Lead Belly/Lomax Chronology
Compiled by Ellen Harold and Don Fleming.
1867. September 23. John Avery Lomax born in Goodman, Mississippi.
1869. James and Susan Frances Lomax travel by covered wagon to Meridian, Texas, where they became pioneer farmers and raised eleven of their thirteen children. John Lomax’s love of folk music dated from his Texas childhood. Initiated into farm labor at age six, he later finds pleasure in memorizing and writing down the songs of cowboys driving their cattle up the trails near the family farm.
1885. January 29. Huddie Ledbetter born near Mooringsport, Louisiana, to an independent farm family. He attends school until end of eighth grade and takes high school courses. Ledbetter is an outstanding student and shows promise as a musician. (Some authorities give 1889 as Lead Belly’s year of birth; 1885 is the date given by the Lead Belly Foundation.)
1890. At age 21 John Avery Lomax leaves father’s farm, sells his pony to pay for his education at a Baptist Normal school, and earns money teaching English composition in business school. Begins helping parents and siblings financially.
1895–1897. John Lomax enrolls at the University of Texas where, at the age of thirty, he completes his Bachelor’s degree in English literature in two years. The degree in English, then a cutting-edge new field, required courses in Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and French.1 Lomax’s English professor disparages his collection of cowboy songs as “cheap and unworthy.”
1900 . Huddie Ledbetter’s daughter, Arthur Mae, is born to his girlfriend, Margaret Coleman. Margaret moves to Dallas with her parents. Lead Belly denied paternity, but he planned to stay with her after his release from Angola and sent her money in 1936.
1903–1904. John A. Lomax marries Bess Brown with whom he has four children: Shirley (b. August 7, 1905), John Jr. (b. June 14, 1907), Alan (b. January 31, 1915), and Bess (b. January 21, 1922). Teaches English at Texas A&M University and pursues graduate studies in English literature and composition in the summers at the University of Chicago and later as a full-time student at Harvard.
1906–1907. Lomax travels to Boston to become a full-time graduate student at Harvard and begins work on an M.A. thesis on English novelist George Meredith (1828–1909). Renowned scholar of Chaucer and Shakespeare, George Lyman Kittredge, senses the foundation of a true American vernacular literature in the folk song texts shown to him by Lomax and encourages him to pursue a vocation by collecting in the field: “Go out and get this material while it can be found — the words and the tunes. Set down the dates of your recordings. The name of the singer and where he got the song. . . . Preserve the words and music. That’s your job.”2
1907–1909. With help from Kittredge, Lomax gets a grant to research and collect cowboy songs. Most songs are gathered through correspondence, but Lomax also makes audio field recordings on Edison cylinders that constitute some of the first American folksongs to be recorded in the field by an American.3
1908. July 18. Huddie Ledbetter marries Aletha “Lethe” Henderson. The couple have no children of their own but take in the three children of Huddie’s half-brother on his mother’s side: Viola, Irene (associated with the song), and Alonzo Betts, Jr., after the death of their mother (this arrangement ends when Lead Belly enters Sugarland Prison in 1918; see below). Lead Belly and Lethe do agricultural work in the summers and Lead Belly also attains a reputation as a breaker of horses. In the winters he earns money busking in Dallas with a teenaged Blind Lemon Jefferson.
1909. Lomax’s presentation of a paper, “Cowboy Songs of the Mexican Border,” illustrated with his own singing, causes a sensation at the annual Modern Library Association meeting at Cornell University.
1910. Date uncertain. Lead Belly acquires first 12-string guitar.
1910. Lomax’s book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads is published with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt. Some of the most famous songs in the book — "Get Along Little Doggies," "Sam Bass," and "Home on the Range" — were collected from black cowboy informants. Its publication sparks a nationwide flurry of interest in American folk songs. Lomax is elected president of the American Folk Song Society and travels the country, urging the formation of state folklore societies. He takes a job as an administrator at University of Texas and, together with Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas, founds and shepherds the Texas Folklore Society.
