Leadbellyfeature2

Leadbelly

by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornel

 

Huddie Ledbetter was born January 21, 1885 two miles from Mooringsport, Louisiana in the Caddo Lake area near the Texas border. Relegated by birth to the hardscrabble plight of a black farmboy in the early 20th century, his rough-and-tumble life went on to include employment as a musican in red-light districts, multiple jail terms, prison escapes, hard labor on chain gangs, and subsequently two odds-defying gubernatorial pardons in separate states resulting from pleas that were set to music. Ultimately the man nicknamed Leadbelly, for his powerful bass voice, went on to achieve international acclaim as a blues singer before his death in 1949.

Leadbelly’s unlikely rise to fame was due largely to his meeting folklorists John and Alan Lomax in 1934. While imprisoned at Angola Pentitentiary, Ledbetter was encouraged to record his repetoire of folk music for this father-son team of itinerant recording archivists. Drawing upon his skill at having literally sung his way out of prison a decade prior when he convinced Texas governor Pat M. Neff to commute his sentence, Leadbelly composed yet another call for mercy, intended this time for Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen. The Lomaxes played the record for the governor in his office and obtained a reprieve for Leadbelly on August 7, 1934.

The next month Leadbelly joined John Lomax in a journey that helped make both men famous. Lomax recorded folk songs in southern prisons, and Leadbelly accompanied him, telling of his own experiences and singing to encourage inmates to record for Lomax. Lomax’s tapes and Leadbelly’s songs were eventually deposited at the Library of Congress. After 6,000 miles of travel, performances and recordings, they arrived in New York City. Leadbelly was given a resounding reception by the New York intellectual and literary scene. His best known songs include “Boll Weevil,” “Rock Island Line,” “Old Cottonfields at Home,” “Take This Hammer,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” “Irene, Good Night” and “Midnight Special.”

Excerpted here, with permission, are two chapters from a definitive biography of Huddie Ledbetter, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (1999), by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, published by DaCapo Press, New York.

Young Performer

By the time he was fourteen, Huddie Ledbetter had won a reputation for his guitar playing and singing, and was much in demand for the sukey jumps and house parties surrounding the Caddo Lake region of his birth. Offers to play arrived on a regular basis. Huddie’s girlfriend Margaret Coleman remembered, “As the time rolled on, the white people with stores and drugstores asked Huddie to play Saturday evening and nights at their places to draw the crowd. In that way he made nice change.” Though he had grown up in an almost exclusively black community, he was getting a chance to perform for a wider audience, a different audience, the kind of audience he would later leam to cultivate in New York. He also began practicing the craft of entertaining, learning how to sell himself and his music to an often rowdy crowd. Much of it came naturally to him.

For a time he worked on a regular basis Saturday nights at a saloon in Leigh, Texas, out a few miles west on the Blanchard-Latex Road. Huddie was trying hard to grow up — he was a big, strapping boy with muscles toned from working in brutal weather on his father’s farm. But he soon realized he wasn’t as sophisticated as he thought. A story Huddie told years later illustrates this awareness: “Every Saturday I’d go out to Leigh, Texas, and I’d carry my guitar. Some of them would give me money when I’d get to the saloon, then the man would give me beer and money, too. But I had a good friend, her name was Early Bennett, she would call me ‘Six-Shooter,’ and Early, she would stash the beer for me; every time somebody would give me some beer, I’d give it to Early and she’d keep it for me.” Huddie couldn’t abide the raw, bitter taste of the beer, though, and he could hardly bring himself to drink it — though he felt he had to. Finally he hit upon a solution. “I’d get some sugar from my momma at home, you know, and put it in a paper, and put it in my pocket. So when I’d get through, me and Early would get behind the saloon. Early, she drank hers straight, but I had to put a little sugar in mine.”

