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.|
|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!
"Governor Neff been here and gone,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,
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.|
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.
“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.