December 14, 2016

Chapter 9: New York City 1939-44


Wetting the sidewalk, The Village, 1940
During the hot European summer that year, 1939, Hitler's Germany unleashed its military might on Poland to set off the Second World War, though America was not to become a combatant until the end of 1941, two years and three months later.

Eyewitness: One night there was a concert in a grade school auditorium on the West Side [of Manhattan], downtown on Hudson Street, in the area now known as TriBeCa, [the Triangle Below Canal Street.] It was one of those cramped, high-ceilinged halls common to the old schools built before World War I. The event was a fund-raiser of some kind, I can't remember now just what, but probably a strike. The Almanac Singers were on the stage singing a song about Harlan County in the Virginias, where so much striking-miners' blood was shed. "Blood on the Ground" was the refrain. Lee Hays led them. Later, Alan Lomax sang some of the songs he learned from Leadbelly and others, and an Irish poet was on the program, too; I'm ashamed to have forgotten his name as well.

Then Leadbelly came on. It was the difference between day and night. He had it. He was billed as the "King of the 12 String Guitar" and the minute he hit (not stroked) those strings, you knew it was the truth. And when he opened his mouth and hollered, the sound of his voice seemed to acquire your ears, and the rest of you, — with force. He made sound assume a weight I have never heard another voice approach. It was staggering. And even though I recall a microphone, it was really long before the era of sound enhancement, it was more like a little electric juice added to make the sound carry further, not really sound louder.

After the woes of 1939, 1940 turned out to be one of Leadbelly's best career years, and during the next few years, he was associated with a number of folk singers who based themselves in New York City. These included Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who were part of the Almanac Singers and who eventually formed the popular 1950's group The Weavers; Woody Guthrie, who also sang with the Almanacs; Cisco Houston, Oscar Brand, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and Josh White.

1935 publicity photo courtesy of the Estate of Josh White and the Josh White Archives. 
Josh — or Joshua — White was born in South Carolina in 1915, the son of a preacher. In the early 1920's he started leading around blind street singers, including, so he claimed, Blind Lemon Jefferson. White was apparently much more of a rambler than Huddie Ledbetter ever was. He went to Chicago in the early 1930's and did some recordings as the "Singing Christian." He moved to New York, did some odd jobs, and in 1940 landed a bit part in the Broadway production of “John Henry,” which starred Paul Robeson. White played the part of "Blind Lemon." “John Henry” closed after only seven performances, but Josh White's career was underway. He did the same kind of things as Ledbetter during the war years — he had a fifteen minute weekly radio program, recorded for Columbia, and worked regularly at the Cafe Society Downtown; for a time he shared the Village Vanguard gig with Huddie — but he was a smoother, more sophisticated entertainer and thus more acceptable in the New York night club scene. He sang at President Roosevelt's inaugural in 1940, and twice more at the White House during the war. Huddie's itinerary in Washington never included the White House.

Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right      [edit]

Barney Josephson.jpg
Barney Josephson
Barney Josephson a former shoe salesman who opened two high-end night clubs in the prime time of race equality and the prohibition. Both nightclubs, which were documented as "historical", were opened up in New York between the years of 1938 and 1940. Both clubs were named Café Society and Café Society (Uptown). Josephson later wrote a bibliography called "Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People", which was written as a first hand experience about running a radical nightclub, the interesting individuals that attended the club, its importance on race equality and its direct influence on the Jazz community. The constant revolving doors of the two nightclubs allowed many interesting ideas, beliefs and values to be acknowledged under the same roof. An important variable that never changed was the immense amount of jazz musicians to walk through the doors. These two nightclubs were one of the few venues to allow interracial mix in the audience. Barney Josephson paved a way for musicians, actors and all races alike to join in and indulge in performances unlike no other. A few stars to have been seen in Josephson's club were Billie HolidayHazel ScottZero MostelAlbert Ammons, and Pete Johnson.

Woody Guthrie came from Okemah, Oklahoma, and during the Great Depression he witnessed first hand the plight of the dust bowl farmers and the massive migration of "Okies" to California, where the streets were supposedly paved with gold. Guthrie went to California, too, and got on radio station KFVD in Los Angeles singing hillbilly music. There he met Ed Robbin who was a news commentator working for the left wing newspaper, The People's World. Guthrie started writing a daily column in the paper, "Woody Sez."

