September 26, 2007

Introduction to Leadbelly by Monty Brown

Saturday, September 8, 2007



When I started to write about black music in North Louisiana, I decided to begin with a chapter on Huddie Ledbetter. He is certainly the best known folk musician from the region and is thus a logical departure point. I assumed that there was a great deal of easily accessible information which could be compressed into a few pages so that I could move on to the more obscure players, Jesse "Babyface" Thomas, Willard "Ramblin'" Thomas, and Oscar Woods, who would comprise the meat of my thesis.

Huddie Ledbetter's name appears in dictionaries: look in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1971) and you will find him; in the American Heritage Dictionary (1973) there is even a photograph accompanying the entry. Folk song anthologies tend to mention his name — he is usually called Leadbelly — with reverence: he is "the great negro folk singer" or "the great bluesman," or he is simply mentioned in the same breath as Woody Guthrie or Josh White. He is held in high esteem by such icons of rock'n'roll as Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

I became acquainted with his music when I was an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver during the early 1960's. I spent many evenings listening to his songs, drinking beer, and discussing philosophy with my friends. I didn't know exactly where he came from, but I knew that it was the South, I'd heard hat that he had spent some time in prison camps, and that he was a potent symbol of the strength and perseverance of an oppressed people. He was also a lot of fun.

When I moved to North Louisiana in 1980, I was intrigued to discover that this was Huddie Ledbetter's birthplace. Most people in the area didn't know or care but a few were aware and even proud of the fact. The Red River Revel Arts Festival, an annual event in Shreveport, produced a tribute to the man in 1984 that featured Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry and several other singers or folklorists who were associated with Ledbetter during his lifetime. At about the same time, the Shreveport city fathers changed the name of one of the oldest and poorest districts of town, reputedly an old stamping ground of Huddie's, from St. Paul's Bottoms to Ledbetter Heights. The topography remained the same in spite of the aspiration inherent in the new name. In fact, by the year 2016 the area had lost quite a bit of its former charm and become an economic disaster zone.

Most people who heard that I was writing about Ledbetter assumed, as I had, that his life was already well documented. It is not unusual, for instance, to run across such remarks as, "A number of books have been written about Leadbelly over the years" (Prime 13F). The truth is that only one book, "Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly", had been written about him; that book, by John A. Lomax, was published in 1936. One quarter of its 242 pages is devoted to biography and the rest contains transcriptions of songs. About one half of the biographical material comes from Ledbetter himself and concerns his life until his mid-forties; the other half deals with the six-and-a-half months that Lomax and Ledbetter spent together in 1934 and 1935. It would be the early 1990's before a real bio of Leadbelly appeared; that one the work of Kip Lornell and Charles Wolfe.

After he parted company with John Lomax, Ledbetter lived for fifteen more years, years in which he gained his place in the dictionaries, folk song anthologies, and hearts and minds of college undergraduates and aspiring British rock musicians.. Various writers took an interest in Ledbetter and thus several excellent articles have appeared over the years since his death in 1949. There have been a novel and a Hollywood movie based on his life, but there was no biography. Most of the writers, too, have had a tendency to accept the information contained in the Lomax book uncritically, so there has been no re-examination of Ledbetter's early life. Strangely, there are certain basics upon which there is no agreement, even among the people who knew the man: these include the date and place of his birth, the pronounciation of his name, and even his height. Little wonder he is often thought of as a legendary figure.

According to John Lomax, Huddie Ledbetter said he was born in 1885 (J. Lomax, Negroï xi). Ross Russell, who interviewed Huddie in Los Angeles, puts the date at 20 January 1889, "not 1885 or 1886, as has appeared elsewhere" (Russell 12). Frederic Ramsey, Jr., who recorded Leadbelly's Last Sessions in New York, seems totally confused: in a magazine obituary, Ramsey mentions Huddie's death "at sixty years," in 1949, yet states four paragraphs later that he was born circa 1882 ("Legacy" 60). One jazz historian quotes two different birth dates, 1885 and 1888, on the same page (Tirro 127).
The tombstone in Shiloh Baptist Church's graveyard places Huddie's birthdate in 1889, but two census reports - 1900 and 1910 - both claim 1888 as the year of his birth. He was listed as twelve years old in 1900 and twenty-two in 1910. The most accurate date would have been provided by the 1890 census, which has been lost to posterity, but Huddie had clearly settled on the 1889 date by the time he spoke to Ross Russell.

