December 12, 2015

Alan Lomax. In his own words.

Alan Lomax is interviewed about Huddie Ledbetter, and about the Folk song Archive at the Library of Congress. When Alan first met Leadbelly, in the early 1930's, he was 17 years old and helping his father John Lomax collect songs and tunes in the Deep South.

December 10, 2015

Lomax - Leadbelly Interview: 1940

Interview with Huddie, recorded by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax in Washington, D.C. in 1940. Huddie talks about a sukey jump, circa 1900. The conversation is recorded onto discs which contain perhaps three or four minutes each, and are spinning around at 78 revolutions per minute. There is no time for long pauses or considered answers. While the interview sounds a bit like a word association game, it does gives an impression of what the dances were like. Lomax opens the conversation.

I want Huddie to tell you about the way they put on the square dances down in Louisiana when he was a boy, growing up, in the backwoods. 

[Specifically, he's asking about the Caddo Lake region near Karnack, TX, and Mooringsport, LA. Harrison County, on the Texas side, was dry, while Caddo Parish, the Louisiana side, allowed alcohol sales.] Huddie, what did they call square dances?
Ledbetter: Called them sukey jumps.

Why did they call them sukey jumps?
Ledbetter: Well, because they danced so fast, the music was so fast, and the people had to jump, so they always called them sukey jumps. (It looks to me like Leadbelly is just improvising through here. He was always pretty fast with a comeback.)

Do you know what "sukey" means?
Ledbetter: Sukey - well, that's a cow sometimes when you tell her, "Sukey, sukey, sukey," you know, keeping the cow away.

Did they ever holler that at the dances when they had them?
Ledbetter: They'd just holler "Sukey jump!" and they'd holler, "One dollar bill, baby, won't buy you no shoes," just anything they feel like singing in there.

What kind of music did they have? 
Ledbetter: Well, they had a fiddler in them times; and accordions.

And what were the names of some of the tunes they played?
Ledbetter: The tunes was "Poor Howard," he was a poor boy and he played the fiddle. He was the first fiddler after the negroes got free from slavery time. Poor Howard was a negro used to play for them at the sukey jumps. And the number he played was "Poor Howard, Poor Boy."

How does that go?
Ledbetter: [Plays and sings.] "Poor Howard, Poor Boy" goes like this. 

Huddie, did they call the sets [as in square dance calls] at these dances?
Ledbetter: They called the sets all the time when they danced; they called "Shoo-fly," you could shoo-fly, and the square dance.


How did that sound? Give us a sketch of how they called the sets down there.
Ledbetter: When they called the sets, they holler, 
"Hey, man, you swing mine and I'll swing yours," 
but when they first get on the floor, they holler, 
"Grab your partners, step the right way round," 
they always drive right way, 
"Now, man, you know you're going wrong, 
now circle left way round, 
and when you get back to your home, 
grab your partner, 
the first man on the head, shoo-fly.
"When you get the shoo-fly, then they holler,
"Shoo-fly, Shoofly" 
then they come to the holler,
"One dollar bill baby won't buy you no shoes." 
[Huddie goes on singing and playing, calling the set "One dollar bill. . ."]

Huddie, did they have any real fast numbers at these dances? Do you remember any of those?
Ledbetter: They'd pick 'em up. 

When they'd do the hoedown and. . .
Ledbetter: They'd pick 'em up, you know, they'd have some fast ones when they'd just go, like, "Green Corn, Come Along Charlie," "Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In," and, "Tight Like That," sometimes they'd holler, say, "Tight like this!"
[They are both talking at once through here.]

What did they mean by that Huddie, really? I mean, tell us confidentially what they meant by "tight like that."
[Lomax may have been fishing for some sexual innuendo, but Huddie wasn’t playing along, perhaps realizing there was nothing "confidential" about this interview.]

Ledbetter: "Tight like that" means when you got your partner, grab and hug her tight, and keep her going, but when it comes time the boy grab his partner, he grab her and giving her a hug, he says, "Tight like this, it was tight like this, but now it's tight like this." And the boys'd be jumping on "Tight like that."