In 1902 this part of Texas and Louisiana was still very much a frontier, a land of bootleg whiskey, disputes over women, knife fights, and shootings. With so much violence a part of everyday life, it was hardly surprising that Huddie soon got caught up in it. Irene Campbell, a second cousin of Huddie’s, recalled, “At 14 he started running around. I can remember later when he came to his mother’s all cut up. He had been out all night, and he had his guitar strapped to his back.” There was ”blood all over the front of his clothes and his jaw was hanging open because someone had barely missed his eye with a cut on his jaw from top to bottom.” Such scenes became more and more familiar, and though Huddie’s parents, Wes and Sallie Ledbetter, were upset about them, Margaret Coleman was more sympathetic and more willing to listen to Huddie’s side of things. Margaret insisted that it wasn’t the life Huddie lived, nor his character which caused him problems. Instead, it was nothing “but jealousy in the heart of the people because he could beat them playing and dancing and made more money. Some began picking on him, telling wrong things. Huddie, being big-hearted, would laugh and try to keep down the confusion. He would say to them boys ‘I don’t care what you say about me, don’t hit me.’ He would try to defend himself, regain friendship with his enemies.” Another friend of Huddie’s, Mary Patterson, agreed this was the official line that reached his parents, but thought there was more to it. “That’s what his parents said, ‘Everybody picks on Son.’ He had them believing that. But I think that … he was always crazy about women. They were jealous of him, I guess, but he sure would fight about the women.” Another childhood friend from this time, Sallie Hooks, added, “He wouldn’t take nothing off of nobody. He didn’t go ‘round just starting things, but if somebody looked like they want to start, he’d be ready.” Obviously, Huddie was a quick-tempered boy in a violent society. His ability to talk his way out of trouble with his parents could mask this only so far.

After a few more nights of watching his only son come home bleeding from cuts and bruises, Wes Ledbetter knew that he had to take some kind of action. When Huddie turned 16, Wes presented his son with a typical coming-of-age present in the frontier South of 1903 — a pistol. The gun was a Protection Special Colt that comfortably fit under Huddie’s coat in a holster. Years later, Huddie could recall his father’s exact words when he handed him the weapon. “Now son, don’t you bother nobody, don’t make no trouble, but if somebody try to meddle with you, I want you to protect yourself.”

The gift did wonders to lift Huddie’s self-image. And it didn’t take him long to try it out. At a neighborhood sukey jump a few weeks after his birthday, Huddie asked a girlfriend named Eula Lee to ride home with him on his new horse. She readily agreed. As they were preparing to leave, however, another boyfriend stepped up and insisted that Eula Lee ride home with him in his new buggy. This boy had been talking big all night, Huddie recalled, and had been thinking that this new buggy made him the “boss over the whole world.” An argument developed that quickly evolved into a struggle; the boyfriend grabbed the girl by the arm and she grabbed Huddie to hold on. Huddie remained silent, but as the other boy kept getting louder and more abusive, he eased his hand under his coat, feeling for the Protection Special. He felt the chilly steel, its cold weight reassuring. Huddie listened to the tirade and finally, when the braggadocio’s talk “got too big,” he lashed out with the gun and pistol-whipped the youth on the side of the head. He went down and Huddie leaped on him, straddling him with Colt in hand. Then he pulled the trigger. The gun misfired — a bad cartridge. Before Huddie could recover from his surprise, the badly shaken boy managed to squirm away and take off around the side of the house. Huddie fired two quick shots in his direction, but it was too late.

Huddie took Eula Lee home, then rode over to his own nearby farm, woke up his father, and told him what had happened. Wes quickly got dressed and rode over to the sheriff’s office, only to discover that the parents of the other youth had already arrived. They were crying that somebody had been killed, that Huddie had to be arrested right then. Fortunately, the sheriff was acquainted with Wes, knew of his good reputation in the area, and was willing to cut his son some slack. He eventually fined Huddie $25 for carrying a concealed weapon and let him go with a warning.

For the rest of his life this incident stayed with Huddie; it wasn’t the first time he had met violence at a frontier dance, but it was the first time he had truly asserted himself … and the first time he had gotten himself into a potentially lethal situation. This was apparently his first brush with the law, and but for the chance misfiring of his Colt, it could have resulted in something far more serious. As it turned out, the episode became a lesson to him — a lesson about how quickly violence could erupt in a frontier settlement and how easily one could get caught up in it. This lesson was reinforced a short while later when Huddie drew his gun once more. He saw his girlfriend and another boy sitting together in a nearby house; without thinking, Huddie fired his Colt through the door. The bullet apparently flew harmlessly, but it meant another visit with the sheriff.

Troubled Youth

Huddie was now a grown man. His friend Mary Patterson joked, “Huddie … wasn’t a real good-looking person; had dark skin and pearl white teeth. He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t pretty. Nice looking young man.” Huddie Ledbetter was about five feet eight inches tall. He had a smooth and very dark complexion and a muscular, athletic figure. Even then Huddie had developed a sense of style. Though he often spent arduous days working in the fields, when he went out at night he was cleaned and well dressed, sporting his eventual trademark red bandanna around his neck. Completing this outfit was a guitar strapped across his back.

