June 30, 2017

Tiny Robinson One

Queen "Tiny" Robinson, Leadbelly's niece. 
(May 27, 1923-March 12, 2017) 
Interview Dec.7th, 2004.
Tiny in 2007.
Tiny Robinson was the daughter of Mary Promise, whose twin sister, Martha, was Mrs. Huddie Ledbetter. Tiny graduated from High School in Shreveport in 1941; she then moved to New York City and lived in the apartment below Huddie and Martha. By the time Huddie died in December, 1949, Tiny had become his agent and business manager. After his death she continued to promote his music and was responsible for keeping his achievements in the public view.  Interview was at her house in Murfreesboro, TN.
Q is either Monty or Marsha Brown. Tiny is TR.

Q:   Whereabouts in Shreveport were you raised?

TR: You know Allen Avenue? (Yes) You know Ashton Street? (No)

Q: How about when you were smaller. Were you into music a lot?

TR: No, but I was around it every day and night. I wasn’t a singer or a musician or anything.

Q: Do you remember children’s games when you were real little. Did you ever play children’s games?

TR: I remember Leadbelly's children’s albums. Like “Skip to M’Lou.” That’s one famous one, then “Little Sally Walker.” Play that game, you’d walk around and they’d try to catch you. And there’d be a partner. We’d play games like that. We didn’t have no television to look at, so we did those kind of songs.

Q: What would you do for “Skip to M’Lou?”

TR: We’d skip around, skip around each other until you’d find an opening to the circle. There’d always be a partner in there. Was a nice little skip and hop dance.

Q: So, Allen Avenue and Ashton Street. . .

TR: Yes. Ashton Street runs across Pierre Avenue and Norman. 

Q:  When you were raised there how many brothers and sisters were raised with you?

TR:  There was four of us. Me and my sister, the one nearest to me, a year and a month older. Then we had another sister she was about five years older, then we had a brother who she was about a year, two years older than. And when her husband died, she remarried, and that was children that he had before and he had a big farm out by the Republican (?) Church.

Q:  So they moved out there?

TR: We was in High School then.

Q:  Which High School?

TR: CCHigh. (She leans forward, underlining) Central Colored High School. The only one in Louisiana! Yes, I graduated from there. It says “Central Colored” High School, ‘cause there was a Central High School out in Hollywood, but it was all white. They put “colored” in there so that we’d know which one we’re supposed to go to. 

Q: Is the building still there?
Central. (Now, Elementary.)

TR: On Weinstock, coming down from Norman. We have a class reunion every two years, but we don’t have it there. We have it in different cities. We have a historical event that I’m on that we collect things and bring to the group that hasn’t been able to find anything about Central, anything at the high school. It lasts a week and we do it every two years. And everyone’s there except the one’s who’s been dead and died so we never know. . . we have a big program and we get a lot of people to speak. . . now we had in Shreveport, I think four years ago, we had Donald Aytch speak, you know Donald Aytch?

Q:  Yes. He’s died, too, hasn’t he? 
(Born April 17, 1930, died. July 24, 2004, just about four months prior to this interview.)

TR: Donald Aytch? (Yes) I figured Donald Aytch was dead, coz I have called there and got no answer.

Q:  (Monty) used to work with him. At the radio station. (KDAQ, Public Radio. Donald DJ’d a blues music program. Monty did  “Louisiana Folk Music.”)

TR: He did quite a lot of things there before he died. He was the one that put that thing together. On the Mooringsport Road going down from Mooringsport. That group he was in, Congressman? 

Q: He was a Caddo Parish Police Commissioner (which is like a being on a County Council in other states.) 

TR: well, they put those plaques up there on Mooringsport Road, as a marker, and then (there was) a big thing down in Natchitoches at the . . .

Q:  Folk Festival? Natchitoches Folk Festival at the college? (Northwestern State U.)

TR:  Northwestern, that’s it. We had a thing down there and Donald came to that, too.

Q: And Sean (Killeen) was there. too

TR: Yes, Sean was there and John

Q:  John (Andrew) Prime? 

TR: No, John Reynolds. He’s a card. Let me see what else? When I bought the new stone to go on Leadbelly’s grave, we had Donald Aytch come and speak. I don’t know if you’ve been out there: have you seen it? the tall headstone?

Q:  Yes, I was out there a month ago.

TR: Then we have that long plaque on top of the grave that’s carved like a guitar, and up here on the headboard has a lot of his awards and just lately my brother called me and told me somebody had stole the gate from around it.

Q:  Now your brother takes care of it?

