Oscar Brand was a Canadian folk singer and storyteller who emceed the Folk Song Festival on WNYC (New York) radio from 1945 until he died in 2016 at 95 years of age. However, and this is the danger of memory, he was wrong about Leadbelly being at the "home-from-the-war party." Huddie was in California.
Mary Elizabeth Barnicle hosted a farewell party for Huddie on May 5th, 1944; but perhaps he didn't leave New York right away. During the month of June one report puts him playing a high school prom at the fashionable Essex House on Central Park South.
At some point, though, he boarded a train for the Coast; he wrote home from L.A., and in July he had a gig. According to the People's World, "he is in Hollywood, where, appropriately enough, he will spend the summer working in films and singing at People's World parties. . . ." On July 8th, Huddie appeared at a Peoples' World concert at Hollywood's Masonic Temple.
|The Masonic Temple (2013), with banners |
advertising TV's Jimmy Kimmel Show.
He was to remain in California for a year and a half. By October, '44, he was cutting sides for Capitol records, a small label at the time which soon became an industry giant. Capitol grew by recording artists like Nat "King" Cole who had tremendous commercial success; Ledbetter was not a money-maker, but his Capitol recordings are still available. He did "Irene," "The Rock Island Line," and six other songs, accompanied by a zither player, Paul Mason Howard. Oddly enough, Howard, a white, country-style player, came from Arkansas via Shreveport, but whether this had anything to do with his inclusion in the session is not known.
In a separate recording session for Capitol, Huddie did a couple of piano tunes which reflected his early Fannin Street influences.
Dave Dexter, Capitol Records
| Dave Dexter (C) and some of |
the artists he recorded.
record producer Dave Dexter, Jr. in his autobiography, “Playback,” which was published in 1976. He was seeking to distance himself from any possible political 'taint' with his remark about People's World. He needn't have worried; the Capitol sessions were remastered yet again for Compact Disc in the 1990's, and they continue to sell.
Jessica Mitford, "A Fine Old Conflict."
|Jessica with daughter Constanza (1942)|
One of Huddie's "left-wing writer" associates was Jessica Mitford, ("The American Way of Death.") of England's famous Mitford sisters. This was not a glamorous Hollywood connection, however. Ms. Mitford lived in San Francisco, later Oakland, and was very much involved politically as a civil rights activist. She came from an unorthodox family, given to extremism. Her father she described as "one of nature's fascists." Her sisters included Nancy Mitford, the novelist who was closest to the political center; another sister, Diana, married the leader of Britain's fascist movement, Sir Oswald Mosley; a third was actually associated with Hitler's inner circle in Germany, while another was confined to a mental institution. Jessica, however, became a communist during the Spanish Civil War. She migrated to the United States and, after her first husband was killed in the War (1941), wed Harvard-educated Bob Truehaft, a lawyer who specialized in defending left-wing unions and cases of Civil Rights abuse.
In her autobiography, “A Fine Old Conflict,” Jessica Mitford writes of the amusing problems often related to the visits of her upwardly mobile mother-in-law Aranka, a milliner from New York:
Somehow the timing of Aranka's visits seemed always to be unfortunate. Once she arrived when Leadbelly, the great blues singer, had come to stay for a fortnight. ‘But, Aranka, we've only got one spare bedroom. I do hope you won't mind sharing?’ Aranka, not amused, elected to sleep on the living room couch.
Leadbelly was already a legend. He had sung his way out of a Louisiana prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder, by addressing musical pleas for clemency to the governor, whom he charmed into granting a pardon. His real name was Huddie Ledbetter: he had adopted Leadbelly as his ‘nom de theatre’ in nostalgic recollection of the numerous gunfights of his youth.
He was very large and very black. He would come down to breakfast wearing a long stark-white nightshirt, from which protruded his sable limbs and head; the visual effect was spectacular. Soon the house would ring with his wonderful music, daily concerts for the children, for whom he improvised special songs.
He and Aranka were ill-assorted houseguests; they would circle one another warily, with little to say. "Oh, Decca" — Aranka sighed wistfully — "I wish I was black like Leadbelly. Then you would love me."
Ross Russell, Tempo Music Shop.
