Saturday, November 15, 2008

Leadbelly and Ironhead

"If you would learn from Leadbelly, you should look deeper to find his greatest qualities. In other words, don't just imitate his Southern accent: Learn his straightforward honesty, vigor, and strength."
—Pete Seeger, from "The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instruction Manual by Julius Lester and Pete Seeger"; published by Oak Publications

"It is impossible to separate Huddie Ledbetter and his songs from the Negro South."
—Julius Lester

"Leadbelly Huddie Ledbetterwas a man of depth who did not mask his contrasting moods... To me he was a guide and a teacher in country life, in politics, in Jim Crow."
—Moses Asch, Folkways Records owner and entrepreneur

"Because don't forget Because there is a a book riting about my Life and I don't think nothing about that Book . . . Because Lomax did not rite nothing like i told Him."
—Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly, aka Lead Belly, aka Walter Boyd)

"To which we must still add: if it hadn't been for old John Lomax, we would never have known Leadbelly, his genius, and his songs."
—Pete Seeger and Julius Lester

"Lead Belly drives the Lomax car
And he is never tired;
He's a better man, John Lomax vows,
Than any he ever hired.
He sings at prisons to convict throngs
And helps John Lomax gather songs."
—from a poem by William Rose Benet, The New Yorker, January 19, 1935

He was big, Benet declaimed (of Leadbelly, not Lomax) and he was black, and wondrous were his wrongs (we're still talking Leadbelly here, not Lomax). He was what scholars of the blues would call "a songster," by which they mean any old black guy who sang stuff other than just blues. It was a definition enforced by people perfectly capable of turning their own rectums into telescopes; there may never have been a black guy who only did blues, but ever since white folks first heard the phrase "the blues," they've been damn sure there ought to be.

For all the literary reams on Robert Johnson and his abbreviated recording career, for all the Lucky Strike-wreathed romance of hellhounds and crossroads, Johnson's hokum tunes like "They're Red Hot" ("Hot tamales and they're red hot/Yeah, got 'em for sale..." and pop attempts like "Malted Milk" manage to never much get mentioned. They're an embarassment, an offense against high romance, usually blamed against the insensitivity and/or commercial venalityof a previous generation's white blues entrepreneurs. Almost entirely unrecognized is the fact that the "bluesmen" were dance musicians and street performers who lived and survived and thrived by throwing all manner of change-up pitches. Almost entirely unremarked is the degree to which The Blues were demanded by generation after generation of white people -- first by the early record men who attached the magic word "blues" to anything and everything black folks did, and then generation after generation of field-recording "folk researchers" whose demand for blues has powerfully and effectively distorted what little is understood about the music of rural black Americans. For our purposes here, we can divide these people into two categories: obnoxious pirates and damn fools; curiously, as in the case of the preponderance of "bluesmen" over "songsters," there seem to be far more of the former than the latter.

Songsters were originally books, books full of songs from the minstrel stage, and big-lipped blackface pictures usually too. To be a black American musician has been to be insistently spanked into place, to be hectored by critics whenever you failed to be a "bluesman" or a "songster," when you veered too far from whatever definition of "jazz" somebody was wielding warily in the direction of "rhythm & blues" or in the direction of "strings" with their suggestion of symphonic sensibilities. The initial reviews the Fisk Jubilee Singers received when they went north from Nashville in 1871 were lousy, rotten, stink-o. The rock critics of the day didn't dig 'em, saw stoic black college students in suits and dignified dresses singing concert-style "Negro spirituals," and missed the minstrel man flash, the jigaboo jazz jive, the niggerisms. Once they got hepped, however, to the authenticity of it all (in part, at least by Mark Twain, who was so deeply Southern he pretty much never went home again), the reviews straightened out. When it comes to white critics and black music, they buy "Authentic" every time.

"Along with these in point of service I must place that group of Negro 'boys' who this summer, cheerfully and with such manifest friendliness, gave up for the time their crap and card games, their prayer meetings, their much needed Sunday and evening rest to sing for Alan and me -- that group whose real names we omit for no other reason than to print the substituted picturesque nicknames."
—John Lomax, from "Acknowledgment" in "American Ballads and Folk Songs"

"A folk song belongs to no one in particular - it belongs to everyone. Even though we may know the writer of a song which later became a folksong, we can say that without the people who went before him - to give him the rich background against which to create his song - he could never have written that song."
—Peggy Seeger, from her entirely non-ironically titled "Folksongs of Peggy Seeger," Oak Publications. (Peggy Seeger's husband Ewan MacColl wr0te "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and she receives international publishing royalties on that song, which Billboard magazine declared both Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1972, as well as on numerous compositions of her own and of others.)

