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June 2024
6min read

The great Louisiana bluesman made his first recordings inside Angola Penitentiary

While working on The Civil War series for television several years ago, I spent a fair amount of time browsing through the collection of conversations with exslaves recorded between 1936 and 1938 by interviewers working for the Works Progress Administration. They are fascinating but contradictory. Some interviewees made no effort to mask their bitterness at having once been the property of 1 others. The cracked voice i of one old man is heard in the first program of the series, swearing that he would kill himself rather than ever be returned to the bondage he had endured as a boy, and it still gives me a chill to hear him, just as it does to hear the ancient man in Episode Nine who remembers Sherman’s soldiers riding across the plantation on which he was born and shouting to him, “All you niggers is free.”

But a surprising number of the exslaves interviewed seemed eerily mawkish about their old masters. Some of their warm memories were no doubt authentic—there were kindly slave-owners, after all, in fact as well as fiction, but most of this unexpected nostalgia, I suspect, was due more to the interviewers than the interviewees. In all but three Southern states, African-Americans were barred from becoming WPA interviewers, so the vast majority of the men and women who turned up on the front porches of these elderly witnesses carrying their pads and pencils and wire recorders were white, and it was simply too much to expect that old men and women who had been born belonging to other whites and forced to live out the remainder of their lives in the shadow of Jim Crow would have dared say anything at which a white stranger might possibly take offense. They kept their opinions to themselves, the protective habit of a lifetime.

Three years before the WPA interviewers fanned out across the South in search of former slaves, two other white men, John A. Lomax and his son Alan, were already bumping along the back roads, seeking other authentic black voices, the trunk of their Ford filled with nearly five hundred pounds of what then passed for portable recording equipment lent to them by the Library of Congress. The elder Lomax, born in Mississippi and raised in Texas, was already at work on his classic compendium American Ballads and Folk Songs and interested in capturing on aluminum discs the blues and spirituals and work songs of Southern blacks. “[Black] folk singers render their music more naturally in the easy sociability of their homes and churches and schools, in their fields and woodyards,” he wrote in the patronizing tone of his time and place, “just as birds sing more effectively in their native trees and country.”

In July the Lomaxes lugged their cumbersome equipment inside Angola penitentiary in Louisiana to record the songs of a convict serving time for attempted murder named Huddie Led-better—“Leadbelly”—the subject of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly , a solid new biography by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell (Harper-Collins).

It is fair, I think, to say that Leadbelly was not easy to get along with. A sharecropper’s son who eked out a meager living picking cotton and playing his guitar, he drank too much, chased women (and sometimes beat those he caught), was jailed for killing one man, and served time for trying to kill at least two more.

But he could sing, and his massive voice, demonic guitar playing, and gift for making up songs as he went along had already made him a sort of subterranean celebrity among prison officials and their illustrious guests. The legend that his singing won him a pardon is merely a legend: he did once entertain Gov. Pat Neff with a song that included the lines “If I had you Governor Neff, where you got me/I’d wake up in the morning and set you free,” and an amused Neff did eventually pardon him, but only because Leadbelly had served nearly seven years of a seven- to thirty-year sentence.

But the songs he sang at Angola, among them a lilting waltz called “Irene,” did dazzle John Lomax. And when Leadbelly was released early from Angola—an event, his biographers allege, Lomax falsely encouraged Leadbelly to believe he had brought about —he offered him a job.

Lomax was the pre-eminent folklorist of his time, but, as his son has written elsewhere, “in spite of his intense sympathy … and a genuine concern for black welfare, [he] believed in the overall beneficence of the southern system.” He saw himself as Leadbelly’s benefactor, and at first Leadbelly played along: He called Lomax “Big Boss,” drove his car, talked normally reticent convicts into singing freely for his recording machine, promised that Lomax would never even have to tie his shoes so long as Leadbelly was at his side.