What were some of the dance steps, Huddie, when they were playing some of these fast tunes?

Ledbetter: Well, ain't no dance steps you could do but "breakdown," and that's a fast number. You can't dance no tap dance, I don't think, a fast breakdown number, course you might, but that's where all the tap dances [Huddie is talking very fast, as though he's afraid of being interrupted] . . . all the tap dances come from the old "buck and wing" what they used to do. Well, the breakdown dance, nobody do 'em now, but I don't guess nobody know nothing about it very much, but me, and I do the breakdown. When you do it you got to do it real fast, and when you breakdown you ain't tapping, you just working your legs. Now, a long time ago my grandfather, great-grandfather, say, "you ain't dancing til you cross your legs." So I guess now, nobody dancing because they don't cross their legs hardly ever. But when you do that old breakdown, and wing down, and green corn and that old ground shovel and, uh . . .

What about "knocking the pigeon wing?"
Ledbetter: . . . pigeon wing and . . .

. . . cutting the back step?
Ledbetter: . . . cutting the short dog, well, you got to cross your legs.

Huddie, play us one of those tunes, something like "Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In," and tell us what it means, too, you know. 
Ledbetter: "Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In" - long years ago, that was when they see the boss coming, you know? And the boys would see the boss coming, well, they didn't like him, you know, but they'd be together, nothing but negroes all piled up there together. When they'd see him coming, they'd say, "Well, we're gonna dig a hole to put the devil in," boy they'd start a-jumping. [plays "Gonna dig a hole. . ." with very fast accompaniment on guitar.]

Huddie, can you play "Green Corn" on the twelve-string guitar?
Ledbetter: I think I can. 

Let's hear a little of "Green Corn." [Huddie starts to strum his guitar. Lomax interrupts] Slow and easy and sweet, Huddie! [Huddie slows the tempo] What is green corn, anyhow? Tell us about it when you sing the song.
Ledbetter: [Strumming and explaining] Now, this is a fast sukey jump too, but the boys take it easy sometimes when they want to sukey jump; keep them dancing so hard and take it easy on the ground, shuffle around with your partner, [sings, but doesn't explain "green corn". Lomax tries to interrupt with "What is green corn?" but Huddie either doesn't hear, or ignores him. Then, just as the song ends] What is green corn? What is green corn, Huddie? [Lomax likely wants to hear that green corn is some form of white lightning, but, again, Huddie is not co-operating. He keeps it simple.] 

Ledbetter: Green corn is an ear of corn - when it's green. What they mean by green corn, they're just putting that in the words, you know, 'cause the man is green and they didn't know what they was talking about themselves. What they was speaking about is an ear of corn when it's green. Down south when the corn gets dry, why then that's corn - hard corn, then. But when they say "green corn", that means it's green, you can go out in the field and pull it and roast it. . .

I thought you meant green corn whiskey. (I agree with Lomax in thinking Green Corn refers to whiskey. Huddie is often just very contrary and it's hard to believe that songs would be sung about ears of corn.)

Ledbetter: No, not no green corn whiskey, they didn't know nothing about no corn liquor at that time. They had old-time liquor, you know, that's real good liquor, wasn't no bootleggers then. Couldn't make no liquor. How are they going to make liquor when they're all slaves? [Huddie sounds condescending] The old boss — they wouldn't get no liquor till the boss would give it to them.

Huddie, at these old-timey sukey jumps, did people dance in their bare feet, or with shoes on?
Ledbetter: Well, them that could get shoes, they would dance like that and lots of them didn't have — 'cause I know plenty boys in my time —

[interrupting] . . .what about the women? Would they wear shoes or not?
Ledbetter: Well, when they could get them. If they couldn't, they just go barefooted. 

Would they ever circle left in these dances, or
Ledbetter: They's circle left right, they'd start out right. . .

 . . .they'd start right first?
Ledbetter: That's right. . .

