Lead Belly: King of the Twelve String Guitar Players of the World
[This article, written by me (Monty Brown), was originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of Sean Killeen’s Lead Belly Letter. It was also published on this blog on 14th October, 2007. Sean Kileen was an ardent fan of Lead Belly and his magazine, (which also can be seen elsewhere on this blog) lived from 1990 to 1996, and reflected his passion. Sean, who hailed from Ithaca, New York, eventually gave up publishing the Letter, partly because there was not a large circulation, but mostly because he was battling for his life. He eventually lost that battle, but his legacy lives on with the back issues of his publication.]
The death of Jesse “Baby Face” Thomas (1911-1995) was reported in the Lead Belly Letter (5,3:2), appropriately, I thought, because of the shared musical heritage of the two men. Lead Belly and Baby Face were two very different characters whose lives, like their nicknames, were often poles apart. The last time their names appeared in such close proximity was in the pages of England’s Melody Maker (12/31/49). There it was reported that Jesse had been “assistant vocalist” to Troy Ferguson in Atlanta in 1929. The death of Lead Belly — Huddie Ledbetter (1889-1949) — was reported in the adjacent column.
I was a friend and a fan of Jesse’s and we spoke many times during the last decade of his very productive life. He was a small, almost frail man, the twelfth of thirteen children born to a sharecropper family in Logansport, Louisiana, thirty miles south of Shreveport. In contrast, Huddie Ledbetter was hefty and muscular, the only child of Wes and Sallie Ledbetter of Mooringsport, Louisiana, twenty miles north of Shreveport.
Huddie played the raucous music of the country house dances, pounding out basic, compelling rhythms, singing, dancing and generally overwhelming his audiences with the power of a one-man minstrel show. He charmed Governor Neff of Texas into a pardon in 1925. He could always charm a gang of children with whimsical words and rhymes recalled from his own childhood. Several people remembered him as being at least six feet tall, though he was only five-seven. Neff was alone in remembering him as a banjo picker; others recalled his ability on the mandolin and church organ. There are recordings of him playing the piano and Cajun accordion in addition to his trademark twelve-string guitar. It’s easy to see how he became a legend in his own time.
Jesse’s instrument was the six-string guitar. He was constantly refining his technique, striving to play in the more sophisticated style of the jazz-oriented musicians of his prime. Though he usually recorded solo, in live performance he was comfortable in the confines of a well-tempered combo. He was an early exponent of the electric guitar and later in life played a double-neck guitar/bass. During his lifetime, Jesse never ceased to be a student of music and the craft of song writing.
|Baby Face at 80|
But at fifteen, Jesse became fascinated with the piano, and this is where his life brushed up against the life of Lead Belly. At the time of his arrival in Shreveport, he couldn’t get enough of the piano. He went to movies at the palatial Strand and the other big downtown theaters primarily to hear the players who accompanied the silent pictures.
Did he have any favorite piano players?
“Yeah, there was a guy here named Dave Alexander,” said Jesse in a 1991 interview at his Abbie Street house in Shreveport. “He was good and I wanted to play like him. But I never did play piano like I would’ve like to played, ‘cause I didn’t have a piano to practice on.”
The name of this almost-forgotten piano man reverberated in my mind. Was this “Little” David Alexander who turned up in some lists of old blues recordings? Maybe. It certainly wasn’t the Dave Alexander who recorded for Arhoolie — too young. But there, in an old interview, was Huddie Ledbetter telling about the influence of a piano player named Dave Alexander. Huddie was sure he had incorporated some of Dave’s bass runs into his guitar style, but he couldn’t remember was it Houston or Shreveport? 1906 or 1926?
“I would see (Dave) playing all the time,” said Jessie, who also imitated those piano sounds on his guitar. “He would play in homes where people had pianos. He would visit different places where a piano was. That’s where I heard him playing. Mostly in homes.”
So, he played for house dances — that sort of thing?
“Yeah. And minstrel shows, places like that.”
Did you go to minstrel shows then?
“Oh, yes, it cost ten and fifteen cents and like that to see a good show. The minstrel show would be in a tent going from town to town, traveling. But they’d often pick up a local musician to play piano or maybe some other instruments for them. I played one time in a little minstrel show like that.”
How old was Dave Alexander then?
“Oh, he seemed to be in his twenties. He was a young man in his twenties, I was fifteen.”
This had to be around the same time Huddie had seen him!
Jesse went on, “Dave was pretty popular around here with people at that time. And at that same time those guitar players like Ed Shafers and (Oscar) Woods, they were here but I never did meet them. I’d just hear a lot about them. Never ran across them. And I don’t know where Ledbetter was at that time, either. He probably was in and out of here I guess.”
Jesse never heard Huddie play — he would have remembered — but it’s entirely possible that the two were in the same shotgun house together, enjoying the magic of Dave Alexander. From 1925 to 1930, Huddie was indeed in and out of Shreveport, but not well-known there. He was based some twenty miles north, living in the Caddo Lake area of his youth, working for an oil company and in great demand at Saturday night suppers.
“He was the one they used to follow,” said Liz Choyce, who was in her teens at the time, “Mister Huddie.”
When you say “they used to follow,” you mean his guitar playing?
“People, when they heard tell he was playing somewhere,” she said emphatically, “they would always go.”
“He’d have a crowd. Have a big crowd,” added her husband Leonard. “Awful good music player. When you say you’re going to have a dance there, you’re going to have Ledbetter . . .”