Woody Guthrie: I always read the radical papers over my program and took sides with the workers all I knew how. I drew pen sketches for the Peoples World and learned all I could from the speeches and debates, forums, picnics, where famous labor leaders spoke. I heard William Z. Foster, Mother Bloor, Gurley Flynn, Blackie Myers, I heard most all of them and played my songs on their platforms. 

Woody was introduced to Will Geer, the actor who later starred in TV's "The Waltons;" Geer was doing benefits to raise money for the migratory labor camps. Woody came along and dived into the struggle. He became a close friend of Will Geer and his family. Through Will, Woody started to make a living singing at fund-raising parties around Los Angeles.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger: "Will sent me a copy of Woody's mimeographed songbook, “A Slow Train Through California,” and told me I sure ought to meet Woody when he came to New York. I did meet him in March of 1940 at a midnight folk song session held on the stage of a Broadway theater. It was again a benefit for the California migratory workers. “The Grapes of Wrath” [by John Steinbeck,] had been published a year before, and in New York many of us felt that we wanted to learn more. Will Geer was MC of the show. Burl Ives was on it, also Leadbelly, Josh White and there was Woody. A little short fellow with a western hat and boots, in blue jeans and needing a shave, spinning out stories and singing songs that he had made up himself." (Seeger 42)

First of a kind concert. On March 3, Will Geer organized a "Grapes of Wrath Evening" to benefit the "John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers," a show that changed the course of Woody's career and, perhaps, of American music as well. It was held at the Forrest Theater, home of "Tobacco Road" and featured "American Ballad Singers and Folk Dancers:˘ Will Geer, Alan and Bess Lomax, Aunt Molly Jackson, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, the Pennsylvania Miners and the Golden Gate Quartet." Most of the performers — notably Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson — had appeared in New York before, but usually for small, often academic gatherings. There had been other "folk" music recitals, but this would be remembered as the first really important one, the first before a large, mainstream audience. Alan Lomax noticed Woody for the first time, here. (Klein 142)

A week later Woody was down in Washington, D.C., recording with Lomax at the Library of Congress, and staying in the Arlington, Virginia, home that Lomax and his wife shared with radio (later, film) director Nicholas Ray. The Library of Congress recording sessions took place on 21, 22, and 27 March, 1940, with Lomax playing the part of a radio interviewer. He then worked up an abbreviated version of the script he'd used in Washington, and put together a program on Woody for his "Columbia School of the Air" program for 2 April.  But at the rehearsal on the day before — April Fool's Day😀 — Guthrie got into an ornery mood and refused to comply with the simplest direction from CBS's George Zachary. Finally, Zachary exploded and Guthrie walked out with Lomax hot on his heels. Lomax didn't quite know how to handle his feisty protégé, so he avoided the subject as the two walked downtown to Huddie and Martha's place on East 11th Street in the Village. There, they spent a racous evening singing and drinking, tumbling into bed quite late and quite loaded. It was a double bed, and Alan made sure that Woody was securely sandwiched between himself and the wall, and couldn't get out. Next morning they rose early, breakfasted, and went up to the CBS studios where the program was broadcast without a hitch. Woody was a natural on the radio, plus he had had a great deal of experience in Los Angeles.
















About this time, [end March, 1940] Woody started his "Woody Sez" column in the Daily Worker. It appeared in a small box on the Entertainment page.

Woody spent a many a night on the Murphy bed at Huddie and Martha's apartment, awed by the older man's ability and in love with his language. "I heard Leadbelly say the other day, 'I woke up this morning and the blues was falling down like midnight rain,'" he wrote in his column. It was difficult to tell what Leadbelly thought of Woody, although he appeared to enjoy his company. But then, it was difficult to tell what Leadbelly thought of any white man; he was unalterably servile in their presence, and addressed them formally as "Mr. Alan", and even "Mr. Woody." (Klein158)
3 May, 1940, Woody recorded his "Dust Bowl Ballads" at the RCA Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey.
Between the 15th and the 17th of June, Huddie was in the recording studio for RCA Victor in New York. "Midnight Special," "Pick a Bale of Cotton," and "Rock Island Line" were recorded, with vocal backing by the very smooth sounds of the Golden Gate Quartet. It was an interesting counterpart to Leadbelly's rough style. There were also several solo sides released on Victor's Bluebird label. These included "Roberta," which he had cut for A.R.C. in 1935, but which was yet to be released; "You Can't Lose Me, Cholly," a two-step which dated back to his sukey jump days; and "Good Morning Blues," possibly his best-known blues (Dixon & Godrich 385). It starts out,

