us away from where we were, and go with them to this place in DeKalb where he farmed, made a crop, and he asked our cousin to let us come and stay with him, to visit him. That was his way of getting us there to help him make the crop, I think. But anyhow, we went to DeKalb that year and when Christmas came again, we came back to see grandmother and grandfather. See, we stayed there and made the crop, and then we came back to Mooringsport at Christmas  and while we were at home celebrating Christmas, he got into trouble. That's when he killed this man.
We went to school there in DeKalb — finished a whole semester — a school term there, til Christmas. At Christmas I was supposed to have gone to College — Bishop in Marshall — but this tall trouble came up and ended that part of it. I got married a little better than a year after.
Grandmother and grandfather had moved to Mooringsport. They had left the farm because he sold the land to try to save Uncle Huddie, try to get him out of trouble, and he lost his farm, and he was down there working as a delivery boy for a grocery store. And so, they lived there in Mooringsport. It seems to me that grandfather lost the farm in 1915 and if Huddie and Sallie had some kind of property rights later, well, I don't know what they had. If they had it, they sold it. Uncle Huddie would sell anything he had, you know. And if he had it, he must have sold it. Cause he didn't finally have it. In my experience. Mr. Davidson — Early Davidson — bought it and he died and his son Early, Jr. has it now. His son and his mother — Early Davidson's wife, Queen. (Viola)
Wes and Sallie Ledbetter did not, in fact, give up their entire farm in the summer of 1915. They sold, or at least handed over, thirty of their sixty-eight and a half acres of land to the law firm of Lane and Lane attorneys W.C. and William Lane. The rest of the farm was not sold until the 1920's when it was bought by Huddie's cousin Queenie and her husband Early Davidson. The Davidsons still lived on the land into the 1990’s.
If the year 1915 was pivotal in Ledbetter's life, it was not nearly so memorable as 1917 — for the world as well. On the music front, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white band claiming to be the "Creators of Jazz," recorded the first jazz sides for the Victor Talking Machine Company on February 26th.
Apparently Freddie Keppard, the black New Orleans' trumpeter who had been touring with his Original Creole Band since 1913, had been asked to record in 1916, but refused. The story goes that he didn't trust the recording process. He thought that other musicians would copy him and he'd lose his personal magic. Whatever the reason, the impression was created that white musicians originated jazz because they recorded it first. (p.102 of "Bourbon Street Black.") Blacks did not join the recording process until 1920.
To followers of the world scene, 1917 is best remembered as the year the United States declared war on Germany. For Huddie it was a year of sharecropping in DeKalb, his last year of freedom, and probably the year he met Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Huddie made music in Dallas, in the black section called "Deep Ellum" (Elm Street), on the streets, in the saloons, and at house parties. One night he met Blind Lemon Jefferson. (Negro)
“Him and I used to sing. . . in Dallas, Texas, and that was around nineteen hundred and four, you know.” (Last Sessions)
Huddie and Lemon may indeed have sung together in Dallas, as Huddie claims, but not in 1904. Lemon would have been just eleven years old. He was born in the community of Couchman, Texas, in July 1893, to Alec and Clarissa Jefferson. One of six children, he was legally blind from birth and lived at home well into his twenties. He learned to play the guitar early and sang in front of businesses and on the streets of nearby towns like Wortham, Streetman, and Kirvin. A local man recalls:
“I knew Lemon Jefferson when he was playing guitar on the streets here (Wortham) all his life and I was on the streets. So, I pitched quarters and nickels to him and he'd play. . . at any time of night he'd be there playing the guitar.
At that time, people used to be crazed by guitar music, and black and white people used to come watch him over at Jake Lee's Barber Shop. That's where he played every Saturday. And the white folks came out and they'd throw quarters, nickels, or dimes.
