Fannin Street
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140 Fannin Street —Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell “Lead Belly” was born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jeter Plantation in Mooringsport Louisiana, ca. January 29, 1885. He is one of the most influential and widely recognized black folk artists of the twentieth century. Taught the accordion and rudiments of guitar by his uncle Terrell Ledbetter, he soon employed his talents at local “sukey-jumps,” rural African American house parties. Huddie left home around 1903 to become, by turns, an itinerant musician and a farm laborer working between Dallas and Shreveport and, later, an icon of southern black folk music. The first two years found Lead Belly in Shreveport, honing his skills in the roughand -ready music scene in its red-light district, centered on the infamous Fannin Street. The formative period is recounted in the chapter from Lornell and Wolfe’s award-winning biography, reprinted here. This excerpt reconstructs Lead Belly’s coming-of-age in the rural Ark-La-Tex close to Shreveport, drawing on the memories of childhood friends and acquaintances. These include Margaret Coleman, who seems to have borne Lead Belly’s daughter when both parents were still in their teens. The chapters of Lead Belly’s life that follow this one include a marriage to his first wife,“Lethe” Henderson (July 8, 1908), and about four years later, an eight-months tutelage with the legendary blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. During this period, he acquired the first of his signature twelve-string guitars. Ledbetter’s initial brush with the law occurred in 1915, when he was jailed for assault in Harrison County, Texas. He spent much of the next nineteen years incarcerated for crimes ranging from simple assault to “assaulting to kill.” This period included the curious turn of events leading to a full pardon granted in 1925 by Texas Governor Pat Neff, who heard him perform at the Sugarland Prison near Houston. FANNIN STREET 141 Later, while imprisoned in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Penitentiary, Huddie Ledbetter’s life changed forever when he met John Lomax and his son, Alan, who were collecting African American folk songs for the Library of Congress in the summer of 1933. Lomax recorded Lead Belly, then returned the next summer with improved equipment. This time Lead Belly reworked his pardon song, addressing it to Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen, as well as recording (what would become) his trademark song “Goodnight Irene.” After release from prison in August 1934, Lead Belly joined Lomax in the northeast, hoping to find a new audience and escape the racist South. Lead Belly proved a sensation upon his arrival in New York City on December 31 of the same year. Newspapers printed lurid and sensational descriptions of his convict past. The publicity helped John Lomax quickly negotiate a contract with Macmillan to write Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936) and persuade the March of Time newsreel to film Ledbetter. Soon, Lead Belly sent to Louisiana for Martha Promise, with whom he had taken up after his release, and married her in Wilton, Connecticut, on January 21, 1935. In addition to recording for the Library of Congress, John Lomax arranged a contract with the American Record Company (now CBS/Sony). Although these records sold poorly, they sparked the fascination of progressive, white urban intellectuals. For the rest of his life, Huddie Ledbetter entertained and recorded for virtually all-white audiences. Always ready to adapt to his environment, Lead Belly added “topical” and “protest” songs about segregation and natural disasters to his repertoire. He kept company with urban folk musicians like Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Burl Ives. In addition to performing, Huddie eventually recorded dozens of selections for Capital, RCA, Musicraft, and Asch/Folkways. Despite this notoriety, finances remained strained, and the Ledbetters survived these years largely on musical jobs and welfare. Late in 1948, while in Paris, Lead Belly’s persistent muscle problems led to a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He succumbed within months, on December 6, 1949. One year later,“Goodnight Irene,” a song he once learned from his uncle Bob Ledbetter, became a number one hit for the Weavers. By the time he was fourteen, Huddie had won a reputation for his guitar playing and singing, and was much in demand for the sukey jumps and house parties. Offers to play now arrived on a regular basis. Margaret Coleman remembered, “As the time rolled on, the white...


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