Researched and written by Ellen Harold and Don Fleming
(See the entire chronology here)
In the years since John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax met Huddie Ledbetter at Angola Prison in Louisiana, a series of dramatic stories and anecdotes about the extent and nature of their meeting and subsequent collaboration have arisen time and again, giving the episode a mythological dimension. Particularly in folk music circles, the Lead Belly-Lomax story became a focus for anger and guilt over racism and the desire to compensate for black exclusion and exploitation. It produced its own folklore and stereotypes, which stemmed in part from misinformation and the tendency to apply contemporary assumptions and expectations to a different place and time. The FAQ and Chronology represent an attempt to disentangle questions that still perturb the families of the protagonists, as well as the musicians, scholars, journalists, and folk music enthusiasts who care about these matters and the larger questions they raise.
John A. Lomax was born two years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up in a South still adjusting to the abolition of slavery. Lomax recorded and published African-American folk music and advocated an appreciation of it that ran counter to the prevailing views and prejudices. During the Depression John A., then in his sixties, found himself jobless and a widower with children. John Lomax Jr. urged his father to resume collecting and to begin a new series of lecture tours with himself as personal assistant, a job later assumed by Alan Lomax, Huddie Ledbetter, and Ruby Terrill Lomax, successively. The talented and independent Huddie Leadbetter, who was also a product of the nineteenth century, was subject to the secondary status forced upon African-Americans, but it was his steadfast ambition to make a successful career in music. The youthful Alan Lomax respected his father’s work, but they clashed on issues of social and cultural politics. The association between Lead Belly and the elder Lomax lasted only six months and ended on bad terms, though Lead Belly later attempted to reconcile. Lead Belly and Alan Lomax, however, remained friends and continued to collaborate for the rest of Lead Belly’s life.
Before the twentieth century there were no audio recordings, and the documentation and publishing of music was done entirely on paper. The Lomaxes were among the first folklorists to make audio documents of rural artists; and this at a time when the laws and standards pertaining to recording and music publishing deals were in their infancy and the intellectual property rights of traditional singers in folk songs were considered highly questionable or non-existent.
Both independently and in collaboration, John A. Lomax, Huddie Ledbetter, and Alan Lomax left an enduring legacy that helped to bring African-American folk song into the musical and cultural fabric of our lives. The fact that their relationship is sometimes characterized by villainy or victimization says more about our ongoing collective struggle to deal with a history of racial injustice than it does about these people and their actions.
Correspondence between John A. Lomax, Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax, Elizabeth Harold, Martha Ledbetter, and Howard S. Richmond, the Richmond Organization and its subsidiaries; eyewitness accounts; contracts between John Lomax, Lead Belly, Macmillan Publishers, Alan Lomax, and the Richmond Organization; birth and death records; Accurint; Social Security Death Index; Genealogy Records; and books and articles written over the years. We are especially indebted to the biographies on John A. Lomax by Nolan Porterfield and on Huddie Ledbetter by Kip Lornell and Charles Wolfe, but where possible have rechecked the facts for ourselves. Most primary sources came from the Alan Lomax Archive and the Library of Congress. There we have found information about the publishing previously unknown to us or to anyone, as well as a few sources that were misquoted by mistake, or perhaps for effect, in other works.
Frequently Asked Questions
“Alan and I were looking particularly for the song of the Negro laborer, the words of which sometimes reflect the tragedies of imprisonment, cold, hunger, heat, the injustice of the white man.”1
How is Lead Belly’s name pronounced and spelled?
Huddie is pronounced with a long “u”: Hugh-dee. His nickname “Lead Belly,” denoting toughness, was probably acquired during his six-year stint at Sugarland Penitentiary in Texas. It was originally spelled as two words, but with the modern tendency to spell compound nouns as one word, the one-word spelling became prevalent and was used by his biographers, Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (Harper Collins, 1992 and Da Capo Press, 1999). Both are considered correct. Recently there has been a trend towards using the original Lead Belly, which his family prefers and is on his tombstone.
Who was John Avery Lomax and what was his background?
John Avery Lomax was born in 1867 shortly after the end of the Civil War, in Goodman, Mississippi. His father, then in his fifties, had been conscripted to do forced labor as a shoemaker on the Confederate side during the Civil War. When he was two, the Lomax family traveled by ox cart to become pioneer farmers on the frontier in Meridian, Bosque County, Texas, near a branch of the old Chisholm Trail. John Lomax’s early passion for folk music was nourished by the African-American and cowboy songs he heard in his childhood, and as a teenager he began writing them down. At age 21 he left home to pursue his education, having fulfilled his legal obligation to help his father on the farm with manual labor. He attended a Methodist normal school, taught English for a few years in a business school and in 1895 enrolled in the University of Texas. His professors were dismissive when he showed them the cowboy songs he had collected and, in his mortification, he burned them. At the age of thirty, Lomax completed his B.A. in English literature at the University of Texas in two years instead of four. After graduation he worked at the University of Texas as registrar, manager of the men’s dorm, and personal secretary to the president of the University. In 1903, he became an English teacher at Texas A&M University, but he did not give up his interest in scholarship and folk songs and continued to take graduate courses in the summer at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, where he was awarded an M.A. degree in English.
What was Lead Belly’s background and education?
Huddie Ledbetter was born in either 1885 or 1888 (according to census records), the only son of Sallie (who was half Native American) and Wes Ledbetter, a hardworking couple, originally sharecroppers, who operated their own farm. His was a loving nuclear family, and there was also large extended family of cousins and uncles. Lead Belly attended school until eighth grade. He was an eager pupil who didn’t mind the two-mile walk to school. A relative recalled him as “a pretty good student [who] sometimes rode a horse. He’d come down the road, singing, on his beautiful pony, black, with a star on his face.”2 He later took courses, probably at high school level, at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Lead Belly’s childhood was not without shadows: providing for a family on the rural frontier was tough, and sometimes Wes vented his frustrations on his wife. Lead Belly told the Lomaxes that as he got older he would go over by the door where he could reach the shotgun and stand there “looking and listening” to make them stop fighting.3
What were John A. Lomax and Lead Belly’s social status?
John A. Lomax’s background as one of many children of a small homesteader was fairly modest, although his family appears to have had more books than his neighbors. As a child he excelled at spelling bees. His schooling, however, was irregular and was subordinate to manual labor on the farm. Lomax was able to alter his condition through the sustained efforts he made in his twenties and thirties to catch up in his schooling. Lomax belonged to two cultural traditions: he was a himself a participant in the vernacular oral culture that he documented — people remember his skills as a raconteur and even as a folk singer— but he also became a learned man, and was self-conscious in straddling his two roles.4For example, in Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, when using the word “nigger” in a chapter heading “The ‘Worldly Nigger,’” he puts the phrase in quotation marks and adds a semi-exculpatory footnote: “This pronunciation, ‘nigger,’ is almost universal among Negro laborers in the Southern states. Lead Belly invariably thus referred to himself and other blacks.”
Like John A. Lomax, Lead Belly also grew up on the frontier in a family of relatively prosperous and stable small farmers who owned their own land. His childhood coincided with a brief window of time before the hardening of the racist Jim Crow system progressively closed off opportunities for African Americans.5 Lead Belly’s background is not atypical among folk artists whose skilled musicianship and unusually broad repertoires lead them to be regarded in their communities as tradition bearers.
What musical training did Lead Belly have?
As a child, Lead Belly showed a precocious musical ability. As a very little boy he made his own fife and learned to play it. “He would sit in his little rocking chair. His feet could not touch the ground, but he could play tunes on the accordion and mandolin.”6 His mother led the church choir and two of his uncles were songsters — semi-professional musicians with wide repertoires, who played at dances, parties, including children’s birthday parties, and church events. His first instrument was the “windjammer” (accordion), and one of his uncles later taught him to play guitar. He had some musical instruction at the Lake Chapel School, where a teacher named George Summers organized a student string band. Lead Belly could also play boogie-woogie piano. Occasionally, as a young man, he played the organ at church services. When in his twenties he sang on street corners and in sukey jumps (informal parties) in Dallas, as part of a duo with Blind Lemon Jefferson, and also did soft shoe dancing. He played music in winter and farmed in summer. Lead Belly’s singing style, with its impressive dynamic range and his varied repertoire (including songs for children’s parties and folk adaptations of sentimental vaudeville songs), provides a window into those pre-mass media, pre-microphone days.
How did John A. Lomax become an authority on folk music?
In 1907, at the age of forty, Lomax entered Harvard University as a full-time graduate student. There he succeeded in interesting the eminent scholars Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge 7 (son-in-law of renowned ballad scholar Francis J. Child) in vernacular music.8 Lomax convinced his professors that cowboy songs were part of an authentic American musical and poetic phenomenon and with their support received a Sheldon grant to research and collect them. He published the results in 1910 as Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt, to critical and popular acclaim. The book contained such celebrated songs as “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “Git Along Little Doggies,” and “A Home on the Range,” which Lomax had collected from an African-American cowboy trail cook in 1908.9 The publication of Cowboy Songs created nationwide interest in American folk songs.10 Backed by Kittredge, Lomax was elected to serve as the first president of the American Folklore Society.
Encouraged by Wendell and Kittredge, John A. Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas co-founded the Texas Folklore Society. Among the founding or early members were Stith Thompson (author of the six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature,1932–37); folklorist, novelist, and scholar Dorothy Scarborough (On the Trail of Negro Folksongs  and A Song Catcher in the Southern Mountains ); and celebrated Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie. A key mission of the society articulated by Lomax was documenting folklore of Texas and in particular, the unexplored fields of African-American and Mexican folklore before it disappeared, to preserve it for the analysis of later scholars. The Society’s first official folklore publication was a monograph by William H. Thomas entitled “Some Current Folk-Songs of the Negro” (1912). The first volume of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, edited by Stith Thompson in 1916 and reissued in 1935 by J. Frank Dobie as Round the Levee, contains an paper by Lomax on the “Unexplored Treasures of Texas Folklore” urging his colleagues to place a higher value on the cultural treasures to be found on their own doorstep, a theme that was to recur in one form or another in his and Alan Lomax’s subsequent writings.