Back in Southern California, where he stayed at the home of his cousin George Pugh, he met a music shop owner named Ross Russell. The meeting took place at the home of a Hollywood writer and after that, Huddie took to dropping in at Russell's Tempo Music Shop. Russell entertained the idea of putting together a biography, but before he could get very far with the project, Huddie had returned to the East.
One night, Russell accompanied Ledbetter and some others on a pub crawl in the black section of Los Angeles, and thus discovered how easy it was for the singer to get into trouble. After a few drinks, Ledbetter produced his guitar and virtually took over a tavern with his entertaining. Two young women "almost forty years his junior" took a shine to Huddie, much to the annoyance of their escorts, and it was only with some difficulty that the group managed to pry him loose from the place unscathed.
Paramount Pictures had optioned John Lomax's book, “Adventures of a Ballad Hunter,” and there was some talk of including Huddie in the film version. He did have some film footage taken, but it was not what he'd hoped for. He was filmed singing three songs without sound. Pete Seeger later dubbed in the sound of Huddie's voice, thus creating the only extant visual record of Huddie singing, now available on You Tube.
Huddie was rebuffed by some film studio executive, and later wrote about it in a song, "4, 5, and 9." While he was at a party, Huddie met a movie producer and asked about getting a screen test. "Sure," laughed the exec, "call me up tomorrow at 45 to 9." This was apparently an inside joke which translated as a brush-off, and for Huddie, a humiliation:
What I'm gonna do for you now —
I called my baby between 4, 5 and 9
And meet my baby on Hollywood and Vine.
Ever been to California? In Hollywood, you know, that's the way it is.
I called this morning between 4, 5 and 9
I want you to meet me on Hollywood and Vine.
If you get down there before I do
You can tell your friends that I'm coming, too.
I'm gonna sing this verse, ain't a-gonna sing no more
Next time I sing, I'm gonna be in Chicago.
Back to New York.
Just after he was discharged from the army, folksinger Oscar Brand, weighing his career possibilities, decided that most of all he'd like to write for radio or stage. He approached several New York radio stations about doing a program of Christmas music which would be unlike the standard popular fare. He received responses from WEAF, WNEW, and from Herman Neumann at WNYC. Neumann was responsible for programming music which was alternative to the vaudeville and big band sounds on the commercial stations; he also programmed folk music and jazz.
So he called on me, he said, "I'm very much interested, do you want to do a program?" December the 10th, just before Christmas. I said, "Sure." I came on and did the program and as I was finished doing a bunch of songs and talking about them and their meanings for a half an hour, he said, "What are you doing next week?" I said, "Well, what would you like?" He said, "Well, come back, try another one."
I came back next week which put me right in front of Christmas and did another Christmas program about the kind of songs we do and how they were made up songs for people who couldn't read, and what they got out of the Bible. I did some gospel songs, old Appalachain songs, Canadian songs, and when I finished I walked by the office and waved at Herman Neumann, waved expectantly and hopefully, and he said, "Listen, if you're not doing anything next week, come on back," and that's the way I've been working for WNYC now since 1945.
[1992 Interview. In 2016, Oscar Brand's program, "Folk Song Festival," was finally off the air. According to the Guinness Book of Records it is the all-time longest-running radio program with the same host. In the mid-90's it received a Peabody Award.]
Later, Brand was asked to coordinate folk music programs for WNYC radio. He found Huddie already broadcasting for the station and since he was an old friend, "coordinating" consisted mainly of walking down the hall on the twenty-fifth floor of the Municipal Building, which housed the WNYC studios, and waving to Huddie during his broadcasts on "Folk Song Festival." He also did a half-hour program called "The Brandwagon" for which he wrote scripts and got together actors. During the week he sometimes traveled to Johnson City, N.Y., or Detroit, Michigan, to sing for striking workers under the banner of Peoples Songs.
Discussions between many of the leading folksingers resulted in the formation of People's Songs, Inc., a politically active group which not only put out a magazine but also organized "Hootenannies" and gave concerts in support of striking workers in Pittsburg, Schenectady, and New York City.
The hootenannies were mainly to support the publication which, by 1948, also included a booking agency known as "People's Artists," as well as chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
Oscar Brand and me, New York, 1992.
Interview with Oscar Brand who hosted the world's longest- running folk music program (Folk Song Festival, 1945 to 2016) on WNYC, New York, now the Public Radio flagship radio station.
Me: Was it the People's Songs organization that brought these people (the folksingers) together?