All Negroes like blues. Why? Because they was born with the blues.  
When you lay down at night, turn from one side of the bed all night to the
other and you can't sleep, what's the matter? The blues got you. They
want to talk to you. You got to tell 'em something, and here's what you
got to tell them:
Good morning blues, blues how do you do?
Good maaaaw-ning blues, blues how do you do?
I'm doing alright, good morning, how are you? (Early Leadbelly)



The fourth and final session for Victor took place on Monday, June 17, 1940. That Wednesday, June 19, Huddie made a recording with Woody Guthrie which Guthrie’s widow, Marjorie, said was possibly an audition for a radio show (Caplan, liner notes). It sounds as if the two are sitting around the house with a home recorder, but there was no tape in those days, so it must have been recorded direct to disc. Guthrie is heard throughout as the narrator as Huddie sings a bunch of songs from Louisiana, including a field "holler" and "Whoa, Back, Buck!" (Early Leadbelly). In the latter song, he sings "whoa, Cunningham" instead of "whoa, God-DAMN," which he had sung to the intellectual black-tie gathering in Philadelphia five years earlier. The saltier lyrics wouldn't play for a radio audition.
Around this same time, Guthrie actually had a job singing a couple of songs a week for the Model Tobacco network radio program. He was paid $200 per week, which was quite a lot of money in those days, especially for Woody Guthrie. According to Pete Seeger, he could have kept the job and had a successful commercial career if he had sung the songs he was asked to sing. But that was not in Guthrie's nature and he quit after about a month.
In the meantime, Pete Seeger went down to Washington, D.C., and worked for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress. Woody Guthrie came to the capital several times, either to record songs or to sing at a club or a meeting, and he and Seeger became fast friends.

Early in the summer of 1940, Woody arrived in a newly acquired Plymouth ("It really splits the breeze," he said), Pete quit his job — "such as it was" — and the two of them set out for parts unknown, singing whenever they could in support of striking workers. In Oklahoma City they contacted the local Communist Party organizers, Bob and Ina Wood, who got them to perform for Hooverville poor and for striking oil workers and the unemployed Workers' Alliance. Woody wrote the "Union Maid" in Oklahoma, and they dropped in on Woody's wife and kids, who lived in a shack in Pampa, in the Texas Panhandle. Here they parted company, Pete heading west, and Woody going back to Oklahoma City after about a week at "home." He picked up Bob Wood and some of his political associates and drove them to New York for the big Communist Party convention in Madison Square Garden. In his "Woody Sez" column, he wrote,
“After we got out of the Holler Tunnel, I says, Well, Boys, what do you think of her? One old boy in the back said, I bet I sunburn the roof of my mouth — but it'll be worth it — he looked out the window as we drove down the street and he said, God amighty, dadburn my hide, is ALL of them people here for the convention? — Another ol boy said, Well, yeah, but they just don't KNOW IT yet."
Woody was so filled with the Party spirit that he gave Bob Wood the Plymouth, so he'd have something to get back home with. It was the official car of the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that. (Klein 163)

When Earl Robinson (whose "Ballad for Americans" had been performed by Paul Robeson in 1939) brought [Huddie] to Camp Unity, the Communist Party's summer retreat, [he] shocked and disheartened the audience with his songs about knife fights and "high yaller" women — those weren't the kinds of things they wanted to hear from a progressive Negro. After Robinson explained the problem, Leadbelly returned to win over the crowd with "Bourgeois Blues" and several of his other political songs. [Klein 148]