Lomax worked as an administrator at the University of Texas from 1910 to 1917, when he lost his job in a politically motivated mass firing by Governor James Ferguson. The governor was subsequently impeached and most of the faculty rehired, but Lomax, who had found work as a bond salesman in a Chicago bank, did not return to college administration. Instead, he divided his time during the next fifteen years between banking jobs, working with the Texas Folklore Society and with University of Texas alumni groups, corresponding and lecturing on folk music, and teaching some Harvard classes for his former mentors. He was assisted and supported in these endeavors by his wife Bess Brown Lomax and their four children, Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess. In the nineteen twenties he sold bonds for the Republic National Bank in Dallas but continued to envision writing a second and more inclusive book on American folk music.
How did Lead Belly become the “King of the Twelve-String Guitar”?
Lead Belly played mandolin, harmonica, string bass, windjammer, accordion, and piano, but he adopted the twelve-string guitar (invented in Mexico, and which he first heard in 1910) as his signature instrument. The volume of the twelve-string and Lead Belly’s resonant voice enabled him to compete with the noise of the honky tonks where he often played, and to attract attention on street corners. Lead Belly was also captivated by the twelve-string’s distinctive metallic sound, which he believed appealed to women. Interestingly, when he was in California late in his career, he selected a dolceola, an unusual instrument a metallic zither-like quality, as one of the instruments to accompany a recording of his singing.
Did Lead Belly write “Goodnight, Irene”?
No, he learned it from his songster uncles. In 1940, John A. Lomax recorded Lead Belly’s uncle Bob Ledbetter, singing the same version. The song had undergone a transformation into a vernacular idiom, purging it of its original flowery, literary elements, but ultimately it derives from a sentimental waltz composed by Gussie Lord Davis, an African-American Tin Pan Alley composer active in the 1890s, whose songs were sold as sheet music and performed in minstrel shows. Lead Belly seems to have learned it in 1908 or 1909 and to have adapted it to the twelve-string guitar. It was his signature song and had a special meaning for him. As a young man he is said to have loved to sing it for his little niece, Irene Betts, who was so tiny as a baby she was put to sleep on a pillow and whom he and his first wife, Lethe, fostered after the death of Irene’s mother. Lead Belly was known for his special rapport with children.
Why was Lead Belly in prison?
Lead Belly was an industrious, almost driven worker who, when not earning money as a musician, farmed, drove a truck, worked in the oil industry, and as a mechanic and gas station attendant. But a frontier area like Texas was a violent place where the code duello was the custom, and all classes of people carried pistols for self-defense. When he turned sixteen, Lead Belly’s father presented him with his own pistol. As a musician, he found himself in dangerous neighborhoods and situations where there was a lot of drinking. Ellen Hawes remembers Lead Belly explaining that when you worked in one of those dives you had to position yourself in a corner or you could be attacked from all sides, and that if he had not killed the men he did he would have been killed himself.
Lead Belly’s legal problems stemmed from involvement in fights, often over women, and usually while under the influence of alcohol. Since his boyhood, he had been known for his quick temper, “He didn’t take anything off of black or white. If you put your hand on his shoulder, he just as soon, you know, knock it off or cut you,” a relative recalled.11 The circumstances of Lead Belly’s first arrest at age 27 are unclear. He was officially charged with carrying a pistol and sentenced to do time on a chain gang, a punishment he found so intolerable that he managed to escape to another county, where he lived under an assumed name.
In 1917 when he was 33 and living under the name of Walter Boyd, Lead Belly was arrested a second time for the shooting death of an acquaintance during a brawl, although he maintained that the other man had drawn his pistol first and that he had acted in self-defense. Although the evidence was only circumstantial, he was convicted after a hasty trial and sentenced to a term of seven to twenty years. Though he was later imprisoned for involvement in fighting, this was the only time Lead Belly was ever convicted of murder. Lead Belly’s parents lost their farm because of the expense of paying for a lawyer to defend their son.
Lead Belly’s prison experiences proved an albatross he could never shake. The publicity he got at the outset of the musical career he began with John Lomax, and in his subsequent appearances in revues, depicted a violent past and dwelled upon his status as a former convict and the myth of providential release. As late as 1970, when Gordon Parks made a movie based on Lead Belly’s life, he set the story in 1934, the year Lead Belly was released from Angola.
Did Lead Belly’s musical talent win him a pardon from Texas Governor Neff?
Yes. During the first year of his imprisonment in Texas Lead Belly made one more escape attempt, but upon his transfer to Sugarland he became an exemplary inmate, who prided himself on working harder than anyone else in a deliberate effort to win early release. Lead Belly’s musical abilities became known and he was asked to entertain the guards and other prisoners. When Governor Pat Neff visited the penitentiary, Lead Belly sang a song for the occasion, comparing his own plight with the biblical Paul and Silas who were set free after an earthquake, an approach tailored to appeal to the Governor, a highly religious Baptist. 12 Neff returned several times to hear Lead Belly perform, bringing parties of guests with him to the prison. Though he was not one to issue pardons frivolously — he had campaigned for office against the selling of pardons and granted only five in his term — the governor commuted Lead Belly’s sentence in 1925. Lead Belly had served all but a few months of his seven-year minimum.
Lead Belly prided himself on being active in shaping his own destiny and was himself struck by the powerful effect of the song he had fashioned. This episode was later conflated with the events surrounding Lead Belly’s release from Angola, and the fairy-tale character of the resulting story greatly appealed to the public.
Why was Lead Belly sentenced to Angola?
In 1930 Lead Belly was jailed in Louisiana charged with “assault with intent to murder.” He told the Lomaxes that he had been in a fight with six black men and had killed one of them, but this probably referred to a different incident. Court records show that he sentenced to hard labor at Angola, an 18,000-acre complex of converted antebellum plantations, for pulling a knife on a white man during a fight in Shreveport. His relatives explained that while Lead Belly was listening to a group of Salvation Army musicians he began to do a soft-shoe dance and was jostled by group of white men. Knives were drawn and Lead Belly, drawing the penknife that he used to make slides on his guitar, cut one of the men on the arm. He received a five-to ten-year prison term after a one-day trial.
Why did John A. Lomax again take up folk song collecting in his sixties?
In 1931, Bess Brown Lomax died at the age of fifty, leaving four children, the youngest age ten. Then the bank where Lomax worked failed in the stock market crash. John A. Lomax, now in his mid-sixties, found himself jobless and despondent during the depths of the Great Depression. John Lomax Jr. urged his father to return to his old passion, to begin collecting and lecturing again with himself as personal assistant. This job was assumed by Alan Lomax in 1933, later by Huddie Ledbetter, finally by Ruby Terrill Lomax.
Their road trip included New York City where in June 1932 Lomax successfully proposed a new and inclusive anthology of American folk songs to the Macmillan Publishing Company. Lomax then went to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, where John Jr. had arranged a meeting for him with its director, Robert Winslow Gordon, who was keenly interested in expanding the folk song archive and in using up-to-date audio recording technology to collect material, though there were no funds for this. Lomax made an arrangement with Gordon and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division, whereby the Library would provide audio equipment and recording blanks in exchange for which Lomax would travel the country using his expertise to record songs to add to the Archive with financing from private sources. Lomax obtained a grant from the Council of Learned Societies to fund the trip. The Carnegie Corporation helped cover expenses for further field trips.
Why did the Lomaxes record in prisons?13
Searching for traditional material among marginalized populations and in remote localities was consistent with contemporary folklore theory and practice. English ballads once common to all of the British Isles and Ireland had survived in Scotland and Appalachia, in the Border districts of England, and among the Travelers; French songs extinct on the mainland occurred in Haiti, Louisiana, and Canada. In their book Negro Workaday Songs (1926), folklorists Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson had written: “If one wishes to obtain anything like and accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find much of his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situations of the ever-fleeing fugitive from ‘chaingang houn,’ high sheriff, or policeman” and Robert Winslow Gordon had noted the same thing. (Ted Gioia, Work Songs, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 205).14
Southern penitentiaries were a distinctive environment. David Oshinsky them to an “American Siberia.” They were run as economically self-sufficient tracts with “no walls and few fences,” in which convicts performed forced labor whose fruits enriched the state and also private farmers. Prisoners were often held for decades in these camps, where parole was unknown and pardon often the only recourse. Radio and commercial recordings scarcely penetrated them, and group work songs were sung as they had been before the rise of sharecrop farming. Alan Lomax observed that a visitor could hear the powerful sound of the work crews singing from a mile away, a sound that “could almost take you off your feet.”15 These work songs continued to evolve independently, shaped by the exigencies of the prison environment. Lead Belly, knew this repertoire as well as retaining performance styles and repertoires from an earlier era
When did the John A. Lomax first hear Lead Belly?
John A. and Alan Lomax first heard Lead Belly in July 1933. As he had in Texas, Lead Belly was acting as a trusty, entertaining the men on weekends.16 When John A. Lomax returned to Angola the following year, he noted that Lead Belly now wore stripes (either as a punishment for some offence or because the uniform had recently been reintroduced in Louisiana after having been abolished for a time). The image of Lead Belly wearing stripes was to figure prominently in accounts of Lead Belly’s subsequent career.
Did John A. Lomax get Lead Belly released from Angola?
No, though he did attempt to. During the Lomaxes’ visit to Angola in July 1934, Lead Belly found an opportunity to urge them to get him released. Lomax took a recording with a plea for pardon on one side and “Irene” on the other to the office of Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen, but the Governor was not in and Lomax left the disc with a secretary.
Both men at first believed that their recording had helped to secure Lead Belly’s release, and both enjoyed and told that story, particularly Lead Belly. Its theme of rescue and redemption, the stress on Lead Belly’s active role as the author of his own destiny had wide appeal and. In his account of the incident Lomax’s biographer Nolan Porterfield loses his objectivity when he implies that John Lomax engaged in deliberate deception in telling the pardon story.17 It was only after he and Lead Belly were estranged, however, that John Lomax was informed in a letter sent to him by the governor’s office of the true facts about Lead Belly’s release.
What were the actual circumstances of Lead Belly’s release?
Lead Belly had repeatedly petitioned the authorities for release from Angola, and in 1933 the Pardons Board notified him that if Governor O.K. Allen signed his petition, he would be released for good time on June 26, 1934. Due to a bureaucratic delay or a minor infraction of the rules on Lead Belly’s part, he was actually set free on August 1 with the proviso that if he got into trouble again in Louisiana, he would have to serve the remaining time of his sentence in addition to any new penalty.
Why did Lead Belly seek work with John A. Lomax?
