Huddie Ledbetter, Annotated Bibliography
The following is a list of books and articles that I had consulted whilst writing a Masters Thesis on Leadbelly. The Thesis was completed in 1989, so anything published since that year would not be on this list. That would include "The Life and Legend of Leadbelly." by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, which was published in 1992, and is certainly recommended reading for anyone seriously interested in Leadbelly. Another resource is "The Lead Belly Letter" which is referred to in this blog. It was published by Sean Killeen between 1990 and 1996. I have put the first edition on this blog because I can't find it anywhere else and I know that Sean passed away several years ago. Here's my old bibliography:
Asch, Moses and Alan Lomax. The Leadbelly Songbook. New York: Oak,1962. 96 p.
Discography and index of songs, photographs and drawings.
This book contains the lyrics, music, and commentaries to 73 songs, including most of the famous ones: "Irene," "Midnight Special," "Fannin Street," and "Bourgeois Blues." There are guitar chords supplied and the book is primarily intended for the use of folk singers. The words are transcribed from 1940's Folkways recordings or from the
private collection of Moses Asch, the owner of Folkways, and the discography refers only to the songs in the book.
For researchers, there are several articles on Ledbetter: a reprint of Frederic Ramsey's "Leadbelly's Legacy," and appreciations by Charles E. Smith, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Moses Asch, all of whom knew Huddie personally. There is a blues poem by Sonny Terry, "Best of Friends," and a photograph of Huddie and his wife, Martha. Also, every page is decorated with a drawing or photograph having to do with black culture.
Brand, Oscar. The Ballad Mongers. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1962. 240 p. Index and selected bibliography.
Folk singer Oscar Brand was born in Canada. He was attracted to the folk scene in New York in the late 1930's and became friendly with Ledbetter, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger and other leading lights in the folk music revival. He helped to form People Songs, Inc., a group that published contemporary folk songs and performed at hootenannies, concerts, strikes, and other politically-motivated gatherings. Brand was folk music coordinator for radio station WNYC in New York (circa 1945), when Huddie was singing on the station.
The book, which is a general overview of folk music in America as it appeared to Brand in the early 1960's, contains remarks and anecdotes which place Huddie in the context of the New York folk scene. It supplies a small amount of helpful information.
Dixon, R.M.W. and John Godrich. Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1942. Harrow, England: Steve Lane, 1963. 765 p.
This is an alphabetical listing, with an index of sidemen who accompanied the listed artists and groups. The authors try to be exclusive in their interpretation of the genres, blues and gospel, otherwise they might still be compiling. They have used written records from major recording companies such as Victor, Columbia, Okeh and Paramount, as well as the libraries of collectors. It seems like a lifetime's work, and the pages are cheaply printed, but the material is invaluable to the blues scholar. There are many local or regional recordings that are omitted, but it is amazing how much remains, and how useful it is for cross-referencing.
The authors, two Englishmen, call their work part of a sociological study of Negro folk music. "We have attempted to list every distinctively Negroid folk music record made up to the end of 1942." The listed records were made mostly by large national companies for an (almost) exclusively black audience. A few entries by white singers such as Jimmie Davis and Jimmie Rodgers are included because they are clearly blues recordings.
Floyd, Samuel A. Jr. and Marsha J. Reisser. Black Music in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus International, 1983. 234 p. Index.
An excellent research tool itself, this book itemizes research tools for study in concert music, jazz, spirituals, minstrelsy, musical theater, etc. There are ten blues books listed, three of which are by Paul Oliver. There is no indexing of Ledbetter, which seems an important omission, though he is mentioned within some of the annotations. Also mentioned are holdings such as the New Orleans jazz club collection at the Louisiana State Museum, anthologies of printed music, and record collections in anthology form.
Garvin, Richard M. and Edmond G. Addeo. The Midnight Special. New York: Bernard Geis, 1971.
Subtitled "The Legend of Leadbelly," this is an acknowledged work of fiction. The authors have taken two John Lomax books, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly and Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, created a composite character from the various prison inmates therein, and called him Leadbelly.
They have expanded one minor Lomax character, a friendly prison warden, to give him a major role in Leadbelly's life. Were it not for the note at the beginning which claims enormous amounts of research into the subject, and the overall impression that they are actually telling the story of Leadbelly, this book could be ignored. As it is, however, the book deserves to be vilified for its misleading information, poor writing, and lurid sensationalism.
Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who. New Rochell, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1979. 775 p. Illustrated with photographs.
This is an alphabetical listing of major blues performers, many of whom are also pictured. There are two columns of information per page. Ledbetter is given a half-page photograph and two-and-a-half pages of print, which testifies to his considerable importance. Information is compact: abbreviations are used extensively, e.g., "served as leadman for Blind Lemon Jefferson on streets of West Dallas, TX, c.1912;" and,"film bio LEADBELLY released 1976." Career highlights are listed; also, recording sessions, club dates, songs, and instruments played. There is a brief bibliography and a list of references used by the author.
The information is necessarily brief and, by itself, could be misleading. For instance, Huddie's trip to the Coast: "worked local folk clubs/concert dates/private parties, Hollywood, CA, area, 1944-6; appeared on own show, KRE-radio, Los Angeles, CA, 1945." This makes it sound like a busy and successful trip, which it was not.
Other North Louisiana performers, Jesse and Ramblin' Thomas, and Oscar Woods, are mentioned briefly in the Who's Who, but the author has not done a lot of deep research. An update is needed.
Kinkle, Roger D. The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1974.
This other Arlington House publication contains a brief Ledbetter biography which sticks to the facts and does not wander into mythology. For example, it reports that he was jailed three times for violent crimes, which is true. "Club appearances" and "belated recognition" are mentioned, but there are no "extensive concert tours" which make it sound as though he achieved financial success in his lifetime (which he did not). There is an abbreviated discography. This is useful for someone with a passing interest.
Leadbitter, Mike and Neil Slaven. Blues Records, 1943-1966. London: Hanover, 1968. 425 p.
This book takes up (as is indicated by the dates) where Blues and Gospel Records, 1902-1942 leaves off. A more professionally printed book that its predecessor, it is a listing of blues performers only. It also excludes non-blues material by the listed performers. Thus, not everything Ledbetter recorded after 1942 is included. "As this artist has recorded in the true folk vein, only sessions thought to be of interest to blues collectors are listed."
Written by two Englishmen, this book is a most valuable resource for the serious blues scholar. There is an added complexity for the compilers of this later work: until 1942, all records were 78 r.p.m. singles; after 1948, the long-playing record was introduced; and in the early 1950's, the 45 r.pm. Perhaps that is why they left out gospel records.
Lee, Hector. "Notes and Queries: Some Notes on Lead Belly." Journal of American Folklore 76 (1963): 135-140.
This article grew out of a 1946 meeting between the Ledbetters and the author. Lee was the impresario for a concert which Huddie gave at a hall in Salt Lake City. He arranged lodging, paid the bills, organized the publicity, and gave a party for Huddie and Martha at his house after the concert. There was also a children's concert, which was more successful than that given to the general public. However, the house party was the most successful of all because Huddie was more relaxed. Lee made some recordings on a wire recorder and transcribed some of the performances from the party. A recording of "Frankie and Albert" resulted in an earlier article for the îJournal of American Folklore,ï but Lee felt he needed to share these "notes" with potential biographers.
Lomax, John A. and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan, 1934. 625 p. Index, bibliography.
There are 271 songs divided into twenty-five chapters with such headings as, "Negro Bad Men," "The Blues," "Minstrel Types," "Songs of Childhood," "Cowboy Songs," "White Spirituals," and "Negro Spirituals." The book includes many songs which were gathered during the summer of 1933, several of them from Lead Belly ("Bill Martin and Ella Speed," "Julie Ann Johnson," and "When I Was a Cowboy"). It was published in October, 1934, and contains the first mention of Lead Belly, coming just two months before his introduction to the Modern Language Association and to the New York media. In a very real sense, the Lomaxes were on tour with Lead Belly, publicizing their book.
Some of the songs are taken from the earlier John Lomax book, îCowboy Songsï (1910), some were gathered from the plantations, levees, and prison farms in the South, and some were culled from other published sources. The Lomax collections have become "musts" for every folk singer in America.
Lomax, John A. Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New York: Macmillan, 1947. 302 p.
This is the closest thing to an autobiography of John Lomax, although there are long periods of his life omitted. He concentrates, as the title suggests, on his ballad hunting expeditions which took place in the early 1900's and again in the 1930's. He devotes the first two chapters to his boyhood and his growing interest in folk song scholarship.