The country girls found him irresistible: He had developed into a witty, talented, good-looking young man from a respectable family. He was a “musicianer”—a term used by rural blacks to refer to a performer who had instrumental as well as vocal skills. As such, he was special — a cut above the other farm boys and mule drivers at the local dances. His first real girl was Margaret Coleman, the daughter of a neighboring farmer. By 1903, when Huddie was 15 and a young man with a Colt and horse, Margaret became pregnant by him and gave birth to a girl. The child died in infancy. The community was much upset both by her pregnancy and the infant’s death. Margaret’s parents pushed hard for the couple to get married. Huddie apparently had no real objection to this, but Wes and Sallie had big plans for their son, which didn’t include Huddie being trapped into becoming a family man and a dirt farmer at the age of 16.

The Colemans finally backed off. Margaret certainly harbored no ill will toward her lover. Her later letters held nothing but respect for Huddie, and affection for his “poor, hard-working” parents. She also continued to see Huddie — and in another year she became pregnant again.

The second baby was another girl, who came out big and healthy. Margaret gave her the name Arthur Mae, but this time, perhaps in self-defense, Huddie denied that he was the father of the child. But his protests fell upon deaf ears and the Colemans were up in arms, rousing much of the community against Huddie. Pressure began to mount for Huddie to either marry Margaret or leave the area. The Colemans themselves soon relocated to Dallas, where Margaret raised her daughter. Huddie continued to deny his paternity, but soon found that his bad reputation with the older folks around Mooringsport was something not easily overcome.

Despite his feelings for Margaret, she was now out of the immediate scene — and Huddie was not often without a girlfriend for very long. However, he found out that the older folks had long memories when he fell in love with a girl known as “Sweet Mary,” the sister-in-law of Alonzo Betts, who was a half brother to Huddie. Irene Campbell thinks Huddie felt pretty strongly about Mary — certainly more than for Margaret — and even proposed marriage. Mary’s family wouldn’t agree to the marriage, though, possibly because of Huddle’s growing reputation as a womanizer. Later, after he moved to New York, Huddie wrote and recorded a song for Capitol Records, “Sweet Mary Blues,” in which he sings about “going all around the world trying to find my sweet Mary.” Although there’s nothing in the song specifically referring to Marshall or Mooringsport, his older relatives who still live in the area still believe the song is a lament for this early failed love affair.

Huddie turned 16 in January 1904. He was still living on the farm with his parents, working in the fields during the day, doting on his ten-year-old adopted sister Australia, occasionally even attending church. Yet he was also a father himself; a respected singer, musician, and dancer; a brawler and scrapper; and a ladies’ man, but all of this was only in a small farming community near nowhere. This teenager grew more and more anxious to test himself in the outside world, in a world where the girls weren’t so shy, the music not so monothematic, and the dances not as tame as the Buzzard Lope.

Shreveport

Down the road, on the far side of Cross Lake’s swampy shores, crouched in an arm of the old Red River, lay Shreveport. It was a mere 19 miles from Mooringsport in distance, yet decades away in development. In 1904 Captain Shreve’s town was still two years away from the Caddo Lake oil strike that would by 1910 turn it into a boomtown and an oil center. But before then it remained a center for the cotton trade, as it had been before the Civil War, a place where planters from a hundred miles around brought their cotton. Shreveport was a town that “gave itself over to cotton,” in the words of one guidebook: “The very streets and sidewalks were piled with bales of cotton and the talk in shops and restaurants and hotels centered on cotton prices and cotton futures. The cotton was once shipped out on the boats moored along the docks of the Red River, but now traveled recently on the new rail connection to places like Dallas.”

In 1900 Shreveport’s census showed an official population of 16,913 (a figure that would double over the next decade); about a third of these residents were black. It was second in population only to New Orleans; in fact, the Chamber of Commerce during these early days even sought to imitate New Orleans’ famous celebration by staging their own Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday. Like New Orleans, the town was a loose and open gathering place for all kinds of businessmen and traders from the Ark-La-Tex. Down along the waterfront, especially on Strand Street and on the comer where Gross Bayou spilled into the Red River, was the red-light district, just a few blocks from the new Holy Trinity Church and even closer to the businesses along Commerce Street.