Lomax soon saw that more might be made of the man he still called “my chauffeur” and took him north to entertain. An official of the Modern Language Association named Townsend Scudder III accepted Lomax’s suggestion that he and his “talented aborigine” entertain at their annual dinner. Sandwiched between a rendering of “Elizabethan Ayres to the Virginals” and a sea chantey sing-along, Leadbelly was a hit. Two days later he and Lomax entertained at a Bryn Mawr tea. Lomax asked Leadbelly in front of his rapt audience whether he knew that he was about to sing at “one of the most famous women’s schools.” Yes, he did, said Leadbelly, but did the audience know it was about to hear from “the famousest nigger guitar player in the world”? The audience was delighted with the performance, though the chairwoman did complain that Leadbelly had been allowed to pass his hat afterward, despite her express request that he not be allowed to do so.

Newspapers got hold of the story. A black murderer who could sing: It was irresistible: SWEET SINGER OF THE SWAMPLANDS HERE TO DO A FEW TUNES BETWEEN HOMICIDES , headlined the New York World .

Eventually, inevitably, the curious partnership between the ex-convict and the folksong collector came to an end. Leadbelly never liked having to wear a prison uniform onstage, as Lomax insisted. (He became so fussy about his stage appearance, in fact, that he once threw the singer Brownie McGee out of his apartment for refusing to live up to his standards. “You’re a professional, Brownie,” he told the younger man, “your guitar goes in a case. And a necktie. You don’t take your coat off on stage.”) And he grew to resent both the curfews imposed upon him and the percentage of the take—two-thirds at first and then just one-half—with which Lomax thought he should be satisfied. For his part, Big Boss—who had boasted to reporters of his complete understanding of “the Negro”—professed to be baffled and sometimes frightened by Leadbelly, “an amazing mixture of craft, guile, cunning, deceit, ingratitude, suspicion, [and] fawning hypocrisy …”

Leadbelly’s split with Lomax was no guarantee he would be treated with the dignity he never doubted he deserved; one of his first bookings after the breakup found him on a Harlem stage, wearing prison stripes and singing to an actor dressed up as a governor, re-enacting his own false legend thirty times a week. But he kept at it: recorded hundreds of songs, became a radio and stage star, composed civil rights songs. By the time amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) struck him down in 1949, he had become a somewhat unlikely patron saint of the folk revival, an inspiration for a whole generation of young performers who can have had little idea of the troubles he’d seen.


For all that, he did not leave enough money for a headstone. A year after his death his song “Irene”—now renamed “Good Night, Irene” and recorded by his friends the Weavers—became the nation’s number-one popular hit.

Alan Lomax—whose own fondness for Leadbelly survived his father’s disillusion with him—has recently published The Land Where Blues Began (Pantheon, $25), in which he describes at lively length his own adventures recording Leadbelly’s contemporaries in the South during the thirties, forties, and fifties. It is an inchoate, sometimes overripe, but altogether memorable book, combining plenty of blues lyrics—“Sometimes I’m so evil,” sang Big Bill Broonzy, “Don’t even love myself,/Don’t even love my woman,/Or nobody else”—with harrowing first-person accounts of the hardscrabble, often violent world out of which the Mississippi Delta blues grew. Convicts and churchgoers, itinerant blues singers and ordinary citizens all are given their say, but most memorable are Lomax’s grisly interviews with two men who made their living overseeing the black mule skinners who built and tended the levees. “I’m proud of this—I never crippled a nigger in my life … that’s a good record … ,” an old white man boasts. “I didn’t whip a nigger until it was necessary and then I’d make a good job of it. … I’d make him like it.” An old black man who often took orders from him proves to have been less fastidious: “I’ve killed many a man, but never in anger. All I shot ‘em for, I knowed their time had come to die. If I had to do anything, I teched the trigger and told the hammer to hurry.”

The elder Lomax seems to have believed that the blues and shouts and hollers he recorded were somehow the spontaneous outpourings of the African soul, more a people’s collective response to misery than the work of individual creators. In his son’s vivid book McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, the Mississippi-born master of the Chicago blues, gives the lie to that assumption and provides about as succinct a definition of the difference between Everyman and artist as I have ever read. “Men get the blues when their woman quit them,” he said. “I don’t hardly ever have the blues myself. Mostly, I don’t have the blues when I play them; I just plays ‘um.”

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