TR: Yes, I have a brother who takes care of it. He never was a talker, nuh-uhn. But he wouldn’t mind if you met him out there at the grave. Coz a lot of people go there every day from all over the world. We see articles in the paper that . . . I’d like to see some articles that John (Andrew Prime) puts in there (The Times of Shreveport).

Q: He did one about Robert Plant one time, that was about fifteen years ago, I don’t know if Robert Plant’s been there recently. (Tiny is going to try to get in touch with John about his Leadbelly writings.) Now this Central Colored HS, which I’ve never heard of before, was it the only . . . 

TR: . . .only high school for blacks, as far as I can remember, from Mooringsport to Texas and down to Shreveport. People from Bossier went there and over in Ruston, Louisiana, that whole group of people down there, where those creole people live (Cane River), they all came to that school, it was the only high school. People from Texas went there. 

Q:  So, it included a whole big area, not just Shreveport.

TR: A lot of parents couldn’t afford to bring them there, and stay, now some of those people had family live there and they lived with the family. But if they had no family they’d have to pay to live and they couldn’t afford it. They just could not afford it and go to school, too.  

Q:  This was just a regular High School, except for colored people?

TR: You graduate from High School in them days, it was just like college. You went to grade school until 9th grade and then you went to High School for three, four years, just like college. You came out of high school in those days you could get a job anywhere, not like it is now, four years of college and there ain’t nothing out there.

Q:  I guess the only actual college (for blacks) was in Baton Rouge, was it Southern?

TR:  Southern.

Q:  What were the parties the children would have at the end of their school year? These big parties where the girls would wear white dresses. At the end of the year. The school closings!

TR: Now when we graduated from Central High School, we had our Commencement at the Municipal building (Auditorium.) I was so glad to go back in there last year when we went back in there for something Ron Hardy had. It was the first time I’d been in this building since, we’d go there and we’d have our gowns on, that was a big thing — to graduate from high school. We went there, and we’d have our gowns and we got our certificates and everything, and we’d have a beautiful program, somebody’d speak to us 

Q: We’ve been told that Huddie use to play at school closings out in the country.

TR: He did.

Q:  I mean, they would be the small schools.

TR: Small schools from first grade to, like, seventh.

Q:  And he would come and sing for them. How big were the classes (at CCHS)?

TR: My class had 141 people.

Q:  When did you go there?

TR: I went there in the late ’30’s and early ’40’s. ’41 when I graduated.

Q:  And how much longer did it go on?

TR: It’s still going on. They moved it down, they built Booker T. Washington, you know where BTW is? Well, they all go there.

Q:  Do you remember some of your teachers?

TR: I remember practically all of them. Two of them just died, believe it or not, since we went. . . When we first started having the classmate re-unions, there was two teachers still alive. And they started teaching in that school in 1917, something like that. And the two of them used to come to all the re-unions, and one of them just died, I would say about maybe 20 years ago. Quite a few of them live up a long time.

Q:  What about music. They have music at the school?

TR: Oh yes. They taught music. Her (the teacher’s) name was Ethel (?) Doherty. She taught music, piano, and she had a choir going. She was very good. Big Major, he had all the bands that used to come in. Like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. All those big band people used to come in to play.

Q:  Do you remember seeing anybody like that when you were growing up ?

TR: I couldn’t go to a place where they was playing at. Coz I wasn’t old enough. They was playing at a place called Palace Park and your mother and father would not let you go there until you was 30 years old, practically (laughing). No, it wasn’t 30 but they wouldn’t let you go to nothing like that.

Q: It was like a big dance hall?

TR: It was a big dance hall. That’s what it was, a tremendous dance hall, they used to have the best bands there. Like, Duke Ellington, Jay McShann, Louis Armstrong, all those guys was there. Those who was there were people who were drinking and dancing and we weren’t allowed to go there. We’d sometimes sneak around and stand outside and hear the music . . . that’s when . . . you know about Fannin Street, don’t you? 

Q:  Sort of heard rumors.

TR: Fannin Street was a red light district. It was a lot of prostitutes lived there, the whole street, Fannin Street. They just about has torn down the majority of the houses there, and they’re naming it Ledbetter Heights. Coz Leadbelly remembered when his father would take things to Shreveport to sell, like fruit, vegetables, he would be in a wagon with him and when they come in through that street, his father’d make him lay down in the wagon coz he didn’t want him to see the women’d be sitting in the window with negligees on and that’s why Huddie said when he was grown he’s going on Fannin Street, and the first place he went when he got grown was on Fannin Street. And then he made a song about Fannin Street. Very popular song.

Q:  Well, it must have been, was it like also bars and music?