Upon his release from Angola, Lead Belly looked for work in the oil refineries of Shreveport, but jobs were scarce during the Depression. Probably with the hope of resuming a musical career also in mind, he wrote to Lomax offering his services as a valet, cook, and driver. The previous year Lead Belly had offered his services to the Lomaxes as a way of obtaining early release (for which having a job was required): “I’ll drive your car, cook your meals, wash your clothes, and be your man as long as I live,” he is supposed to have said.18 He wrote to Lomax on July 20, 1934, and again three times in August. Lead Belly was an experienced driver and mechanic and with his talent and wide repertoire, John Lomax believed he could encourage others to sing. Lomax decided to accept Lead Belly’s offer and wired, “Come prepared to travel. Bring guitar.”
Present day commentators have stressed that Lead Belly was employed as Lomax’s “chauffeur,” implying that Lead Belly was given a demeaning position as a servant. The fact is that Alan, by then John Lomax’s usual companion and helper on field trips, was recuperating from an illness. Lomax had just obtained a grant from the Carnegie Corporation for a collecting trip in Arkansas but at age sixty- seven could not attempt either the driving or the carrying and setting up of equipment unaided; he also needed an assistant with collecting.
For the next two months the two men got to know each other. Lead Belly, performed for the prisoners, demonstrating the kinds of songs that Lomax wanted, and, as an experienced busker, passed his hat, to which the prisoners often contributed pennies. Where possible they stayed in the same hotel. It was also Lomax’s custom on his lecture tours to camp by the side of the road to save money. They were joined by Alan Lomax in late November of 1934.
How long did Lead Belly work for John A. Lomax?
Surprisingly, Lead Belly worked for John A. Lomax for a little over six months, from September 1934 until March 1935. For the first months he was simply Lomax’s assistant and driver. Only during the last three months did the singer perform for the larger public, when he began participating in Lomax’s lectures on folk music. His short association with John A. Lomax stands out prominently in Lead Belly’s biography because it was such a critical period in the formation of his presentational style, his repertoire, and above all in the kind of reputation and audience he established.
How did the sensational publicity about Lead Belly come about?
Lead Belly was catapulted into the public spotlight in late December of 1934, when he began performing during John A. Lomax’s lectures and fundraising attempts, first in Washington and then at a “smoker-cum-sing-along” at the Modern Language Association annual meeting held that year in Philadelphia. The MLA billed the program as, “Negro Folksongs and Ballads presented by John Lomax and Alan Lomax with the assistance of a Negro minstrel from Louisiana.” Twenty-four years earlier Lomax’s paper “Cowboy Songs of the Mexican Border,” illustrated with his own singing, had created a sensation at the MLA’s 1909 annual meeting at Cornell. When Lead Belly and the Lomaxes arrived in Washington, they entertained a party of distinguished people assembled to welcome John A. Lomax, who was then Honorary Curator of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. The next morning Lead Belly sang for two groups of newspaper reporters, and in Philadelphia, local reporters gathered to interview the party again. An article ran in one of the country’s leading Black newspapers, the Philadelphia Independent, inaccurately headlined “Two-Time Dixie Murderer Sings Way to Freedom.” Lead Belly’s interview is significant in that it indicates how he presented himself to a Black audience, depicting his situation with imagery drawn from a common cultural fund:
Asked what inspired him to sing to attract the attention of Governor Pat Neff, Lead Belly said he thought of the Biblical Paul and Silas in prison. He reviewed how they both sang and prayed at the midnight hour … and how the earth trembled and the walls of the prison shook, the locks on the cell doors fell and they walked out free. Lead Belly visioned [sic] the Biblical miracle and it seemed as if the very locks on the prison cell were dropping. But they weren’t. Then he sang a song he had composed himself. He waited until Governor Neff made his regular visit to the prison and then serenaded the Texas chief executive with the lines, “If I had you, Hon. Governor Neff, where you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and set you free.”19
Lead Belly’s eloquent use of biblical language and references, sure to strike home for Southern audiences, black and white, is illustrative of his ability to adapt his self-presentation to his audience, evident also in his later involvement with the folk song revival movement. The archetypal motif of winning redemption through talismanic song also contributed to the fascination of the Lead Belly legend.
But other factors were also at play. John A. and Alan Lomax’s book, American Ballads and Folk Songs, had just been published (c. October 1934). The movie, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in which Paul Muni wore stripes, had been released in 1932 and had drawn attention to the injustice of the Southern prison system. Finally, and most importantly, people were struck by the total novelty of a recently imprisoned African-American performing for an audience of white professors, authors, politicians, and other prominent people in such venues as the MLA conference, Ivy League colleges, and the Library of Congress.
What was the article that made Lead Belly famous?
An article in the New York Herald Tribune on January 3, 1935 established Lead Belly’s fame. Its account of his meeting with the Lomaxes was substantially the same as that in John Lomax’s book, reporting that “Lead Belly made a tremendous hit when he sang before the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia last Friday. He is scheduled to sing next week at Yale and a few days later at Harvard University, where Mr. Lomax is to lecture on his work.”The Lomaxes were appalled, however, by the article’s grotesque headlines: “Lomax Arrives with Lead Belly, Negro Minstrel. Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides,” reflective of the knee-jerk racism of the time. (Headlines are usually the work of the newspaper editor, not the reporter who writes the story.) It was ironic that on this occasion and often in the future publicity about Lead Belly and the Lomaxes was marred with lurid accounts of violence on Lead Belly’s part or charges of racism and exploitation on John Lomax’s. Such distortions of Lead Belly’s story, in one form or another, by the media and various journalists have haunted the Ledbetters and the Lomaxes for decades.
A contributory factor was that on the morning of the interview Lomax was upset because Lead Belly had been out all night in Harlem, where he had lodged alone the previous night because no hotel would accept their racially mixed party. The singer had shown up the next day intoxicated, making them late for an appointment with Macmillan, where they were scheduled to discuss book contracts. According to John A. Lomax, Lead Belly boasted that he was a better singer than Cab Calloway, saying that, “If I wasn’t so drunk I could make a million dollars today” before being escorted to bed to sleep it off.20 The exasperated Lomax apparently either unloaded on or tried to excuse Lead Belly’s over-the-top behavior to the Tribune reporter and was quoted as saying: “Lead Belly… is a natural,” with “no idea of money, law or ethics, and who was possessed of virtually no self-restraint.” If this indirect quote was indeed reported accurately, it represents the most negative thing Lomax said publicly about the Lead Belly. The incident points up the culture clash between the straight-laced, Victorian and the singer who had honed his repertoire in tough neighborhoods and dives. That week Lomax wrote an anguished letter to his wife in Austin about Lead Belly’s “dreadful debauch,” and his worries that the city would soon destroy singer’s naturalness and sincerity. Such fears played a part in his decision, at the age of sixty-eight, to become Lead Belly’s manager.
How did John A. Lomax introduce Lead Belly at his first public concert?
Lead Belly’s first New York concert was at the Montclair Hotel on January 4, 1935, at a meeting of the New York Chapter of the University of Texas Alumni Society, of which John A. Lomax was the founding member. He introduced the singer this way: “Northern people hear Negroes playing and singing beautiful spirituals, which are too refined and are unlike the true Southern spirituals. Or else they hear men and women on the stage and radio, burlesquing their own songs. Whether or not it sounds foolish to you, he plays with absolute sincerity. I’ve heard his songs a hundred times, but I always get a thrill. To me his music is real music.”
When did John Lomax become Lead Belly’s manager?
Lomax presented Lead Belly with a management contract on January 5, 1935, on the day after their joint appearance at a Texas Exes concert. After the concert Lead Belly had received what Lomax believed were dubious offers. He was anxious to protect Lead Belly from the temptations of the big city, but he was also concerned about his own career and the book he had agreed to write about Lead Belly — apparently, John A. had planned to write about Negro music even before his book on cowboy songs.
What were the terms of the management contract and who signed it?
The contract stipulated that Lomax represented the singer as “exclusive manager, personal representative, and advisor” for a period of five years. Lead Belly was to give Lomax fifty percent of his earnings, which was a common commission at that time.21 Lomax was empowered to receive funds and deduct expensesbefore turning them over to the singer.Some weeks later Alan Lomax’s name was added to the contract as an equal partner and Lead Belly’s share was reduced to a third. This would be unacceptable under most circumstances today, however, from John A. Lomax’s point of view, he and Alan not only arranged bookings for Lead Belly and provided him with accommodations but also supplied him with some of his material and were producers and performers in his act. Moreover, Alan, who got along well with Lead Belly, was doing most of the work interviewing him for the book. From John A. Lomax’s point of view the three were participants in a joint enterprise. The subsequent recording contract with the American Recording Company was signed by John Lomax alone, as was customary in those days with blues and country singers. Later that year, Lead Belly used the fact that he had not signed the contract as a way to get out of it.
How did John Lomax’s reputation as a lecturer affect Lead Belly?
John Lomax’s role as an interpreter of Lead Belly’s material played a crucial part in the latter’s early success. Lomax was an established speaker with many contacts. He and Lead Belly appeared together on the stage as a joint act in the same venues where John A. Lomax had previously appeared alone. Alan Lomax recalled of these early programs that his father “introduced Lead Belly, interpreted his utterly novel material, made it understandable, just as do modern [folk festival] presenters, but with far more charm.”22 John A. Lomax’s colorful, provocative way with words, honed by decades of lecturing before somnolent academics audiences, made him a more effective publicist than he perhaps intended. Yet the sensationalism of headline writers notwithstanding, Lomax introduced Lead Belly to audiences and into circles where he was taken seriously as an artist and where he could become an admired and respected representative of African-American culture and of American vernacular culture as a whole.
How did Lead Belly forge what would become his signature performing style?
After the MLA concert Lead Belly expressed surprise that audiences couldn’t understand his accent and didn’t know what his songs were about. Alan Lomax, who transcribed the singer’s life story in early 1935 and later recorded his repertoire, encouraged him to add spoken introductions and explanations to his songs. Lead Belly readily cooperated. Alan Lomax told Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen done. He actually remade all of his songs from the time we were at the MLA conference to the time we were in Wilton... He created these chante-fables in a month. For me that was the most remarkable thing he ever did.”23
Did John A. Lomax make Lead Belly perform in stripes?
