A few years ago I did a radio show that included some protest songs by the great Leadbelly that included one about the Scotsboro Boys. The next day or so Fred Gerlach came by the store with a copy of a letter he had received from Woody Guthrie back in the early 50’s. It seems that in those days Woody would crash at Fred’s place from time to time when he was in New York City. The letter commented on Fred’s efforts to play the 12-string guitar in Leadbelly’s style along with some other ideas and doings and happenings in Woody’s life. Here it is, listed as from Woody and Little Anny Guthrie c/o Stetson Kennedy, Route Number 6, Box Number 263, South Jacksonville, Florida. It’s addressed to Freddy Scratcher c/o Mrs. Tiny Singh, Apartment Number 22, 414 East 10th St, New York City. Woody writes:
Me and Little Anny got down here to Beluthatcheee, south of Jacksonville (in Jack’s 31 Model A rat trap jalloopppy) in pretty fair shape, fair enough for me to at least still be able to type this epistle to you and to our long list of good friends you helped us keep in touch with; and you have the high honor now of being the first earthly mortal to get a letter typed to them since we (me and Anny) moved this typewriter from room number one over into room number two. (just about five minutes ago by most clocks and watches…)
I’m feeling close enuff in toutch today and this minute with Leadbelly’s spirit over in McKeesport to feel like trying to say what ever good and bad words I can find to say about him, and about our big long school of his beloved imitators and limitators.
I have heard Huddie criticized (mostly) on grounds that were a lot more political than they were artistic. I don’t intend to try to put up any kind of a personal defense for him here, because, lordy knows, he’s gone these days to where he can’t make much use of that line of gab or jabbering.
I never did actually know just how keen or how dull his mind ran in what you’d call political depths and directionings; but, I never did see any more of a hardhitter, or find any more of a hotscrapper via the open or shut fist, or via his wirewound walking caneystick; or by way of his big Stella box or by way of any or all of his songs he made up on every kind of a spot to operate on or around; I never did see him shy off nor away from singing or playing for down and out folks, nor for folks that are financially bended, bent down, and broke. I never did see him step back from any kind of a street or a curbstone rally (fight) when coppers’ billysticks, clubs, brassyknucks, gas, guns, or gunhandles went flying a good deal thicker than the heads of radical workers, strikers, and pickets around at all kinds of meetings of the loudest yelling kinds and flavors both in as well as out of doors.
He never did make any big mints of that stuff you call by the name of good money, like most of the rest of us that took any such high hot-heated political stands as Leadbelly always (most always) did on most all of the bread and buttered questions that passed the end of that keen smelling nose of his. He missed out plenty of times and he pissed off plenty more times; he failed to show lots of times; he was too sick to travel some more of the times; he missed the boat some; he came in late some; he got screwn and gypped out of his money (as you only too well know) almost as many high and lowly times as I ownself got flurcked out of my owne. He got strayed, delayed, misled, side switched, side tracked, funneled off, lost off, plowed under, cheaten, beaten, misinformed, mistreated, fouled up, and all other similar words with the same kind of meanings—I mean to say, just about as bad ass as most of the rest of us political stragglers and strugglers ever did. He averaged just about the same number of dates filled, skirmishes fought, battles won, and battles lost as I did, which was all that either one of us could possibly make together like a team or apart batting out the stuff on our own. I believe that it took the pure personal strength of more than just some ordinary kind of a person to follow his track and to barkle along on his trail.
He could sing any kind or any style of a religious song better than any religious person in or out of any church; he sung his whorehouse songs better than any whore or better than any pimper in or out of the boomytown money; he sung every love song as tender as any nest of newfound lovebirds; he sung all of his gamey songs for kids more on that kindlike childish innocent beam than most any other so called singer of kid songs I’ve ever heard; he yelled too loud for any mike to catch his real power; and he whispered so low and soft you had to strain your ear to hear him; and he never did or never would sing for you, sing for the president, sing for the hot rod kids, for the jumping little judygals he knew, not for his own soul even, I mean to say; he’d not, he just couldn’t ever sing (not even in all his record taking and making studios) any song precisely nor exactly alike no matter how high and holy, no matter how strong and sexified the setting and the situation happened to be.