[talking on top of Huddie] How many times would they go around right?
Ledbetter: Well, you see, when they'd first start right, they'd go around right and then the man would holler, "Circle left way round,"

And they'd gone one time around?
Later Lomax
Ledbetter: That's right and then he'd holler, "Circle right way around again, and when you get back home, grab your partner," so when they first start out circling right way around he'd tell them to skip on up ahead and catch the next partner in front of them, and they'd keep on catching and he'd say, "Now, when you get home, circle left way around" and when they get home, they circle left way around, he says, "Now circle right way around, and when you get back to the spot, settle down. First man on the head, grab his partner and shoo-fly." That's the way they do that down there. (Library of Congress)

November 9, 2015

American Folk Instruments

Instruments of the Slaves

When blacks were shipped to America as slaves they were stripped of their language and culture. They were mixed in different language groups and crammed into slave ships with little more than some minimal clothing. They had to learn pidgin English just to have a common language, and their music became a hybrid as well, combining bits of the European with elements of various West African cultures.
In their new surroundings there were two possibilities available to the musically-inclined: they could make use of instruments provided by their white masters, or they could construct their own instruments. Of European origin were the band instruments: trumpets, tubas, trombones, clarinets, cymbals, snares and big bass drums; also the strings like violins and cellos, and the piano. Their own instruments were reed flutes, kazoos, gourd banjos and an amazing range of percussive rattles, sticks, drums and tambourines. In antebellum New Orleans, the slave population gathered in Congo Square, on their Sunday afternoons off, and had a good old-fashioned West African hoedown.

Benjamin Latrobe
“Going up St. Peters Street & approaching the common I heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses trampling on a wooden floor. I found . .  that it proceeded from a crowd of 5- or 600 persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot & crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be ‘blacks.’ I did not observe a dozen yellow faces. They were formed into circular groupes . . . the largest not 10 feet in diameter. In the first were two women dancing. They held each a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands, & set to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies. The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument. An old man sat astride of a cylindrical drum about a foot in diameter, & beat it with incredible quickness with the edge of his hand and fingers. The other drum was an open staved thing held between the knees and beaten in the same manner. The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa. On the top of the fingerboard was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash.” (Latrobe 49)

Latrobe's drawing of the stringed instrument.

The above description of an afternoon in Congo Square comes from Benjamin Latrobe of Philadelphia who kept a journal of his travels in the 1820's. He has "no doubt" that the stringed instrument was "imported from Africa," which is to say that it was of African origin. Whether it physically made its way across the ocean is another matter. Latrobe also made note of three other musical instruments, and happily for us, made sketches of all six.
“One, which from the color of the wood seemed new, consisted of a block cut into something of the form of a cricket bat with a long and deep mortice down the center. This thing made a considerable noise, being beaten lustily on the side by a short stick. In the same orchestra was a square drum, looking like a stool, which made an abominably loud noise; also a calabash with a round hole in it, the hole studded with brass nails, which was beaten by a woman with two short sticks.” (50)
The banjo was a popular instrument in 19th Century minstrel shows and is often remembered in conjunction with plantation Negroes and Stephen Foster songs. Most literature on the banjo tends to describe a stringed instrument with a gourd resonator, like the one described by Latrobe.

