134 years ago a convergence of technology and creativity occurred. The newly invented gramophone was introduced commercially as a means to capture and play back sound out of thin air and record it onto a wax cylinder that could be listened to and shared over and over. At that same time, Huddie Ledbetter was born in the northern reaches of Louisiana, a recorder in his own right, who by the time of his early death in 1949 had a repertoire of 100s of songs. The two forces were destined to meet creating some of the most prolific recordings of early American folk, blues and gospel music. It was not only Leadbelly’s music that was recorded but he became the facilitator and touchstone to record a large swath of the imprisoned African American inmates in the southern penal system, giving voice and texture to a completely silenced minority.
The 1900s were a tumultuous time in the southern states of the United States. A young country trying to heal the wounds of a brutal civil war and find its new place in the world. The rural inhabitants lived by a code that was determined by the loudest voice and strongest arm.
Leadbelly in this world is not an innocent. He lead a rough and tumble life of extremes. He found peace and serenity at moments and spent long durations carousing, busking, seeing the ins and outs of small dives, juke-joints, clubs and parties from the Bottoms of Shreveport to the alleys of New Orleans and the back streets of Deep Ellum. He was a drinker, gambler, a musician and a ladies man. He did not see black and white but experienced numerous incidents of prejudice and hatred in his youth that carried weight on his shoulders into adulthood.
Huddie tried to find his way and fell victim to his own weaknesses. His notion of chivalry found him at the wrong end of a 10 year sentence in Texas and his sense of pride got him another 20 in Angola. Both of these prison stays are rife with legend and heresy. The most prominent of which is that Leadbelly played for his freedom and received a pardon in both instances. It is a romantic notion. One I intend to explore. It is through these hard hitting accounts and the fanciful tall-tales that I wish to tread and examine.
There is a magic and mystery that surround the oral traditions that supersede the written. It is a unique individual that can be interpreted and captured as a recording to live on forever.
It is these recordings that went onto become more to live on in the voices and thoughts of others.
It is this I wish to explore and examine in the musical that spans his life and times. Against the historical backdrop of post-reconstruction United States, how does a man make sense of his life, his place in the world and his responsibilities to his own voice as well as the voice of his people. With the Red River as the backdrop and vein that pumps the life-blood, we watch as Leadbelly navigates his life. He was not a political man, but he moved in political circles. He felt he was a man in this world and had a right just as any man to do as he pleased, to live and go as he please unhampered by the constraints of the ever strengthening Jim Crow south. That put him out of step with everything around him.
The pharaohs say it is when they no longer say your name is when you are truly dead. Well I venture that when they stop singing the songs of Leadbelly, then he will be laid to rest, and that time is not coming anytime soon.
This is a musical about Leadbelly, with all new music and lyrics that tell of his life, trials and tribulations. The songs would be surrounded by scenes of different impactful and crucial occurrences during Leadbelly’s life. In addition to original works the score will include interpretations of the songs that define the breadth of Leadbelly's prolific recording career.
Two definitive written works have given me most of the information on which I am basing the scenes.
Midnight Special - Ed Addeo
The Life and Legend of Leadbelly - Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell
Additionally I have supplemented my knowledge with books by John and Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Zora Thurston to name a few.
I have lyrics for 30 songs ranging in subject matter, voice and context. 15 of these I have composed music. Currently consisting of 60 pages of dialogue with a goal of a finished script of 100 total pages, I explore a variety of periods in Leadbelly's life that I consider turning points that defined the man.
The story begins at the end of Leadbelly's life, he is reflective and feeling the pains of undiagnosed ALS. It is here that we set up the morality play, with characters playing the role of final judgement of the man's actions in life and weighing the deeds of his life. In a journey back through his trials and encounters we see a man is made of many intricate and complicated parts, a divergent character with behaviors that defined his place in the world and our minds.
…In the waning years of the nineteenth century, there were many other musical forms and styles. Some styles-blues and gospel songs-became became part of the stereotyped image that whites had of black folk music, while ballads, string band music, hollers, topical broadsides, and others almost vanished from later black folk music. All, however, were part of the musical melange young Huddie was exposed to in the years from 1888 to 1900 and contributed to one of the most wonderfully diverse repertoires in folk music history.
- Wolfe/Lornell. The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly
originally posted 6/13/2022