Monday, April 14, 2014

HUDDIE "LEADBELLY" LEDBETTER - Mister Tom Hughes' Town (Library of Congress, 1934)

St. Paul's Bottoms neighborhood, Shreveport, Louisiana (circa 1925).
Note: Fannin Street runs diagonally from bottom right corner.

For “part one” -- an overview of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s connection to Shreveport’s St. Paul’s Bottoms neighborhood (renamed Ledbetter Heights in 1982) -- check out our post on the 20x49 blog.

For "part two," we now turn our attention to Leadbelly’s earliest recording about Shreveport’s red light district located within a portion of the Bottoms neighborhood. Also included are a few photographs and newspaper clippings about the district. Our hope is that by assembling this material, readers can wade past the local folklore to discover a few unique details about Leadbelly and our city's red light district as well as learn where to go for more information.

LEADBELLY - Mister Tom Hughes' Town (Library of Congress 121-A, circa July 1, 1934)

In early July 1934, Leadbelly recorded a song referencing Shreveport’s red light district.  The recording took place as part of his second session for John Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South to record music for the Library of Congress. At the time, Leadbelly was serving time at the state penitentiary in Angola, nearly 200 miles from his North Louisiana stomping ground. Only a few weeks after this recording, Louisiana’s Governor O. K. Allen commuted his sentence. On August 1, 1934, Leadbelly was released from prison because of good behavior.

The song “Mister Tom Hughes' Town” relates the story of Leadbelly visiting the Bottoms against his mother’s wishes. Between 1934 and 1948, Leadbelly recorded it nearly a dozen times with slight variations on the lyrics and title. Other titles include “Fannin Street” and “Cry for Me."  For a detailed examination of the song, Benjamin Filene offers a three page analysis in his book Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 66-68.

This first recording of "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" offers a few risqué lyrics omitted from subsequent recordings of the song. Leadbelly's earliest biography, Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly, published in 1936, acknowledged these lyrics in a brief footnote, but only printed a portion of them. The book also states, "This is the saddest and gayest of all Lead Belly’s songs. It is his own ballad and his own estimate of the most important conflict of his life. He prophesies his destiny and at the same time accepts and defies it. The melody is that of a vulgar red-light song. The accompaniment is the swiftest, most intricate and exciting of his entire repertoire [...]" (176).  The unedited lyrics heard in the 1934 recording are
I got a woman living on the back side of jail
Makes an honest living, boys, by the working of her tail.
Look here mama, let’s go to bed
The kid little boy child was born a man.
An interesting bit of minutiae about the song are its references to local sheriff Thomas Roland Hughes. Hughes served as sheriff from 1916 to 1940.  As such, the song combines Leadbelly’s experience running away from home to go to the red light district (circa 1904) with the name of the sheriff at the time of the audio recording (1934).

No primary sources have surfaced that specifically document Leadbelly’s hanging around Shreveport’s red light district circa 1904. However, sources do exist that shed light on the district’s general activities and appearance. Here are a handful of our favorites that appear to have slipped through the cracks of other publications about Leadbelly and Shreveport's red light district.

At the turn of the century, music and dancing were illegal in "any saloon, house of prostitution, or wine room in the City of Shreveport." Judging by newspaper articles from the era, these types of places didn't appear overly concerned with following laws.
Source: Ordinances (1839-1909) of the City of Shreveport, Louisiana (Shreveport, La: M.L. Bath, 1909), 193.

Shreveport's annual city directories include sections listing the city's saloons. As was the custom of the day, these directories identify businesses run by African Americans with a "(c)" which stood for colored. Directories from the early 1900s list only two saloons operated by and catering to African Americans. They were George Neil's saloon (828 Fannin Street) and Caesar DeBose's saloon (300 Beauregard Street, now Douglas Street). These saloons were located at the same intersection diagonally across the street from each other. Some versions of Leadbelly's song about visiting the Bottoms mention visiting a barrelhouse (i.e., bar) and hanging out with chippies (i.e., prostitutes). Perhaps Leadbelly visited the saloons run by Neil and DeBose. Local newspapers took numerous opportunties to denounce both businesses as the "vilest dives" in the city. They earned this reputation by frequently breaking laws related to alcohol sales (on Sunday, to prostitutes, etc.). It didn't help their image that a number of murders occurred inside these saloons, as well. On the other hand, during this time period, the city's newspapers appear to have thought that offering African American news meant reporting exclusively on local black criminals. As a sample, here are three newspaper articles about the saloons run by Neil and DeBose.

"In Neil's Dive," The Caucasian (Shreveport, LA), May 28, 1905.
"A Nuisance," The Caucasian (Shreveport, LA), June 25, 1907.
"Negro Stampede," The Caucasian (Shreveport, LA), September 27, 1910.

