by Mark Dvorak
For a long time now I've been a fan and a student of the music of Huddie Ledbetter, the great Lead Belly. In the summer of 1990, I set out towards Shreveport, Louisiana, to get a taste of life in the South, hoping to learn more about Huddie Ledbetter. I visited the Shreveport Library and looked at old newspaper clippings in the micro film file. I learned that although Lead Belly is considered to be a folk hero of legendary proportion to many of us in the north, very few of the people I met had even heard of him. For an African-American man who lived in the times Lead Belly lived, in the place Lead Belly lived, adulation was not easy to come by. It was different there.
One article described a lengthy and heated discussion surrounding the placing of a historical marker commemorating Mooringsport, LA as the home of America's great folk song artist. One resident said (paraphrase), "We generally don't like to build memorials to murderers in our town." It was agreed then the marker would go by the park at Caddo Lake, not on the main highway. Another article discussed how Texas was ready to claim him as a native son, when Louisiana declared they weren't interested in furthering his name or his art or his musical legacy.
I learned the Irene of "Irene Goodnight" was indeed a real person, a woman who died in the mid-1980s at a ripe old age, and I found out where Lead Belly is buried.
On his record, Last Sessions, Lead Belly tells exactly how to find the old red light district in Shreveport. I listened in the car to him describe it on cassette, "You find the new church on Texas Avenue and go down the hill" (the church was built in 1910; new when Lead Belly was about 21). The corner of Fannin Street and Douglas was once at the heart of night life in old Shreveport - night clubs, whorehouses and hotels. When I visited, it was mostly vacant lots and empty buildings. Lead Belly played a lot of music in that neighborhood at one time. I took some snapshots and a little girl asked what I was doing there and if I could make a picture of her too.
That next winter I wrote an essay about my trip and my impressions of Lead Belly. It was fashioned into a script with the help of a man named Scot Witt and produced into a radio documentary for WDCB Public Radio. The show played in 160 markets across the country and won a 1993 Peter Lisagor Award for journalism; something I had not expected but find myself proud of to this day.
I have re-edited the text from this documentary and will present it Tuesday, January 29, 2008 for Chicago's first ever birthday party for Huddie Ledbetter. My friend Sue Strom will do the reading and join me in the singing of a selection of Lead Belly's best known songs. The program will take about an hour, probably less.
Please stop by if you can, or drop a note if you can't.
ON THE TRAIL OF THE GREAT
TUESDAY • JANUARY 29 • 10 PM
SUSAN STROM • MARK DVORAK
IN A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE & MUSIC OF HUDDIE LEDBETTER
THE GRAFTON • 4530 N. LINCOLN • CHICAGO, IL
773.728.9000 • ONE NIGHT ONLY • NO COVER