In July 1934, Huddie Ledbetter was an inmate at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary. By January 1935 he was in New York City, living the life of a celebrity. For most of his 47 years Ledbetter had been a laborer in the Deep South, working on his family farm or on prison farms. He had also wandered through Texas and Louisiana as a musician. Now Ledbetter (or Leadbelly, as he was commonly known) had suddenly become, in his own double-edged words, ”the famousest nigger guitar player in the world” — a transformation that lies at the heart of Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell’s The Life and Legend of Leadbelly.
Ledbetter began his journey into celebrity by singing for musicologist John Lomax, who was touring Southern prisons, collecting African-American songs for the Library of Congress. He hit the jackpot with Ledbetter. Having been isolated from most recent popular music and urban trends, Ledbetter belonged to an older tradition that did not distinguish between blues and country music, field hollers and cowboy songs and prison ballads (such as Leadbelly’s own ”The Midnight Special”).
When Ledbetter eventually got out of jail — he’d been serving time for stabbing a white man — he solved the problem of Depression-era unemployment by looking up Lomax and talking himself into a job. At first, he worked as Lomax’s chauffeur and handyman on the song-collecting expedition. He also performed a warm-up act in the prisons, to encourage inmates to sing. But then Lomax decided to show off his new companion in the North, to the ballad researchers of the Modern Language Association and to groups at white colleges. A few newspaper reporters got word of the ex-convict with the 12-string guitar. A legend was born.
”Lomax Arrives with Leadbelly, Negro Minstrel,” read the headline in the New York Herald Tribune on Jan. 3, 1935. ”Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides.” The story was told, and retold, that Leadbelly had murdered two men. (He’d killed one, and in ambiguous circumstances.) He was said to have won pardons from two Southern governors on the merits of his singing. (He’d been granted early release once after serving all but five months of a minimum seven-year sentence.) According to the conventional wisdom, he was a natural singer whose music was uncontaminated. (But he’d thought of himself as a professional musician since his teenage years in Louisiana and Texas, and a good chunk of his repertoire consisted of his rough-and-tumble adaptations of long-forgotten Tin Pan Alley tunes.) Even after his death the legend grew. Ledbetter died broke in 1949. The following year, the singing group the Weavers brought out a version of an old waltz he’d often recorded, ”Goodnight, Irene,” which abruptly became something Ledbetter had never had — a hit. On the record label the songwriting credit went, incorrectly, to Huddie Ledbetter and John Lomax.
Students of American irony, tragedy, and music may learn something from this story. All of them will now owe a debt to Charles Wolfe, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, and Kip Lornell, a researcher of American music for the Smithsonian, for bringing together as many of the facts about Ledbetter as possible and eliminating the fantasies. Neither of the writers has much talent for making you hear the music. They’re good at social and political context but bad at such niceties as physical detail and psychology. But then, people who care about Ledbetter’s music and what it represents have long been in need of a couple of solid researchers who would let the subject speak for itself. Wolfe and Lornell will do just fine — or as Leadbelly would have put it, as fine as wine in summertime. B+