When Louis C. Jones Met Leadbelly.

Leadbelly (l) and Louis C. Jones (r)

In class yesterday, we talked about John and Alan Lomax recording Leadbelly in prison. The Lomaxes were folklorists and field collectors, recording songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

For my work on the CGP Community Stories website, an oral history archive, I am transcribing an interview of Louis C. Jones by CGP student Ellen Fladger, performed in 1975. Louis C. Jones was the pioneering director of the New York  State Historical Association and the Cooperstown Graduate Program. In this interview, Louis C. Jones talks about meeting Leadbelly and the Lomaxes. If you have the time, I encourage you to take a trip over to the site and listen to the interview in its entirety. Louis C. Jones had some really interesting stories to share. For our purposes, I am going to post the part of the transcription that contains his story about Leadbelly and the Lomaxes.

(Since we’re coming in during the middle of the interview, I wanted to give some context: Jones has been talking about teaching in Albany with his friend and fellow folklorist Harold Thompson.)

LJ = Louis C. Jones

EF = Ellen Fladger

LJ:

Harold Thompson had been in Cornell, um, sorry, at Harvard with John Lomax. And so through Harold I met John Lomax and very shortly after he came back to Albany with Leadbelly. And Leadbelly had been out of jail about a week or ten days, and John had had him up at Harvard to meet Dr. Kittredge, the great Kittredge. And I must say, when I think about Leadbelly and Kittredge, it’s a beautiful thought.

EF:

[laughter] It sort of is. What a great pairing.

LJ:

Lomax brought him to Albany to visit with Thompson, and I think he may have sung in Thompson’s class, but there was a really great evening when John Lomax, who really was scared of Leadbelly – Leadbelly had only, he’d only killed four or five people and there had always been a good reason, and since they were black men in Texas it didn’t matter a great deal so that he’d always gotten out. And Leadbelly, or Lomax, had been recording Lead…oh, damn it. Lomax and his son, Alan, had been recording in prisons in Louisiana, or Texas…Texas or Louisiana.  Governor O.K. Allen, I can’t remember which state it was.

EF:

I think Texas.

LJ:

I think Texas, that’s their state. At any rate, they had recorded a sound of Leadbelly’s which was an appeal to governor O.K. Allen to release him. And the Lomaxes had played this to the governor and the governor had turned him loose. I remind you, who come in here with a two-pound recorder, that in those days you carried with you a recorder that weighed never less than fifty pounds and sometimes seventy-five, and some of them had batteries which invariably went bad, and some of them you had to plug in and you were invariably in a place where there wasn’t any plug. I have lugged those damn things up mountain sides and then gotten there to find there wasn’t any electricity. So that when we say that the Lomaxes collected in a prison, it was a tour de force in itself to get that much done.

[Here the interview digresses from the topic, so I have edited it out in this copy. The interview about Leadbelly continues below.]

LJ:

There was this great party at the Thompson’s house. And we all sat around and at about ten o’clock, Leadbelly got up on the dining room table, and sat in a chair with a bottle of gin by his side, and he starts singing and playing his twelve finger top and we sat there till four, five in the morning. Singing, quietly drinking. Absolutely marvelous, one of the great nights of my life. And then, when there was just one more swig in the bottle, he sang “Goodnight, Irene.” And he sang “Goodnight Irene” not the way that fellows hopped it up later on. But in the original version. The Library of Congress record is a good recording of that. And I remember taking him down to the place he was staying that night, a gently kindly man, but I imagine him a very difficult man when he was angry. But I want to put into the record a defense of Alan Lomax. Alan understood Leadbelly, he treated him like a man. John Lomax treated him like a n—–. And I use the word carefully. To John, he was a bad n—– that he was responsible for. To Alan, he was a friend. And when, after Leadbelly died, and that revised version, popularized version of “Goodnight Irene” became a brief bestseller, Alan Lomax was in a position to have walked off with all of that money, and he didn’t. He saw to it that Leadbelly’s widow got it. And it was an act of the highest kind of integrity and the kind of model for what the collector and the original source – what their relation should be. Alan and I haven’t always agreed, and I thought sometimes he did silly things, but as long as he lives I will admire his respect for his informants as people. And God knows Alan has done some awfully silly things. He got tied up in the Marxist business, and then in the Freudian business, and then some later things. None of this did I sympathize with, on the other hand, what the hell does that matter compared with the kind of integrity that he’d shown. I knew all of those men, or most of them. [1]

[1] Ellen Fladger, interview with Louis C. Jones, 26 May 1975. CGP Community Stories. <http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/21>.

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