Pete Seeger, whose ideas are often far-fetched, ridiculous, but who always manages to bring them about, came to me. He wanted to start a magazine. You have to know that in those days, there were very few books about folk music, and when they were they were bowdlerized and changed and certainly no political material. The only one who really was doing anything in that area was Ben Botkin. Ben was the curator of the Archives of American Folk Music. As had been Alan Lomax, Ben followed him and Alan followed his father and his father followed a gentleman whose name I keep forgetting but who was the first. And they had really set up this whole archive, at the Library of Congress.
Alan and Pete always had these marvelous ideas and Pete came over to me and he said, "I'd like to start a magazine, or newsletter, with all the new songs and send them round the country, so that we'd know what we're writing, or what they're writing, and they'll send to us.
And that was really a remarkable idea because except for Ben Botkin's books which came out later, I believe, there was nothing contemporary. People didn't think of contemporary music as folk music, everybody was busy catching the dying trade, the last folksinger who when he died would take with him all his songs and so on. I mean, that's the way it was. You just couldn't do anything contemporary. There was no more creation, the rural atmosphere was going, there were factories, you see, instead of handwork, ships no longer had sailors singing, supposedly which was a lot of baloney. People always sing whether the Knights of Columbus, the Boy Scouts, they're always making up new songs and new parodies of material.
So Pete's idea was really revolutionary. We started working on it. It was a mimeograph situation with materials I had left over from my army days and then the newspaper came out, the newsletter came out and it did very well. It didn't make a lot of money, but nobody was paid so that didn't cost much. People were donating their services and paper and, we sent it out all around and then it became a little more formalized and I was leaving about then because I discovered it was being run by what was basically a communist cell.
Although a lot of the people involved were not, still I felt the people running it were doctrinaire, except for Pete. I know there was a meeting, in fact, was I at this meeting, it wasn't the Party, it was just the general board of directors meeting, there was a complaint from a group which was meeting in Yale or Harvard, I forget, that the songs were all political, didn't they know any other songs, or weren't there any new songs being written that were not leftwing political? Question was whether to stop sending it to them, and to blacklist them and so on, Pete said, "No, you can't do that!" which means he was standing up continually against the dictates of the Party.
I didn't know he was a member of the Party until I read the book about him recently, where they interviewed me, and I said, "No, no, Pete wasn't, couldn't have been a member of the Party," and they said, "He says he was." [laughs]
So that started People's Songs, the publication. In a little while people called in and said, "Who's going to sing these songs, see, Oscar Brand wrote a song here, does he sing it? Can we get him?" So they started a booking agency called People's Songs also. I remember Bina Huston, Cisco Huston's, I don't know whether he was married to her but it was Cisco Huston's wife, in effect, she was the one who was running it, Irwin Silber and others, who were running the agency, and we would get five to ten dollars for going out on a booking, five to ten dollars a lot of money. I think Pete would get 15 sometimes and Leadbelly and Woody would command 25. Once I got $50. I never forget that. You know, you talk about a lot of money, it seems like nothing now. But I remember in those days if you got $50 a week for working a full week's work, that was a lot of money. In fact the first job I had, just before the war, I got $10 a week. I was lucky to have it because I could buy a new coat for that.
Anyway, that's the way the People's Songs started, and I started moving out of it because I began to feel that I was in a hostile atmosphere. Only because they were part afraid of me. And in fact, in about '50 I think it was, '49 or '50, I was attacked by the Daily Worker for saying that censorship was dangerous and that the Soviet Union, not just the Soviet Union, I mentioned a lot of the places I had been, were so doctrinaire that they would not, their belief was that Art should be at the service of the State. And as a consequence, many good songs were being ignored, or just tossed aside, or censored. Because they did not serve the needs of the state at that time.
|Interviewing Tillman Franks|
"Went down to a meeting of a new union of progressive songwriters that call themselves "Peoples Songs," found Pete Seeger and his banjo, the president and Lee Hays (Arkansaw Hard Luck Lee), the vice president. I found Betty Sanders, Leadbelly, (Leadbelly was in California – San Francisco, San Diego & L.A. – until 1946. Oscar was mistaken about that.) Bernie Asbel, Alan Lomax, Bess Lomax, Tom Glazer, Charlotte Anthony, Lou Kleinman, Mildred Linsley, and Shaemas O'Sheel, Bob Russell, there, almost every songwriter pitching in their efforts to make out of all of their little works one big union called 'Peoples Songs.'"
