February 27, 2008

Leadbelly's Nieces: an Interview

Several years ago I went to visit Irene Campbell (aged 86) in Marshall, Texas. She was a retired schoolteacher; she'd attended Bishop College in Marshall and taught at the local schools, starting in the 1930's, before integration, and retired in the 1970's; which would have been about the time that segregation was ending in Texas.
Irene had caused a bit of a storm with the Louisiana relatives of Leadbelly when she'd requested that his grave site be moved over the line to Texas, because she felt that was really his home. So I went to talk to her about her Uncle Huddie. She was related through Huddie's half-brother Alonzo Batts, Irene's father. She surprised me at the interview by introducing me to her elder sister, Viola (aged 89.). This is a segment of an interview with the Batts sisters, Irene Campbell and Viola Daniels on March 14, 1991.

Me: Do you remember the songs that Huddie sang?
Irene: Some of them.
Me: When you were kids.
Irene: "Goodnight Irene," I know that.
Me: (With a laugh) Sounds like he wrote that for you.
Irene: Yes he did, he did. Really, this Mr. Myers, we called him Miles — Sterling Miles, but later I found out his name was Myers, — said he was there when Uncle Huddie wrote the song. They came through, they'd been out, and passed by my mother — he [Huddie] called her "Big Sister". "Big Sister, I'm drunk, and I'm hungry, fix me something to eat." She told him, "Well, you keep the baby while I fix something to eat." He was keeping the baby and wrote this song. "Goodnight Irene." Now that's what Mr. Myers said.
Me: Who's Mr. Myers?
Irene: He was his friend. Sterling Mi - well, we said Miles, but his name was Myers. He hasn't been dead so long either.
Me: Is there anybody else who's still living who was there?
Irene: There's a man, I think his name is Russell, but I don't know him. He says he knows Uncle Huddie. And he can play something, but he doesn't play it with the same tune that Uncle Huddie had. He can't even play "Goodnight Irene" with the same tune. (Irene turns to her sister, Viola.) Do you know anybody living now that knew Uncle Huddie?
Viola: The one I know would be already dead I guess - Roscoe Jamieson ?
Irene: He's dead.
Viola: He would be the one that would come into the house, regularly. See, all these people would meet him 'down yonder' didn't come to the house, you know. Cause what they had going down there, those songs, he didn't play at the house. So we had a wonderful time with our hymns and songs that we sang. . .
Irene: Games - what you call (sings)

I measure my love to show you
I measure my love to show you
We have a game to do. . .

Songs that you can act out. What is this you go in and out the window?

In and out the window, for we have a game today.

Viola: I forgot that one.
Irene: And what were some other play songs that we used to have?
Viola: "Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer" - that sort of thing. "Skip to My Lou, my darling." We'd do the skipping.
Irene: "I measure my love to show you" you know, those were the sort of things he would play for us and we would do them out on the lawn, out in the yard. And we'd have, uh, "Goodbye Mary, I hate to leave you,"
Viola: And then I notice in this children's book they've started this "Wild Goose." . . .

Irene: (takes up the recollection) . . . the bird would come from heaven a certain time of the year. He was so large that his wings would cover the sky. It would get dark. And he would say "QUA, QUA" (laughter) and when you see this bird coming over, you tell him what you want him to tell your loved ones in heaven when he gets back, and you give him what you want him to tell, and he'd say "QUA-K-QUA" and he just pass on over and then it get light again. Cause it was black as night while he was passing over. And I can't sing - can you remember some more songs we would sing when this bird was coming over? But the tale is that the group of them went hunting and the big eagle - big bird - came over and they shot him and it took - how long did it take him to fall? -
Viola: I don't remember that.
Irene: So many years, I think it was eight years to fall, and then he fell, and then - eight hours! it took him a long time to fall. And then they decided they would cook him and they put him on to cook and it took that same length of time for him to cook, and they cooked him and they got him boiled, done, and then when they got him ready to eat, he flew away (laughter). That was a tall tale!
Viola: That's what the children -
Irene: That's what Huddie would tell us and we were there spellbound, listening.
Viola: You were listening, I don't know where I was, I didn't hear that one. I'd get part of it, I didn't get the other part of it.
Irene: Boiled him and boiled him and he finally flew away. Now he has that in music. That record would get it straight, because I have it all twisted. I know it was a ridiculously long time. Falling and cooking and finally flew away. That was just a tale to make the kids laugh. He loved children. I think, cause he took so much time with us.

It's always been said that Huddie Ledbetter was a great children's entertainer and these two ancient ladies gave a glimpse into that aspect of Huddie's life.


Anonymous said...

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The Author said...

Hi, like your blog, I'm a fan of Lead Belly too. I have a short article about him on my blog. Feel free to take a look, I think I got all my facts right!


casio hardcore said...

Hello there! I just found your blog and it's AMAZING. I've spent the past few hours reading your articles about Huddie and I'm totally blown away! Much respect to you for your hard work!

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