Huddie Ledbetter was not poverty's child. His parents owned the land they worked near Caddo Lake at the border between East Texas and Louisiana, a land where white folks were often sharecroppers. He was strong and smart and loud and sexy, all of which have historically been problems for a black man in our country, all of which surely were blessings and a curse for him. He attacked a woman and killed a man, maybe two, maybe more, and did prison time for murder. The legends say he sang his way out, and the legends seem to be right. Between prison terms, he did five years on the street, which, in my experience with ex-cons, ain't bad. He went back to the joint on "assault with intent to murder." These things happen.

"The singer found it difficult to shed the habit of quick anger he had acquired during his years as a roustabout," the New York Times said in his obituary. He did jail time in New York too, for stabbing a man. That part was disturbing to the folk who needed him to be St. Belly of Lead, patron saint of patronization. He had failed to understand how truly, truly different things were up North, here in New York City, where Folkways Records were recorded. "Perhaps he wondered at my earnestness," says Pete Seeger, "trying to learn folkmusic." Perhaps.

Perhaps John Lomax had helped him get loose from prison during his second stretch, but whether he actually did or not, once Ledbetter was free, Lomax found a lot of handy uses for him. "Honorary Consultant in American Folk Song and Curator of the Folk Song Archives of the Library of Congress," Lomax was cobbling a career out of "collecting" other folks' music, and he knew where Negro folks were at their purest: "In the prison camps . . . the conditions were practically ideal." For collectors, anyway. Once Ledbetter was loose, Lomax took him on as chauffeur, as valet, as live bait to be dangled before other prisoners in hope of softening their suspicions. Payment was to be negotiated later, another folk music tradition. They left Marshall Texas, and set off straight Northeast. First stop: Little Rock.

Roustabout
(1964)
Paramount Pictures; starring Elvis Presley, with Barbara Stanwyck, Leif Erickson, and Pat Buttram.
Dynamic singer-guitarist Charlie Rodgers (Elvis Presley) is fired from his gig at a teahouse, wrecks his motorcycle, and has a run-in with the law, so he takes a job with the carnival. With Jack Albertson, Billy Barty, Teri Garr, Raquel Welch, and Sue Ann Langdon as the gypsy fortune teller.

Lomax was a pioneering arts-grant racketeer, an Aggie prof who went on to Harvard—no denser brick can be compressed out of red kiln-fired clay. His first book, a collection of cowboy songs, borrowed liberally from a little-known collection by another less scholarly-inclined author, Jack Thorp. Carrying a transcription machine around with him, he established the archetypal field-recording folklorist, more to be feared than wondered at, more to be fled from than sung at. Equipped with all the urges toward authenticity that have always driven white men to blackface, he was doing his pseudo-academic best to establish minstrelsy by machine. Further along, some field-recorders might change his methods—most would not—but the ethical standards he set have remained remarkably consistent.

Once he had his hands on Ledbetter, he knew he'd collected hisself a live one. He dressed Ledbetter in prison stripes, coon stripes, the stripes of minstrelsy, the not far from faux-nigger stripes of what would become Dixieland and of barbershop quartets, and brought him before East Coast audiences. Not much of a liberal himself, he knew how to work bleeding-heart Northerners like a pinball machine. A minstrel show was still a hot ticket up North, even if the white man was no longer weraring blackface, even if he was wearing an entire black man instead.

Huddie Ledbetter learned quick how politically-correct bread was buttered, and on which side. He learned to knock off singing about Brownskin Women and Yaller Gals, to hold back on all the Pigmeat Papa stuff. Prissy young Pete Seeger and his permanently PC Weavers would change the words of "Good Night, Irene" to "I'll see you in my dreams..." from the darker, dirtier, more dangerous "I'll get you in my dreams." Nothing like a fool, Leadbelly learned to fake the party line and commenced singing something he called "The Bourgeois Blues." It was a title that cut on every edge, more edges than the Folkways folk have ever understood.

