Singing for Freedom
In this excerpt from a 1935 March of Time newsreel (produced by Time magazine) re-enactment of Leadbelly’s release from Angola Prison in Louisiana. John Lomax plays himself, as does Lead Belly who performs “Goodnight Irene.”
Huddie Ledbetter’s volatile temper sometimes got him into trouble with the law. He served time in the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit) in Sugar Land but was pardoned and released in 1925, having served seven years, or virtually all of the minimum of his seven-to-35-year sentence, after writing a song appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. Ledbetter had swayed Neff by appealing to his strong religious beliefs. This, in combination with good behavior (including entertaining by playing for the guards and fellow prisoners), was Ledbetter’s ticket out of prison. It was quite a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (pardon by the governor was at that time the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole. Neff it would seem had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Ledbetter perform.
In 1930, Ledbetter was back in prison, after a summary trial, this time in Louisiana for attempted homicide (he had knifed a white man in a fight). It was there, three years later in 1933, that he was “discovered” by folklorists John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan Lomax during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm. Deeply impressed by his vibrant tenor voice and huge repertoire, they recorded him on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned to record with new and better equipment in July of the following year (1934), recording hundreds of his songs over all. On August 1, Lead Belly was released (again having served almost all of his minimum sentence), this time after the Lomaxs had taken a petition to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen at Ledbetter’s urgent request. The petition was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, “Goodnight Irene.” A prison official later wrote to John Lomax denying that Ledbetter’s singing had anything to do with his release from Angola, and state prison records confirm that he was eligible for early release due to good behavior. For a time, however, both Lead Belly and the Lomaxs believed that the record they had taken to the governor had hastened his release from Angola.
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