Cultural Crossroads
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Midnight Special: Huddie Ledbetter's Search for Freedom

If you're ever down in Houston
Boy, you better walk right
And you better not squabble
And you better not fight

Bason and Brock will arrest you
Payton and Boone will take you down
You can bet your bottom dollar
That you're Sugar Land bound

Let the Midnight Special
Shine the light on me
Let the Midnight Special
Shine the ever-lovin' light on me

--Huddie Ledbetter (from "Midnight Special")

The train from Houston to San Antonio, approximating the route of Alternate 90, would arrive in Sugar Land at midnight, it's light shining brightly. Prisoners imagined it was their passage to freedom.

Huddie Ledbetter usually escaped from the cellblocks he found himself confined in, but from Sugar Land he was formally pardoned on January 25, 1925 by Texas Governor Pat M. Neff, who was impressed with Ledbetter's ability to interpret songs.

Thankful, Huddie soon returned to Louisiana (the home where he was born on January 21, 1885) determined to stay out of trouble. In the decades following the Civil War, times were tough in his hometown, Mooringsport, Louisiana. He felt the oppression and poverty all rural Black farmers faced, and he lived it up on Saturday nights at the Sukey Jumps.

Hard work and the weekly socials were not enough to escape the dangers of the Old South. His grandparents on his father's side had been killed in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan.

Huddie played guitar, harmonica and accordion, and was popular at local parties. As a young man he began to frequent the Juke Joints on Fannin Street, the red light district in Shreveport, Louisiana. Huddie and his first wife Lethe moved to Texas to get work on the farms of New Boston, east of Dallas.

Around 1912 he met Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was a major influence on great local bluesmen like Lightnin' Hopkins, as well as Huddie Ledbetter. He inherited the name "Leadbelly" and began playing a 12-string guitar. He was quickly in and out of jail.

He ended up at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land and, after receiving a pardon from the Texas Governor, he found work with an auto dealer in Houston. He quickly escaped the repression of the Houston lawmen (specifically named in "Midnight Special") and returned to Louisiana to work as a truck driver.

For defending himself against several attackers back in his home state, he was arrested. In 1930 Leadbelly was imprisoned again. This time in Louisiana's notorious Angola Penitentiary.

While in Angola, he met folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who sought a pardon for Leadbelly from Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen. Leadbelly recorded music for the Governor to consider in his pardon, including "Irene, Good Night".

Leadbelly's second big break came when he was pardoned by the governor and he accompanied John Lomax to prisons in Louisiana and Mississippi, recording Southern spirituals, blues, field hollers and work songs. The gentle and likeable Leadbelly made prisoners feel comfortable making the documentary recordings.

Along with friend and partner Alan Lomax, Leadbelly is credited with writing timely and topical songs, such as "Mr. Hitler", and he performed early Civil Rights protest songs like "The Scottsboro Boys" and "The Bourgeois Blues". He was primarily known for adapting and writing emotional and witty songs like "Sylvie" and "Rock Island Line".

Leadbelly's musical style pre-dated the Blues style of artists like Son House and Robert Johnson, as theirs was a developing musical form during the years Leadbelly was imprisoned. Leadbelly was a practitioner of a rural Southern folk style that dominated the end of the nineteenth century with industrialization and the development of the train.

After moving to New York, Leadbelly took up the company of political-minded folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Memphis Slim, Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Burl Ives... all refugees of their own hard lives in the South.

Huddie Ledbetter died in New York's Bellevue Hospital, December 6, 1949.

-- Mark D. Lacy

For more information on Ledbelly recordings: Smithsonian Folkways.