                                                                                                   
    Woody Guthrie
So Woody was back in New York in good time for the release of his "Dust Bowl Ballads" on Victor in July, 1940. Howard Taubman, writing in the New York Times, grasped hold of some part of the significance of the songs:
“These albums are not a summer sedative. They make you think; they may even make you uncomfortable. . . . The albums show that the phonograph is broadening its perspective, and that life as some of our unfortunates know it can be mirrored on the glistening disks. [NY Times: July 40]
Woody spent a good deal of time with Leadbelly that summer, and also with Aunt Molly Jackson and her clan, all of whom lived on the Lower East Side. He took great pleasure in their gruff integrity and wrote in his column: "[They] all come to Leadbelly's house almost every day. . . . Molly is the woman Leadbelly. She is in her cotton apron what Leadbelly is in his bathrobe. She talks to him exactly as to her reflection in the mirror. He speaks back to her like the swamplands to the uplands, the same as his river would talk to her highest cliffrim. She loves him in the same half-jealous way that he loves her, because he sees and feels in Aunt Molly the woman who has found in her own voice the same power on earth that he has found. [Woody Sez: Summer 40]
From time to time, they would all sing on WNYC New York's [municipal] radio station and one of the few places around where pure, undiluted folk music could be heard. Woody did a series of programs that summer with Sarah Ogan and Jim Garland, and mounted a successful campaign to get Leadbelly a weekly show of his own. [Klein 165]

In August, Huddie was down in Washington, D.C., making glistening disks for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress. Lomax had recently had a great success with several hours of music and interviews with Woody Guthrie and with Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans-born pianist who claimed to have invented jazz. The Morton recordings resulted in a book, “Mr. Jelly Roll,” which was published several years later; but more immediately, the recordings led to a resurgence of interest in Morton shortly before his death. Jelly Roll was a great talker, and quite renowned for it.

Huddie was obviously a much more difficult interview for Lomax. He was inclined to answer with stories, rhymes and riddles, many of which he had probably told repeatedly until they had become little performances. Lomax's reaction tended to be much like that of his father, John: he easily lost patience and constantly interrupted the interviewee. While the result was dramatic, it emphasized the same glibness that Lomax exhibited on the Guthrie recordings, and was short on the social history he was presumably aiming for.

Lomax: These records are being made by Huddie Ledbetter from Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on August 23rd, 1940. Lead Belly's about . . . how old are you, Huddie?
Ledbetter: Fifty-one. 
Lomax: [repeating this information] Lead Belly's fifty-one years old; he's been playing guitar all his life, pretty much; has wandered all over Texas and Louisiana; now is living in New York down on the East Side, and making some kind of a living with records and playing at parties, and demonstrating for peace whenever he gets a chance to. [The war in Europe was now about a year old, and France had fallen to Hitler’s Germany about ten weeks previous.]

Woody Guthrie, meantime, was moving towards a paying gig with CBS. Alan Lomax was scripting, and Nicholas Ray preparing to direct, a network folk music series called "Back Where I Come From." The scripts, according to Canadian expatriate folksinger Oscar Brand, "demonstrated the power of contemporary comment in song." (68) A half-hour pilot featuring Woody, Burl Ives, the Golden Gate Quartet, and emcee Clifton Fadiman, was aired on 19 August.
CBS couldn't find a sponsor for the show, but the higher-ups at the network seemed to like the idea and were ready to go ahead with it regardless. Potential sponsors may have been frightened off by the unfamiliar music, the radical politics of some of the participants, the integration of blacks and whites, or the combination of all three ingredients. The show began running regularly in late September for fifteen minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. After a few weeks, Woody started challenging Nicholas Ray on various artistic decisions. He was especially vehement on the subject of Leadbelly, who was given only an occasional, subservient role on the program and, worse, often had to hear a smoother, more accessible black singer, Josh White, perform his songs so that white America could understand the words. [Klein169]
On New Years' Eve, some of the cast from "Back Where I Come From" piled into Woody's Pontiac and went up to Nyack, NY, to play a fund-raiser at Will Geer's new house (only Will Geer would have a fund-raiser on New Years' Eve). A good slice of Broadway was there that night, dressed to the nines in gowns and tuxedos, and Woody got ornery drunk. He sang three or four songs rather poorly, his eyes closed throughout.
"Why do you have your eyes closed?" Geer asked.
"All them white shirts and diamonds are blinding me," sez Woody.
The ride back to the city was accomplished at speeds ranging from 20 to 80 miles per hour, although the speed at any given moment had little to do with the difficulty of the road. When they reached Harlem, Woody insisted on screeching to a stop at each corner and asking pedestrians, "How do we get from here to the United States?" Leadbelly, in the back seat, scrunched down and mumbled, "Please, Mr. Woody, please . . ." [Klein172]