Legend has it that John A. Lomax forced Lead Belly to perform in stripes. Lomax himself refers to Lead Belly as performing in his prison clothes, that is, the clothes he wore when he was released, these would have been overalls such as farmers wore, not stripes. All descriptions of Lead Belly’s performances for John A. Lomax refer to him as wearing overalls with a bandana around his neck to disguise a scar. The publicity photo that appeared on the cover of the Lomaxes’ book, Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, showed him in this outfit, barefoot, sitting on a bale of hay. Country blues and country and hillbilly music was marketed in this way, with white performers presented in overalls as well, even as late as the 1960s TV show “Hee Haw.” In his later career, Lead Belly, who was always an elegant dresser, established a new image for folksingers by performing while wearing a suit. Lead Belly’s own stationary in later times, after he had become estranged from John A. Lomax, shows two photos of the performer, one on the left, in overalls and the other on the right, wearing a tuxedo and top hat. The image of Lead Belly in prison stripes was diffused through a newsreel film made by Time magazine and by a theater piece that Lead Belly had arranged to appear in for several weeks in Harlem after his association with John A. Lomax had ended.
What is the source of the prison stripes story?
On January 8, 1935, John Lomax and Lead Belly appeared on Time magazine’s March of Time radio show featuring reenacted news (news was not yet be recorded in real time.) The radio dramatization told how Lead Belly was released from prison and featured some of his songs. It was broadcast nationwide and heard in millions of homes. Soon after, Time initiated production of filmed newsreels, also consisting of reenacted stories, to be shown in movie theaters. The story of Lomax’s discovery of Lead Belly was the second one of these, and was made over a two-day period in February 1935. John A. Lomax is credited with assisting in writing the screenplay — though Alan Lomax actually wrote a first version which was overridden — and both John A. and Lead Belly appeared in it. In the first scene, Lead Belly wore stripes to dramatize the occasion of their meeting in Angola. This scene was to be balanced with depiction of Lead Belly’s marriage to Martha Promise (in which the singer is shown wearing a suit) and his singing of “Goodnight, Irene.” The final scene featured an orchestra playing “Goodnight, Irene” in the background as Lead Belly’s songs are deposited in the Library of Congress along with the Declaration of Independence, a copy of which was shown.
John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax’s purpose in collaborating on this film was to convey that music created by the Black working people of the United States was an unjustly neglected national treasure, as important to our heritage as our founding documents. Unfortunately, the final movie was edited in a way that focused on the sensational part of the story and deemphasized the final scenes. Shown in theaters nationwide, the newsreel made Lead Belly a celebrity, and it was through it that the image of the singer wearing stripes was imprinted on the public mind. Though the film was not under the Lomaxes’ control — Alan Lomax in fact hated it and it had been a huge mistake for them to entrust themselves to mass media —it has been cited as evidence of John A. Lomax’s degradation of Lead Belly. On the other hand, however, the film was significant in presenting Lead Belly as an artist whose work was valuable and relevant to American audiences of every ethnicity in an age when Jim Crow and racist market segmentation were the norm.
How did Lead Belly get his first recording contract?
John A. Lomax got Lead Belly a recording contract with the American Recording Company (ARC) through his friend and fellow UT alumnus Tex Ritter, who had a role on a radio show as a singing cowboy and who later became a Hollywood star. (Tex Ritter also was to help Lead Belly make connections during the latter’s sojourn in Hollywood in the 1940s.) As was then the practice with black artists, ARC marketed Lead Belly as “race” music and recorded primarily his blues repertoire as having the best commercial potential. Lead Belly made 40 sides for an advance of $250 against royalties. Several records were issued but did not sell, and the company did not release the rest, writing the project off as a loss. Ironically, among the recordings that ARC did not introduce was Lead Belly’s signature song “Irene,” which became a mass market hit after Lead Belly’s death.
In arranging for Lead Belly to perform folk music for white college audiences did John A. Lomax prevent Lead Belly from having a commercial career?
Lomax believed in Lead Belly’s talent and thought both could make money from his singing, but advised him to be faithful to his repertoire of folk material. The commercial record company that recorded Lead Belly, however, packaged him as a country blues singer and tried to market him exclusively to the race music audience. Despite all the publicity, these commercial recordings did not sell. Lomax and Lead Belly both perhaps underestimated the entrenched racism of the entertainment industry; it was also the Depression and disposable income to buy records was scarce.
Given the segregation and stereotyping of the music industry and of Hollywood at the time, it is hard to imagine how Lead Belly could have made it as a cross-over artist, much less as a black cowboy singer, which is how he saw himself. In the popular media African-Americans were allowed to appear only as servants or step-and-fetch-it characters and only in segregated productions. It was not until the 1950s that black artists were heard on “white radio,” and those that made it (such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole, or Johnny Mathis) sounded almost indistinguishable from white artists. The college, school, and camp audiences where Lead Belly performed with John A. Lomax and later on his own were among the few venues prepared to accept an interracial roster of artists. As it turned out, Lead Belly’s music attained huge commercial success, but only when mediated by white singers such as the Weavers and Lonnie Donegan, both of whom made his music conform to conventional pop musical expectations.
What is the story of Lead Belly’s biography published by Macmillan?
In January 1935, Lead Belly and the Lomaxes had given a lecture/concert for the employees of Macmillan and as a result obtained a contract for a new book about Lead Belly’s life and repertoire. This became Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, which would be published in November 1936 after being delayed a year by lawsuits. Mostly in February and March 1935, the Lomaxes took down Lead Belly’s repertoire and life story while the three men and Martha Ledbetter were staying in Wilton, Connecticut, in a rental cottage owned by Margaret Conklin, Lomax’s reader at Macmillan, and her roommate, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, a professor at NYU and later a benefactor of Lead Belly’s.
The book is noteworthy as the first in-depth autobiographical account of a folk singer from his/her point of view. Lead Belly’s story as told by himself, his songs, and his explanations of them are transcribed faithfully and constitute a valuable historical document. The tone of John A. Lomax’s introductory section, describing his meeting with and the breakup of his relationship Lead Belly would not be acceptable today, however. A further drawback is the use of dialect spelling, which is difficult to read and emphasizes Lead Belly’s exotic “otherness”; this, however, was current practice, though fading, employed also by such writers as Zora Neale Hurston.
Reviews were tepid, although one reviewer called it “one of the most amazing autobiographical accounts ever printed in America.”24 The publicity surrounding the book boosted Lead Belly’s career at a time when he was trying to make it on his own as a performer in New York City, but it must have been galling to the singer because again it was couched in racist stereotypes. For a 1937 review in Life magazine the headline writer wrote: “Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.” The body of the article, however, was not inaccurate, noting that Martha Ledbetter, not John A. Lomax, was acting as Lead Belly’s manager at that time.
Did the book make money for the Lomaxes?
No. Like the records, the Lead Belly book was a commercial failure. John A. Lomax’s cash payment to Lead Belly in settlement of their lawsuit amounted to his share of the advance. In a letter to Alan Lomax, he remarked bitterly, “Thus far Lead Belly has received $333.39 from the book, more probably than you and I will ever get from it” (letter March 28, 1937).25
Why did Lead Belly and his family dislike the book Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly?
The book was written and published after the estrangement of John A. Lomax and Lead Belly when there was considerable bitterness on both sides. Most importantly, Lead Belly and his family didn’t want the singer’s past to be publicly aired and emphasized in the way that it was in the book; although Lead Belly himself had confided to the Lomaxes and to others that he had killed several people in self-defense, such aspects of the singer’s history should not have been dramatized. The Ledbetters also doubtless objected to the self-righteous, patronizing tone of John Lomax’s writing in the book, which no doubt reflected the anger and disappointment he felt about his dealings with Lead Belly. When they had first met, Lead Belly had told Lomax that he planned to return to the small farm that his parents had owned. John A. Lomax, himself an escapee from the grind of small farm life, appears to have seen independent farming by black people as the solution of the race problem and he set about unilaterally helping Lead Belly to accomplish this goal.26 Once in New York, Lead Belly and Martha realized that the risks of a career in entertainment in a big Northern city were preferable to subsistence farming in the Jim Crow South. John A. Lomax viewed the city as a place of destructive influences for someone like Lead Belly and lamented what he saw as the Ledbetters’ ingratitude for what he had done for them, obtusely refusing to see things from any other viewpoint.
What was Alan Lomax’s opinion of the book?
Alan Lomax, who had done most of the interviewing, transcribing, and writing of the song notes in Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, did not share his father’s views. He came to feel that the book had been misconceived and tried to distance himself from it. In Mister Jelly Roll (his Jelly Roll Morton biography) and The Rainbow Sign (based on the life stories of Vera Hall and Dock Reed), Alan applied the lessons learned from the mistakes of the Lead Belly book.
What were some of the tensions between John A. Lomax and Lead Belly?
John A. Lomax was autocratic and had the certainty of a Victorian pater familiasin the rightness of his way of doing things with his own family and other intimates, which would include the Ledbetters. Lead Belly was proud and volatile and had a well-grounded confidence in his own talent. Lomax’s insistence on handling all the money, including what Lead Belly earned from passing his hat after performances, and later doling it out, must have been infuriating. To help keep him on an even keel, Lomax arranged for Lead Belly’s girl friend, Martha Promise, to come north and marry him. During the wedding he announced to the press that he planned to give all the money that Lead Belly made to Martha, whom he considered a religious (and therefore more stable) person, so that the couple could buy a farm with pigs and cattle similar to the one Lead Belly’s parents had had.
The immediate cause of the quarrel is murky. There had been intimations of trouble in mid-February 1935 when Lead Belly upset the thrifty Lomax by outfitting the Lomax family car with new wheels, tires, and hubcaps while John was away at a conference (Alan Lomax, in fact, believed that Lead Belly’s dissatisfaction with John A. Lomax was primarily motivated by his desire for a new car of his own27). John A. Lomax blamed friendships Lead Belly and Martha had made during automobile trips to a black community near Wilton: “His Norwalk [Connecticut] intimates flattered his vanity, furnished him drink, and, according to his own story, offered him contracts that would bring money rolling in.”28 In any case, the seeds of conflict had already been sown before the two embarked on their lecture trip.29
Why did John A. Lomax and Lead Belly part ways?
