November 22, 2016

Shreveport in Leadbelly's Youth

Fannin Street & the Bottoms

Shreveport was the big town, "the city," and young Huddie Ledbetter, the country boy, found it totally fascinating. He had seen the State Fair parade down Texas Street; the country wagons gathered to sell their produce on Commerce Street; the white folk in their finery, entering the hotels on Market and Spring; and he'd heard of the night life on Fannin Street.

The 900 block of Fannin Street was the leading edge of Shreveport's legal red light district which had been set up by the city fathers in 1903. Things had been getting out of control, it seems, so the area known as St. Paul's Bottoms was set aside to contain prostitution, gambling and other forms of vice. The idea of having a red light district was not original to Shreveport; it was already being tried out in Memphis, Little Rock and New Orleans. 

During the early 1900's, the Storyville section of New Orleans was a booming, legal, red light district and the legendary birthplace of jazz. Its "sporting" houses served as a magnet for gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, as well as musicians and all manner of performing artists. Likewise, though on a smaller scale, the legal red light district of Shreveport became a magnet for similar folk in the Ark-La-Tex. The district was called a "bottoms" because it was a low-lying area near the Red River; during the sultry summer months there were fewer breezes and more mosquitoes than on higher ground. 

The Bottoms, therefore, was home to a poorer class of people, generally blacks. When it was designated as the red light district, property values soared, existing large houses were rented to madams, and new houses were built. The 900 block of Fannin Street was the priciest part of the new Bottoms, mostly because it was the closest to central Shreveport; it was home to the three biggest sporting houses, those run by Annie McCune, Bea Haywood and Nell Jester. These were houses of white prostitutes for the use of white men. Further into the Bottoms, there were houses of black prostitutes for white men, and black prostitutes for black men; generally the houses got cheaper and seedier all the way back to the railroad tracks. The large "white" houses on Fannin Street did not hire musicians, black or white; they had coin-operated player pianos which entertained clients in the downstairs waiting rooms. 
There were two large Saloons which catered to blacks right on the corner of Fannin and Beauregard which was virtually the gateway to the district. A third large saloon, the White Pigeon, looked over the railroad tracks at the north end of Beauregard. The Pigeon was owned by a white man; it catered to both black and white customers, each race having a separate entrance. The Fannin Street saloons were owned by and operated for blacks, one by George Neil, the other by Caesar DeBose.

Neil was a light-skinned negro who could have passed for white. However, that was not a safe thing to do in that obsessively color-conscious society. George W. Moxley, a light-skinned negro minstrel performer wrote to W.C. Handy about this very subject:
“I worked with several ofay [white] outfits in my time without any trouble. W.A. Mahara was the only minstrel company I traveled with, but I put on an Elks' Minstrel once in Shreveport; they would have hung me in Shreveport had they known that I was colored, and the same is true in plenty of other places.” (From Handy's auto-bio.)

Saloon proprietor George Neil had enough to contend with without trying to pass for white. The walls of his long, one-story frame building which housed a dance hall, stage, bar and restaurant, as well as a couple of gambling rooms, were reputed to be peppered with bullet holes. The Times of Shreveport  reported that police had been openly assaulted by the clientele at Neil's, and "more than one Negro has been taken out, penetrated by a policeman's bullet."

It was a colorful enough place for the police chief to take a group of visting newspapermen for a night on the town. The chief sent word to Neil that he was bringing some out-of-town dignitaries, and Neil arranged a special show of hot ragtime music and specialty dancers. Pairs of dancers emerged in turn from the cakewalking crowd to put on a special "stunt" for the visitors. There were breakdowns, double shuffles, buck-and-wings and many more that the chief couldn't identify. 
When two slender well-dressed couples started the show, the other dancers stopped and crowded around to watch, cheering, clapping and urging them on like testifiers at a backwoods prayer meeting. The first couples were young and supple, and "moved with the grace of leopards." As they finished, the music changed and a completely different pair moved into the limelight. 

The man was undersized and coal-black. He was shovel-footed, buck-kneed and agile as a cat. The woman was chocolate-colored, broad, rather squat, bulged high in front and low behind, sort of shed-room-rumped effect, and badly pigeon toed. They faced each other and danced, turning 'round slowly, his huge foot slapping the floor with loud thwacks and her feet keeping time with a sort of forward and drag back movement. (from "Shreveport Madam.") 
The newspapermen were clearly impressed with the action in Neil's Saloon. There were can-can dancers whose act rivalled the well-known Moulin Rouge in Paris, though the Shreveport version was "perhaps more revealing;" and a hootchie-cootchie girl who performed a Little Egypt belly dance with sensuous abandon. The police chief noted in his memoirs that "her pelvis must have been hung on ball bearings." 

Across the street from Neil's, next door to a Chinese restaurant, was the two-story frame building which housed Caesar DeBose's ground floor saloon. A stairway lead up from the rear of the saloon to a dark, unpainted hallway; off the hallway were doors leading to individual rooms. One upstairs room was set aside for high stakes gamblers, and the rest were for prostitutes. One day in 1908, a federal agent tracked down a notorious counterfeiter all the way from Florida to the gambling room at DeBose's saloon. In the middle of a game, the agent crept along the hallway, stealthily approached the door, drew his pistol and blasted the lock to smithereens.
In the pandemonium that followed, the counterfeiter leapt out of the window onto the roof of the Chinese restaurant and from there to the wooden awning on DeBose's building. He appeared to be heading for the telephone pole to slide down when the awning collapsed under his weight, settling slowly to the sidewalk like an elevator, permitting the fleeing man to escape down the street. 
Caesar DeBose was standing in front of his place, proudly surveying the busy street scene, when the awning came down and, with a tumult of crashing and creaking, knocked the cigar right out of his mouth. As the fugitive tore down Beauregard Street into the dark heart of the Bottoms, the terrified DeBose took off running in the other direction. The saloons run by Neil and DeBose are the places that Huddie Ledbetter may have known in his youth, where he met a coal black piano man named Chee Dee and learned to "boogie the blues." 

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