Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 29, 1885 on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the only child of his parents Wesley and Sally. Huddie and his parents moved to Leigh, Texas when he was five and it was there that he became interested in music, encouraged by his uncle Terrell who bought Huddie his first musical instrument, an accordion.
It was some years later when Huddie picked up the guitar but by the age of 21 he had left home to wander around Texas and Louisiana trying to make his living as a musician. Over the next ten years Huddie wandered throughout the southwest eking out an existence by playing guitar when he could and working as a laborer when he had to.
Huddie Ledbetter was the world’s greatest cotton picker, railroad track liner, lover, and drinker as well as guitar player. This assertion came from no less an authority on the matter than Huddie himself. Since not everyone agreed with his opinion Huddie frequently found himself obliged to convince them. His convincing frequently landed him in jail.
In 1916 Huddie was in jail in Texas on assault charges when he escaped. He spent the next two years under the alias of Walter Boyd. But then after he killed a man in a fight he was convicted of murder and sentenced to thirty years of hard labor at Huntsville, Texas’ Shaw State Prison Farm. After seven years he was released after begging pardon from the governor with a song:
Please, Governor Neff, Be good ‘n’ kind
Have mercy on my great long time…
I don’t see to save my soul
If I don’t get a pardon, try me on a parole…
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I’d wake up in the mornin’ and I’d set you free
Pat Neff was convinced by the song and by Huddie’s assurances that he’d seen the error of his ways. Huddie left Huntsville a free man. But in 1930 he was arrested, tried, and convicted of attempted homicide.
It was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in July 1933 that Huddie met folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan who were touring the south for the Library of Congress collecting unwritten ballads and folk songs using newly available recording technology. The Lomaxes had discovered that Southern prisons were among the best places to collect work songs, ballads, and spirituals but Leadbelly, as he now called himself, was a particular find.
Over the next few days the Lomaxes recorded hundreds of songs. When they returned in the summer of 1934 for more recordings Leadbelly told them of his pardon in Texas. As Allen Lomax tells it, “We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, ‘Goodnight Irene’. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1 Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1 I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, ‘Boss, you got me out of jail and now I’ve come to be your man'”
In 1935 Lomax took Leadbelly North where he became a sensation. Leadbelly remained Leadbelly. After hearing Cab Calloway sing in Harlem he announced that he could “beat that man singin’ every time”. His inclination toward violent resolution of conflicts, though mellowed, lead to threatening Lomax with a knife which effectively ended their friendship. Nevertheless by 1940 Leadbelly had become well known in the recording industry. Over the next 9 years Leadbelly’s fame and success continued to increase until he fell ill while on a European Tour. Tests revealed that he suffered from lateral sclerosis and he died on December 6, 1949.
(Adapted from the liner notes to “Leadbelly, Alabama Bound” by executive producer Billy Altman, on RCA Records.)
(The Cure,off Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me…)
“How Beautiful You Are”
You want to know why I hate you?
Well I’ll try and explain…
You remember that day in paris
When we wandered through the rain
And promised to each other
That we’d always think the same
And dreamed that dream
To be two souls as one
And stopped just as the sun set
And waited for the night
Outside a glittering building
Of glittering glass and burning light…
And in the road before us
Stood a weary greyish man
Who held a child upon his back
A small boy by the hand
The three of them were dressed in rags
And thinner than the air
And all six eyes stared fixedly on you
The father’s eyes said ’beautiful!
How beautiful you are!’
The boy’s eyes said
She shimmers like a star!’
The childs eyes uttered nothing
But a mute and utter joy
And filled my heart with shame for us
At the way we are
I turned to look at you
To read my thoughts upon your face
And gazed so deep into your eyes
So beautiful and strange
Until you spoke
And showed me understanding is a dream
’i hate these people staring
Make them go away from me!’
The fathers eyes said ’beautiful!
How beautiful you are!’
The boys eyes said
’how beautiful! she glitters like a star!’
The child’s eyes uttered joy
And stilled my heart with sadness
For the way we are
And this is why I hate you
And how I understand
That no-one ever knows or loves another
Or loves another
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.”
You’re probably familiar with this old Christmas carol. But did you know that Wenceslas was a real person? He was born into the royal Premysl or Przemyslid dynasty of Bohemia (located in what is now the Czech Republic).
According to legend, the original Premysl was a plowman who married a Bohemian princess named Libuse or Libussa during the 8th century. Their descendants eventually united the warring tribes of Bohemia into one duchy. The first known Premysl ruler was Wenceslas’s grandfather, Duke Borivoy I, who made Prague Castle the family seat. He married a Slav princess named Ludmila, and both eventually became Christians. Borivoy and Ludmila tried to convert all of Bohemia to Christianity, but failed. When Borivoy died he was succeeded by his sons, Ratislav and Spythinev. Ratislav was Wenceslas’s father.
Wenceslas was born around 907 in the castle of Stochov near Prague. The castle is gone now, but there is still an oak tree there that was supposedly planted by Ludmila when Wenceslas was born. His nannies watered the tree with his bath water, which supposedly made the tree strong. The church Wenceslas attended also exists today.
At first Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother, Ludmila. Then, when he was about 13 years old, his father died. Wenceslas succeeded him as duke. But because he was too young to rule, his mother, Drahomira, became regent. Drahomira was opposed to Christianity and used her new power to persecute followers of the religion. She refused to let Wenceslas see Ludmila because she was afraid they would scheme to overthrow her. Not long after Ratislav’s death, Ludmila was murdered at Tetin Castle — strangled, it is said, at Drahomira’s command. After her death Ludmila was revered as a saint.
But the loss of his grandmother did not stop Wenceslas from seizing power. At the age of 18 he overthrew his mother’s regency, just as she had feared, and began to rule for himself. A stern but fair monarch, he stopped the persecution of priests and tamed the rebellious nobility. He was known for his kindness to the poor, as depicted in later verses of the carol. He was especially charitable to children, helping young orphans and slaves.
Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas’s attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I. The duke’s most deadly enemy proved to be his own brother, Boleslav, who joined the nobles who were plotting his brother’s assassination. He invited Wenceslas to a religious festival and then attacked him on his way to mass. As the two were struggling, Boleslav’s supporters jumped in and murdered Wenceslas.
“Good King” Wenceslas died on September 20, 929. He was in his early twenties and had ruled Bohemia for five years. Today he is remembered as the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
The words to the carol “Good King Wenceslas” were written by John Mason Neale and first published in 1853. The music is from a 13th century song called “Tempus Adest Floridum,” or “Spring Has Unwrapped Her Flowers.” The music was first published in written form in Finland in 1582 as part of a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones. It is also used for another carol, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.” And in case you’re wondering, the Feast of Stephen is celebrated on December 26 — the day after Christmas.
This article was first published at Suite101.com.
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