The Almanac Singers in 1941 were Pete Seeger, who initially called himself Pete Bowers "to protect" his father, Charles, who worked for the Roosevelt administration; Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell. They rented a loft on Fourth Avenue near Union Square, just a block from Communist Party HQ. Earl Robinson, the folk-oriented composer was a member of the party's Cultural Section and was a great supporter, but the Almanacs were a little too free-wheeling for the diciplined party core. On 24 March, the Daily Worker ran its first big article about them, an account of "Bowers" and Hays appearance at the League of American Writers conference.
Below: Pete Seeger singing for the opening of the Washington, DC, Labor Canteen in 1944: sponsored by the Federal Workers of America. Note the presence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the center of the picture.

In April, the Almanacs started having Sunday afternoon rent parties, a long tradition in the black community, but rather revolutionary among New York's white Bohemian set.
They were joyous, free-form affairs, attended by most of the folk musicians in the area: Leadbelly, always immaculate in his suit and tie; Aunt Molly Jackson and her clan; Burl Ives; Blind Sonny Terry, the harmonica player; Richard Dyer-Bennett, who sang the classic ballads in artsy, academic fashion; Josh White. Non-musicians were charged thirty-five cents admission, beer was sold for ten cents a cup, and sometimes as many as a hundred people crowded into the loft — which provided more than enough money to keep the Almanacs afloat. [Klein 190] By the summer of 1941, Guthrie joined the Almanac Singers, and the group went on a American tour which took them all the way to the West Coast. Pete and Woody were the only remaining Alamanacs who made it to Seattle, Wash., by September. A New Deal political club known as the Washington Commonwealth Federation arranged for them to sing for trade unions in the Puget Sound region, and then invited them to their next "hootenanny."
"This was mortally a blowout and one of their most successful hoots. Pete and me aim to put the word Hootenanny on the market." 
It was the first time we had heard the term. It seems they had a vote to decide what they would call their monthly fund raising parties. "Hootenanny" won out by a nose over "wingding." The Seattle hootenannies were real community affairs. One family would bring a huge pot of some dish like crab gumbo. Others would bring cakes, salads. A drama group performed topical skits, a good 16-mm film might be shown, and there would be dancing, swing and folk, for those of sound limb. And, of course, there would be singing.
Pete: Woody and I returned to New York, where we rejoined the other Almanac Singers, and lived in a big house, pooling all our income. We ran Sunday-afternoon rent parties, and without a second's thought, started calling them hootenannies, after the example of our west-coast friends. Seventy-five to one hundred Gothamites would pay 35 cents each to listen to an afternoon of varied folk songs, topical songs, and union songs, not only from the Almanacs but from Huddie Ledbetter, Josh White, the Mechau family, and many many others — including members of the audience.

The Almanacs opened their fall campaign in new quarters: a classic New York town house, selected by Pete Hawes, near the corner of Tenth Street and Greenwich Avenue, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Almanac House, as it came to be known, offered more privacy than the old loft — the top two floors were bedrooms — but less space. The Sunday afternoon hootenannies were squeezed uncomfortably into the basement.

December 7th, 1941: the Japanese attack Peal Harbor 
resulting 
in America’s entry into World War II.