Other Banjo Stories
Between 1746 snd 1757 a slave dealer named Nicholas Owen reported an instrument played by the blacks "up Sharbro" in Sierra Leone, and instrument made of wood that sounded to him " like a bad fidle." It was called a Banjelo. (Epstein 213)
An even earlier reference is from Jamaica in 1740 by one Charles Leslie. He mentions a slave instrument called a "bangil" which was "not unlike our Lute in any Thing but the Musick." (Abrahams 282) In other words, the instrument itself was like a lute, but what the musicians were doing with it was something else. In 1793 Bryan Edwards reported from the West Indies, "they have the Banjo or Merriwong . . . [which] is an imperfect kind of violin cello (292), and in 1806 George Pinckard, also from the West Indies, mentioned the "banjar" as being "a coarse and rough kind of guitar." (294) In an article published in 1810, Fr. Richard de Tussac gives a detailed description of the making of a "banza" by French colonial blacks.
“They cut lengthwise through the middle of a calabash. This fruit is sometimes eight inches or more in diameter. They stretch upon it the skin of a goat which they adjust round the edges with little nails; then a piece of lath or flat wood makes the handle of the guitar; then they stretch three cords of pitre (a kind of hemp taken from the agave plant), and the instrument is finished. (Epstein 217)
Clearly, then, while the name "banjo" is of African derivation, Africans seem to have had a wide variety of instuments similar to European guitars, lutes and violins which used gourds or calabashes instead of wooden resonators, and went under a variety of names including banza, banjar, bangil or bonja.

Me envy not dhe white man dhen,
Me poor but me is gay;
Me glad at heart, me happy when
Me on my bonja play. (Abrahams 18)


Though the banjo was clearly an African invention, and through Minstrelsy and the image of the contented plantation Negro used to be associated with African-Americans, the banjo as we now know it is a white man's instrument. The last of the serious black banjo players were in the early Dixieland jazz bands; it was the only stringed instruments that could compete with the sound of the horns in the days before amplification. The only solo blues banjoist of repute was Papa Charlie Jackson in the mid-1920's. The fiddle, and most particularly the guitar, are much closer to the African musical style. As a percussive member of jazz bands,the banjo was four-stringed; now as a bluegrass and olde tyme country music instrument, it has acquired a fifth string.
Danny Barker circa 1990, New Orleans.
Danny Barker (1909-1994), at left, is in fact playing a 6-string banjo which is probably tuned like a guitar. Barker was a jazz historian and his own musical career reflects the use of the banjo in American jazz. He originally played a 4-string banjo in New Orleans bands but when he played for Cab Calloway in the 1930's he adopted the guitar. Later in life, when he moved back to New Orleans from New York and became a historian, he got himself a 6-string banjo so he could replicate the sound without complicating his life by using two sets of chord patterns.