That was his gold mine way up above his knees; that was his finest stuff and his most priceless talent; and he knew it just as well as he knew that this constant shifty changing was the very key and very secret (if there be any kind of a thing in folk song ballads that you could refer to as being any kind of a secret); he knew the terrible prices we all pay gladly to pay our transportation fares and fees first out from and away from that worst kind of monotony that can bare down as heavy as the yokes of death itself if you (if he) ever let that kind of dull repeated memorizing mechanistics to to rule or to control or even to live for very long (like too many high piles of good, clever duplicator and imitating folks born in our midst here to fill our breezy winds and otherwise healthy airs with their empty, gutless, tiresome carboncopying of somebody else they see and hear and know to be good……..).
That was the mainest reason why I was always so damned glad to see Leadbelly coming; I always did know that if he did sing me his “TeeBee’s Blues” for his and my umtythird time that outside the basic melody pat and pattern that we both knew so plain and so good, well, from that point on in, like I said, his newfound words, his ways of talking it up and pumping it up like a flat tire on a NY Skyway, his ways of pulling at every one of his 12 strings along his big fat Stelly, his ways of touching her loud and bangyfied, soft and easylike, so that him and Stella didn’t tromp on one another’s toes nor get in each other’s ways, nor try to crowd each nuthers words… well, that he made me just feel like he had built me some kind of a brand spanking new river bridge a good bit longer and prettier than several Golden Gates or that many George Washingtons …just so’s I would be able to walk along yonder and be able to hear a drop better and to listen some little easier, or to know how badly sad it was when your friends treat you so low down when they get that old grapeviney word passed along to them that you’ve got that crazy damned stuff in your lungs folks mean when they drum off that old word Tee Bee. And because he did know most all of these tricks of forever and forever changing to make your old things, your old words sound new and your new words sound old, that pulled me toward him and toward his whole way of thinking and of living and of thinking, it pulled me a thousand times more than I ever did feel, or ever will feel toward any 19 Josh Whites or any 111 Burl Ives’. I guess I’m really trying to say that Leadbelly hated this brand and breed of a full-blooded imitator just about as bad as I’ve always hated them. My worst pain so far in my trip through this revoluting lifespan of mine has been set off and caused by these armies of blind or half-blind imitators in all in all the different fields they graze, grass, pasture, and purloin in, like for instance, folks that get borned here and never do grow up enuff to find out for the good of their own ears just how their own words, their own voice, sounds. This is not only true on every kind of an issue that arises or comes about, of a philosophic or of an economic or most of the current events that you see taking place and happening around you every minute of every day and night, but truer and truer and still more and more truer in our more heated and impassioned wordfights, verbal battles, our impassioned argumental debates that we hear and see that we call political. It’s one of the world’s hardest damned things for us, any of us,to learn how to be able to give you our own most private personal opinion about any damned thing and to be able to lay back on our toes and our elbows and tell our own self, “That opinion I just now told to you was told to you in some way that you’ve never heard before….” Even like some big easy something like why it is you want to see world peace come about, or say like what you think about Judge Kaufman’s passing the sentence of death over those Rosenburg folks.
These two kinds of questions are fairly easy for you to try to put your nickel in about, for you to spirit off at your mouth about; because when you do come right down to the truth of this whole matter (about why you just don’t believe in the sentence of death no matter how bad the mistake or the crime might be, you find if you follow the path of your own free mind that you come pretty soonly to that old spot here inside of all of us that you’re talking words of actual survival, actual life and death, actual survival for us as a race of humans, not, as you figured at first when you first went chasing your first words off in such a wildtail careless manner. And, you learn how fairly fast, if your mind gets anything like enuff of this kind of word warring exercise, to see how it is just as much of a life and death matter anywhere at any old time that any hired public police official whacks and cracks his club over any skull any place on our planet, that the coppers club vs. that old boney human skull is as much of a life and death matter as is the most dangerous and deathly kinds of explosive or germ laden bombs we’ve cooked up at latter dates. But when you come right down to the rock bottom facts about it, not any two of us humanfolks on the top or bottomsides of our planet here that sound perzactly alike (no matter how much we try to) even when we just speak that one word Peace or say out that one word Rosenburgs; our vocal chords, our voicyboxes, our way of pumping our wind and our airs in and out of our lungs are all just as different in tonal soundings as any differences you’d see or be able to hear in the sounds of any other pail of living animals around our planet earth here.