He was born in Mississippi shortly after the Civil War, but his family soon moved to Texas and he was raised on the Old Chisolm Trail. It was the heyday of the American cowboy and of the cattle drives, so Lomax came by his interest in cowboy songs honestly. He had already gathered quite a stack of them before he headed west with a recording machine in 1908. He added such tunes as "Home on the Range" and "Old Paint" and put together the book, Cowboy Songs, which was published by Macmillan in 1910.
In 1933 he and his teenaged son Alan headed south with another recording machine and the rest of the book deals with Lomax's adventures during the rest of the 1930's. His meeting and subsequent travels with Huddie Ledbetter are mentioned, but for a thorough treatment one must read Negro Folk Songs as Sung By Lead Belly. Finding folk songs was important to John Lomax, but he gives the impression of being ill-at-ease with people. This may account for his misunderstandings with Ledbetter.
Lomax, John A. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. New York: Macmillan, 1936. 242 p.
This is essential reading for any student of Ledbetter, if only to see from whence everybody else's information derives. The book has become a primary, which is not to say reliable, source. It is divided into two parts, a biography of Ledbetter and a compilation of 49 of his songs.
Part I, "The Worldly Nigger," is 65 pages and ends with Huddie's return to Shreveport in March, 1935. Part II, by far the greater space, is devoted to "The Sinful Songs." These are Negro songs which are not spirituals: primarily blues, ballads, dance and work songs.
The biography is Ledbetter's own story, which Lomax takes rather too literally, especially when he finds it sensational and seamy. Ledbetter later discounted the book, saying "Lomax did not write nothing like I told him." Some of the truth may lie somewhere between Lomax and Ledbetter, and it is interesting to speculate where that might be. Many blues scholars and folklorists have accepted Lomax's book as being factual and this has led to many misconceptions about Ledbetter and his life. The book should be seen as folklore and folk songs.
The music has been transcribed by Columbia University musicologist Dr. George Herzog; he offers an introduction which explains the relationship between his notation and the unwritten language of black folk music.
Oliver, Paul. "Blind Lemon Jefferson." Jazz Review 2 (1959): 9-12.
Jefferson emerges as a much more mysterious character than Ledbetter. Oliver places the singer's birth in 1883, while other sources have made it 1897. This has quite a bearing on the life of Ledbetter: could the two have played together for several years in Dallas, or was it more likely one or two years as the later birthdate would suggest? Was Jefferson the teacher and Ledbetter the novice, were they on equal terms, or was Jefferson just a youth? These questions have not been satisfactorily answered. Other blues singers (Josh White and Lightning Hopkins) claimed to have helped the Blind singer move about and it almost seems there may have been more than one "Blind Lemon Jefferson."
Oliver gets his information from Leadbelly's Last Sessions, which is Ledbetter talking, and some of it agrees with Lomax, which is also Ledbetter talking. So much blues history seems to rely on personal histories, and thus there is a lot of conflicting information. Paul Oliver, who has been highly regarded as a blues scholar, is too quick to accept hearsay. I don't know the truth of the Blind Lemon Jefferson story, but I am willing to say that Oliver does not know it, either.
Oliver, Paul. The Story of the Blues. New York: Chilton, 1969. 176 p. Index, and lists of records, books, and periodicals. Many photographs.
Until a better one comes along, this book is the best light introduction to the history of the blues in the United States, and it is written by an Englishman. This is a coffee table book, full of photographs and clear concise remarks about the singers and the scene. Having taken Oliver to task for his sloppy scholarship in the "Blind Lemon Jefferson" article, I can maintain consistency by saying that his approach is more journalistic than scholastic. There may be a lot of half-truths in The Story of the Blues, but it is better than no truth at all.
Price, Carter. "Leadbelly." Negro Digest 11 (1962): 20-29.
Because this article is in a black journal, I thought it might offer new information on the life of Ledbetter, but I was mistaken. The information comes from Lomax and from Leadbelly's Last Sessions. However, there was one nice insight about the last years of Ledbetter's life: "What he did, during those last 15 years, was to get all of his music down. With calm, cheerful insistence, he somehow managed to hand over most of his vast inheritance of folk music from the past" (28).