The place of his birth, which his cousins clearly put between Mooringsport and Longwood in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, is generally accepted. As late as 1974, a group of Harrison County, Texas, residents planned to have Ledbetter's remains disinterred and moved to Karnack, where they would then erect an historical marker (Wilson 5). Texans have a good claim: the Ledbetters moved to Harrison County when Huddie was a boy. However, if he belongs to any region, that region is the Caddo Lake country, which has no regard for state borders. His Louisiana relatives, the Bob Ledbetters, lived only two or three miles away from the Wes Ledbetters who moved over the Texas line and bought land from Doc Wascom. The Texans apparently spurred the Louisianians into action - an historical marker was erected near Oil City, Louisiana, in the late 1970's.

There has been a certain amount of controversy over the pronounciation of the name Huddie. Blanche Love pointed out that her cousin's name was pronounced "Hew-die," not "Huddie" as some people say (Windham 97). At the Red River Revel tribute I heard Pete Seeger very carefully pronounce the name Hew-die. On the other hand, I have heard Ledbetter himself pronounce it both ways in different recordings. The census records him as "Hudy," which is the way the census-taker heard the name, and everyone who knew him in Louisiana uses the long "U."

There are also two different ways of writing his nickname, Lead Belly and Leadbelly. John Lomax, the man who probably invented the nickname, used two words but many people, myself included, have since contracted it to a single word. I will use Lead Belly only in direct quotations. As far as I can tell, the singer always referred to himself as "Huddie Ledbetter," and his cousin Blanche Love stated quite adamantly that his name was not Leadbelly, "it was Ledbetter" (Windham 97).

The question of Ledbetter's height is an interesting one: the legendary character is a "big powerful Negro" (Price 20), "one mean mountain of a man" ("Cinema" 76). The fictional accounts, both the novel and the movie, emphasize great size, and the most common perception is that Ledbetter was tall and husky. However, Ross Russell said that he "was not exceptionally big — in the 6-foot, 180-pound category" (Russell 12). Hector Lee, who met the singer in Salt Lake City in 1946, wrote that he was surprised to find Huddie was shorter than average (Lee, "Lead Belly" 135), and Pete Seeger, a fellow folksinger, wrote, "He was not tall — perhaps five feet seven or eight" (Asch & Lomax 7). His neighbor, Preston Brown, agrees with Pete Seeger. "He wasn't any taller than me," said Preston, which would place him at about five foot, seven inches. All agreed, however, that he radiated power and athletic grace. Journalist Ralph J. Gleason, who met Ledbetter several times in New York, put it this way: "He was not a tall man at all, but he was broad and chunky and gave an impression of terrific strength."

Posted by Monty Brown at 7:10 PM



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Chapter 1: King Cotton

Chapter 1: King Cotton: Pre-1889
Roque House, Natchitoches, LA. Circa 1790.


The cotton business received a tremendous lift from the invention of the cotton gin, a simple, yet efficient machine which separated the seeds from the fluffy white part. The gin was invented in 1793 by an American named Eli Whitney. The invention led to the clearing of millions of acres of forest lands, lands which were turned over to the growing of cotton. The Cotton Kingdom was thus established in the states bordering on the Gulf Coast, and the institution of slavery was revived during the first half of the Nineteenth century. As late as 1808, when slave importation into the United States was outlawed, popular wisdom said there was no need for any more slaves. It is estimated that 250,000 slaves were imported between 1808 and 1860, and had the practice not been illegal, there may have been many more. Slave labor made the Cotton Kingdom possible.
Caddo Parish, Louisiana, became a leader in cotton production in the years leading up to the Civil War. The population of the parish in the latter part of the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly black, particularly in rural areas like Mooringsport on the southern shore of Caddo Lake. The reason for this is simple: many of the white settlers who arrived from the Southeastern states prior to the Civil War came with their slaves. Thus a family made up of four or five white members might typically be accompanied by four or five times that many black people. Not all the white settlers were slave owners, of course, but there were enough to account for the population ratio.