This eventually bothered the city fathers, anxious to move Shreveport forward into the 20th century and to dispel the image of their town as a collection of frontier saloons. In late 1902 the city council formed a committee to choose a section of the town to serve as a “red light district for the habitation of women of immoral character.” They settled on an area west of downtown, away from the riverfront, in a triangle bordered by Fannin Street, Common Street, and the Texas and Pacific Railroad tracks. It was called St. Paul’s Bottoms, after the old St. Paul Methodist Church on Caddo Street, and it was a low-lying part of town where the humid summer breezes were few and the mosquitoes numerous. This was hardly choice real estate; the streets and alleys were muddy, the saloons were rough, and the houses were shabby rental properties, many of them taken by black families. In February 1903, the council designated the area as the official red-light district — “the red light district of the city of Shreveport to the exclusion of all others.” From all over town, madams loaded up their belongings and began to move.

Fannin Street

The center of the new nightlife was Fannin Street, which began on the east side of the bottoms and ran eight blocks downtown, ending at the riverbank. At the head of Fannin, where it ran into Cane (now Baker) Street, stood a sumptuous new two-story house owned by the city’s most popular madam, Annie McCune. At the opposite end of the block on Fannin was another fancy house, a late Victorian palace dripping with elaborate gingerbread decoration, run by a redheaded madam named Bea Haywood — “as fine a looking whorehouse as there was down there,” recalled a former professional gambler. The fancy parlors had all kinds of modem conveniences, such as the new player pianos that reeled off the latest turkey trot for a mere quarter. Within a year after the big move, the bottoms had at least 40 whorehouses, not counting the little shotgun houses and dens where individual girls plied their trade. There were also dozens of saloons, dance halls, gambling houses, and even an opium den run by a character named “Ol’ Bob” and a smoke house in the back of a Chinese restaurant.

White madams operated the big Victorian houses and they featured white girls. Farther down on Fannin Street, though, were houses featuring black or “mulatto” girls. Some of the famous madams were black, such as Baby Jane, who erected a brilliant electric sign in front of her house on Caddo Street, a block over from Fannin, who had a collection of red, green, and purple wigs, and who had a reputation for letting her drunker customers sleep it off on the premises. Fannie Edwards, another black madam, had a huge house filled with girls and over the years used her insider knowledge of local politics to build up impressive real estate holdings. Another building on Fannin Street housed the Octoroon Club, with many of its women imported from New Orleans — a point upon which its owners capitalized. Working-class customers who could not afford the $3 charged by the big houses could find dozens of independent black entrepreneurs working out of little shotgun houses for as little as a dollar a trick.

Just a block down the street from Annie McCune’s Victorian palace were two places run by blacks for blacks, joints which a contemporary newspaper described as “the most notorious dives in the bottoms.” These were the establishments of Caesar Debose and George Neil, described by local historian Goodloe Stuck as “the center of Negro nightlife — and crime.” DeBose’s place was next to a Chinese restaurant; its ground floor was a long saloon, but upstairs were rooms reserved for girls and for gambling. It was the scene of frequent shootings and stabbings, and a regular hunting ground for police and federal agents after wanted men. Though smaller, George Neil’s place included not only the usual bar and gambling rooms, but also a dance hall, a stage, and an eatery. Neil, at one time the wealthiest black man in North Louisiana, sought only black clientele, and on occasion even complained to the police when whites wandered into his place.

One Saturday night a retired police chief who had jurisdiction over the bottoms took some visiting newspapermen to Neil’s dance hall and described what he found:

The musicians, if so they may be called, were thumping out a hot dancing rhythm as led the way around the edge of the floor. We backed up against the wall by the side door. The orchestra stopped for a moment and then swung into a rollicking cakewalk. The dancers responded instantly and Negroes certainly do shine in a cakewalk. There was no master of ceremonies, no calling the next stunt in advance; it was a sort of catch-as-catch-can, the kind of dance being controlled by the orchestra.

The chief’s rare description of the dance he saw suggests that the new “uptown” Fannin Street dances were in fact not all that far removed from the rural dances of the backwoods sukey jumps.