He's get on this road at 10 or 11 o'clock and he'd walk to Kirvin, seven or eight miles. And he'd play and keep a walkin'. He was blind, but he knew where he'd be goin'.” (Steinberg)
The Jefferson family were members of the Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church in Kirvin. Performing spirituals at religious services and picnics, and blues at dances and suppers. Blind Lemon, like Huddie Ledbetter, became one of the most popular performers in his Central Texas area. "He'd be singing in a church one day, singing at a house of ill-repute the next," said a retired Wortham postmaster. In 1917, he caught a train for Dallas, seventy miles to the north.
At the time of Lemon's arrival in Dallas, the black population of the city was undergoing a rapid expansion. It was the time of the Great Migration which saw hundreds of thousands of rural Southern blacks leave for northern cities like Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit. At the same time, many simply migrated to the nearest Southern city to take advantage of higher paying jobs which resulted from the Great War. Sometimes, this was a first step on the longer journey, but often they just stayed in the Southern cities. Even before the U.S. entered the War, American industry was producing more and more material for the European war machines. Then, when America did enter the war, millions of white workers joined the military, thus creating employment opportunities for blacks and women.
During this period, black singers from various parts of Texas and from Louisiana were becoming quite conspicuous in Dallas. In such a rich musical atmosphere, Blind Lemon Jefferson influenced other singers and was, in turn, influenced by them. In his singing he expressed all of the loneliness and poverty of the dry empty fields of Central Texas where he had his roots. (Uzzel)
Huddie claimed that he helped Blind Lemon get around and that the two played music together. At least three other famous black singers have also laid claim to guiding the blind singer around. Josh White started as a boy early in South Carolina, and Blind Lemon is only one of several blind street singers he claimed to have guided. Later he was to play the role of "Blind Lemon" in a short-lived Broadway production which starred Paul Robeson. Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, who came from Centerville, Texas, and T-Bone Walker of Dallas, also led Blind Lemon, helped him fill his tin cup, and picked up some songs and guitar licks. T-Bone recalled:
Blind Lemon I remember well. Though I was only a kid, he had me to lead him around. He kept the guitar strapped on his chest, a tin cup on the neck, and on Central Avenue, people stopped to listen, clinking coins so he could hear them drop. Afterwards, I'd guide him back up the hill, and Mama would fix supper. She'd pour him a little taste, and they'd sit quiet for a while. Later on, if they played, Marco and I would listen, or Marco would get out his bass. (Dance 11)
T-Bone Walker later moved to Los Angeles and became an innovator on the electric blues guitar; he was born in Dallas in 1910. His mother played guitar, and his step-father, Marco, could play an assortment of stringed instruments. His comments were transcribed in a 1987 biography by Helen Oakley Dance. T-Bone said that his mother was a good enough guitarist to have played with Huddie Ledbetter, more than once, during Huddie's visits to Australia's house at Central and Allen in Dallas.
"Australia [Carr] stayed in Huddie's house after Huddie left and went to Terrell, and she stayed there in Huddie's house when she was married to Allen Davis. After she separated from her husband, she went to Dallas, and that's where she died." (Queenie)
"[Australia] played, but not like Uncle Huddie. She wasn't skilled like he was, but she could play, and they played together. They had a way of tuning the guitar so they would have melody, you know, blend like more than one part." (Irene)
During the late 1920's, about ten years after Huddie knew him, Blind Lemon Jefferson became the most popular male blues singer of the decade. His influence on commercial black music, and thus on the whole of black America, is enormous: he charted the course of the blues up until the present time. Some blues scholars consider him "the greatest of the early country blues singers, the first to codify blues in the form that is familiar to us today " (Harris 276).
“Lemon sang things he wrote himself, about life, about good times and bad. Mostly bad, I guess. Everyone knew what he was singing about.” (T-Bone Walker)
Deep Ellum was an African American community that engulfed maybe five or six blocks on Central Avenue, and extended for about two blocks on Elm Street. The crossroads, Central and Elm, was where trucks from white plantations came to hire black laborers to pick cotton. Blind Lemon Jefferson stood on that corner, too, and it was likely that Huddie Ledbetter met him there while waiting for a ride to the fields. Black folks gathered round the street singer, but the whites went about their business on Elm Street. There were Jewish shopkeepers, secondhand clothing stores, pawnshops on the other side of the same block. The railroad tracks ran up Central Avenue and the street was lined with dance halls, Fat Jack's Theater, the Tip Top Club, shoeshine parlors, and beer joints.
