In early June, 1933, Texas-based Folk song collector John Lomax and his 18-year-old son Alan drove out of Dallas on a mission. They were going on “the first major trip in the United States to capture black folk music in the field.”
(All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the 1992 book The Life & Legend of Lead Belly by Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell.)
The elder Lomax was no stranger to song collecting. In 1910, his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads had made him “a national figure in the field of folk song.”
Now John envisioned a new book that would “especially focus on the neglected genre of the black work song.” He even had a title: American Ballads and Folk Songs.
To collect such music, John decided to visit “sections of the South with a high percentage of blacks.” Specifically, his journey would pinpoint “labouring camps, lumber camps… and eventually, prisons and penitentiaries.”
Prisons and penitentiaries?
Alan Lomax answered that question in his 1993 book, The Land Where The Blues Began:
“We thought we should find that the African-American away from the pressure of the church and community, ignorant of the uplifting educational movement, having none but official contact with white men, dependent on the resources of his own group for amusement, and hearing no canned music, would have preserved and increased his heritage of secular folk music.”
John Lomax convinced the Macmillan Company publishers to give him a contract and a small cash advance. He also secured research funds and the promise of a new state-of-the-art portable recording machine – one that used 12-inch annealed aluminum discs – from the Library of Congress. This 315 pound disc-cutting behemoth was not received by the travelers, however, until they’d reached Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in early July.
But it arrived just in time.
In mid July the Lomaxes spent a few days at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
On Sunday, July 16, Andrew Reaux, the captain of the prison’s Camp A, introduced them to inmate Huddie Ledbetter.
John later wrote about that meeting:
“We found a Negro convict so skillful with his guitar and his strong, baritone voice that he had been made a ‘trusty’ and kept around Camp A headquarters as laundryman, so as to be near at hand to sing and play for visitors. Huddie Ledbetter…was unique in knowing a very large number of songs, all of which he sang effectively while he twanged his twelve-string guitar.”
Huddie – who went by the nickname “Lead Belly” – played and sang seven songs for the Lomaxes that day.
They were (in approximately this order):
- “The Western Cowboy”
- “(Honey) Take A Whiff On Me”
- “Angola Blues”
- “Frankie and Albert”
- “You Can’t Lose Me Cholly”
- “Ella Speed”
But since John and Alan were still learning how to use their new equipment, they only recorded a part or two (three for “Irene”) of each song.
The original discs from that July 16, 1933, recording session now safely reside in the archives of the Library of Congress.
The recordings on those discs were copied and eventually digitized by the Library. In 1997, they were released by Document Records on a CD titled: Field Recordings, Vol.5 – Louisiana, Texas, Bahamas. The tracks from that album were posted on YouTube in 2005.
I discovered them there yesterday.
Here they are.
I sincerely hope you take the time to listen to them both. I think you’ll find they make for a fascinating listening experience.