"The reason for Peoples Songs is to shoot your union the kind of a song or songs when you want it and fast. To help you make a songbook, a program,a throwaway songsheet, a whole evening. Or maybe your problem is just about how to make a song and get it copyrighted, printed, circulated around, how to set a fee, and what to do with your works after you create them. I am one of fifteen now on the Executive Committee of Peoples Songs, 130 West 42nd Street, New York City, New York." (Woody Guthrie)
The first issue of the Peoples Songs “Bulletin” was printed on Oscar Brand's mimeograph machine. The call went out for people to submit songs about the working man, repressed minorities and about peace. The war against fascism was over; now was the time to build the brotherhood of man. Idealism was at an all-time high and the “Bulletin” was successful in rousing the interest of a nationwide community of songwriters committed to changing the world through song. The second issue was printed with an offset machine, Bernie Asbell was hired as editor, and Bernie's wife, Millie, became manager of the small, crowded offices on 42nd Street. The Peoples Songs offices became a hub of activity, sending out missionaries to sing for union meetings and picket lines.
Oscar Brand recalls being an activist in the days when union people were being beaten over the head by the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, the police, the National Guard, “and by anybody else who just wanted to beat somebody up, when unions were considered communist organizations, we were out on picket lines. I or Pete, or Cisco Houston, or Woody, or whoever was around, they'd get a phone call, I'd get a phone call, saying, ‘We're having a strike up here, this city or this town.’ And I would figure out, if I take the train it'll take me so long and coming back it'll take me so long, I can just about make it, and away we'd go and do a program. [The union]'d usually pay for the train and sometimes five or ten dollars besides.
I did programs for the Spanish Refugee Appeal, for Russian War Relief, for the American Labor Party; the left wing organizations were extremely eager to have folk music. I made up songs. I remember Elliott Roosevelt was going up to Johnson City, New York, which along with Endicott and Binghampton was owned by Johnson and Johnson at the time, and he said, ‘Would you come up with me. I can speak,’ and he was a lousy speaker but he was the former president's son. We got on the train and we got up there and I'd written a few songs. One of them was to an old tune called "The Johnson Boys:"
The Johnson Boys, they own Tri-City,
They bought it when it first began,
They're so rich it's sure a pity,
They still can't buy a union man.
They can't buy a union man,
They can't buy a union man.
Which made a tremendous hit. And that's the kind of thing we were doing.
Not only old songs: when the Farmers' Union was meeting in New York, I
remember I was working the farms then, I would go up there and sing,
When the banker hangs around
And the butcher cuts the pound,
The farmer is the man who feeds them all.
Oh, the farmer is the man,
The farmer is the man,
He lives on credit til the fall
And they take him by the hand
And they lead him by the hand,
And the mortgage man's the man who gets it all.
Which Coast? Leadbelly cabled Martha from Los Angeles on Feb. 8th, 1946, that he was heading for New York.
Those were good times,  the busy days at People's Songs sometimes running into song-filled nights at the Lower East Side apartment of Martha and Huddie Ledbetter, the black ex-convict folksinger known as Leadbelly, a man all of them Pete, Lee, Woody, Cisco Houston, Alan Lomax, and every folk singer and folk song maven worshiped and learned from.
Lee wished Leadbelly could break the habit of calling them "Mr.Pete" and "Mr.Alan" and "Mr. Lee," but Leadbelly couldn't, or wouldn't. On the other hand, Lee chuckled over the irony (which he pointed out to Pete) that Leadbelly dressed in a dignified shirt-and-tie fashion while Pete, the New England aristocrat, turned up everywhere in farmer's overalls. Pete didn't see the humor at all.
Sometimes Leadbelly would stake Lee to a bottle of bourbon when Lee's always minimal money ran out. Lee swore he sang louder and better with booze lining his vocal chords. Woody and Cisco kept right up with Lee. The nights began to last until the mornings. Pete, never deflected from his work by old-boy carousing, cast a cold eye on theproceedings. Hadn't Lee learned that Pete's patience could give out?