“. . .they’d say ‘Who?’,” Liz cut in, “and you’d say, ‘Huddie.’ Boy! you’d hear them say they were going. Mister Huddie — yes, I knowed him good.”
While Huddie was confining himself to the familiar Texas-Louisiana border country north of Shreveport, young Jesse was striving to get onto record. In Fort Worth he roomed with his big brother Willard. In Dallas he saw successful performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. They taught him you could make money with the guitar, so he dropped his dream of being a pianist. Single-mindedly he hitchhiked from place to place — Shreveport to Fort Worth to Houston to San Antonio to Dallas — in pursuit of the portable recording studios. In small towns along the way he bartered music for lodging and a few dollars. Often he took temporary work in the cotton fields. Eventually, persistence paid off: Victor Records sent him a train ticket and he rode from Oklahoma City to Dallas to record four of his own tunes, including Blue Goose Blues.
“Blue Goose?” Jesse smiled a knowing smile. “Oh that’s a little place here in Shreveport, a little area they used to call the Blue Goose. You remember where the Union railway station used to be? Well that was just the name of that area. Like Mooretown, South Highland, Blue Goose. So I just thought of that ‘cause that’s where I stayed when I first came here, and I just — made up some words, put it on record.”
Blue Goose is like Silver City, I thought, the place that Huddie sang about traveling to with Blind Lemon in Dallas back before the Great War. I wondered why Huddie couldn’t have got himself on record just like Jesse did. Here was this green youngster, fresh off the farm and new to the business, getting onto Victor Records at age eighteen. Why not Huddie? The astonishing success of Blind Lemon during the latter part of the 1920’s had encouraged the record companies to scour the Southland for talent. And Huddie certainly had the talent. Plus, he was an old friend of Blind Lemon’s, wasn’t he? Led him around and played duets with him?
Oscar Woods and Ed Shafers got themselves recorded several times during the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s. They even broke through the color bar on one occasion by providing backup for the white country-bluesman and future Louisiana governor, Jimmie Davis. Ramblin’ Thomas made quite a hit on Paramount and would probably have done much better had he not been addicted to the bottle. None of these performers was superior to Huddie, yet Huddie remained undocumented during this first Golden Age of blues recording. Why?
It’s true he had himself a steady job and maybe couldn’t get away to Dallas, San Antonio or Memphis for a few days, but there was even one recording session in Shreveport in 1928, and there’s no evidence that Huddie tried out for it.
Could it be that he had no wish to leave his safe and friendly environment? He’d been off in the world before and it had brought him much pain. The eight years in a Texas penitentiary, the subsequent estrangement of his first wife, the heartbreaking death of his father, and his commitment to his aging mother, all of these combined may have led him to re-examine his life. He was approaching middle age, perhaps thinking it was time to settle down. Whatever the reasons, Huddie never recorded during the 1920’s when all around him, artists of lesser talent were busy making names for themselves.
This is not to say that Jesse Thomas was a lesser talent. Listen to any of the spate of sides that he recorded in Los Angeles during the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s and you’ll be delighted with his drive and originality. But Jesse would be the first to admit that he didn’t possess anything like the charisma of Lead Belly. He was Baby Face, a cute little guy who charmed his early audiences with his ingenuousness. He was also known as “Careless Love,” not because of any tendency to womanize, but because he did such an appealing rendition of Lonnie Johnson’s hit recording of that name.
After he told me about Blue Goose, Jesse picked up his guitar and played Blue Goose Blues instrumentally. Even though his hands were often cramped by arthritis in his last five years, he still played with fluidity and distinctness. He finished with a flourish and a laugh.
“Got to get the words down. The music still sounds alright.”
“That’s a good song,” I said.
“Think so?” he laughed. "You know, I didn’t even know what I was talking about at that time. I think I saw some old man and he was real good on the guitar, on the chords. He didn’t sing that good, just play something like that, and I copied some of that and put the words to it. And Blind Blake used to have something kinda in that style. He would play in that style and I thought he was a real good guitar player. Nice chords. Played finger style.”
Jesse picked his guitar a little more and ended by singing the line, “I’m going down to old Blue Goose, got no time to lose.”
That’s it, I thought. Young Baby Face, with the impatience of youth, figured he had no time to lose, so he pursued the recording companies relentlessly. Lead Belly, on the other hand, was patiently biding his time. Which finally arrived.
In 1935, after a further five years of penitentiary time, Lead Belly was given his chance, and his musical career began in earnest. He recorded abundantly through 1948, which was the year Jesse Thomas took up his recording career again, after a nineteen year hiatus. For most of the years Huddie lived in New York, Jesse lived in California. They were both on the West Coast for one of those years, and both of them tried and failed to get into the movies.
Lead Belly returned home to Louisiana in 1949. He was in a coffin. Jesse returned in 1957 and kept on playing for thirty-eight more years. For many of those years he performed with a blind piano player named Peaches, led him around, drove him to and from the gigs. Like Huddie with Blind Lemon. The duo “Jesse and Peaches” was very popular in the Shreveport area. I suspect that Peaches played piano the way Jesse once wished he could.
Lead Belly and Baby Face — poles apart in many ways, yet in some ways quite close. Most of Huddie’s success has been posthumous. Jesse’s success may be bounded by his lifetime. But for those of us who knew him, like for those who knew Huddie, that will be quite sufficient.