In March 1935, John A. Lomax and Lead Belly undertook a lecture/concert tour of New England, culminating in two triumphant concerts at Harvard, the first of which was sponsored by the Poetry Society of Cambridge and the second by Dean Kenneth Murdoch. This was attended by George Lyman Kittredge, the preeminent English professor and ballad scholar of the day and Lomax’s former professor. By the time they reached Buffalo, N.Y., however, John A. Lomax realized that he and Lead Belly could not continue working together. Lead Belly entered the room in the Grosvenor Library where Lomax was working, displayed his knife and demanded money, causing Lomax to believe that his life was at risk.30 On Sunday, March 24, John A. Lomax parted from Lead Belly and Martha at the station as they left New York for Shreveport. During the first three months of 1935 Lead Belly sang at many parties and other functions at which he appeared with John A. Lomax, but, although folklore has it that the two toured together for “a couple of years,” their joint lecture tour had lasted slightly less than three weeks.31
Why did Lead Belly sue John Lomax and what was the outcome?
When John A. Lomax and Lead Belly parted, John A. gave Martha Ledbetter $298 in three checks for $50 each and the balance in cash, without informing Lead Belly that he had postdated the checks. He explained later that he had arranged this with Martha to prevent Lead Belly from spending the money all at once. When he discovered this, Lead Belly was upset and sought legal aid. Their lawyer persuaded Lomax to send Lead Belly all his money, which he did. Lead Belly then consulted two other lawyers to look into the ARC contract, which had been signed by Lomax alone. With race and hillbilly records it was common for the company to pay royalties to an agent and for the agent to then pay lump sums to the performer. Lead Belly’s lawyer wrote and requested that royalties be paid directly to Lead Belly. This proved a moot point since there were no royalties. Next, Huddie and Martha denied that they had signed the performance contract, or would not have signed it if they had understood it, and they threatened to sue. Macmillan urged Lomax to settle with the Ledbetters, threatening to cancel publication of the forthcoming book unless an agreement could be reached.
They reached a settlement on September 12, 1935. The New York management contract was cancelled and Lead Belly agreed to give Lomax one third of the ARC royalties.32 He accepted a cash payment from Lomax and agreed to assign publication and other rights to Lomax for use in the book. Ironically, during this period of litigation, Lead Belly, who was having difficultly finding work in Shreveport, was still writing to Lomax, hoping in vain to renew their performing partnership and assuring him that he harbored no hard feelings.
Did John A. Lomax or Alan Lomax manage other artists?
No. Neither John A. nor Alan Lomax entered into formal management agreements with any other artists they worked with. The contract with Lead Belly was an aberration, apparently the result of the public uproar caused by Lead Belly’s appearances in Philadelphia and New York City in the winter of 1934–35.
Was John A. Lomax a racist who exploited Lead Belly for personal gain?
John A. Lomax would probably never have become a successful lecturer or college administrator if he had maintained public views that differed markedly from those of his contemporaries, few of whom acknowledged the implications of segregation, lynching, or restrictive covenants, much less spoke out against institutionalized racism. Before the 1920s, the word “nigger” was in common use by both blacks and whites, especially in private conversation, though this began to change, decade by decade, arguably due in no small part to activism by people like Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, Sterling Brown, and others. John A. Lomax’s sporadic condescension toward African Americans may be considered at best paternalistic and at worst racist; however, he was not a white supremacist such as poet Allan Tate, who refused to shake the hand of Langston Hughes. His attitudes were those of a moderatewhite Southerner of the day, who believed that African-Americans needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps before they could be “ready” for full equality. He spoke of Booker T. Washington, who accepted segregation, as a “wise leader of his people.” However, on Election Day he would escort African Americans to the polls as a statement that they ought to be allowed to vote. He also admired the novels of Zora Neale Hurston. Overall, he did not deny that injustices occurred but believed that it was up to individuals, not governments, to remedy them.
Lomax deeply respected people whose racial and political attitudes differed markedly from his own, such as, for example, the progressive Carl Sandburg, who was a close friend. A life-long admirer of strong, intellectual women, he was hurt that the progressive professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle shunned him because of his reactionary politics. Throughout his life he personally went out of his way to help people, financially and otherwise, and his actions regarding Lead Belly, however misconceived, were part of this pattern.33 His racial attitudes, although patriarchal, were contradictory and complex. He wrote that as a boy one of his most significant relationships had been with a black youth, Nat, who had worked for his father and whom he had taught to read. He invited an African student, whom he referred to in his autobiography as an African prince, to stay at his house as his guest. He also asked Professor Kittredge to preach in a black church in Texas. Negro Folk Songs, while portraying Lead Belly as an “other,”compares his creative powers to those of Mozart and Michelangelo.
The fact is that, as Jerrold Hirsch points out in his study of John A. Lomax and Lead Belly, there was a deep disconnect in the egalitarian message of folk music and the actual situation of black Americans in the United States, the implications of which were clear even if John A. Lomax himself stopped short of articulating them.34 The songs of the cowboy, homesteader, and manual laborer were held up as the embodiment of the American ideals of equality and freedom. Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister had been committed to the notion that Americans were as equal around the cowboys’ campfire as King Arthur’s knights had been at the Round Table. The conclusion was inescapable: as artists whom, as Lomax had pointed out, had created some of the best American music of any kind, not excluding cowboy songs, African-Americans were entitled to a place at the table. The contradiction is epitomized in Alan Lomax’s script for March of Time newsreel, with its juxtaposition of the images of Lead Belly the convict and creator and the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that all men are created equal. When the Weavers recorded “Goodnight, Irene” in 1950, they felt that the very fact that they had chosen to sing a song by a black man who had been a convict was a political statement in itself.
Did John A. Lomax’s racial and political attitudes ever evolve?
Not really. As someone who championed African American folk music, who wrote an academic thesis on the English novelist George Meredith (who wrote about “the new woman” at the turn of the twentieth century), Lomax could have considered himself politically and socially progressive. By the 1940s, however, his individualist politics looked increasingly anachronistic and even reactionary. His hatred of Franklin Roosevelt’s policies was almost obsessive.
Lomax’s racial attitudes did not really evolve, though his expression of them may have. In his 1934 introduction to American Ballads and Folk Songs he stated that he never witnessed mistreatment of inmates in Southern penitentiaries. In subsequent books written with Alan Lomax he refrains from such apparent endorsements of the Southern system. On a recording trip to South Carolina in 1939, he and Ruby Terrill Lomax encountered more than 100 convicts chained together in the broiling sun. They wrote to Governor Burnet Maybank protesting that they had never seen anything so “unnecessarily inhuman” and requested that he intervene. In making his complaint Lomax emphasized his credentials as a Southerner, stating that his father had been born in South Carolina and his mother in Alabama: “By inheritance, I hold dear the righteous ideals of a Southern man.” It is not known if Lomax’s appeal had any effect.
Did Lead Belly try to advance a commercial performing career after his split with John A. Lomax?
After reaching a settlement with Lomax and Macmillan, Lead Belly attempted a comeback in New York with a new manager. While in Shreveport, he had gotten a job at a filling station earning 10 cents a day. His boss, filling station owner John W. Townsend, had seen the March of Time newsreel film and decided to give management a try. Townsend and his mother sold their gas station and rented their home to raise money for the trip. The foursome (including Martha Ledbetter) arrived in New York on March 2, 1936. The same Herald Tribune reporter who had written up Lead Belly the year before, now wrote another story that the editors headlined even more offensively than the previous one: “Ain’t It a Pity? But Lead Belly Jingles Into City. Ebony Shufflin’Anthology of Swampland Folksong Inhales Gin, Exhales Rhyme.”
Townsend’s money ran out and he returned home, but Lead Belly secured a booking at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, managed by Frank Schiffman, a former New York City schoolteacher. Schiffman also got Lead Belly a booking in a revue at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he headlined for Cab Calloway. The Amsterdam News announced that “Lead Belly, the pardoned killer,” “whose glorious voice and heart-touching songs won him a pardon from the Governor of Texas!” would be heading a revue supported by a cast of 65, black and white, but the show was unfavorably reviewed and Harlem audiences stayed away.
Did Lead Belly perform in prison stripes while on his own?
Yes, Lead Belly did perform on stage while wearing stripes, but not while touring with John A. Lomax. This happened in 1936, while Lead Belly was attempting to make a New York comeback on his own. According to Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, Frank Schiffman, the white owner-impresario of the Lafayette and Apollo Theaters in Harlem, devised a skit for Lead Belly based on the previous year's March of Time newsreel with its Orpheus-like story of Lead Belly singing himself out of jail. In an interview with Wolfe and Lornell, Schiffman recalled that Lead Belly appeared (costumed in stripes) thirty-one times a week several times a day at the Lafayette Theater and was a "great success." Other sources say that by 1936, Schiffman had converted the Lafayette into movie theater, so it is likely that Lead Belly's performances took place at his and Leo Brecher's celebrated Apollo Theater. An ad in the April 1936 Amsterdam News announced that Lead Belly, "whose glorious voice and heart-touching songs won him a pardon from the Governor of Texas!" was headlining at the Apollo during Easter Week. The Apollo's notoriously vocal audiences were not kind, apparently, and Lead Belly's stage performance was also unfavorably reviewed in the New York Age, a black paper (Lornell and Wolfe note that it was perhaps the only unfavorable review of Lead Belly's entire career.) 35 In the late 1940s, when John A. Lomax's autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, was optioned by Hollywood, Lead Belly offered to appear in stripes once again, playing the role of himself opposite Bing Crosby, who was slated to appear as Lomax. The film was never made, however.
How did Lead Belly become active as a folk singer in progressive circles in the 1930s and ’40s?
Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle were instrumental in getting Lead Belly work as a folk singer. Following his difficulties initiating a commercial career, Lead Belly did odd jobs for Barnicle, at whose weekend home Connecticut he had stayed with the Lomaxes. After quarreling with John A. Lomax over money matters she had grown to dislike the old man’s reactionary politics and Victorian manner, but had become a close friend of Alan’s. A medievalist and folklorist, Barnicle often brought folk performers into her classes at NYU. Through her, Alan, and union organizer Tillman Cadle (later Barnicle’s husband), Lead Belly got gigs performing in front of left-wing groups, where he put his improvisatory talents to good use in creating topical songs. Friends helped publicize Lead Belly in the pages of the Daily Worker and the New Masses as the type of “people’s artist.” One of his compositions, “The Bourgeois Blues,” inspired by his and Alan’s experience of Jim Crow while looking for lodging in Washington, D.C., become widely popular. For a time he starred in his own weekly 15-minute radio show on WNYC produced by Henrietta Yurchenco, who recalls that “Woody Guthrie was constantly saying that ‘We are learning everything from him.’”36 As an older man, Lead Belly became a role model for younger folk musicians, and his and Martha’s Second Avenue apartment became a place where folk musicians, black and white, were welcomed and nurtured in both body and spirit.