John Lomax lost all semblance of scholarly objectivity when Leadbelly insisted on doing some collecting of his own: he wanted to collect his pay. More, he wanted out of the jailbird stripes and into a pin-striped suit. John's folk-collecting son Alan Lomax describes the clash: "Two such strong temperaments can seldom collaborate," he wrote. It was a rare and historic instance of a folklorist using the word "collaborate"— even if it was a hilarious malaprop—and should be cherished for its scarcity, then stuffed and placed in a museum, properly labeled, enclosed in a glass case, for public display and the annotated attentions of appropriately-accredited academics. In the Lomax's 1941 book, "Our Singing Country," they laundry-list a blind singer from the Ozarks, dispossessed Texas sharecroppers, a retired cowpuncher, a "Georgy cracker," farmer's wives (if not their daughters), a tomato-canning factory worker, a New England scissors griner, a miner's wife who became a union organizer, a Vermont lumberjack now a car salesman, and that undisguisable dustbowl (and thus dispossessed -- and gritty!) balladmaker, Woody the G. It's practically the entire Popular Front, front and back. It's pathetic and bathetic, Jim. Woe is Us, We The People. Finally, way, way, way down the line, Lomax Pere et Junior get around to naming, folk anonymity or no, ".....the singers who have moved us beyond all others that we have heard between Maine and New Mexico"—and no explanation of why they skipped Arizona and California which I admit pisses me right off —"the Negroes who in our opinion have made the most important and original contributions to American folksong." They name Aunt Harriet McClintock, they name the deadly deathly dull spiritual singers Vera Hall and Dock Read, they name "Dobie Red." They name "Iron Head," but they don't, do not, can not, will not say the cursed name of Lead Belly. They say "Iron Head" instead.

"Iron Head," see, was quite a character—quite a character. By 1947, Lomax had a lot of stories about "Iron Head" for his latest bring-'em-back-alive book, "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter." Lomax had personally gotten "Iron Head" temporarily paroled, see: "Thus, I picked this Negro singer of English ballads, of Ol Hannah, Little John Henry, The Gray Goose, Black Betty, Shorty George, Pick A Bale of Cotton, The Ol' Lady' -- yet this is Leadbelly's repertoire, oddly enough -- and other 'sinful songs,' to be my chauffeur and companion..." Best of all, this time, if 'Iron Head' got biggity, why, right back to prison he goes! But 'Iron Head' is a far more cooperative Negro than that doggone old Lead Belly ever was -- why, he admits that he was guilty of his crimes, for one thing, and when Lomax returns to New York, the place where Lead Belly was corrupted, "Iron Head' "...held on to me in terror." Even so, despite all that Mister Lomax tried to do for him, "Iron Head" eventually lands back in prison, incorrigible, unredeemable. "I should have left him in Sugarland..." to weave horse collars, Cap'n Lomax says, sadder, but much, much wiser.
There may have been, sort of, an "Iron Head." There is a furlough slip, nothing like a pardon, leaving a prisoner named Iron Head in the hands of John Lomax. A man, once upon a time named James Baker, was imprisoned in Texas, and identified only as Ironhead, he recorded some work songs for the Lomax machine. (Those recordings have a half-life that we are only beginning to suspect, by the way, but of course, as a prisoner, as a black man in prison, as a folk artifact, as an object and subject and reject and abject and construct of culture and Folk and of the frighteningly oxymoronic term "field-recording" with its creepy sub-harmonic resonances that reach beyond the slave labor that built the Pharoahs' echo-chamber tombs, well, we can only begin to speculate. Unless, of course, we care to look at the collection of publishing royalties, where reverberations transform themselves mysteriously into revenues.)

But if there was an Iron Head, his identity was swallowed, eaten alive, by Lomax's hunger, by his need to fix Huddie Ledbetter, who was succeeding in surviving in New York City, while he, John Lomax, a once-and-former-Texas banker, a fully graduated Aggie educator, an honored lecturer at Modern Language Association conventions, a guy who could pull out greasy dog-eared letters showing him to be an Honorary Consultant to some goofy governmental boondoggle with a damn official-looking letterhead, was flopping around looking for ways to scrape a living together still. Lomax was doing his dim Aggie damndest to write Leadbelly right out of history. He fucked up, mostly because he'd done to thorough a public relations job folk-pimping him in the first place. All the same, it was a less painful failure than it would have been had he and Alan and Folkways not ended up with their names on Huddie Ledbetter's publishing. That way, songs like "Goodnight, Irene," (the biggest pop music hit of 1950, with it's astonishing resulting effect, and its near-eternal flood of royalty revenues), and "In the Pines," and "House of the Rising Sun," and "Midnight Special," and "Boll Weevil," and "Rock Island Line" would be distinguished by the Lomax name, which in turn would make certain that publishing royalty revenues that might have been squandered on liquor and flashy clothes and such by an ungrateful Negro might go to a better, larger, more important cause.