Woody Guthrie wrote that he'd lived with Huddie and Martha for several months back in 1942 at their place on the Lower East Side in New York. "I still sleep a night once in a while at Lead's when I get lost, stranded, strayed and left out in the weather." (Asch & Lomax 16)

Pete Seeger wrote that he had been tremendously influenced by Huddie's music and by his "unaffectedness." At the time of their meeting, Pete had dropped out of Harvard and was wearing "work" clothes to identify himself with the proletariat. Huddie, he noted, did not need to affect the dress of a man of the people; he was the real thing. Huddie, when he was not at home in his bathrobe, always dressed neatly in a suit and tie, with shined shoes and a fancy walking stick. Seeger recalled,
“he and his wife Martha had a little flat on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan]. Woody Guthrie and I visited him often there, and made music together with him, till the neighbors complained of the noise." (Asch & Lomax 7).

After the commercial recordings of 1940, none of which proved financially successful, Huddie was taken up by Moses Asch, the founder of America's most extraordinary record company, Folkways. Asch was just as much a character as the many colorful musicians he recorded. These included all of the folk singers mentioned above as well as hundreds of ethnic performers from around the world, country bluesmen, old time jazzmen, poets reading their poetry, politicians delivering speeches, "frogs croaking, a science series and almost two hundred children's records" (Scherman 111).

Leadbelly's first recordings for Asch were work songs, but it was soon suggested that Asch continue his successful children's series with an album of Huddie's children's songs (Asch & Lomax 5). Many of these were simply the sukey jump, play party songs of his youth in the backwoods of Caddo Parish and Harrison County: "Skip to My Lou," "You Can't Lose Me, Cholly," and the "Cotton Picking Song." (Dixon & Godrich 385). Moses Asch has since written of Leadbelly's way with children. He saw him playing for kids in the playgrounds of Greenwich Village and in a Christmas concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the posh Upper East Side:
“It was jam-packed, children all over the place, frantic parents. But the moment Leadbelly started to play and sing, the audience hushed, the children grouped around him as though it was grandfather singing for them, some sang with him, others danced, parents were bewitched. (Asch & Lomax 5)
Both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger have testified to Leadbelly's wonderful way with children. "Kids adored him," says Seeger. "Here this man who'd been in jail much of his life was just great singing for children" (Scherman 117). Woody, ever the wordsmith, put it this way,
"I've seen him laugh and joke with schoolkids, nursery kids, little toddlers climbing all over his guitar and up and down his arms and legs, and tell them, 'You make me feel new, I'll sing best for you'" (Asch & Lomax 17). Popular singer Maria Muldaur (b. Sept, 1943) remembers, as a child growing up in New York's Greenwich Village, listening to Huddie sing to her and others from his front steps (Prime 12). Much of the recording for Asch, which later showed up on both the Folkways and Stinson labels, seems to have taken place between 1941 and 1943 (Dixon & Godrich 385; Leadbitter & Slavin 189), and there were several sessions that combined the talents of Leadbelly with Woody and Pete, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and his long-time partner, guitarist Brownie McGee. During America's war years, 1942 to 1945, Huddie also broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and thus created a small following in Europe, especially in England and France. CBS radio director Norman Corwin believed that folk songs had a much stronger emotional appeal than pop ditties, so he used the likes of Seeger and Leadbelly, Josh White and Burl Ives, as part of the war effort (Brand 81). Huddie, naturally, made up a "Hitler Song," which included the refrain,

We're gonna tear Hitler down / We're gonna bring him to the ground.