TR: No bars there. Maybe a bar on the corner. But it was those old shotgun houses, all the way from Ford Street up to, O God, to Allen. Little houses in there.

Q:  So, if you got caught on Fannin Street, pretty much people knew what you were there for.

TR: You on Fannin Street, you knew what you were there for. And the thing about it, it was all white people. Living there. Until later on in years, I think about ’30, middle ’30’s, some blacks started moving in. And then when the blacks started moving in, the whites started moving out. 

Q:  So when it was Fannin Street the Red Light District it was white people . . .?

TR: Yes, ma’am, that’s for sure. And they was begging for anybody who had pants on (laughs)

Q:  So if you were black or white you could go to Fannin Street?

TR: Sure you could. (As long as you had some money).

June 4, 2017

Leadbelly's Horse

Huddie’s "Booker"

"Did I know Huddie Leadbetter? He was my next door neighbor."

[This article, written in 1992 by Marsha Brown, was originally published in the Leadbelly Letter, Sean Killeen's wonderful publication which ran from 1990 to 1996.]

I love horses. I have always loved horses and my strongest memory of growing up in upstate New York was wanting to have my very own horse, but that didn’t happen until years later, after moving to Shreveport, Louisiana. “Mack’s Pride” was his name, and he was big and beautiful: all black, except for a white blaze face and four white stockinged feet. I fondly recalled Mack when I heard a description of Huddie Ledbetter’s favorite horse, “Booker.”
We heard about Booker, my husband and I, from one of the Ledbetters’ Texas neighbors. We were driving down a dirt road looking for Swanson’s Landing, the supposed site of an East Texas riverboat disaster in the late 1800’s when we stopped by a small wooden house to ask directions. Preston Brown, a sprightly 93-year-old with a twinkling eye and a friendly manner, told us which way to go. For some reason it popped into my mind to ask him if he knew of Huddie Ledbetter.
“Knew him? He was my next door neighbor!” said Preston. “We used to draw water out of the same spring.
Needless to say, we were thrilled at this chance meeting with someone who actually knew Huddie and we stayed for a long chat. We have been invited back several times and this has led to a warm acquaintanceship with Preston and his wife Mary Jenkins Brown. She is in her eighties but prefers to be thought of as a spring chicken of perhaps seventy. That’s the way she looks and acts, and she has a delightful sense of humor.
Preston was the baby of the Brown family. He was born in 1897, eight years after Huddie, and he had several older sisters including Matilda, Clara and Cora Brown.
“Huddie went with Cora,” says Preston, thinking of a simpler, more innocent time. “He courted her. He used to come up here in the summertime, sat there and played guitar, and us kids, we’d sit out there on the front porch.” His face breaks into a smile here. We weren’t allowed into the room, you know, we’d be outdoors, dancing, and they’d be in the house.” He and Mary both laugh and we laugh with them.
But the horse? Huddie’s horse?
“He was black as a crow,” Preston recalls. “He had a blaze and four white feet and his name was ol’ Booker. I used to ride behind Huddie, you know, on him. Used to go down to help him wash in that spring down there that runs right through their place. Used to take rags, take ol’ Booker down there, lather him all over, wash him, you know, and we’d have brushes. He’d look so pretty. He had a curly mane, curly tail. He was pretty.”
We all compared Huddie’s grooming and pride in Booker at that time to a teenager today, polishing the chrome on his first Ford.
Preston helped with Booker in other ways, too. When Huddie had a trip to take on the train, to play a house dance or just visit Dallas, Jefferson or Shreveport, he’d come and ask Preston’s father if he could take the youngster along to the depot. Many times they rode together to the station in Leigh, Texas, about two miles away. Huddie caught the train and Preston brought back the horse. He took care of Booker until Huddie returned and then he’d ride to Leigh to meet the train.
“He’d be gone two or three days, “ said Preston. “That was fun for me ‘cause I liked that horse. Liked to ride that horse.”
Preston and Mary still have horses today, two of them grazing next to their small house. They are among the few remaining inhabitants of what was once a thriving African-American farming community on Caddo Lake. They continued farming until retirement and witnessed the many changes in the area. In the 1920’s, people started working in the nearby oilfields, or going off to Dallas and Houston. In the early ‘40’s an ammunition plant was built in nearby Karnack, luring more workers from the land. Huddie Ledbetter left the farm in 1915, and he left the area in 1930 and eventually moved to New York. But he’s still remembered fondly in the beautiful countryside of North Louisiana and East Texas as the favorite local musician. And ol’ Booker is still remembered, too.

Play Party Songs

Play Party Songs The play-party developed out of the American frontier experience and continued in rural environs well into the twentiet...