June 21, 2018

Bigotry in Bronxville. 1946.

     My area of expertise is: some knowledge of the region Leadbelly inhabited in his younger days, along with some people that Marsha and I have personally met and interviewed. Relatives and friends of Huddie Ledbetter who give a different perspective on his life. For instance, the idea that he was some sort of itinerant bluesman, a homeless wandering minstrel with a beaten-up old guitar [ghee-tar] is countered by local impressions that he was much more of a family man, a homebody and a community member.
     His community was the environs of Caddo Lake spanning the Louisiana-Texas state line. His family included Ledbetters, Pughs, Promises, and members of the Shiloh (La.) Baptist Church. His closest "village" was Leigh, Texas, which hardly exists any more, since the emigration of cotton farmers to the North, or to cities like Houston and Shreveport around the time of World War II. There was once a vibrant community covering parts of Caddo Parish [around Mooringsport] and Harrison County [Marshall.]

     But for much of my information I have to rely on written sources; like most historians I scour the sources, hoping to find interesting information that ties in with my own view of the subject. For the last few years of his life, Sean Killeen gathered lots of first hand knowledge and, apart from collecting it in his Lead Belly Letter, I'm not sure what he did with it. Here is the story of Leadbelly's visit to Sarah Lawrence College.

Part 1.
     Forty minutes by train from Manhattan's Penn Station is Bronxville and Sarah Lawrence College. In the summer of 1946 Lead Belly was invited to perform there in a special summer session program. He had been living and playing in New York City for about a decade with travels to Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana and  California. In fact he had recently returned from an extended stay on the West Coast. 

     In Washington he had run up against racial discrimination and immortalized the experiences in his song "Bourgeois Blues" with the lyric "Home of the Brave, Land of the Free/I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie." In Bronxville in 1946 Lead Belly ran into the same old thing. With WWII victoriously decided by the defeat of the fascists, Bronxville was still a bourgeois town.

     Lead Belly sang and played for a small group of students attending the summer session. Harold Solomon, director of Field Work at Sarah Lawrence and a native of Georgia introduced Lead Belly who performed in front of the Karl Roesch murals on the walls of the faculty dining room and lounge in Bates Hall. Joe Papaleo, a returning veteran, was a student in the audience and remembers that he had never "heard such a pure performance as if the music he sang was being created out of the person that he was." Lead Belly's music for Papaleo was a "creative construction of the man."

     "In his performance, Lead Belly's expression was both calm and alive. His face in repose seemed heavy like a statue, more stoneish than boneish. But as soon as he started talking to us, Lead Belly lit up, counting on his words and melody to do the major defining." For Papaleo at that summer concert in Bronxville, Lead Belly was most eloquent when speaking about his 12-string guitar and recalling before each of his tunes historical legends of bygone times.

     After the concert, Harold Solomon and a group of students took Lead Belly to a popular Bronxville gathering place called The Tap. The management refused to seat Lead Belly because he was black; another public place was tried but again the same refusal of service. The group walked to the Bronx River, and under the bridge on that hot summer night in 1946, Lead Belly sang a few more songs.

     In the early fall of 1946, Harold Taylor, President of Sarah Lawrence College (1945-59) was approached by the Student Council to take steps to redress the matter of racism and discrimination in Bronxville. A Committee was established which included campus and community representatives. Local ministers were invited to join the Committee's effort; both declined.

     The students on the Committee visited every food and drink place in Bronxville explaining why the College had created the Committee. Furthermore Bronxville hospitality proprietors were advised that New York State legislation forbade refusal of service.

Part 2.

     On February 4, 1947, a few months after the summer experience, Lead Belly again played at Sarah Lawrence at a Tuesday evening College Assembly. His fee was $33. As Arthur Edelman noted in his Feb. 12th, 1947 review in the student paper, The Campus, Lead Belly's "program was very well appreciated." The people who heard him realized that "his was the kind of music you don't always hear." Edie Boorstein and Lenore Fuerst applauded Lead Belly in a letter to the editor, saying he "has a richly varied stock of material" which he uses "freely and with originality." The "splendor" of Lead Belly's guitar tone was admired as well as his exciting "expedition into the origin of the blues." Most importantly Boorstein and Fuerst recognized that by bringing Lead Belly to campus "new areas of cultural understanding" had been opened, and more remained to be done.

     After the performance, two faculty members and a few student members of the Committee, entertained Lead Belly at a Bronxville restaurant. They were all seated, and served. Lead Belly took the forty minute train trip back to New York City. 

     As Arthur Edelman had said in his concert review: "Here was authenticity backed by a driving force so imbedded with song that people couldn't help moving along with him when he sang." Edelman continued, "We also felt that here is a Negro who tries to speak for his people, too; prefacing the 'Bourgeois Blues,' Lead Belly said, 'This is a request, and a request is best' . . . and then the song spoke for itself."

     Lead Belly was like an oral history; almost everything he said and sang was a tale of his journey, remembered Joe Papaleo. The way he talked "showed he had a strong awareness of his important place in music (sometimes referring to himself in the third person, a mark of people who see themselves in history already.)"

     For Lead Belly at Sarah Lawrence College, many, many years ago, he sang his song, which continues today, without end. He was consistent in his principles; committed to his craft; and unswerving in his opposition to unfair practices. Lead Belly demonstrated in Bronxville that belief in oneself and in the continuing betterment of the human condition was the message he brought to Sarah Lawrence, and the mission of his life.

      Written by Sean Killeen after speaking with WWII veteran Joe Papaleo in 1992. Bronxville remains one of the wealthiest enclaves in the USA. I guess you might expect some bigotry. These people have a lot to lose. 



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