But when Lee stood up and led a hootenanny, Pete had to love him. What could be more effective than this big southern preacher-type calling out, in his marvelous deep bass voice, stingingly funny lines about antediluvian southern congressmen? When you lived in New York City, you couldn't be sure how far protest went in the country. Lee and Woody most especially could make you believe that "the folk" could be pretty durned radical. (Willens 88)
On the liner notes for Cisco [Houston]'s first album, after Cisco's big breakthrough at Gerde's Folk City, Lee wrote, "Cisco fits the scholar's definition of the wandering folk singer as well as anyone except Woody Guthrie, who was a sidekick of Cisco's for a long time. They travelled and sang together, and they both had close personal ties with Martha and Huddie Ledbetter, whose home was, at time, the only one they had. . . ." (Willens 207)
According to banjo-guitarist and New Orleans jazz historian Danny Barker, on 6 January,1946, Huddie recorded an untitled blues with Bunk Johnson and several other players at the Stuyvesant Casino. The Bunk Johnson band recordings were for V-Disc, a U.S. Government-financed project whereby armed forces overseas were provided with free recordings of all types of music. There were several other musicians, including Danny Barker, who recorded that day with Bunk. Bunk's band finished its first gig at the Casino on 12 January.
Danny Barker, Oscar Brand and Woody Guthrie, it must be noted, all placed Huddie in New York around the Christmas holiday season, 1945-46: Barker at the Casino; Brand at WNYC and the "Home-from-the-War" party; and Guthrie at the formative meeting of People's Songs. Huddie was clearly photographed with Bunk Johnson at the Stuyvesant Casino, but that could have been in the Spring of 1946 when Bunk's band returned. It is likely that Barker, Brand and Guthrie were confused about the dates.
On 24th, January, 1946, Leadbelly appeared with the Kid Ory Band on Orson Welles' Standard Oil Broadcast from Los Angeles; on 30 January, he gave an 8 p.m. concert at the YWCA Auditorium, 6th and Pacific in Los Angeles. Ross Russell places his regularly at his Tempo Music Shop on Hollywood Boulevard, and then, on 8 February, he cabled from the Coast: he was about to leave for home. In March he appeared at People's Songs' first public concert at Elizabeth Irwin High School, New York City. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Woody Guthrie were also on the program. From that time on, though he traveled out of town several times, and one time went to France, Huddie based himself in New York.
Late in the afternoon of 27 April, 1946, a Saturday, Huddie gave a recital at Town Hall in New York City. He was accompanied by Sonny Terry, the harmonica player, and the event was written up in the New York Times. The closing number was an audience singalong, "We're in the Same Boat, Brother."
“The songs were heard without sophistication, with no other art than that with which the singer was born and without the benefit of a beautiful voice like Paul Robeson's or Marian Anderson's. The listener heard, instead, precisely what is to be heard today in the hills of the Carolinas, the swamp lands of Mississippi and Louisiana, the small-town theatres and "hot spots" throughout the South. This is the music of the soil, direct from its source, and as Leadbelly sings it, it is filled with an emotion all its own, and is the outpouring of an art that is the simple and genuine expression of that emotion.” ("Huddie Leadbetter Heard")
On Thursday, May 9th, People's Songs, Inc. put on a "Union Hootenanny" at Town Hall. The show featured Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Huddie missed this hoot, but he performed at the Strathmore Folk Festival the following day. At the second seasonal Hoot, the following Thursday, the 16th, Huddie was also absent. [Was he out of town?]
The previous September (1945), a month after the end of the war with Japan, while Huddie was on the West Coast, an extraordinary old time jazz revival had begun to take place in New York City. William Russell was a jazz historian who loved the original New Orleans sound; he had been to the Crescent City during the war years, and there discovered that trumpeter Bunk Johnson, a kind of missing link between the unrecorded Buddy Bolden, and the meteoric Louis Armstrong, was still alive. Bunk played in the sporting houses on Basin Street, in the saloons above Canal Street, and in the bandwagons that rode around town with the slidehorns hanging out over the tailgate. He went barnstorming for as little as $5 a week and tips. Twelve years ago Bunk lost his teeth and gave up playing. A Pittsburgh jazz fan [Russell] found him, a toothless stooped laborer in the rice fields of New Iberia, La., got him some false teeth and raised money for a horn.
Said the New York Herald Tribune highbrow critic Virgil Thomson: "[Bunk] is the greatest master of blues or off-pitch notes. . . an artist of delicate imagination." ("Jazz?")
