© 1992. Used by permission of Harper Collins Publishing, Inc.
Tom B. Blocker liked to think that Texans who had the misfortune to find themselves in New York City needed to stick together. This was never more true than in 1935, the sixth year of the Depression, when Texas dress and Texas food were anything but trendy, and when Dust Bowl clouds rolled across the plains west of Dallas. Tom B. Blocker was president of the New York chapter of Texas-Exes, an organization composed mostly of University of Texas alumni. These misplaced men held regular meetings to talk about old times, keep up with characters in Lone Star politics, and maybe even hear a few cowboy songs. On Friday, January 4, Blocker spent the morning putting the final touches on plans for a special luncheon the group was having at the midtown Hotel Montclair. For 75 cents admission the audience would be able to hear Texas alumnus John Lomax and his “colored chauffeur” with the unlikely name of Leadbelly, who would perform some songs from the prisons of Louisiana.
The crowd gathered earlier than usual, and Blocker began to suspect that what was planned as an easygoing, informal meeting was turning into an event. He was not truly surprised. In the four days since he had arrived in town, everyone had been talking about the man named Leadbelly (real name Huddie Ledbetter). He had impressed in private some of the city’s more influential people, including the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and club owners up at Harlem–and supposedly had gotten an offer from band leader Cab Calloway himself. The Herald Tribune had run a major story on Leadbelly, describing how Lomax had discovered him in a Louisiana prison and how he had sung an appeal to the governor that had won him a pardon. SWEET SINGER OF THE SWAMPLANDS HERE TO DO A FEW TUNES BETWEEN HOMICIDES read the headline, and people all over town were talking about him. Many had seen Paul Muni’s horrifying film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with its portrait of life on a southern chain gang; here was the real thing.
Reporters and photographers jostled the Texans for a place near the front of the room. A photographer from the New York Herald Tribune arrived first and the lead staff men from Time were soon in place, as were the Associated Press man and Lincoln Barnett from the Herald Tribune. Other reporters, booking agents, promoters, and merely the curious crowded in uninvited. After lunch, Blocker introduced John Avery Lomax, whom he noted was not only an authority on American folk songs but also one of the founders of Texas-Exes. Dressed in a conservative suit and tie that did nothing to belie his banking background, Lomax also wore his customary hat that allowed the remaining fringe of his surprisingly dark hair to escape from underneath. He got up to talk about the music the audience was about to hear. “Northern people,” he said, “hear Negroes playing and singing beautiful spirituals, which are too refined and are unlike the true southern spirituals. Or else they hear men and women on the stage and radio, burlesquing their own songs. Leadbelly doesn’t burlesque. He plays and sings with absolute sincerity. Whether or not it sounds foolish to you, he plays with absolute sincerity. I’ve heard his songs a hundred times, but I always get a thrill. To me his music is real music.”
Nervous about a hangover his singer was sporting from a night out in Harlem, Lomax had had the performer wait in a coat room. Now he motioned him in. Huddie Ledbetter walked forward. He was only about five-foot-eight, but he was stocky, around 160 pounds, and obviously strong, with muscles hardened from years of manual labor. He was not a young man (they would learn later he was in his late forties), and he walked with energy and confidence of a seasoned old-time performer, and dressed the part, too. He wore a rough blue work shirt over a yellow one, and old-fashioned high-bib overalls; around his neck was a red bandanna, and on his head perched a small brimmed hat, worn high up on the back. He was holding a battered old Stella twelve-string guitar, painted green and partly held together with string. It was different from the guitars most of the audience had seen before; it was large, tightly strung, and, they learned as he started to play, loud.
Leadbelly had no problem making himself heard by all. His big voice carried across the room, high and clear, honed in an age before microphones or sound systems. His speech contained an accent so powerful and dense that the non-Texans in the room had to strain to make it out. It was really a language with phrases, pronunciations, and nuances shaped by years as a black man living in the Deep South. Moreover, Leadbelly didn’t sing the kind of blues played by jazz bands heard in clubs or on the radio. It was a much older music that predated both blues and jazz. There was “When I Was a Cowboy” (a story about the western plains) and the work song called “Bring Me Li’l’ Water, Silvy.” “Whoa, Back Buck,” based on commands shouted at oxen, was followed by an old blues Leadbelly learned from a group of levee-camp workers before the turn of the century, “I’m All Out and Down.” As he warmed to the occasion, Leadbelly loosened up and fed off the applause and shouts. He performed “Take a Whiff on Me,” a song about cocaine. He ended with a version of his song to Governor Pat Neff, the Texas executive who had pardoned him and released him from Sugarland Prison back in 1925, nearly ten years earlier. It was a lively, complicated song, and as he sang it, people stood up to see what he was doing with his feet: Leadbelly tapped his left foot in a steady beat, while his right foot rapped out a complex, lively rhythm in syncopation. “If you don’t think that’s hard, try it yourself,” Lomax would remark later.