Where did Lead Belly stand politically?
Although Lead Belly became part of a circle of activist singers who included Aunt Molly Jackson (whom Woody Guthrie later called “a female Lead Belly”), Josh White, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger, it was acceptance and recognition from the dominant culture that he primarily sought rather than social change. Like many black people at the time, he distrusted unions, since they often acted as enforcers of Jim Crow. One political issue that did deeply engage him was civil rights, and he composed a campaign song for Wendell Wilkie, when the Republican candidate ran on a civil rights program. Apart from his keen interest in this issue, it likely that Lead Belly substantially shared John A. Lomax’s ideology of “bootstraps” individualism.
What other sources contributed to myths about Lead Belly?
Paralleling the racist stereotypes and distortions that appeared about Lead Belly in the mainstream press, the alternative press disseminated rhetorical inaccuracies about Lead Belly’s story, characterizing John A. Lomax’s part in Lead Belly’s career as exploitative and racist and Lomax as a type of Southern planter with a slave-owning bent. In late 1934, before Lomax and Lead Belly even arrived in New York, Lawrence Gellert, a Hungarian-born folklorist and student of black music, used the case of the Scottsboro boys to unleash a polemic in the New Masses attacking John A. Lomax and accusing him of having bribed prison guards to get songs. In particular, Lead Belly’s pardon story evoked his ire:
He [Lomax] had the “right connections.” Could go straight to the Governor of Louisiana with a phonograph record by Lead Belly — and presto — a pardon! Between gentlemen — a “nigger’s” lifetime — a matter of a song! But imagine…. Governor Miller of Alabama with a record sung by nine Scottsboro boys in chorus.37
In 1937 the author Richard Wright wrote a portrait of Lead Belly for the Daily Worker, for which he was Harlem correspondent. He and Lead Belly had struck up a friendship and become drinking partners. Wright was the son of sharecroppers from Mississippi but had grown up in Memphis and Chicago. His portrayal of Lead Belly, although psychologically more astute than that of Gellert, was also somewhat fictionalized, and in some respects prefigures his later characterization of Bigger Thomas. Wright described Lead Belly as a strong black man who frightened white people with “his fists and bitter songs” and his “inability to take injustice and like it.” Wright also went after John A. Lomax, whom he termed a “Southern landlord.” He portrayed the latter’s discovery of Lead Belly as a form of cultural colonization, calling it “one of the great cultural swindles in history.” Wright imaginatively accused John A. Lomax of having “beguiled the singer with sugary promises, telling him that if he helped him to gather folk songs from other Negro prisoners in other prisons, he would make him rich.”38
Did Lead Belly ever again get in trouble with the law while living in New York?
Yes. On March 5, 1939, he was arrested for felonious assault. It is not clear what happened, but there is speculation that the incident might have involved an unwanted suitor who had been bothering Martha Ledbetter; Huddie apparently stabbed an intruder numerous times. Lead Belly didn’t have to serve his full sentence since, quite coincidentally, while out on bond, he prevented a robbery in a liquor store, tackling and holding the robber till the police arrived. He did serve eight months, however.
In what ways did Alan Lomax assist Lead Belly?
Alan Lomax arranged for Lead Belly’s bail, and dropped the graduate courses he was pursuing in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in Spring 1939 to raise money for legal expenses and financial assistance for Martha Ledbetter. At that time he also arranged for Lead Belly to record a series of twelve-inch discs for Musicraft, a new label that had been founded to record Baroque and pre-Bach organ music but which also had embraced black folk music. These were the first recordings of folk music ever to be issued in this format, and to contain a set of explanatory notes and a biography of the singer. In 1998, Lead Belly received a posthumous Grammy Award for this album. As Assistant in Charge of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song, Alan Lomax recorded virtually all of Lead Belly’s repertoire as well as stories about his early life for the Library. He also set up commercial recording sessions for Lead Belly with RCA Victor and Musicraft, and invited him to appear on network radio in the 1940s.
How successful was Lead Belly?
Lead Belly became a revered figure as a folksinger, but died before achieving commercial success commensurate with his fame during his lifetime. He had arrived in New York City at the age of 47, at a time when jobs were scarce, having spent years in prison and out of touch with the popular tastes. Nor did he have a family network to fall back on in New York as many bluesmen did in other cities. During the late thirties, Lead Belly and Martha had to rely on public assistance and what Martha could make cleaning houses. Nevertheless, by the mid-to-late 1940s Lead Belly had started to earn decent fees performing on the school and college concert circuit. In 1949, he traveled to Paris, where tragically, the fatal illness that was to kill him first manifested itself. Ironically, it was only in 1950, after his and John A. Lomax’s deaths, that “Goodnight, Irene” became a big commercial hit, as performed by the Weavers and other groups. But if Lead Belly had reason for disappointment, he could also look on the accomplishments of his life with satisfaction. His artistry not only helped to bring folk music to wide audiences, but also accrued for Lead Belly an immense measure of personal respect. Lornell and Wolfe quote an anecdote that Lead Belly told toward the end of his life after a performance in Dallas, where he had once roamed the streets with Blind Lemon Jefferson and which was still part of the solid, pre-civil rights South:
I was sitting out in the back during intermission. Sitting there resting, playing the guitar, and a boy, maybe ten years old came up to me. He looked at me playing the guitar. Listened to me, looked at me. After a while he says,” Boy, you got some pretty good stuff.” I looked at him and I say, “Thank you, son. I been trying for almost sixty years.” That boy looked at me. He didn’t say nothing, just listened for a while. When he was about ready to go, he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Ledbetter. I hope you come back next year.” You know, when a white boy in Dallas call a nigga “Mister,” he’s just learned something.39
When did “Goodnight, Irene” become a hit?
In 1950, six months after Lead Belly’s death, “Goodnight, Irene” was issued as the flipside of the Weavers’ first single, “Tzena, Tzena,” with the label stating that the song was “by [band leader] Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers.” Pete Seeger recalled that it was through Jenkins’ enthusiastic insistence that they recorded it.40 Even though the song’s arrangement featured string orchestra and choral accompaniment (as a gesture to the pop music audience’s expectations), the energy and fervor of the Weavers’ performance effectively evoked the memory of Lead Belly’s driving vitality, which contrasted markedly with the complacency of more usual popular fare. “Goodnight, Irene” became the surprise best seller of 1950, selling more than two million copies. (“I’ll kiss you in my dreams,” Lead Belly’s refrain, as transcribed in Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly was changed in the Weavers’ version to “I’ll see you in my dreams”; he had originally sung it for John A. Lomax in 1934 as “I’ll get you in my dreams.”)
According to Ron Cohen, Time Magazine (sister publication of Life, which had earlier called Lead Belly a “bad nigger”) blessed the Weavers, “with a glowing piece in mid-August . The piece focused on ‘the murderous old Minstrel Lead Belly’ and his singing of ‘Irene,’ ‘his coal-black face gleaming fiercely and his horny hands scratching his twelve-string guitar... Last week the old minstrel’s old song, prettied and cut in half, was fifth place on the hit parade.’”41 In September, Time reported that folk music had “come out of its corner” and was now no longer limited to what it called (with a typically triangulating turn of phrase) “long-haired purists.” Yet the enthusiasts who had produced and promoted “Good Night Irene,” had hardly been “long-haired purists,” but were rather fans located in the very heart of the commercial music industry, confirming the perennial appeal of the genre (until recently termed the “music of the common man”), which, through its links to the past and to a wide range of human experiences, intersected with and nourished multiple forms of musical expression. Among the performers who recorded “Goodnight, Irene” were Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, Ry Cooder, Floyd Cramer, Dennis Day, Dr. John, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, the Kingston Trio, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Odetta, Leon Russell, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Ernest Tubb.
What specific circumstances led to the publishing of “Goodnight, Irene”?
Harold Leventhal and Pete Kameron, who represented the Weavers, submitted an agreement to Martha Ledbetter and Alan Lomax in June of 1950 to assign the rights to the song to their publishing company, World Wide Music. Martha Ledbetter, who represented Huddie’s estate, and Alan Lomax, on behalf of John’s, agreed to a credit for the song as being “written and arranged by Huddie Ledbetter and John A. Lomax.” Alan discussed this agreement in detail with his family, Pete Seeger, and others. Alan Lomax originally thought that the Macmillan Publishing Company’s copyright on Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly would protect the arrangement credits for the individual songs in the book. But Macmillan, with little expertise in the music publishing business, and little interest in a book that had been out of print for over ten years, was unwilling and unable to administer rights to the song. In September of 1951, Macmillan allowed the rights of the book to revert back to the authors, John A. and Alan Lomax.
The publishing agreement with World Wide Music assigned Huddie Ledbetter and John A. Lomax, as writer/arrangers of the Lead Belly version of the song, 50% of the publishing monies that would be collected for the Weavers new hit, allotting the other 50% to World Wide. Additionally, the agreement stipulated that of the writers share, the Ledbetter and Lomax estates would each only get a third, giving the other third to World Wide Music, a claim that they made on behalf of the members of the Weavers. The extra third claimed by World Wide Music would be withdrawn after September 1, 1951 — basically enough time for the royalties from the Weavers version to run their course. Alan knew that if the Ledbetter/Lomax estates didn’t accede to this proposal the Weavers could claim the song as their own version of a traditional song, and it was only due to Alan’s personal relationship with Seeger and the rest of the band, and the fact that everyone knew they had based the song on Ledbetter’s version, that this agreement was made at all. The Huddie Ledbetter/John A. Lomax credit, which has so often incensed those who have read into it an exploitation of Ledbetter by John A. Lomax, was created after both men died, as a direct reaction to the popularity of the Weavers’ version. The Weavers’ management/publishers initially received 66.6% (50% as publishers, and 16.6% for the members of the Weavers) of the publishing money. The Ledbetter and Lomax estates each received 16.6%, until September 1951, at which point their royalty splits increased to 25% each.
Why are a number of Lead Belly’s songs credited to Huddie Ledbetter and John A. Lomax; Huddie Ledbetter and Alan Lomax; or Huddie Ledbetter, John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax?