Russell got Bunk together with a group of traditional jazzmen, most of whom were holding down day jobs of one sort or another, and painstakingly recorded several tunes. The recordings turned out well, and back in New York, Russell was able to pass on his enthusiasm to a circle of friends. They decided to bring the Bunk Johnson band to New York, to show off real New Orleans jazz. The other members of the band were George Lewis, clarinet; Jim Robinson, trombone; Slow Drag Pavageau, bass; Lawrence Marrero, banjo; Alton Purnell, piano; and Baby Dodds on the drums.
Dodds, who was the brother of famed clarinetist Johnny Dodds, had the most impressive credits up to that time. He had gone to Chicago in the 1920's and played with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong; later he backed up Jelly Roll Morton, and made records with most of the famous New Orleans musicians during the Jazz Age. Though they were relatively unknown at the time, the rest of the band members were some of New Orleans finest who went on to establish fine reputations during the traditional jazz revival which started on that autumn evening — in New York — and continued well into the 1950's.
Four hundred people turned out for the opening night at the Stuyvesant Casino, a large ballroom on Second Avenue near East 9th Street, which had mostly been used for ethnic wedding receptions until that night. The Casino was close to where Huddie lived on East 10th Street, an easy walk, and he hung out at the Casino a lot during the band's second booking between April and May. He sat in with the band on several occasions. Included in the crowd on opening night, and probably on many subsequent nights as well, were names connected to Huddie Ledbetter — Fred Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith, Moses Asch. The night was, by all reports, a great success.
The Casino is decorous — the audience is mostly well-behaved youngsters — and simple, in ornamentation as well as in operation. You pay a dollar at the door, go upstairs, sit at whatever table or bench is vacant, and listen. If music is not sufficient food, there are beer and sandwiches, which you fetch yourself from the bar or buy from the Casino's only waiter, the politest and most thoughtful man of his breed I have encountered in some time.
There are, in fact, only two real drawbacks to the whole thing. The piano on the stand is in such a state of decay that Carmen Cavellero shouldn't even have to play "Til the End of Time" on it, and on some nights there is a gathering of intelligentsia that is so intense and audible about this careful reconstruction of another way of life that it is a considerable handicap to those who would rather just sit and listen to the music. (The New Yorker, 20 Oct 45)
Ralph J. Gleason was a writer on the New York scene in the 1940's. A couple of decades later he established a reputation with the national magazine, Rolling Stone, and various other prestigious musical journals. He was introduced to Ledbetter one night at the Stuyvesant Casino, and had this to say of the meeting:
Bunk and New Orleans jazz were intellectually chic that winter and their nightly sessions at the ancient East Side Hall, once the scene of a famous gangland shooting in the early days of New York Mafia wars, were an essential part of everyone's tour of New York. All the musicians and artists and writers from James Jones to Leadbelly stopped there.
Leadbelly sang a couple of numbers with the band. Art Hodes was on the piano that night and it was impossible for a piano to accompany Leadbelly because he didn't sing standard 12-bar blues, in fact, his blues varied from night to night in bar structure as his whim dictated. But most of the time he stayed at the bar.
The Stuyvesant Casino at that time was an incredible place. Admission was low and it was packed with Greenwich Village types, the kind that were then called Bohemians and later evolved into the Beatniks and, still later, their descendants became hippies. Beer was cheap; there was only one waiter and you could stall there all night without spending any money past the admission charge.
The bar was always packed and Leadbelly was pressed up against it, surrounded by a coterie of fans. He was not a tall man at all, but he was broad and chunky and gave the impression of terrific strength. He didn't smile much and implicit in standing next to him was the fact that you were standing next to a convicted murderer. It gave the crowd an added edge of excitement, like standing next to Little Augie Pisano or Tony Bender.