[Lemon] was a little chunky fellow who wasn't only a singer. He was a bootlegger and when he'd get back home he had such a sensitive ear. He didn't want his wife to drink. Well, when he'd go away, she'd take two or three drinks out of the bottle and she'd think he wouldn't know it. But he'd take the bottle when he came home and say, "Hey, how you doin' baby? How'd we do today?"
"Nobody bought no whiskey."
Well, he'd take the bottle and shake it, and he could hear that there were two or three drinks missing. And what he'd do, he'd beat the hell out of her for that. (Sam Price)
According to Huddie, he and Blind Lemon Jefferson made lots of money whenever they played together. One favorite source of income for the two minstrels was the interurban rail system that ran between Dallas, Fort Worth and towns to the east and south. The conductor let them ride for free as they arranged two seats facing one another, got out their guitars and serenaded the passengers. In his introduction to the song "Silver City" on Leadbelly's Last Sessions, Huddie explained:
“We used to play all up and around Dallas, Texas, Fort Worth; we'd just get on the train — in them times you'd get on a interurban. That interurban run from Waco, to Dallas; Corsicana, Waxahatchie, from Dallas, and then they had an interurban that run from there to Fort Worth. We'd get out two guitars, we'd just ride any[where] — wouldn't have to pay no money in them times. We'd get on the train, ride to Terrill, Texas, anywhere we wanted to go. Well, we'd just get on, the conductor said, "Boys, sit down, y'all going to play music," we told him, "Yes, we're just out collecting money," — that's what we wanted — extra money. And so we'd sit down and turn the seats over and he'd sit in front of me and I'd sit down, then, we'd start. Now just to remember him I'll just do this little number.
[They've] got a Silver City out there, too. We always go through Silver City, and when we get on the bus, we're Silver City bound first. A lot of pretty girls out there, and that's what we were looking for. You know, we like for women to be around, 'cause when women are around, that bring mens, and we'll get money. 'Cause when you get out there, the women get to drinking and not thinking, and just fall all up on you, and that makes us feel good and we tear them guitars all to pieces. Never would quit playing.”
Silver City bound, Silver City bound,
Gonna tell my baby, I'm Silver City bound,
And me and Blind Lemon,
Gonna ride on down.
Blind Lemon - oh, baby
He was a blind man.
“That was a place out from Dallas called Silver City. That was me and Blind Lemon's hangout, you know. We had about twenty-five or thirty girls apiece out there, and we'd just go out, you know. . . and have a good time. (Last Sessions)
"Silver City" does not appear on any maps of the Dallas-Fort Worth area; from the way Huddie talks, it likely refers to a black area in the bottom land by the Trinity River, the area which the interurban traversed after leaving the Dallas terminal on the way to Fort Worth. Huddie said he gathered several musicians around himself and even serenaded rich white people. But Huddie has been known to tell tall stories.
“Here's a song I composed about my friend Blind Lemon. We was running together for so many years in Dallas. He went away and he stayed away from his wife and they didn't get together until they were seventy-five years old apiece. And his wife lied down and dreamed about him one night and she woke up on the second night, here's what she said:
Dreamed last night and all night night before
Heard my baby knocking on my door.”
It turns aout that the song, "Blind Lemon," provides an opportunity for Huddie to showcase his 12-string guitar playing. He makes his instrument sound like a piano. Although he played several different instruments, the mandolin was most prominent until he saw a man at a traveling circus with a twelve-string guitar; he had to have one for himself (Lomax, “Negro” 9). In later years he would bill himself "King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World." It was mentioned in his Newsweek obituary (51) Indeed, on one occasion Huddie explained his taking up the twelve-string in the following tongue-in-cheek story.