Photographs taken in Shreveport's red light district while it was in operation (1903-1917) appear to have vanished from the face of the earth or have yet to be publicly shared.  Nevertheless, images do exist documenting the neighborhood and its buildings in later years.

Intersection of Fannin and Douglas streets, looking west (1963). The 7-11 Package Liquor & Grocery is the building that formerly operated as Caesar DeBose's saloon. Source: Louisiana State University in Shreveport Archives and Special Collections, Collection 393, Jacket 29924.
Intersection of Fannin and Baker streets, looking south (circa 1955).  Source: Louisiana State University in Shreveport Archives and Special Collections.

In 1976, Paramount Pictures released the film Leadbelly directed by Gordon Parks.  When the film was released, some of Leadbelly's family sued Paramount for 16.5 million dollars claiming the film depicted him in a "vile and rude manner which would shock the conscious."  The family lost the lawsuit. The publicity photograph below shows Paramount's set for "Fannin Street" when first visited by Leadbelly. The thirty-seven-year-old actor Roger E. Mosley portrayed Leadbelly, who would have been sixteen-years-old at the time.
Source: Leadbelly film publicity photograph, 1976.

As for Leadbelly's activities after leaving Shreveport's red light district circa 1906, he migrated from one Texas town to another. Perhaps during this time he still occasionally visited friends in Shreveport. In 1918, though, his time spent moving around Northeast Texas came to an abrupt halt when he was convicted of murder and sent to Shaw State Prison Farm (near the intersecting borders of Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma), then later transferred to the Central State Prison Farm, also known as Sugarland (near Houston, Texas).  After almost completing his minimum sentence of seven years, Texas Governor Pat M. Neff signed a pardon releasing Leadbelly from prison in 1925.  After his release from prison, Leadbelly spent time in Houston, then moved back to Mooringsport, Louisiana.  In 1930, though, he was back in jail for cutting a man during a fight.  He was sentenced to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

There are many publications about Leadbelly; there are a few publications about Shreveport's red light district.  If you'd like to explore either subject, here are our favorite resources:
  • E. O. Allen memoirs, 1944; Goodloe R. Stuck Papers, 1893-1995; Louisiana State University in Shreveport Archives and Special Collections.  Note: Allen served as Shreveport's chief of police circa 1908.
  • Monty Brown, “Chapter 2: Sukey Jump: 1889-1909,” Leadbelly Blog, posted December 2, 2007,
  • John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly, "King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World," Long-Time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Texas and Louisiana (New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1936).
  • Goodloe Stuck, Annie McCune: Shreveport Madam (Baton Rouge, LA: Moran Pub. Corp., 1981).
  • Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992).
For those interested in chasing down the multiple recordings of the song “Mister Tom Hughes' Town” (aka “Fannin Street” aka “Cry for Me"), here are the details.
Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana, circa July 1, 1934
121-A "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" [Library of Congress; Document Records CD-5579]

Little Rock, Arkansas, September 27, 1934
236-B-3 "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" [Library of Congress; Document Records CD-5591]

State Farm, Tucker, Arkansas, circa October 1, 1934
246-B-3 "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" [Library of Congress]

New York City, February 5, 1935
16808 "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" [American Record Corporation unissued; Columbia Records S30035]

Wilton, Connecticut, circa February 13, 1935 [or January 20, 1935]
137-A "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" [Library of Congress]
137-B-1 "Mister Tom Hughes' Town" [Library of Congress]

New York City, April 1, 1939
GM-498 "Fannin Street" [Musicraft Records 225]

New York City, circa fall 1942
Ace 378 "Fannin Street"

New York City, October 1948
"Cry for Me" [Folkways Records LP 242 & 2942]
"Talk About Fannin Street" [Folkways Records LP 242 & 2942]
"Fannin Street" [Folkways Records LP 242 & 2942]
Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 21, 1948
"Fannin Street" [Document Records CD-5664
P.S. Most of the original buildings that once stood in Shreveport's red light district no longer exist.  This photograph taken around 2007 is fairly representative of the area...except now the Millennium film studio occupies half of the old red light district.  The image below is taken from the same spot as the one above depicting Love's Cafe (circa 1955).  At least Lucky Liquor on Fannin Street is still in operation.
Intersection of Fannin and Baker streets, looking south (circa 2007).  Source: Google Maps.

P. P. S. Contrary to popular belief and local lore, no evidence has surfaced to indicate that Leadbelly performed at Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium, which opened in November 1929. For an early African American singer that did, we recommend checking out Roland Hayes who appeared onstage in February 1930.

1 comment:

  1. Great job, Chris. I'm really glad you were able to use those photos.