February 8, 2011

1991 letter to Sean Killeen

Myself with Sean in Ithaca, NY.
I wrote the following letter in (I think) 1990, when Sean started his newsletter, "The Lead Belly Letter." He tried 4 issues a year for a couple of years, but eventually went down to 3, 2 and finally zero, (by 1996), but the Letters were full of fascinating information for Leadbelly fans. People wrote about their personal experiences with Leadbelly; there were contemporary reports about concerts; I wrote a couple of things I found out and my wife Marsha wrote a piece about his horse. (These are republished here in this blog.) I would like to go ahead and put all his Letters on line, but I don't know who to call. Sean, who was a tremendous fan, has gone now, but his work remains and could be shared.

Sean Killeen, Editor
The Lead Belly Letter
P.O. Box 6679
Ithaca, New York 14851.

Dear Sean:

       Thanks for the first two issues of the Lead Belly Letter, and for the clipping from the Ithaca Journal. I felt the same way as you when I started writing my thesis on the life of Huddie Ledbetter — I was surprised by the lack of written information about his life. 
       I had been a fan since my undergraduate days in college in the early '60's and I had always assumed that his biography was under control. After studying what there was available - particularly the Lomax book, "Negro Folk Songs as Sung By Lead Belly," - my interim conclusion is that most of what has been written is misleading. The Lead Belly Letter, then, is a wonderful opportunity for people to share information and opinions.
       Since I wrote my thesis, which was based largely on newspaper and magazine articles and the aforementioned Lomax book, I have taken to the field in search of further information. Since I live in Shreveport, the field is not so far off. 
       I would like to throw out a couple of ideas for general consideration. The first has to do with the name "Lead Belly." I am uncomfortable with it, and would be interested in hearing Huddie's feelings about it. I think Lomax simply misunderstood the name Ledbetter and decided that the nickname suited his purposes. But, did Huddie ever happily refer to himself as Lead Belly? His cousin Blanche Love was quoted as saying, "The name is 'Ledbetter!'," and I get the impression that the family is quite rightly proud of the name Ledbetter. 
       During his career as a singer in the Caddo Lake region, he was referred to, by his many fans, as Huddie, or Mister Huddie, and as far as I can tell, the name Lead Belly wasn't applied until after the meeting with Lomax. Does anybody have any different information to contribute? I don't think Huddie cared for the name Lead Belly.
       Idea number two: was Huddie really "a wandering balladeer who traveled extensively throughout the South and Southwest" as the writer of the Ithaca Journal states? I know he traveled extensively after he was released from Angola in 1934, but before that? He certainly came to Shreveport, but that's only about twenty miles from his home place. He also went to Dallas and Terrell, Texas, but he had family in Terrell and a girl friend in Dallas. And, unfortunately for him, he spent some time in New Boston, Texas, during cotton-picking season. These places are all within East Texas, and Shreveport is just over the Louisiana border. 
      There is some evidence to show that he spent most of his life until 1917 working on his family farm; and that he returned to Caddo Lake for the 1925 to 1930 period, working a day job and performing at local house parties. It's possible that he was much less a rambler; much more a member of a community. Does anybody have any further thoughts on this idea?
      What about Huddie's relationship with Lemon Jefferson? I understand there has been a certain amount of research into Jefferson's life, but I haven't seen much published information. There was a totally misleading article by Paul Oliver about thirty* years ago, and the things Huddie said about his relationship with Lemon tend to confuse the issue. For instance: were they really running around together in 1904, when Lemon was 11, and Huddie 16? It would be wonderful to shed more light there. Is anybody out there working on Lemon Jefferson? 
      There is certainly a great way to go in Ledbetter research and, at the moment, there is no more valuable tool than the Lead Belly Letter. 
Thanks, Sean.
                                      All the best,
                                       Monty Brown
*the early 1960's

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