After a general showing off for a while, a sort of pattern appeared. Pairs of dancers would dance into position directly in front of us and proceed to do their stunt, breakdown, hoedown, double-shuffle, buck-and-wing and many another step for which I knew no name … One couple in particular attracted our attention. The man was undersized and coal-black. He was shovel-footed, buck-kneed and agile as a cat. The woman was chocolate colored, broad, rather squat, bulged high in front and low behind, sort of a shed-room-rumped effect, and badly pigeon-toed. They faced each another and danced, turning ’round slowly, his huge foot slapping the floor with loud thwacks and her feet keeping time with a sort of forward and drag back movement. It was really comical.

In such places, a young Huddie Ledbetter could see that, while music was extremely important, the dancers often took center stage, and they managed to merge courtship, celebration, and tradition into some new and exciting synthesis. There was, of course, an uglier side to places like Neil’s. The Shreveport Times complained that in Neil’s “police have been openly assaulted by Negroes” and that there had been so many fights and scrapes that “the walls of the dance hall are peppered with bullet holes.” In a violent age, Fannin Street was a crucible of violence. In some ways, the dens and dance halls of the bottoms were as far removed from the courts and the police and due process as were the remote hamlets around Caddo Lake; blacks in the bottoms tended to settle problems by themselves, by skill with a knife and quickness with a gun, and this, too, was an impressive lesson for a young teenager just in from the swamps.

In the story he inevitably told to accompany his famous song “Fannin Street” (or “Mr. Tom Hughes’ Town” or “Follow Me Down”), Huddie implied that he had never been able to go to Fannin Street until he was 16. “I been wantin’ to go down on Fannin Street all my life,” he says in his Folkways recording of the story; his mother, however, heard the stories about the newly created red-light district and was afraid for him to go. It was only when his folks finally allowed him to put on his long pants — a frontier rite of passage — that he got up enough courage to defy his mother. “When you put on long pants you ought to act like a man, if you ain’t no man.” In fact, his song about Fannin Street has very little about the bottoms in it; most of it revolves around the act of defying his mother. It describes both his mother and his “l’il adopted sister,” Australia, begging him not to go; it broke his mama’s heart, he sung, and she walked away from him with her hands behind her, crying. Unable to stand the sight of her crying, Huddie went to her, fell to his knees, and begged her to forgive him — but then walked away “with tears runnin’ over the back of my head.”

The scene described in the song doubtless took place and was probably every bit as traumatic as Huddie remembered it; but in a later interview he admitted that this trip to Fannin Street was by no means his first. Huddie had gone there with his father when he was just a small boy, when Wes Ledbetter had taken his cotton to sell in Shreveport. When he was 16, he said, he had gone there when his father had given him some money for the fair. But Huddie went to Fannin Street instead, defying his father, not his mother:

My papa would take me to Shreveport on some bales of cotton. He’d lead me all around in Fannin Street, that’s what I’d like, you know, see people dance, and play and sing and pianos, and the women dance. I love to see women dance anyhow. And so my father carried me down there, I was a little boy, I wasn’t much knee high to a duck at that time, but I was staring. Sure, your children don’t forget nothing. My father’d lead me around by the hand in the daytime, and then he’d put me in the wrong yard, too. ‘Cause I’d be sleeping, and he’d be gone. When I’d wake up and he’d be gone, it’d run around in my mind (I was a little boy, too), he’s going right back down there where he carried me that day. So I say, well, when I get to be a man I’m going down there, too.

And when I got to be about 16 or 17 years old, see, I was wearing long pants at that time. So my father put me on a bale of cotton and carried me to the train, and give me 40 dollars in my pocket. I was a big shot, too, when I had that 40 dollars. Sent me to go to the fair, five times, he says, “Son, don’t go down on Fannin Street none at night.” Just thinking about Fannin Street, and I said “No, sir. Papa,” and that was just where I was going. I wasn’t going to tell him. He shouldn’t have asked me.

Anyhow, when I got to Shreveport, I never did forget how to go down on Fannin Street ‘cause there’s a little hill you drop off. I knows exactly where the big place sitting up on Texas Street — I guess it was a church, I don’t know what it is, I never did pay that much mind—’cause when l was getting ready to go down that little hill, I was studying about that church. But I knowed how to go down there. So I went on down on Fannin Street, and that’s where I’d go every time I’d leave home.

A Different World

It was a whole different world to a boy from out in the parishes, and as he walked along beside his father, his eyes grew large at the marvels of Fannin Street. In the store windows were dress mannequins, staring at the boy with unmoving eyes. Huddie admired them as he and his father walked past, and when they returned a couple of hours later he noticed they were still there — in the exact position, in fact, their eyes still staring. “Papa, don’t these people never go home and get nothing to eat?” he asked, to the great delight of his father. “No, son, that’s fashions.”