"The early settlers were nearly all rich men with many slaves and some fine cattle." (O'Pry 141). “A man named Erwin, founder of Erwin's Bluff in Shreveport (circa 1836), brought 100 negroes with him and a quantity of fine Kentucky stock.” (O'Pry 144) The 1870 census, the first to enumerate blacks as people rather than slaves, shows 15,799 blacks and 5,913 whites in Caddo. The 1880 census shows 19,283 blacks out of a total parish population of 26,303. That's a ratio of roughly three blacks to each white in the years following emancipation. The ratio actually widened during the 1860's, possibly reflecting the westward exodus of slave owners, and their possessions, to safer environs. [The decade of the Civil War.] It was 1920 before the census showed a majority of white residents in Caddo parish, and in the late Twentieth century, the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

There were two ways of getting to northwest Louisiana from the Atlantic states. Some families traveled overland in wagons, while their slaves were linked together in "coffles," like chain gangs, and made to walk the thousand miles to their new homes. Other families went by ship to New Orleans; there they transferred to riverboats which, after the clearing of the Great Raft, went all the way to Shreveport and beyond, to the town of Jefferson, Texas, on Caddo Lake.

The city of Shreveport, Louisiana, was founded on the Red River; it lies about twenty miles east of the Texas border, and thirty-five miles south of Arkansas. Shreveport calls itself the hub of a region known as the Ark-La-Tex. To the north and west of Shreveport lies Caddo Lake, half of which is in Texas, and half in Louisiana. The Texas half features cypress trees, cypress knees, and Spanish moss, peculiarities more often associated with Louisiana. The northwest part of Louisiana, with its non-Catholic and non-French population, has always felt an affinity for East Texas.

Shreveport is named for Captain Henry Miller Shreve of the U.S. Army engineers. He arrived in 1833 to survey the Red River and see what could be done about the massive logjam which blocked navigation for two hundred miles upstream. He and his men set about clearing the jam, known as the Great Raft, and by the middle 1830's the Red was navigable to the Mississippi. Settlers started to pour in. The Caddo Indians, guardians of the land since time immemorial, were overwhelmed by the flood of immigrants. They "sold out" in 1835 and moved to the temporary safety of Oklahoma.

Among the antebellum white settlers in the region were the Jeter brothers from Virginia, William and James. They came as part of that historical western migration which opened up millions of acres of land to the cultivation of cotton in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and, finally, Texas; they came to help establish the Cotton Kingdom. The Jeters were from an affluent family; they brought money and possessions, including some slaves, and bought land in northwestern Louisiana. Their slaves cleared the land, planted cotton, built a large house for the owners and small houses for themselves.
William Nathaniel Jeter, born in 1824, first purchased property in Caddo Parish in 1849. This was a tract of three hundred and twenty acres of wooded land northeast of Caddo Lake; the seller was Richard T. Noel.

During the next three years, William got himself situated and then returned to Virginia in 1852 to marry Lucinda Ford. Later that year, William came back to Louisiana with his new bride and his younger brother, James, who had just turned twenty-one. For the sum of $1,500, James bought four hundred and eighty acres from one Randolph Martin. This land was to the west of the village of Blanchard, which is halfway between Shreveport and Mooringsport. "James Addison Jeter was a surveyor and many maps of this area are based on Jeter's Country Plat." (A. Moore 32)

In May, 1860, William bought 160 acres to the south of Caddo Lake. This appears to be the beginning of what was to become the Jeter Plantation, or the Jeter Place. A near neighbor of the Jeters, at the time, was seventy-five year old John Lowe, also a native Virginian. Lowe possessed fifty slaves and eleven slave dwellings; his real estate was valued at $50,000. By this time, a mere twenty-five years since the clearing of the Red River, Caddo parish was shipping record quantities of cotton to the international market in New Orleans.

When the Civil War began, both Jeter brothers went off to defend the Confederacy. James was Captain of an outfit known as the Caddo Lake Boys, who marched a hundred miles east to Monroe, Louisiana, in 1861. Both brothers were captured and then later sent back home in an exchange of prisoners. (A. Moore 32)

Shreveport had not been ravaged by the Civil War, had not been captured by theUnion, and for that reason, it became the capital of wartime Louisiana. By early 1865, the town was home to a substantial Confederate force and surrounded by forts, barricades, trenchs and earthworks, in readiness for a state of seige. The most famous remaining Civil War landmark is known as Fort Humbug, where, for lack of the real thing, wooden cannons were placed in hope of fooling the Yankees. The Rebel commander at Shreveport was General E. Kirby Smith. He described it as "a miserable place with a miserable population — swarming with refugees, slave coffles, state legislators, and surplus colonels." (Stuck 4)

