February 23, 2008

Chapter 7: Leadbelly & Lomax (1934-35)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa, back, buck and gee by the lamb,
Who made the backband?

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

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

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


Sheds White Gloves After Ceremony in Connecticut,
Seizes Guitar and Has Preacher and Deacon Tapping Feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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