One night he was playing at a sukey jump with a regular guitar and one of his strings broke; but since a pretty woman was eyeing him, he kept on playing. Then another string broke and she started coming on to him and he kept on playing and she kept on flirting until he had only one string left. "I played that one string 'cause I liked that thing, but I made up my mind right then that I'd go out and get me a twelve-string guitar" (Lee, "Lead Belly" 137).
In December, 1917, "Walter Boyd" got into "tall trouble," the most memorable event to round out a memorable year. Some sort of argument with a couple of acquaintances landed him in jail again, this time charged with murder and assault. He never denied to the Lomaxes that he had killed; he said that the man "shouldn' been messin' wid" him. Ledbetter's account of the event, as retold by John Lomax, is not the only one available, but it is the one that has been handed down, with slight embellishments, to the present time. This is the story as written by Lomax:
On December 13, 1917, Walter Boyd (alias Huddie Ledbetter) was lodged in the New Boston, Texas, jail charged with murder and assault. He had started out through the river bottom one evening late to a dance. Two of his friends were along and he was armed, presumably because the bottom was a dangerous place at night. Alex Griffin began to "jive" Will Stafford about the way his girl had been playing around with other men. Walter Boyd's name was drawn into the talk and Stafford drew a pistol. Walter Boyd shot Stafford through the middle of his forehead . . . . (“Negro” 14)
Paul Oliver, the English blues scholar whose work is highly regarded, made this account into official blues history on page 55 of his 1969 opus, “Story of the Blues.” In the January 1, 1988, edition of the Shreveport “Journal Magazine,” Phil Martin did a story on Ledbetter to mark the singer's induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He may have got the story from Oliver, or he may have got it direct from Lomax. It's the same story, slightly dramatized:
“. . . three men made their way across the river bottoms near New Boston, Texas, on their way to a dance . . . . They were musicians, and they were nominally partners, and it is among such men that things like what happened usually happen. Alex Griffin said something about a woman — a prostitute — that Will Stafford had taken up with. Stafford was offended, and the guitar player, a powerful, heavy man with a smile-shaped scar ringing his neck who called himself Walter Boyd, stepped in. Maybe Stafford's last mistake was pulling a pistol, maybe that is only the story that they tell. But the court records contend Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Walter Boyd, . . . shot Stafford dead on the spot.” (12)
In this way, as in many other instances, the story told to Lomax has simply been passed down through two generations, embellished but virtually unchanged. But is the story true? Huddie's cousin Blanche Love said that he always told her the truth; she is sure that he never killed anyone. The version of the incident that he told her was of a big fight amongst some itinerant cotton pickers at DeKalb, Texas, in which one man ended up dead "when the dust settled." Huddie stayed by the body of the man, Will Stafford, who was married to Mary, a cousin of his. He was next to the body when the law arrived. The evidence against him in court centered on his wearing running shoes matching the footprints in the dust. Later, it was revealed that all the other men, the ones who had run off, were wearing the same kind of running shoes, but Huddie was sentenced for murder and nobody showed any interest in reviewing the case (Ousler 20).
Queenie Davidson said she knew nothing about the details of the killing, except that Will Stafford was her cousin Mary's husband.
Ledbetter, as Walter Boyd, was certainly jailed in 1917. He remained in the custody of the state of Texas, in the Shaw State Prison Farm and in Sugar Land penitentiary, until January1924. He had been sentenced to thirty years for the killing at DeKalb.
DeKalb blues, babe, make me feel so bad
Mmmmm DeKalb blues, babe, make me feel so bad
Just to think about the times I once have had.
Bad man comin', comin' wid his gun
Now there's a bad man comin', comin wid his gun
I ain't got a gun but I ain' gonna run (J. Lomax, “Negro” 141).