The southern part of the state, particularly strategic New Orleans with its command of the Mississippi River mouth, had been secured by Union forces early in the war. Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Louisiana's eastern border, eventually toppled to General Grant's forces after being under seige for more than a year. Alexandria, in the center of the state, had been torched during a battle with Union forces. The nearest actual battleground to Shreveport was twenty-five miles away.
General Nathaniel P. Banks

In the spring of 1864, Union forces under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks forged northward from Alexandria to mount an assault on Shreveport, now a busy depot for men and supplies. Banks was a former governor of Massachussetts, a Republican political appointee who was not highly rated as a military commander. In retrospect, his Red River Campaign might have been more successful had it been waged by a soldier, but in fact it made little difference to the eventual outcome of the Civil War, and Banks's style may have spared a few lives.

At the Battle of Mansfield, the Union forces were met and held off by a smaller, more mobile Rebel force under the command of General Richard Taylor, son of (former U.S. President) Zachary Taylor. At the Battle of Pleasant Hill, a day or two later, the Union forces staged a comeback, but General Banks failed to follow up his advantage. He retreated to the south and Shreveport was left unscathed.

During the postwar Reconstruction era, racial tensions were extremely high. Black troops were included in the garrison of Federal troops which arrived in Shreveport, in 1865, to begin a ten-and-a-half year occupation. When the troops first arrived they restored order where there had been anarchy, looting, and random violence; they were welcomed by law abiding citizens. But once order was restored, stories of black demons lording it over white men and raping and insulting white women became part of the popular mythology. There is little evidence of such behaviour in reality. In fact, blacks seem to have behaved with restraint; they had, after all, been subjected to considerable violence and humiliation during slavery.

Most of the documented postwar violence continued to be commited by whites against blacks. John Johnson, the son of a white plantation owner, apparently murdered a black woman in August, 1865. He escaped arrest and was never brought to trial. Two white men in Shreveport were found guilty of the murder of a freedman and sentenced to ninety-nine years each. However, after sentencing the two rose from the prisoners' dock and strolled out of the courtroom unhindered. They were simply allowed to go free. In October, 1868, two whites were killed in a dispute with freedmen, which is what former slaves were called, and Shreveport's white citizenry retaliated by going on a rampage, killing nineteen blacks.
Blacks were not only saddled with the reputation of being violent and insolent; they were also thought of as too ignorant to vote intelligently. And as for taking over the reigns of government? To a loyal white Southerner, nothing could be more ludicrous!

As members of Republican administrations, blacks generally attempted to enact progressive legislation such as unsegregated public education, and distribution of land to former slaves. The Republican party in Louisiana, the party of Lincoln, was a coalition of blacks, a handful of white progressives, and white Northerners who came to carry out the policies of the Federal government. Supporters of the Confederacy referred to this latter group as "carpetbaggers." The name derived from their luggage, a large bag made from carpet material. The white progressives were called "scalawags." The blacks were simply "niggers." In fact, most Louisiana black legislators, men like Caesar C. Antoine, were from an educated class of free men or creoles of color. Antoine, who became a Shreveporter, was elected lieutenant governor in 1873.


Caesar Carpenter Antoine
CC Antoine circa 1873
Born September 10, 1836 in New Orleans; C. C. Antoine served as a Captain in the Union Army – Louisiana, during the Civil War.  However, his most impressive accomplishments came in the arena of politics.  In 1868, during the period of Reconstruction, Antoine was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature as a State Senator, and served until 1872.  In 1871, he sponsored CHARTER legislation that granted the unincorporated town of Shreveport  the legal status of CITY.  Additionally, in 1873 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, and served in that capacity until 1877.  He was Louisiana’s 3rd Black Lieutenant Governor, and also served as Interim Governor in 1876.  Antoine was also an entrepreneur, property owner, human rights advocate, and newspaper publisher/editor.  At the end of the Civil War, Antoine moved to Shreveport, purchased land, opened a family grocery store, and became a farmer. C. C. Antoine died of natural causes on September 12, 1921, at his home in Shreveport.

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