Ramsey, Frederic Jr. "Leadbelly: A Great Long Time." Sing Out 15.2 (1965): 6-24. Several photographs and songs.
Ramsey recorded Leadbelly's Last Sessions at his apartment in New York over a period of three evenings. They were sessions like none before, because tape recorders had just come into general use, and this technological development changed the face of the recording industry. The Ramsey sessions gave us a Ledbetter that had only been talked about previously — the relaxed, spontaneous performer who spoke at length about his music.
Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of new biographical material, and it may be that, as Ramsey has reported, Ledbetter "was content to forget." Like Lomax and Russell, Ramsey is an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is the life of Huddie Ledbetter; taken together, they move us toward the truth, but individually, they are misleading. Ramsey's central theory about Ledbetter and racism, for instance, collapses when we know about the 1930 incident that sent Huddie to Angola. "Of the past, he was blank," wrote Ramsey, and perhaps there was no way to change that in 1948.
Russell, Ross. "Illuminating the Leadbelly Legend." Down Beat 37 (1970): 12-14, 33.
Russell planned to write a biography of Huddie, but his project was cut short by the death of his subject. This article, based on interview notes from 1946, but not published until twenty-five years later, is nonetheless very helpful. It gives an idea of Huddie's life in Los Angeles, where Russell owned a record store during the mid-'forties. There is even new information about Ledbetter's early years, though Russell assumed that he was merely filling in the blanks left by John Lomax. It would have been more productive had he started from the beginning, and ignored Lomax. Russell was surprised by Huddie's death; he had thought him in excellent condition in 1946.
Russell was a jazz writer — he was simultaneosly interviewing the saxophonist Charlie Parker — and his opinions were somewhat affected by musical conventions with which Ledbetter was not concerned (such as keeping strict time), but he managed to be broadminded in his appreciation of the folk singer. New light is shed on the character of Ledbetter in this article. Huddie apparently enjoyed being at Russell's store, and once surprised the author by sitting down at the piano and thumping out some barrelhouse blues and boogie-woogie. Russell had no idea that Huddie could even play the piano until then.
Sackheim, Eric. The Blues Line. New York: Schirmer, 1969.
In this book, blues lyrics are presented in poetic form. Sackheim has listened to hundreds of blues recordings, from the early 1920's to the 1950's, taken down the lyrics, and printed them in a form which accurately represents the feeling of the songs. With use of capitalization, punctuation, and layout, Sackheim has managed to make the blues live on the printed page. The book is mostly divided into chapters representing regions of the United States, though the first chapter deals with the classic female singers of the 1920's — Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, et al. Huddie Ledbetter is represented by several songs and a line drawing on the cover.
Skowronski, JoAnn. Black Music in America. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1981.
This is a bibliography of selected musicians which contains three and a half pages on Ledbetter. Many of the articles referred to are record reviews in such periodicals as Jazz Journal, High Fidelity, Rolling Stone, and Down Beat. Some foreign journals are referred to — there are a lot of articles in the English weekly, Melody Maker, which speaks of a great interest in Ledbetter in that country. A certain amount of prior experience can direct the researcher to the more substantive articles: knowledge of authors and periodicals, length of articles, and cross-references are helpful, so this is not the best place to start. Some books are mentioned, also.
Southern, Eileen. Bibliographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood, 1982.
A necessarily brief, one column biography of Ledbetter contains two verifiable errors. The date of his first Library of Congress recordings is given as 1932 instead of 1933, and the recording expedition is credited to the then 17-year-old Alan Lomax, instead of to his father, John A. Lomax, who is not mentioned. As an introduction to the life of Ledbetter, the article must be considered inadequate; it merely repeats existing myths and says nothing new.
Stuck, Goodloe. Shreveport Madam. Baton Rouge: Moran, 1981.
Local (Shreveport) historian and newspaper columnist Stuck presents the story of Annie McCune who ran a bawdy house in St. Paul's Bottoms during the days of legal prostitution, 1903-1917. Stuck's technique was to interview as many survivors of the era as he could find and stitch together their memoirs into some sort of biography. To a certain extent, he also consulted contemporary records and newspaper reports, but the whole enterprise has an aura of unreality about it. Stuck never really identifies any of his informants and though he is writing about an earthy piece of history, he never soils his hands. It is difficult to place Huddie Ledbetter in Stuck's sanitized environment.