Leadbelly and
John Lomax
[1934 - 1935]
They would gather the inmates together, Lomax would speak about the kinds of songs he was after, and then Leadbelly would perform a few samples, the folklorist introducing each one. The results, Lomax maintained, were electric. On their first attempt, at a state penitentiary outside Little Rock

    We sat at a point in the run-around while the men were crowded inside as close as possible to us, peering out between the iron bars ... So eager were they to hear and see Leadbelly that at times some stood on the shoulders of others. When the twanging of his guitar strings rang out, supporting his rich booming voice, silence fell in the rows of cells suddenly and completely The crap games ceased, the cooncan players dropped their cards, while from dim corners, where groups were mumbling prayers and songs and religious preachments, poured all the worshipers, including the black ministers. For the moment Leadbelly s "sinful songs" became more powerful than the "spirituals."

Lomax owed a tremendous debt to Leadbelly's mediation; by the end of his journey, he had collected well over two hundred disk recordings. In effect, the singer had become his collaborator, a fellow song gatherer, though Lomax never admitted as much: to do so would have confused their roles, and from his perspective it was essential that Leadbelly stay on the correct side of the line. Hefting the machinery, singing into it, was one thing; attempting to operate it was something else. At Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas, after a particularly raucous illustrated lecture, Lomax found Leadbelly surrounded by inmates, flushed with pride and excitement jiggling the controls on the sound equipment, eager, as Lomax saw it, to show off among his own color." Lomax made clear his irritation and insisted that it should not happen again but he recounts the incident as an amusing spectacle: the aborigine fingers the machine.

It is worth asking, as Lomax never did, just what Leadbelly would have recorded --- and, for that matter, what he would have described had he ever recounted those prison sessions himself. He was a nominally free man spending his day in penitentiary corridors and his nights bunked in with the inmates in the segregated cellblocks. The surroundings were grim, sometimes gruesome. At one penitentiary, seeking a soundproof room for recording, they were directed to the execution chamber, where they elicited songs from the inmates a few feet from the electric chair. Leadbelly himself was an object of extreme curiosity. Far from encountering a fresh start, a new chapter, he found that his history always preceded him. "Before we reached the farm I told Leadbelly that I would not mention, either to the guard or to the prisoners, his penitentiary record," noted Lomax, "but we had not been there an hour before all the Negro convicts knew his story ...The same thing happened at every penitentiary we visited together." What Leadbelly did not say directly his growing unhappiness made unmistakable, and ultimately he did speak up. "l'm tired of lookin at niggers in the penitentshuh," he told Lomax abruptly at the end of October. "I wish we could go somewheres else."

That was the reason, Lomax maintained, that they headed north. Leadbelly was bored and restless and desperate to see the big city, and Alan (who had spent much of the autumn ill with malaria but had joined them on the road in late November) was eager to show him the sights. Plus, word of Leadbelly had begun to spread. Lomax's American Ballads and Folk Songs had been published in late October 1934, and it included many of the songs gathered from convicts and credited Leadbelly as an important source. The glowing reviews the book received provoked the head of the Modern Language Association to invite Lomax to unveil his discovery at its annual convention in Philadelphia in late December. Though Lomax claimed to be apprehensive --- the idea, he said later, "smacked of sensationalism --- he, Alan, and Leadbelly duly took the stage with lecture notes and guitar at the evening smoker in the Crystal Ballroom in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, billed as "Negro Folksongs and Ballads, presented by John Lomax and Alan Lomax, with the assistance of a Negro minstrel from Louisiana," and sandwiched between a performance of Ehza bethan madrigals and a sing-along of sea chanteys.

What followed can only be described as a media circus. In the first week of January 1935, Lomax unveiled Leadbelly again and again, to gatherings of publishers, critics, musicians, radio broadcasters, folk song enthusiasts, socialites, and reporters from the Nation, the New Yorker, Time, and what seemed like every newspaper on the East Coast. The pair fielded offers at radio broadcasts, concert bookings, a record deal, and a contract for a book of transcriptions of Leadbelly's songs. Though some of this may have been owed to Leadbelly's singing (which was, wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, infinitely more genuine than the effete spirituals of Harlem"), to judge by the press coverage the lurid appeal of the singer himself far outweighed interest in the music. "Murderous Minstrel," the Time headline, was typical. "Lomax Arrives with Leadbelly, Negro Minstrel," trumpeted the New York Herald Tribune, adding, "Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides." Clearly, what had taken shape on the penitentiary circuit as a sober and educative illustrated lecture was transformed by the press into a vaudevillian freak show.

John Lomax would always claim later that he abhorred such sensationalism, that it was not his doing. It's true that he might not have needed to do much: the simple outlines of Leadbelly's history, his double convictions for violent offenses, conformed to the most hidebound racial typecasting. Yet it would be specious to absolve Lomax of all the blame. Lomax's posture toward journalists --- who were not allowed to address Leadbelly directly, lest they interfere with his purity --- smacked of the antics of P. T. Barnum. He had set Leadbelly up as a savage curiosity, a kind of homegrown Wild Man of Borneo. Even as he praised the "absolute sincerity" of Leadbelly's singing, he let no one forget his criminal background. Indeed, despite Lomax's claims to the contrary, it is clear that in spotlighting Leadbelly as (in Time's phrase) "a black buck," journalists were not simply distorting his words. Back in the autumn, while recording at Atmore Prison in Alabama, Lomax wrote about Leadbelly to a friend in New York, who then passed the letter along to the press.

    My chauffeur, while Alan is sick ... is a negro who sang so beautifully at Angola, a Louisiana prison farm, that I took one of his records back to Baton Rouge, one hundred miles away. When I played it for the Governor he issued a pardon.

    Leadbelly is a nigger to the core of his being. In addition he is a killer. He tells the truth only accidentally. He keeps his promise rarely --- when it suits his convenience. He has no sense of loyalty or gratitude ... I am thinking of bringing him to New York in January. There you would have a guest [who] could entertain your crowd.

--- From In Search of the Blues
Marybeth Hamilton
©2008 Basic Books
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