Leadbelly

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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.