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That Bad Man, Tough Old Huddie Ledbetter

By Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell

Until 1934, when he was 46, the seminal folksinger Huddie Ledbetter made his mark in an almost totally African-American world. The only son of hard-working sharecroppers-turned-smallholders in a parish near Louisiana's Texas-Arkansas border, Huddie was a serious, somewhat spoiled child who grew up fast. By age 16, he was a prodigious cotton-picker, an absent father, and a notorious rounder--a songster in demand at local dances for his powerful voice, extensive repertoire, fancy stepping, and virtuosity on guitar, mandolin, piano, accordion, and harmonica. He contracted gonorrhea working the Shreveport red-light district, recovered, married and moved to Dallas, went partners with the not-yet-famous bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, and retreated to a Texas farm near his birthplace. And that's when his troubles really began--troubles that eventually led to worlwide fame after collector-impresarios John and Alan Lomax discovered him in prison.

Nashville-based music historian Charles Wolfe and Smithsonian archivist Kip Lornell don't soft-pedal the facts, adding a previously unreported teen-aged shooting incident (cleared up by his father, who'd given him the pistol) to three better-known imprisonments for murder and assault: though the details generally remained fuzzy, much was made of his criminal record and supposed propensity for violence when he was first celebrated as an entertainer. But they do minimize their subject's image as the "murderous minstrel" of a 1935 Time profile. They point out that Leadbelly lived in a frontier environment where violence was an accepted part of life. They argue that his sole homicide conviction was a case of self-defense. And they establish that the crime for which he did hard time in Louisiana's brutal Angola Penitentiary was refusing to take guff from a white man--for ultimately, of course, his African-American world was controlled by European-American racists. Still, examine the vitae of other bluesmen and songsters with dangerous reputations and you'll find one prison term each for Son House, Bukka White, and Lightnin' Hopkins, and none for Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, or the much older Henry Thomas. Unless Leadbelly had exceptionally bad luck, he must have been one tough customer.

The authors' willingness to skirt this embarrassing likelihood typifies the failures of an honest, authoritative biography that provokes as many questions as it answers. Wolfe and Lornell are excellent on the varied sources of Leadbelly's music. Their detailed history of his renowned "Goodnight Irene," which appears to have originated with a racially integrated pop songwriting duo of the 1880's and undergone uncounted oral transformations before it reached the man who gave it back to the world, quietly demolishes music-of-the-folk romanticism, in which songs are created spontaneously by vague collectivities, or by anonymous geniuses unsullied by education, industrialization, or modernity itself. They've found out as much about his virtually undocumented early life as seems possible almost a century later. And their account of how he suddenly became a sometime darling of white academics and progressives--of his dealings with the Lomaxes, the nascent New York folk scene of the '30s and '40s, and the Communist Party--is balanced and thoroughly researched. But they never take it up a notch.

More than any bluesman, the artist whose career most closely parallels Leadbelly's is the folk-music movement's other star exhibit, Woody Guthrie, who grew up less than 300 miles from Leadbelly and even sponged a bed off him for a while in New York. Granted, it's not entirely fair to compare The Life and Legend of Leadbelly to Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life. Whereas Leadbelly died in 1949, Mr. Klein did his digging barely a decade after the 1967 death of his subject, a compulsive scribbler who left millions of unpublished words behind him. Mr. Klein knew he had the makings of a great book, and he wrote one. Nevertheless, the Guthrie biography points up what's absent here: not just the psychological depth that can be attributed to Mr. Klein's privileged access, but any concerted attempt to assess the evolution of folk music as a theoretical concept and urban phenomenon, the cultural ferment surrounding the Communist Party, or, indeed, Leadbelly's place in musical history. By declining to venture critical analyses of his music--of his vocal and instrumental style, his writing, the changes he worked on found material--the authors make that music seem like a natural phenomenon rather than willed, conscious art and/or entertainment, which is precisely the kind of mystification their research usually works to correct.

Finally we're left with what must have been a surreal inner journey: a mature black man plucked from the self-contained world of the black South--a world that he (unlike Muddy Waters, say) never showed any desire to escape or transcend except when enmeshed in its penal system--and transformed, in the space of about a year, into a near-famous New Yorker whose professional and social relationships were primarily with well-meaning white people, many of whom regarded blacks as noble savages regardless. Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Lornell do a good job of limning this complex story, but they're understandably chary of filling in the outline. A fuller account would clearly require empathy as well as sympathy--a leap of imagination into Leadbelly's racial conflicts that would almost certainly have been facilitated by more candid interviews with surviving African-American witnesses as well as the personal experience of bias. It would be simplistic to suggest that any black writer could have provided such insight. But I'd love to see the right one try.

New York Times Book Review, 1993