- Historic Sites
The great Louisiana bluesman made his first recordings inside Angola Penitentiary
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
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.
SWEET SINGER OF THE SWAMPLANDS HERE TO DO A FEW TUNES BETWEEN HOMICIDES ran the New York World headline.
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.”