Later on, he would pretend to be more sophisticated:

I was down there, and two girls, you know, high browns, and I was so young, and they asked me, “Where’d you come from?” And I told ‘em, “Chicago.” Well, I was dead out of the country, and I knowed it, but they didn’t have to know where I come from. When they found out, they said, “Daddy, take us up there and buy us some beer.” So I took ‘em up, you had to get beer in a pigeon-hole, you know, wouldn’t let women inside of a bar (a saloon what they call it down there). So I ordered three glasses, these big tumblers, and so when they got up the beer, the women says, “All right, let’s drink, Daddy.” So I grabbed my glass and got on to it, and I got a big mouthful, but I went to spitting it out on the floor. They said, “Oh Daddy, you from Chicago and can’t drink beer.” And I said, “No I can’t drink it, stuff’s too bitter for me. You got to put some sugar in it!” And so the women jived me a whole lot.

They jived him, but Huddie soon became a favorite of the girls at Neil’s and DeBose’s; his work on his father’s farm had made him strong, and his naiveté added to his charm. He learned about women on Fannin Street, but he also began to learn more about his music. This was one of the big reasons he kept thinking of going into town on Fannin Street: the attraction of pianos and guitars in the barrelhouses.

Shreveport did not have the rich kind of early jazz culture that the downstate city New Orleans enjoyed, but a number of the better pianists and singers were on a circuit that took them through Shreveport. As he listened to them, Huddie began to hear some new sounds to add to his own music. One was an early form of the blues; he remembered a singer and piano player named Pine Top Williams, who boomed out off-color versions of “The Dirty Dozens” and sang it “right to a gal in the audience.” He also sang versions of “Take Me Back” and one of the early archetypal dirty blues, “Salty Dog.” Huddie later could still recall fragments of Pine Top’s song:

Baby, let me be your salty dog,

I don’t want to be your man at all, you salty dog.

Yes, honey babe, let me be your salty dog, your salty dog.

Little fish, big fish swimming in the water,

Old man, can I marry your daughter, you salty dog?

God made woman, made her mighty funny,

Kiss her ‘round the mouth, sweet as any money.

Another blues he learned very early — one which he said was his very first blues — was “I’m on My Last Go Round,” which he recorded for Bluebird in 1940. The blues songs, he found, were more popular on Fannin Street that the older country songs, work songs, and ballads he had been singing. He quickly added the blues to his repertoire.

His guitar playing also took a new turn. Though he was still playing a six-string at this time, he could adapt the barrelhouse piano style to it. He said, “Boogie woogie was called barrelhouse in those days. One of the best players was named Chee-Dee. He would go from one gin mill to the next on Fannin Street. He was coal black and one of the old-line players and he boogied the blues. At that time anyone could walk into a barrelhouse and just sit down and start playing the piano. I learned to play some piano myself by picking it out.” At dances and in saloons he would always sit near the piano so he could hear the rolling bass, what he called “walking the bass.” This was novel in 1904 or 1905, and quite the rage. Huddie recalled, “It was about 1904, 1903, piano players were walking the basses. [You’d] walk up to a man and tell him, ‘Walk the basses for me,’ give him a drink or something.” Some of the best of this new style can be heard on his Shreveport song “Fannin Street,” a dense, complex composition that became a Leadbelly standard.

Whether or not Huddie, as some early biographies have suggested, was “kept” by some of the girls in the Fannin Street houses, or whether he was simply a familiar figure and favored entertainer, he stayed there almost two years. What other musicians he might have met, what other girls he could have loved, what scrapes he fought his way out of there, remain unknown. But he always remembered the street, always spoke and sang about it as if it were one of his most vital formative experiences. By 1909 efforts were being made to clean up the district (prostitution would be legally voted out in 1917), but by then Huddie was miles away and entering another chapter of his life. His mother had been right about one thing: It was a testing time for him, and when he came back to Caddo Lake, after two years, he came home a man.

–––––––

Three-time Grammy nominee and author of twelve books on American vernacular music, Charles Wolfe is a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.

Kip Lornell is an associate professorial lecturer at George Washington University, a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution, author of five other music-related books, and the recipient of a 1997 Grammy for his work on the Anthology of American Folk Music.

 

 

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