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.

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     My area of expertise is: some knowledge of the region Leadbelly inhabited in his younger days, along with some people that Marsha and I...