I was introduced to him by a friend from the Coast, and then he went on with his conversation. Suddenly, Leadbelly said, very loud and clear, "Don't fool with me, boy; I don't play." Everybody stopped talking. The silence was achingly oppressive. People slowly began backing away. Suddenly he was no longer that fascinating blues and folk singer with a prison record, but a murderer. He'd killed and he might kill again. And when he said "I don't play," you believed him. Somebody stuttered an apology and everything quieted down. But they all — myself included — looked at him differently from then on. (Gleason)
On Wednesday, September 4th, 1946, Huddie attended a benefit for the National Negro Congress in New York City. He is pictured in a Daily World photo with his guitar strapped on, posing with Sonny Terry, Cisco Houston, and the activist-singer-actor, Paul Robeson. Robeson has been described by his grand-daughter as a renaissance man. He is the only black face in his graduating class from Harvard Law School in 1923; he was an outstanding athlete in high school and college — he played football at Princeton and was good enough to play professionally when he needed the money; without any particular training, he became a concert artist and a stage and screen actor. His most outstanding roles were in Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" and "All God's Chillun Got Wings," as well as a Broadway "Othello" with Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer during the war. He was a linguist, an historian, and an outspoken champion of the rights of African Americans. For this he was labelled a communist; Ledbetter, had he lived a little longer, may have had his moment in front of an Un-American Activities Committee, too, but he was nothing like as outstanding a target as Robeson.
Thursdays that September, at 6 p.m., Huddie was once more singing his songs during a fifteen-minute program on WNYC. On September 29th, a Saturday night, he was concertizing at New York's Town Hall, playing 12-string guitar, accordion, and piano on a variety of folksongs, blues, spirituals and work-songs. He was also aided in the concert by Edith Allaire, "American ballad singer"; Sonny Terry; Cisco Houston, who sang some cowboy songs; guitarist Brownie McGhee who played along on "Irene, Goodnight;" Sue Remos, a dancer from the West Coast; and jazz bassman "Pops" Foster.
LEAD BELLY OFFERS FOLK-MUSIC OF THE SOUTH
Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), old-time American
folk-singer from the deep South appearing with six guest
artists, gave a concert of folk music last night at Town
Hall. To use Lead Belly's own phrase — he talks only in
verse — it was "fine as wine" throughout and gave a fairly
comprehensive picture of the genre.
Playing his own accompaniments on various
instruments, including the twelve-string guitar, the
accordion and the piano, Lead Belly sang spirituals,
reels, blues and work-songs from the levees, the railroads
and the fields.
The authenticity of his renderings gives the songs he
sings their interest, both historical and musical. (Lead Belly Offers)
|Bassist Pops Foster|
"Leadbelly's wife's name was Irene (sic) and the tune of his 'Irene' got to be a big hit. As soon as it did he died. Leadbelly was a mean and evil guy. He was in the penitentiary three times for killing guys and every time he played his way out." (Foster 153)
"Pops" found Huddie difficult, but not impossible, to accompany. He said that he and pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith were the only two people who could play with him. According to Foster, Ledbetter, and other blues singers like Josh White, had no musical training and therefore had no idea which key they were playing in. And, because they generally played solo, they were incapable of keeping time.
"When Willie and I would play with them kinda guys, he'd come around to say, 'We got a hard date today, Pops. A lot of those guys can't even tune their instruments.' "
He was talking about a different musical genre, of course. Clearly Ledbetter was capable of playing with other musicians; he did it regularly at hoots and get-togethers with the folk song crowd. But jazz was a different thing. Many of the jazz players came out of a brass band tradition in which an ability to read music was taken for granted. Many of the jazz groups depended on strict arrangements where the musicians were taken on as "sidemen" to play a particular part, whereas the folk musicians were, to varying degrees, anarchic. Ledbetter had been brought up playing for dances, but he hadn't done that much since he left his audience in Louisiana and Texas, so his rhythms may have become variable. In fact, playing for dances as a single, his rhythms were probably always variable. Like many successful dance bands — Bob Wills' Texas Playboys for instance — he had a tendency to speed up his tempos for the sake of exciting the dancers.
|Willie "The Lion" Smith|
At any rate, Huddie commenced beating the man over the head with a poker, while Foster and the man from Asch made their getaway. When Huddie went to court for assaulting the man, Foster had to go and testify. The judge fined the other man and told him he had no business being in Ledbetter's house.
Pops Foster: “When Leadbelly would get mad he'd just sit and grit his teeth. One time I told him he'd have to play a chord on his guitar or we couldn't make no record. He just sat and started gritting his teeth. I told him he could grit his teeth all day, but if he didn't play the chord we couldn't play with him. He finally played it. Leadbelly was just and evil man. I just made records with him and never hung around with him at all.” (Foster 154)
"Pops" Foster, incidentally, also intensely disliked legendary clarinettist Sidney Bechet.