New arrangements of traditional songs are eligible to be registered as new copyrights and are afforded the same protection as writing an original composition. In the case of the Ledbetter/Lomax registrations, most were derived from John A. and Alan Lomax’s Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, a book based on particular and composite versions of songs that Lead Belly had sung to them over the course of six months, and published by the Macmillan Company in 1936.
There are many traditional songs attributed to Huddie Ledbetter that he didn’t write but that he legitimately published as his own versions. There are many Lead Belly songs recorded by the Lomaxes for which they did not receive arrangement credit. Some of the songs that were shown to Ledbetter by Alan Lomax included “Black Betty,” “Take This Hammer,” “Duncan and Brady,” “Ham and Eggs,” and “Stew Ball.” Ledbetter has versions of these songs published in his name alone based on his recorded versions. The Lomaxes have published versions of these same songs based on their arrangements in American Ballads and Folk Songs and Our Singing Country. Many other performers have published arrangements of these same songs. Of the 223 or so songs published in the name of Huddie Ledbetter, the Lomaxes have a shared arrangement credit on 84 of them. This represents some, but not all, of the songs they collected from, and arranged with, Huddie Ledbetter.
In the specific case of “Goodnight, Irene” neither man wrote the song. Ledbetter sang versions of the song that he had learned from his uncle, Bob Ledbetter, and John A. Lomax documented the new arrangement. The song itself traces back to a version from 1886 by Gussie L. Davies.
The “Goodnight, Irene” case was the first example of what was to become a perplexing matter for Alan. It was the first time that he had to deal with the ramifications of a song that he had an interest in becoming a “hit.” He basically ignored the subject for six more years and focused his attention on field trips in the UK and Europe. In 1957, as a result of the popularity of the “Skiffle” craze, many more of his arrangements were suddenly being published in new singers names.
It was then, some twenty-three years after the first book had been released, that he secured a music publishing deal, with Harry Richmond’s Ludlow Publishing, Inc., that afforded some level of protection to the songs he and his father had collected, made arrangements of, and published in their books. The arrangements of traditional songs published by the Lomaxes were credited in their names, instead of the source singers, over Alan’s objections. In a letter to an attorney, dating from November 5, 1962, Alan is still trying to resolve some of the basic problems that have arisen from this publishing deal:
“From the beginning I have asked Richmond for a publishing company of my own so that my name would not have to appear as co-author. At first he demurred because he said he felt that, only by using my name could he protect the songs at all.
“In doing so, my reputation has suffered severely but, at the same time, I have established it in the minds of at least some of the decent people in the field that the collector as well as the source should get at least some of the royalties now commonly paid by recording companies for versions of folk songs.”
How did songs Lead Belly learned while working with the Lomaxes get into the mainstream market?
Alan Lomax spent the 1950s in the British Isles recording music and spreading word of the traditional music of the United States. From 1953 to 1955 he made extensive field trips to Spain and Italy. He returned to England in 1955 to find a new musical craze unfolding called “Skiffle,” which culminated in 1956 with Lonnie Donegan’s huge hit, “Rock Island Line,” reaching number eight on both the U.S. and UK charts. Although Donegan’s version was based on a Lead Belly recording, Lead Belly’s version of the song was based on a song composed by Kelly Pace that Huddie Ledbetter had learned while traveling with and assisting John Lomax in October of 1934 at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas, shortly after going to work for John in September. Alan first recorded Lead Belly performing the song on Saturday, June 22, 1937, in Washington D.C. Lead Belly later recorded it for RCA Victor, Capitol, and Folkways.
Donegan had published the song in his own name through a company in the UK called Essex, which was a subsidiary of the American company TRO/Richmond. Pete Kameron’s World Wide Publishing had meanwhile become Folkways Publishing Company, and was in fact now also a subsidiary of TRO/Richmond. Next Donegan recorded and claimed “Stewball,” a song that Alan had actually taught to Lead Belly for their New York recording session with the Victor Company. Donegan then had another hit with yet another Lead Belly song, “Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy,” which had first been published in the Lomaxes’ book Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. Alan wrote to Martha Ledbetter to advise her that these songs had been released without due credit to Huddie, but, to his surprise discovered that Pete Kameron had already negotiated a deal with Martha, allowing him to publish many songs from the Lead Belly catalog, including those originally printed in Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. Alan was quite hurt by this, especially considering that it was his agreement to turn “Goodnight, Irene” over to Kameron that had given Kameron’s the leverage to negotiate his deal with TRO/Richmond.
Why did Alan Lomax sign a publishing agreement with Richmond Organization?
Alan realized that Macmillan and other book publishers had not understood the workings of the music business and failed to protect any rights to the Lomax’s published versions of songs, not only those in the Lead Belly catalog but also the songs in American Ballads and Folk Songs and Our Singing Country. On the other hand, Howard Richmond, the titan behind a growing publishing empire including the subsidiaries Ludlow, Folkways, Songways, TRO, and Essex, had worked very successfully with catalogs of traditional songs. Alan also discovered that Richmond was quickly acquiring multiple copyrights to many of the songs that the Lomaxes had worked to document and promote. Initially, Alan wanted to fight these claims but ultimately realized that he did not have the resources to do so, and so he took a similar course to the one he had taken with “Goodnight, Irene,” offering Richmond the entire Lomax catalog. They made an agreement in 1958 for all of the songs from American Ballads and Folk Songs, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, Our Singing Country, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,and Folk Song: USA.
How did John A. and Alan Lomax come to be included as writers on so many of the songs that they recorded?
The Richmond Organization would not give Alan Lomax a subsidiary publishing company, such as Kameron and others had, that would credit the artists as writers instead of the Lomaxes. Richmond insisted that the Lomaxes be listed as writers because the copyrights were based on their authorship of the books in which the songs first appeared. It was a technicality that would have long-lasting ill consequences. The Lomax catalog of songs at Richmond represents the incredible achievement of the earliest of the Lomaxes’ field trips through the United States in the 1930s and 1940s; the depictions of source singers in their books are wondrous, heroic, and inspiring. The impression that John and Alan claimed to have written any of these songs is understandable but false, and contrary to what they intended when they wrote the books, which celebrated the singers as well as the songs.
What were Lead Belly’s posthumous awards and honors?
Lead Belly was inducted into the Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame (2004), and into the Grammy Hall of Fame for the 1936 Library of Congress recording of “Goodnight, Irene” and the 1940 Victor album Midnight Special (2002). He received the American Folklife Center Lifetime Achievement Award (1998), and was honored with a United States Postal Service 32-cent Lead Belly stamp (June 26, 1998). He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for the 1939 Musicraft album Negro Sinful Songs (1998); into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame for Best Traditional Folk Recording (1989); into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the Beatles, the Drifters, the Beach Boys, and Woody Guthrie (1988). The State of Louisiana erected a historical marker at Lead Belly’s gravesite at Shiloh Baptist Church, north of Shreveport (1988). He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame (1986), and was a Grammy nominee for Lead Belly (Live in Concert) and Lead Belly as Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording (1973). He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1970) and was a Grammy nominee for Lead Belly as Best Folk Recording (1966).
Who controls the songs of Lead Belly and use of Lead Belly’s Right-of-Publicity (image, likeness, and any other visual or aural representations)?
Primarily Ludlow Music, Inc., and Folkways Music Publishers, Inc., now Smithsonian Folkways, publish the songs of Huddie Ledbetter. To determine the administration of a specific Ledbetter song, go to the BMI website. There are presently 224 songs credited to Ledbetter.
The estate of Huddie Ledbetter is administered by Martha Ledbetter’s niece, Queen “Tiny” Robinson. Right-of-Publicity issues are handled by Jay B. Ross and Associates, P.C., at (312) 633-9000, Music_ Law@email.msn.com.
1 John A. and Alan Lomax, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (New York: Macmillan, 1936), p. ix.
2 Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (New York: HarperCollins, 1992 and Da Capo Press, 1999),p. 9.
3 Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, p. 4.
4 According to Peter Burke, it was not unusual for people whose own lives involved a change in social status to become successful as mediators between popular oral and learned cultural traditions. The case of John A. Lomax recalls that of certain Europeans and whose lives and works offer insights into the popular culture of their day, Peter Burke writes: “Particularly valuable [in for the study and understanding popular traditions] is the testimony of men who were born craftsmen or peasants and rose socially afterwards. Some of them wrote their autobiographies, men such as Benvenuto Cellini or Giulio Cesare Croce, John Bunyan or Samuel Bamford, and texts like these bring the historian as close to this vanished world as he will ever get.” See Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 79.
5 As African Americans who owned their own farms only to later lose them because of debt, Lead Belly’s parents were not unique: according to John M. Barry, in 1900 two thirds of Mississippi delta farms were owned by African Americans (Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America [New York: Touchstone, 1997], p. 123.). By the late thirties, systemic injustice combined with natural and economic disasters had reduced the percentage of independent black farmers to twelve percent.
6 Sandra Cuson, “A Marshall Lullaby,” Shreveport Times, August 3, 1975, quoted in Life and Legend, p. 14.
7 Wendell and Kittredge enthusiastically supported Lomax in his folk song collecting and urged him to use Edison cylinders. Franklin Roosevelt, a lifelong folk song aficionado, also had Kittredge and Wendell as his professors while at Harvard.
8 Child (1825–1896) was the first holder of a Harvard professorship in English literature, perhaps the first in the world (until then, Greek and Latin authors had been used to teach rhetoric, and English did not exist as a field of academic study). Like John A. Lomax, Child came from a modest background — his father was a sail maker — but unlike Lomax, he was able to go straight from a comprehensive school to Harvard thanks to a generous patron. He received several honorary doctorates from German universities but never wrote a dissertation. His successor and son-in-law Kittredge also rose through scholarships from a relatively modest background.
9 In 1935, William and Mary Goodman of Arizona sued the National Broadcasting Company and Warner Brothers for half-million dollars, claiming to have written “Home on the Range” and copyrighted it in 1905. The Goodmans lost the suit when it was discovered that the lyrics were based on a poem, “The Western Home,” by Dr. Brewster Higley, published in a Kansas newspaper in 1873. The original tune was by Dan Kelly, who had been a bugler in the Civil War. Various versions with different titles had proliferated, and the suit was thrown out because the song was considered to be in the public domain.
