February 23, 2008

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.


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.

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