December 3, 2016

Chapter 8: Bourgeois Blues (1935 to 1939)

Some people wished they had seen the last of Huddie and Martha Ledbetter. As John Lomax said at the end of the biographical section of his book, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly, "What the future holds for these two Negroes, only time will tell". Huddie wrote to Lomax using an Excelsior Laundry address, in Shreveport, indicating that Martha may have got her old job back. Blues Who's Who refers to this period of Huddie's life, 1935 to 1937, as "working in Shreveport out of the music business" (317). This may well be true.

Thanks to Chris Brown (no relation) for guiding me to this article from the Shreveport Sun, a newspaper which still publishes.  One thing it shows is the presence of Elizabeth Barnicle, in Shreveport. It's her car. Also, they've mixed up Mary and Martha, the twins. It was Martha who married Huddie. I wonder if this happened often.

Huey Long
1935 stands out as one of the most eventful years in Louisiana history, but this had little to do with music: Senator Huey P. Long, Louisiana’s all-time favorite politician, was shot down on September 8th in a corridor of the Capitol he was responsible for building. He died in hospital in the early morning of the 10th, ten days after his 42nd birthday. A few months earlier Long had revealed the existence of a plot to kill him, but this would not have surprised anyone. Huey’s popularity came at a cost; he had many wealthy and influential enemies who resented his “Share the Wealth” ideology which advocated a cap on the amount of money a person could accumulate.
  •  To Ross Russell, a jazz writer who owned a record store in Hollywood in the 1940's, Huddie Ledbetter "dropped out of sight" for ten years after leaving John Lomax (Russell 12). Then he turned up in Hollywood. This was very much a West Coast perspective, however. In fact, during those ten years Huddie did a tremendous amount of recording, appeared on many radio programs, and worked clubs and concerts, primarily in the New York area.
According to the Lead Belly Letter, Martha and Huddie returned to New York City at the beginning of 1937. They were with a new agent/manager named John W. Townsend, and were staying with Townsend and his mother at an address in the Bronx. Townsend is referred to as a gas station operator from Dallas.

During the winter of 1936-37, Alan Lomax expanded his folk song collecting to Haiti; he would eventually collect folksongs around the world. From 1936 to 1942 Lomax was "Assistant in Charge" of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress to which he and his father and numerous collaborators contributed more than ten thousand field recordings. During his lifetime, he collected folk music from the United States, Haiti, the Caribbean, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy, assembling a treasure trove of American and international culture.
The elder Lomax (as we have seen) had had enough of his protege, but on 12 June 1937, young Alan brought Huddie to Washington where he supervised some recordings at the Library of Congress. During their visit to the capital, Martha and Huddie encountered an instance of racial discrimination similar to that they had experienced in New York two years earlier, and Huddie wrote about it in one of his most enduring songs, "The Bourgeois Blues." Credit for co-authoring this song is unstintingly given to Alan Lomax.

Me and Martha was standing upstairs, 
I heard a white man say, "Don't want no colored up there,
Lord, it's a bourgeois town 
Ooh, it's a bourgeois town 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.

Home of the brave, land of the free, 

I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie, 
Lord, it's a bourgeois town. . . 

The tune for "Bourgeois Blues" is similar to Memphis Minnie's "Dirty Mother For You" of January 1935. It's not difficult to figure out what Minnie means when she sings “He's a dirty mother for you, he don't mean me no good.” Huddie was probably delighted with the unstated reference to Minnie's song himself, but he tended not to be openly raunchy or offensive in his lyrics. About this same time, he was explaining to Alan that "tight like that" was a description of the way people held each other when they danced, while Alan was pretty sure it had something to do with the female anatomy.

There are fourteen titles in these D.C. sessions; these include the blues standard "Hello, Central" and two takes of a topical song, "The Hindenburg Disaster." The explosion of the zeppelin Hindenburg at its mooring, which caused the deaths of thirty-six people, took place on 6th May, 1937, at Lakehurst, New Jersey. "New York City" was also recorded. It's a re-working of a song Huddie had recorded for the American Recording Company two years earlier, a song which was never released during the his lifetime. "Kansas City Papa" is the original, and the refrain,
Kansas City - ain't it a pity?
is changed to
New York City - ain't that a city?

The Kansas City song exudes a completely different attitude to the New York song. Kansas City is viewed from the perspective of a country bumpkin who comes away shaking his head at the strange goings on in the big city. It's an archetypal song; it could've been about Dallas or Shreveport, but it happened to be about Kansas City, which was a mecca for Negro jazz and blues players in the 1920's and 30's. Huddie may never have visited Kansas City at the time he sang the song, though there is hearsay evidence that he visited his ex-wife Elethe there at some point. The verses are folk couplets which may have been used in any number of similar dance tunes. It has all the earmarks of a number played at a country supper.

Funniest thing that I ever did see
Polecat climbing up a 'simmon tree
In Kansas City. . .

The New York song, on the other hand, is specific to that city and
bespeaks a real attraction to, a fascination for, the place.

It's one thing folks I ask you to do
Catch a bus and ride up Fifth Avenue
In New York City. . .

Although the melody and rhythm has not changed, it has become a song for a New York audience.

Pineville, in the coal-veined hills of Kentucky, 1938, is the setting for the recording of three religious songs ("Old Time Religion," "Get on Board," and "Rock of Ages"), which were deposited in the Library of Congress. Huddie is accompanied by his own guitar, by the singing of Martha, and by Jim and Sarah Garland (Dixon & Godrich 384). Pineville is in the Appalachian Mountains near the point where Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky meet. The Garlands sang songs and took activist stands on behalf of the coal miners who were attempting to get a better deal from the mine owners at the time. The local law enforcement officers were in the employ of the mine owners, (a common theme in alternative American history), and there were violent clashes between the sides. Jim Garland's mother was Aunt Molly Jackson, also a folksinger and union activist.