"So here's to John A. Lomax
And to Orpheus his peer,
With a voice that makes brown ladies swoon,
And a scar from ear to ear..."
—William Rose Benet

"As the half century came to a close Huddie Ledbetter ended his walk through the valley of the shadow and sat down at that welcome table specifically prepared for Scott Joplin, and Dan Emmett, for Black Patti and John Henry, for Buddy Bolden and Blind Lemon. Like the rest of that happy company of American singers, Leadbelly had opened a road for the others who would come after."

—Alan Lomax, from "The Leadbelly Song Book," Oak Publications. (Nearly all copyrights would include either Alan or John Lomax's name or both; only some would include Huddie Ledbetter.)
[Among the happy company Alan Lomax has assembled to greet Leadbelly in that Upper Room's upper balcony, what Carl Van Vechten's novel called "Nigger Heaven," are: Scott Joplin, ragtime composer who died impoverished of syphyllis; the early white blackface minstrel Dan Emmett; the unprecedented "Black Patti," properly named Sissieretta Jones, who triumphed worldwide at the turn of the 20th Century as among the greatest opera singers in all history, though unable to break through the minstrelsy barriers, and who died thieved and penniless; John Henry, the mythic, fantastic, fictional folkloric figure who died with a hammer in his hand; Buddy Bolden, the emblematic New Orleans trumpeter who languished and died in an insane asylum; and Blind Lemon Jefferson, the master blues singer and guitarist and recording artist and street performer whom the young Huddie Ledbetter served journeyman duties alongside, and who died of exposure on a frozen Chicago street.]


"To ballad-makers, long dead and nameless; to the jokey boys whose smiles are dust; to the singers of the lumberwoods, the cattle trail, the chain gang, the kitchen ... and to the horny-handed, hospitable, generous, honest, and inspired folk-artists who carved thse songs out of the rock of their lives, we dedicate this, their own book.
—Dedication of "Folk Song U.S.A.", collected, adapted, and arranged by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax; Alan Lomax, Editor; Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Music Editors (piano arrangements by Charles and Ruth Seeger); copyright 1947 by John A. and Alan Lomax.All rights reserved. Permission to reprint material from this book must be obtained in writing, except that brief selections may be quoted in connection with a newspers magazine or radio review. All requests for permission should be addressed to the publishers.

The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly; Pete Seeger (2 cassette set)
Pete Seeger Sings Leadbelly
Ballads of Black America; Pete Seeger and Revernd Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick
Washboard Band Country Dance Music; Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry; Recorded at Their Carnegie Hall Concert
Bantu Choral Fok Songs; Pete Seeger and the Song Swappers
Songs to Grow On; Pete Seeger and Leadbelly
How I Hunted the Little Fellows; by Zhitzov as recited by Pete Seeger
Folksongs of Four Continents; Pete Seeger
The Story of the Nativity; Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger Sings and Answers Questions

—from the Folkways Records catalog, which features 53 Pete Seeger albums and 11 collections including Pete Seeger; 8 Peggy Seeger albums and 10 by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl; 4 by Mike Seeger and 16 by his New Lost City Ramblers. Under SEEGER, PETE: see American Fok, American Folk Collections, African-American Traditions, African-American Traditions Spoken Collections, Blues/R&B, Blues/R&B Collections, Soundtracks-Musicals-Radio, Children's Recordings, Christmas and Holiday, Historical Collections, Music Instruction

"Administered by the Smithsonians's Office of Folklife Programs, Folkways Records is one of the ways the Office supports culture conservations and continuity, integrity, and equity for traditional artists and cultures."
—from "Folkways Recordings; The Asch Legacy" by Anthony Seeger, Curator, The Folkways Collection, April 1991

Currently, the BMI catalog contains 890 compositions with Alan Lomax listed as songwriter or composer; John A. Lomax is listed as the author of 694 titles; in both cases, based on legal issues or royalty revenue stream preferences, other songs are listed with ASCAP, PRS, or other international collection societies.

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