The accordion, which was developed in Central Europe early in the nineteenth century, was introduced to south Louisiana Cajuns by German immigrants in the 1880's (Ancelet 22) and was simultaneosly brought to north Louisiana and Texas by German settlers. Although the accordion continues to be enormously popular amongst the Cajuns and Mexican Americans, it is now an uncommon instrument in the north of Louisiana. It has become virtually extinct since the early 1950's, when some white country dance bands used piano accordions.
There is a windjammer in the Caddo-Pine Island Museum in Oil City, on Caddo Lake, and there is one at the Pioneer Heritage Center at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. The latter can be traced directly to German origins. A lonely written reference to the accordion in regional black folk traditions occurs in a 1950 article by a local artist named Don Brown. Brown, who taught at Centenary College in Shreveport, and had a camp on Caddo Lake, told of a black "concertina" player named Albert Vaughn. Marshall, Texas, attorney Franklin Jones, Sr., also remembers Vaughn and a group of black musicians who jammed together at his place on Caddo Lake. Don Brown also wrote that guitars and banjos could be found in most (black) homes in the region.
The accordion can be a very loud instrument, and in the era before amplification, it was well-suited to playing for dances. There is no doubt that electrification has in some part accounted for the increased popularity of the guitar in dance bands, and the decreased popularity of the banjo, the fiddle and the accordion. In the late nineteenth century, the instruments of choice amongst black musicians in North Louisiana were guitar, piano, harmonica, fiddle, and mandolin, but the latter two instruments have, since the early part of this century, joined the banjo in the domain of white musicians. It still seems odd that the accordion can have disappeared so totally from the traditional music of the area, while it has maintained its popularity and currency in the Cajun culture of South Louisiana and the Norteno culture of South and Central Texas. But that is what has happened.
The Caddo Lake region was slightly isolated from the mainstream; Franklin Jones calls it the outlaw country. Leadbelly's mastery of the accordion, mandolin, guitar, and twelve-string guitar, along with his dexterity on the harmonica, piano, and string-bass, attest to his considerable, though unusual, musical talent. He was quite at home around Caddo Lake, however.
It is worth noting that the twelve-string guitar is an uncommon instrument, so that claiming to be "King" is bravado mixed with a large dash of humor. There is only one other old-time blues player, Blind Willie McTell of Augusta, Georgia, who ever achieved fame on the instrument, which has not taken well to electrification. There are too many harmonic and, thus, discordant possibilities. However, the twelve-string is useful to a street musician because it can be louder than a regular, six-string guitar and can withstand a few broken strings before becoming unplayable.
The twelve-string guitar became established in Spain some time before 1780. It has much in common with the mandolin: in archaic terms, the twelve-string is a "six-course" instrument, really a six-string with two strings for each "course" instead of one (Turnbull 63). The mandolin, similarly, is a four-course instrument. There must have been something about the string arrangement that appealed to Huddie. It seems possible that he actually took up the twelve-string between 1925 and 1930 and not during an earlier sojourn in Dallas. The Stella guitar company produced most of its twelve-string models between the 1920's and the 1940's (Evans 258) and Huddie had one of them - painted green - when the Lomaxes found him in the Angola Prison Farm in 1933. But this idea is contrary to Huddie's own statements.
Guitars and fiddles supplied the music for the house dances, or "sukey jumps," that developed in the black community after the Civil War.
Where German settlers trod, in Louisiana and Texas for instance, accordions and harmonicas were introduced. In the white communities the square dance tunes were "Turkey in the Straw," "Bear Creek," "Nigger in the Woodpile," and "Arkansas Traveler." These same tunes were played in a more percussive style by blacks, though they might have inserted "Rats in the Meal Barrel" for "Nigger in the Woodpile."
While whites were "knocking the back-step," "cutting the pigeon wing," and dancing jigs, reels, hornpipes and Highland flings, blacks were doing the "cakewalk," the "grapevine twist," the "Delphi twirl," the "Eagle rock" and the stomp. These and other distinctive African American dances did not reach the ballrooms of polite white society until well after the turn of the century. Blacks were able to observe the goings-on in white society because they were often employed as musicians or domestics, but whites were generally ignorant of what was going on at the sukey jumps. Thus jazz took whites by surprise, and the blues was a revelation even to W.C. Handy, a black man with a formal musical training.
WC Handy.
“Then one night at Tutwiler [Mississippi], as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start.
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.
‘Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog.’

“The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind.” (Handy 78)

For Handy it was the birth of the blues. He'd spent his young life to that point playing sheet music for society dances, both black and white, and had little contact with the working class blacks. He was able to transfer the blues to sheet music, too, and come up with hit tunes like the "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues." But Huddie Ledbetter had heard that music all his life.
“We used to do the "St. Louis Blues," and that was before W.C. Handy, when I was just a boy. We used to do the St. Louis song, you know, way down in Louisiana, and that was when I was a boy. And it wasn't written, it was just a real song, just made up. But anyhow, when I come to New York, we find out that W.C. Handy was the man that writ the music, and the words - "made it up." But that was when I was a boy, we used to sing that song.” (Last Sessions)

May 28, 2015

A Great War Story

This video has nothing to do with Leadbelly so let us figure how he connects to the Great War. Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917 and the war continued through November11th, 1918. Most of the American troops got "Over There" in 1918 and the active, "shooting" war, for Americans, took place in the Fall of 1918, the last three or four months before Armistice Day. Leadbelly had written a somg about the Titanic (1912) and he later wrote songs about the Second World War, (Hitler song) but I have no knowledge of Great War songs. During the American engagement in the GreatWar, however, Huddie was much involved with his own problems, which included being sentenced to prison in Texas for 30 to 35 years. Apparently he didn't even have his own name.

Leadbelly's Horse

Huddie’s "Booker" "Did I know Huddie Leadbetter? He was my next door neighbor." [This article, written in 19...