10 Moe Asch told Gene Bluestein that in 1922, while studying overseas at a technical school in Koblenz, Germany, he heard other foreign students say that there was no folk music in America, “just a wilderness with Indians in the streets.” But “while I was in Paris on vacation from school . . . I came across the 1913 edition of John Lomax’s cowboy ballads, and it had an introduction by Teddy Roosevelt which guided me through life, because he said that folklore and folk songs were the real expressions of a people’s culture. And when I got back to school I was able to show the kids at school that there was uniqueness in our [American] culture. Lomax showed that there was folklore in America. All this stayed in the back of my mind.” During World War II, on the advice of family friend Albert Einstein, Asch founded Disc and later Folkways records to document and preserve European Jewish (then in dire peril) and American folk music. See Gene Bluestein’s Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 105–120.
11 Lead Belly’s granddaughter Betty Baisly-Sorrell in an interview with Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in Life and Legend, p. xiv.
12 The motif of Paul and Silas bound in chains (from Acts 16:23-28) was fairly common in African American religious songs.
13 “We propose to go,” the Lomaxes wrote, “where Negroes are almost entirely isolated from the whites . . . where they are not only preserving a great body of traditional songs but are also creating new songs in the same idiom. These songs are, more often than not, epic summaries of the attitudes, mores, institutions, and situations of the great proletarian population who have helped to make the South culturally and economically.” (Grant proposal to the Carnegie Corporation, 1933, quoted in John A. Lomax, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter[New York: Macmillan], 1947, p. 129.)
14 See Ted Gioia, Work Songs (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 205.
15 David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996) and Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon, 2003 and New Press, 2002), p. 260.
16 “We found a Negro convict so skillful with his guitar and his strong baritone voice that he had been made a ‘trusty’ and kept around Camp A headquarters as laundryman, so as to be near at hand to sing and play for visitors. Huddie Ledbetter... was unique in knowing a very large number of songs, all of which he sang effectively while he twanged his twelve-string guitar.” See Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, p. ix.
17 Nolan Porterfield, The Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867–1948 (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996, 1867–1948), p. 330.
18 Negro Folk Songs p. 31.
19 Kenton Jackson, Philadelphia Independent, quoted in Life and Legend, p. 133.
20 Negro Folk Songs, p. 48. Interestingly, in later years, when no longer working with John A. Lomax, Lead Belly was to become known for professionalism and punctuality, as attested by Henrietta Yurchinco of New York’s WNYC radio and others he worked with.
21 There are notable examples. Elvis gave his manager Tom Parker fifty percent and never asked to reduce it, even after he hit it big; and Dean Martin gave away percentages to so many people that at one point it equaled over a hundred percent. These days, a manager receives commission of between 15 and 25 percent of the artist’s gross earnings, plus reimbursement for travel and other out-of-pocket expenses. Initial terms are usually one to three years, plus options (which the manager can exercise) to extend the term to a total of five years or the duration of a recording agreement secured during the term, whichever is longer.
22 Alan Lomax, April 16, 1992, in telephone interview with Wolfe and Lornell, quoted in Life and Legend, p. 146.
23 Life and Legend, p. 161.
24 James Weldon Johnson [sic] quoted in Porterfield, The Last Cavalier, p. 398. It is uncertain where this review originally appeared or who wrote it. In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (p. 299), John A. Lomax attributes a favorable review in the New York Times to Howard Odum Johnson — perhaps conflating the names of noted folklorist and sociologists Howard W. Odum (1884–1954) and his collaborator Guy Johnson, who together had written several important books on African-American folk music.
25 Letter in Alan Lomax Archive. Nolan Porterfield (The Last Cavalier, ff. p. 538) estimates that the Lomaxes made “a grand total of $13.83” for their work on the book after they had paid back their share of the $500.00 advance to offset Macmillan’s expenses.
26 Like other bien pensant whites at the turn of the century, John A. Lomax appears to have believed that independent farm ownership was the solution for African Americans to “do their own uplifting” and improve their condition (See Barry, Rising Tide, cit). Matthew Barton (in a telephone conversation) points out that in the 1930s John Lomax made a point of asking the African American singers he recorded if they owned their own farms.
27 In a letter to “Mr. Flint” written circa 1958: “He wanted a few hundred dollars to buy a car” (from the Alan Lomax Archive).
28 Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, p. 55.
29 Zora Neale Hurston later attributed Lead Belly’s dissatisfaction to the influence of their Wilton landlord, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, who took a violent dislike to the elder Lomax after a dispute over the terms of the rental. In September of 1935, after having abruptly left her joint folksong collecting trip with Alan and Barnicle, Hurston wrote a letter to John A. Lomax accusing her Barnicle of trying to alienate his Alan from his father. Hurston hinted that Barnicle had also been to blame for the rift between him and Lead Belly six months before: “Miss Barnicle is not the generous disinterested friend of yours that you think. . . . She is trying to build herself a reputation as a folklorist thru the name of Lomax.” “Lead Belly” she went on, “got no ideas of persecution from the Negroes in the village as you supposed. He got them right here in the house in Wilton. Why? She is attracted to him as a man by her own admission. And next she, like all other Communists are making a play of being the friend of the Negro at present and stopping at nothing absolutely nothing to accomplish their ends, ” Zora Neale Hurston, Sept. 16, 1935, in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters Carla Kaplan, Ed.(New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 359. The rift between John A. and Lead Belly was by this time irreparable.
30 Nolan Porterfield’s rather flip interpretation of the incident does a disservice to both men: “Lomax had convinced himself that by taking up Lead Belly’s cause and ‘looking after him,’ he would somehow transform the man — Lead Belly would be so amazed by Lomax’s largess and so grateful for it that he would give up forever his violent ways and revert to the faithful, obedient, shuffling darky that Lomax expected him to be.” (see The Last Cavalier, p. 357)
31 For example, in an interview with Alan Lomax on the NPR show Fresh Air (Oct. 8, 1990), Terry Gross stated “When Lead Belly was released from prison he traveled with your father for a couple of years [sic] and your father put on a lot of concerts with him.” The interview was reprinted in Sean Killeen’s Lead Belly Newsletter of December 1995. Benjamin Filene has Lead Belly acting as John A. Lomax’s chauffeur and servant for a period of eight months (referring to it as “the first eight months,” with the implication that there were more). In his biography of Woody GuthrieJoe Klein wrote that “Lead Belly left the elder Lomax after a year.”
32Life and Legend, p. 184.
33 W. J. Cash described the blindness engendered by American individualism: “Even at the best and fullest, the idea of social responsibility which grew up in the South remained always a narrow and purely personal one. . . . The Virginians themselves … never got beyond that brutal individualism — and for all the Jeffersonian glorification of the idea, it was brutal as it worked out in the plantation world — which was the heritage of the frontier; that individualism which, while willing enough to ameliorate the specific instance, relentlessly laid down as its basic social postulate the doctrine that every man was completely and wholly responsible for himself. … The individual outlook . . . the whole paternalistic pattern, in fact, the complete otherworldliness of religious feeling . . . all this, combining with their natural unrealism of temperament, bred in [white Southerners] a thoroughgoing satisfaction, the most complete blindness to the true facts of their world.” He goes on to say, that “hardly any Southerner of the master class every even slightly apprehended that the general shiftlessness and degradation of the masses was a social product. Hardly one, in truth, ever concerned himself about the systematic raising of the economic and social level of these masses. And if occasional men [would sponsor a school here and there, the same men] . . . would take the lead in indignantly rejecting the Yankee idea of universal free schools maintained at the public charge . . .” W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1941).
34 See Jerrold Hirsch, “Modernity, Nostalgia and Southern Folklore Studies,” Journal of American Folklore 105:1992. In an atmosphere where it was taboo to mention race relations at all, it was a political statement of sorts to present an entire book on Negro folk songs, much of it told in the singers’ own words, flawed as Lomax’s introduction might have been. The book was understood as such and was read by progressives who were interested in civil rights. In a published article on “Lead Belly, Lomax and Copyright” (1996), Israel Young (formerly of the Folk Center in New York City) has this to say: “I know little about John A. Lomax and his heritage ¾ but I surely accepted it when I was young and read his and Alan’s Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936). How else could I get close to the black mind and thinking as a teenager growing up in the Bronx, around 1947?” Young takes a blanket position against copyrighting folk songs (as opposed to commercial songs), castigates the Lomaxes for “exploiting” Lead Belly, and demands an explanation from Alan about the copyright issue, but he makes a heartfelt plea for a reprinting of Negro Folk Songs, which he read in his youth.
35 Life and Legend, p. 188.
36 Quoted in Life and Legend, p. 215.
37 Quoted in Life and Legend, p. 194.
38 Quoted in Life and Legend, p. 201.
39Joe Brown, “Reflections on Lead Belly,” Folk Music 1 (June 1964): 35, quoted in Life and Legend, p. 266.
40 “Thanks to the enthusiasm of Gordon Jenkins, we’d recorded one of the songs of Lead Belly, who’d died penniless the year before. ‘Goodnight, Irene’ sold more records than any other pop song since WWII. In the summer of 1950 you couldn’t escape it. A waltz yet! In a roadside diner we heard someone say, ‘Turn that jukebox off! I’ve heard that song 50 times this week!’” Pete Seeger in Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography (Bethlehem, Pa.: Sing Out!, 1993) p. 64. Ronald Cohen writes: “As usual in the music industry, a hit resulted from some combination of audience enthusiasm and commercial hype. In this case, music publisher Howard S. Richmond mailed promotional copies of ‘Goodnight Irene’ to fifteen hundred disc jockeys, many of them personal acquaintances cultivated from when he was a press agent for Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. The song got considerable airplay, and during the first month Richmond sold 250,000 copies of the sheet music, in addition to half a million records.”See Rainbow Quest: Folk Music Revival & American Society(Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 69
41 See Rainbow Quest: Folk Music Revival & American Society (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 69–70 and passim.
Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
Cohen, Ronald. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society, 1940–1970. Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
Hirsch, Jerrold. “Modernity, Nostalgia and Southern Folklore Studies,” Journal of American Folklore 105: 1992.
Lomax, John A. Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Lomax, John A. and Alan. Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. New York: Macmillan, 1938.
Lornell, Kip and Charles Wolfe. The Life and Legend of Lead Belly. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999 [first published New York: HarperCollins, 1992].
Oshinky, David M. “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Porterfield, Nolan. The Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867–1948. Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Wilgus, D. K. Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1959.
Lead Belly file in the Library of Congress
Lead Belly and John A. Lomax correspondence in the Alan Lomax Archive