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)

Leadbelly's Horse

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