BOOK REVIEW / A belly full of the blues: 'The Life and Legend of Leadbelly' - Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell: Secker, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'WE HAVE tried to separate the myths from the man, where that is possible.' Well, 21 pages of notes attest to a deal of research - perhaps, though, not quite enough.

Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell have a combined total of 13previous books, and now they turn their attention to Huddie Ledbetter (his first name rhymes with Judy, not Muddy). They are good on the connections between his circumstances and his behaviour: early on, when his parents spoiled him, and his hard-working, warm- hearted father would occasionally so far forget himself as to wallop his God-fearing mother, young Huddie (he became Leadbelly only later, in jail) would head for Fannin Street, Shreveport's red-light district, where George Neil, the richest black man in northern Louisiana, complained to the police about white people coming into his establishment, the walls of whose dance-floor were 'peppered with bullet-holes'. The 1910 US census noted that one third of the negroes in Bowie County were 'illeterate'.

In this frontier-tough environment, young Ledbetter picked more cotton than any man, broke wild horses, played guitar, married and fathered children (these two not necessarily connected) and got in trouble with the law. Tragedy is matter-of-factly described when his parents sold their 68 1/2 acre farm to pay for lawyers in a case in which, eventually, Huddie was convicted of 'carrying a pistol', given 30 days and a dollars 73 fine.

The authors do a good job in piecing together the truth of the crimes, the prison sentences and the famous 'pardons' (one an actual pardon, the other an early release under the 'double good time' laws). When, out of jail at last, Leadbelly became John Lomax's driver, and appeared with the great folklorist at society gatherings in Washington and New York, the toughness and violence in his life decreased - simultaneously becoming the core of the intense publicity that surrounded the 'murdering minstrel'.

This section finds the authors at pains to exonerate Lomax, and his son Alan, from the accusations of exploitation and profiteering which were subsequently made. They do quite well, too; but when we hear that Leadbelly wound up with just one third of the 'take', the defence still sounds a mite hollow. When the inevitable break comes, and Lomax writes to his wife 'I shall always regret that I have wasted my time on a person in whom gratitude or appreciation can find no place', one cannot help wondering if the other man couldn't have made the same complaint.

The John Lomax part of the story is almost thriller-ish: I found myself tensely hoping that Huddie wouldn't mess up in his new surroundings. Obviously, though, he became more confident and independent in his time in New York, and by the end of the Thirties, when he was 'taken up' by the left-wing intelligentsia (acquiring an FBI file by the way), he was managing his own affairs, hiring lawyers, making contracts - a long way both from the cotton-picking convict and the barely tamed folksinger (Lomax had insisted on his wearing dungarees on stage, when Leadbelly preferred sharp suits and bow-ties).

Given that it was all so long ago - when Huddie was born,the emancipation of slaves was only a few months less recent than Michael Jackson's first records are now - we should be grateful for this book's appearance before even more papers are lost, or family and friends die. But if two authors are going to collaborate, they ought to read each other's chapters; we should not encounter on page 238 the anecdote we've already read on page 49. 'Green Corn' is said to be moonshine whisky, when Leadbelly himself is on record saying that it is not. Mistakes exist in the discography too. 'Monologue On the Mourners' Bench' is listed as part of Rounder album 1046, but a listen will tell you it isn't.

For me,this is an essential book. But for 18 quid, I'd have liked a bit more care taken over it.

(Photograph omitted)

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