1915. July. Lead Belly is arrested in connection with an assault over a woman (or on a woman) in Marshall, Texas. His father mortgages the farm to pay lawyer's fees. Lead Belly is tried, convicted (on July 26) of the lesser charge of carrying a pistol, and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. After three days, he escapes and, as a fugitive, assumes the alias of Walter Boyd. He and Lethe take up residence in De Kalb (in Bowie County, Texas) where he has relatives.1916. In the inaugural issue of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society John A. Lomax writes an essay urging the collection of Texas folklore: “Two rich and practically unworked fields in Texas are found in the large Negro and Mexican populations of the state.” He adds, “Here are many problems of research that lie close at hand, not buried in musty tomes and incomplete records, but in vital human personalities."
1917. In a political dispute, Governor James Ferguson fires the entire University of Texas faculty and staff, including John A. Lomax. Through his Harvard connections, Lomax finds a job as a bond salesman in a Chicago bank. While living in Chicago, he strikes up a lifelong friendship with poet Carl Sandburg. Both men share a high estimation of the poetic qualities of folk song texts. Sandburg calls the "Buffalo Skinners" "a novel," and pronounces the lyric poetry of the African-American secular song "If I Had Wings Like Nora's Dove" as fine as that of Sappho. Lomax spends the next fifteen years dividing his time between bank jobs, lecturing on folk music, and working with the Texas Folklore Society and the University of Texas alumni society.
1917. December 17. Will Stafford, a friend of Lead Belly's and the husband of one of his cousins, is shot in a dispute over a woman both admired. There are no witnesses, but Huddie is arrested for the murder.
1918. June 7. Convicted of homicide and assault with intent to kill, Huddie Ledbetter enters the Texas penitentiary at Sugarland under the name of Walter Boyd for a term of seven to thirty years. It is here that he probably got the name “Lead Belly.”
1918. August 7. Ledbetter’s second daughter Taleta “Panthy” Boyd is born to a girlfriend, Iola Boyd, age 16. Taleta Boyd, who was remembered as a talented gospel singer, died on December 6, 1991. Perhaps because she was born at the beginning of Lead Belly’s long prison term, her father seems to have had little to do with her. Imprisonment also seems to have put an end to his marriage to Lethe. It is unclear if the marriage was ever formally dissolved.5
1925. January 15. Texas Governor Pat M. Neff commutes Huddie Ledbetter's sentence in response to a song he composed in the Governor's honor. He had served virtually all of his seven-year minimum term.
1925. Moe Asch (b. Warsaw, Poland, December 2, 1905; d. New York, N.Y., October 19, 1986), later founder of Folkways Records, stumbles across John A. Lomax's book of cowboy songs in a Paris bookstand. The book and its Presidential endorsement make a profound impression on him. He had heard it said in Germany that "a people have no culture unless they have folksongs," and here was the ecvidence that Americans had their own distincitive culture.6
1925–1926. Lead Belly begins to work again as a musician, and to supplement his gigs takes a job in a Buick agency in Houston.
1926–1930. Lead Belly returns to live near Mooringsport, Louisiana, and works at the Gulf Refining Company in that town. During this period, he and his common law wife, Era Washington, take in and care for Lead Belly’s mother, Sallie. Lead Belly’s song, “Fo-Day Worry Blues,” describes his stormy relationship with Era, who had smashed his guitar in a fit of jealousy over his infidelities.7
1927. September 18. Lead Belly’s third daughter, Jessie Mae Ledbetter Baisley, is born to a girlfriend, Lizzie Pugh (later Lizzie Carey). The mother’s family tries to keep Lead Belly from seeing his daughter.
1927. John A. Lomax’s friend, Carl Sandburg publishes his American Song Bag anthology of folk music. It contains several songs credited as collected by John A. Lomax, including a version of “Boll Weevil” that Sandburg and Lomax heard in the field together; “Lone Star Trail”; and the long ballad, “The Buffalo Skinners”; which Sandburg in his book approvingly quotes Lomax describing as “having in its language a Homeric quality.” Ironically, this seeming hyperbole proved to contain an element of truth. In the 1950s, Harvard scholars Albert Lord and Milman Parry documented the singing of epic songs around the fire for evening entertainment by bards among Bosnian herding peoples. Their analysis of these bards’ method of oral composition offered confirmation of the insights of previous generations of critics and folklorists from the Romantic period (and earlier) about distinctive nature of oral composition and performance that would transform Homeric studies.
1930. January 15. Lead Belly is arrested in Mooringsport after defending himself with a knife in a fight with three white men who tried to push him off the sidewalk; one of them, Dick Ellet, is taken to the hospital with lacerations. The sheriff defends the jail against an angry white lynch mob.