Felix Greene in 1968
On October 10th 1938, in New York City, Felix Greene of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had the foresight to record twelve tracks of Leadbelly: Boll Weevil, I'm Goin' Mother, Go Down Ol' Hannah, Prison Holler, (Baby) Take a Whiff on Me, Irene, Jail-House Blues, Old Reilly, Ox Driver's Song (1), Ox Driver's Song (2), Julie Ann Johnson, Governor O.K. Allen. Because of the alternate take of the Ox Driver's Song, we can assume these were the total recorded.  Even the biography "Legend of Leadbelly" by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell doesn't have this session listed and we do not know if they were ever broadcast on BBC's "American Jam Sessions" of 1938. It would have counted as Leadbelly's first radio broadcast, if it had taken place. And on the BBC at that!  

Aunt Molly Jackson
The idea of documentary recordings was just getting underway — some of the late-1938 Library of Congress recordings begin with a dialogue between the "informant" (sounds a bit like a law enforcement term) and the "collector" and end with a song; others continued the informal dialogue throughout the record. As many as seventy-five recordings were made of Aunt Molly Jackson, for instance, and funds for making some of these records available at cost to musicologists and others interested in grassroots music were supplied by the Carnegie Corporation. Leadbelly recorded about 200 sides for the Lomax's Library of Congress collection.

The folk music also reached some 15,000,000 young listeners via [Alan] Lomax's "Well-Springs of America" Series broadcast on Columbia's School of the Air. Begun in 1939, as the series continued it became more and more a survey of a state or an area, and radio listeners began paying tribute to this documentary approach by writing: "I like to listen to the songs about the unknown heroes of labor and the farms," or, regarding programs of Negro songs: "In them one sees courage and a rhythmic dignity." Folk singers are guests and contribute to material used in the script, but Lomax frequently sings too. Though he's mostly known as a collector, he felt he was accomplished enough a performer to entertain the King and Queen of England at the White House in 1939.

A potential Last Straw to the Leadbetter story was added in the late spring of 1939, and a lesser man may have bowed under the burden. On March 5, during a party at a West 52nd Street address, he was arrested, accused by one Henry Burgess of stabbing and slashing him a dozen times. Huddie countered that he did indeed stab Burgess, but only in self-defense, and pled Not Guilty in magistrate's Court. He was freed on bail of $1000 which was posted by Alan Lomax through the National Surety Corporation. On March 13th, the New York City court cabled the Caddo courthouse in Shreveport for Leadbelly's criminal record.

A week later Huddie appeared before a Grand Jury, describing himself as a "musician, song composer, and dancer." The deputy District Attorney, now familiar with the accused's past, asks that he "not be allowed to sing his way out of this one."

That same evening, March 20th, 1939, he played at the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue in Harlem.

Three days later the Grand Jury indicted him for "assault, second degree, carrying a dangerous weapon after prior conviction." Again, he pled Not Guilty and remained free on bail, pending trial.

On March 26th he performed at the Labor Stage of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Theater on West 39th Street.

Then, on 1 April, 1939, Alan Lomax supervised an important recording session for Musicraft in New York, (Russell 14). Important to Huddie, certainly, because it resulted in the commercial release of a now rare 78 r.p.m. album which included "Frankie and Albert," called by John Lomax, Lead Belly's "Ninth Symphony, [his] small opera with stage directions" (Negro 192). "Fannin Street" and "Bourgeois Blues" were also recorded and released; the public at last had an opportunity to listen to Leadbelly on home phonographs. Important, also, because it took place in the midst of his legal troubles and resulted in what many believe to be the best recordings of his career. He recorded fifteen sides for Musicraft, accompanying himself on guitar and tap dancing. Oh for a filmed version!

The trial took place at the beginning of May, and though the big news in New York concerned the opening of the World's Fair, the Herald Tribune found space for an article on the entertainment page. It included a capsule biography which was the usual mixture of fact and fiction:
In 1930 Lead Belly “stabbed six Negroes in a fight over a can of whiskey” and was sentenced to a ten-year term at Angola . . . . It was there that Dr. John A. Lomax, curator of folk songs for the Library of Congress, "discovered" him. . . .“Once again a song addressed to the state Executive Mansion won a pardon for Lead Belly”. . . . Dr. Lomax arranged a singing tour which lined Leadbelly's pockets and enabled the Negro to marry his lady-love, Martha Promise. ("Lead Belly Adds")
Britain's King George VI graced the cover of Time Magazine for 15 May, 1939, an issue which reported the cementing of the Rome-Berlin Axis (21). The King and Queen of England were embarking on a visit to America which included hearing Alan Lomax sing Leadbelly songs to them at the White House. Leadbelly would have sent his regrets that he could not be there in person because of his legal problems, and there was also a story in that same issue (p76) sketching his progress from the Texas penitentiary, through his incarceration in Angola for "stabbing six negroes in a fight over a can of whiskey," to being pardoned by the State of Louisiana "at Lomax's suggestion." Both claims still not true.
“But last week it was the same old story. Standing in Manhattan General Sessions, greying, 54-year-old Lead Belly once again heard a jury pronounce him guilty. Offense: stabbing and slashing Henry Burgess, another Negro, at a party in a Westside rooming house." ("Lead Belly" p77)

On May 4th he was convicted of assault, third degree; the jury recommended clemency. On May 15th, Judge George L. Donnellan sentenced him to one year, with a recommendation of mercy. His prison sentence began on May 20th and ended after six months on November 20th. Huddie had been on his best behavior at the prison on Riker's Island in New York's East River, and for the last ten years of his life, he never again went to prison.

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