Charles Edward Smith wrote an article entitled "King of the 12 String Guitar," which was published in the fall, 1942, issue of “Jazz” magazine. In the interview for the article, Huddie basically reiterated what he had told Lomax; he stuck to the legend that had been created, even though he had claimed Lomax misrepresented him. Smith was a much more sympathetic ear, however, and he painted Huddie as more of a victim of circumstance than a perpetrator of violence. For the next two years, until the summer of 1944 when Huddie left New York for the West Coast, Frederic Ramsey, Jr., kept tabs on the singer's activities:
"They stretch on and on. He has appeared on major network programs devoted to folk music. With artists like members of the Golden Gate [gospel] Quartet, Sidney Bechet (the Louisiana clarinettist) and Josh White, he appeared in the CBS "Back Where I Come From" series. For several weeks in the 1943-44 winter season, he had a series of his own programmes over WNYC, New York City's broadcast station.
He has appeared at innumerable jam sessions. I remember, particularly, one very fine session at Labour Stage run by [jazz pianist] Art Hodes, when Sidney Bechet turned up on a surprise trip East. Huddie has played on a commercial series with Josh White for NBC, and anytime there is a folk music festival anywhere, Huddie has to be there. Included, among others, was an ambitious one at Town Hall, which was recorded and sent overseas. In Washington also, Huddie appeared at the annual Folk Festivals and at jam sessions sponsored by Nesuhi Ertegun, noted jazz collector, and his brother Ahmed. [Ahmed Ertegun went on to found Atlantic Records] All these were squeezed in between night club engagements and heavy recording schedules! (Ramsey, Vanguard 7)
Put like that, it seems like a busy, successful career; but in fact, Huddie was underemployed in the music business and always had to struggle for the next buck. Martha continued to work in menial jobs just to keep the rent paid and food on the table.
From 25 November, 1941, until the spring of 1944, Huddie performed a great deal at the Village Vanguard, which is located in Greenwich Village on Seventh Avenue at 11th Street. In it's Night Life listings, the New Yorker magazine described the Vanguard as "a low-ceilinged cellar spot, specializing in folk singers." After the war began, the place was often referred to as being "something like an air-raid shelter, except for Huddie Ledbetter singing folk songs." At the beginning, Huddie shared the billing with "Joshua White and other folk singers." At times, he was replaced by Burl Ives or the calypso singer, Belle Rosette, and at other times, Huddie had the place to himself. During his last few months, the listing ran, "a cellar with murals as well as Huddie Ledbetter and the Clarence Profit Trio," a jazz group.
Clarence Profit started a seven year Greenwich Village career at George's Tavern on Grove Street in 1937. He recorded for Decca, Brunswick, and Columbia and also did some performing on 52nd Street. Pianist Teddy Wilson called Profit a true original who was so wrapped up in his music that he neglected his health. Profit died in 1944, cutting short a promising career as well as his regular gig at the Village Vanguard (Driggs & Lewine).
Judging by the entertainment listings, the war years, were a lively time for jazz lovers in New York. Pete Ammons and James P. Johnson played stride, boogie woogie, and ragtime, and Billie Holiday often sang, at the Cafe Society Downtown; the Cafe Society Uptown featured "Negro entertainment" by Hazel Scott, the Golden Gate Quartet, and pianist Teddy Wilson's Orchestra. New Orleans' own Sidney Bechet played Nick's on 7th Avenue at 10th Street (a block from the Vanguard), and the King Cole Trio was on 52nd Street, never far from Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other legendary jazz royalty.
By 1944, Josh White was listing his business address as the Cafe Society Downtown in Sheridan Square, and Burl Ives [pictured R in a 1955 photo by Carl Van Vechten] 
could be found at the Cafe Society Uptown. Billie Holliday was joined by Coleman Hawkins at the Downbeat on 52nd Street, and the jazz pianists included Art Tatum, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Art Hodes, and Mary Lou Williams, as well as Ammons and Johnson. After Huddie played his last gig at the Village Vanguard, on 2nd April, 1944, he dropped out of the New York club scene. Pete Seeger thinks he was just too "country" for New York audiences. [Photo of Billie Holliday, 1949, by Carl Van Vechten at L]
On the16th of April, Paul Robeson celebrated his 46th birthday with a monster party at the National Guard Armory, 34th Street and Park Avenue. Among the thousands who turned up for the event were performers Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Zero Mostel, Mildred Bailey, and Jimmy Durante. Army Intelligence agents were also there to provide information to the F.B.I. The Bureau, looking ahead to the postwar era, was gathering information on possible subversives, and Robeson was a number one suspect. He was a fearless fighter for the civil rights of his fellow African-Americans. On the 23rd of April, Huddie recorded several songs for Moses Asch's "New Play Party Songs" album, and in June he recorded two songs with Josh White, also for Asch. The titles in the latter session were "Pretty Flower" and "Don't Lie, Buddy."

On May 5th, Elizabeth Barnicle hosted a send off party for Huddie. During the Summer of 1944, while Allied troops were fighting their way from the Normandy beaches to Paris and points east, Huddie had departed from New York and taken up life in southern California. He felt there might be a better future for him in the Golden State.

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