Leadbelly knew damn good and well when he took off across the hills and the hollers of any word or group of words known to man that his job was not simply nor just only to mimic, to repeat, to imitate, to learn by heart, to memorize, to set to his mind, but of course to find you some new kind of way to tell you how he felt about war and peace, tragedies of all kinds, wild accidents, acts of God, tricks of circumstances, flirtings of destiny, the twisting of the road called fate; he had to tell you about how some halfdrunky truckdriver went off to sleep at his cabwheel one night and missed some old twisty turn in the road and how his load of fuel oil blowed up and caught on fire and burned that little chiliburger joint that set a city of a half a million souls on fire; to just read that over your microphone the way that your disky jockey does, or to read that headline just the way your newsboy screams it out wouldn’t be putting that good word to sailing in that world circling way that he would (be forced to tell it); and, he had to find his own way to make the very news event its veryself sound like some more of his personal private property, staked or unstaked, claimed or unclaimed by him; yet his in ten dozen of good ways that no mortal in our tribal herd here can ever even try weakly to deny him his kingshippery of, over, nor around it.
Them jobs were his. He had to work at that trick and at that talent of his like any cartpusherman, like any streetsweeperman, any fishyboatman, any longdockerman, any candlemoulderman, or any timberwood sawyerman, like any shadetree testerman, any sexmoss guarderman, like any gatekeeperman, any beachsifterman, any blindsand tracerman, any loosebark toterman, any crowquill inkerman, any laybackandtakeiteasyman, any gonejohn sickly dizzyman, any liquorpoizon tasterman, any sudsy foamer washyman, any kind of any man (or woman) on any kind of a job that helps these deeds and creeds and breeds and needs and planted seeds. Leadbelly had to work and to sweat and to fret and to scratch, to scructh, to weep and cuss and come and bleed just like the rest of us. That was his only way that kept on leading him and his eyes out from every kind of private profit trap (ball, chain, shackle, bilbo, and ankleiron) that our enemy side could shoot, swing, toss, throw, or to wish at him because he was born here with his black skin on.
He picked out the only way on this earth that he could to fight back; and that way that he picked was to make use of that music box of his, like some kind of a mudsloggy footsoljier. I mean to say, he used that old Stella box of his to sound out to us, to signal us, to tell us how they had him all hemmed in and all circled in, all zeroed in, all drawed and all beaded and all eyesighted on; just precisely and just prexacktly where it is they got him zeroed in so bad; and he tells us how to listen to him and to his balladsongs, to all there talkery and all their doubletalkery, he tells us loud and bully and clear as the bells how we our ownselves can duck a little thisaway and dodge a littlebit yonderwise and ditch and get free from just about a good 99 and four thirds percentage of every fashion and every taste and kind and blend and mix and flavor of graveyard and deathbed ammonitiun that other side has printed up, or melted up, woundup and groundup and poundup, and bounded up to hail, to yell, to shake our hand with when they run up to us to tell is ohhhh! what fine kind of people and folks we are.
Leadbelly was highly full and highly aware of all of those kinds of plainclothesman soljiery moods, attitudes, states of mind, and ways of lifting it; he knew plenty of times that he saved my neck and my very life on just as many blindalley and deadended occassions as I could smell and feel and sense that little hangnail he was frowning at and winking over at me and tickling off out my own personal direction out of that big pretty sounderhole of that stellybox of his. And he knew damn good and well that he saved just as many good rebellious soladten as knows that old trappy trap is around them. (Lots don’t…)
It did take me a goodly number of years before I could see or before I could admit much that this cash and carry very deadly bribary is just a little ways and a little piece cut over across yonder; getting too damd tight and a goodbit tighter every minute. Trapped in and stuck down in every lost kind of mud that they use to try to catch me in and to flush and drain me right off and down old Shit Creek without a paddle.
That, anyhow, in my own clearest opinion at least is, as I say, is what a folksong balladmaker as well as the balladsong singer (and all of our music makers and music hounds and our musicians of the more mathematical kind; or the most logical and scientific breed) can, and must turn into soljiers out along our hottest firing line for freedom, liberty, and that stuff that most of us read and hear about but seldom ever get to see much of these days. I mean that stuff called PEACE.
I think that Leadbelly was a soljier along this particular breed and seedling. Lead never was nor ever did shortly pretend to be any saint of any kind, no angel of no kind, but he did make just about the same amount of earthly errors and sins and mistakes that all of the rest of us humans fall heir to. And he tried his dead level best a great deal of the time to keep on somewhere out along that old fightingline that he knew could and someday would rub out all of our crazy capitalistic mistakes and could turn most all of us off pretty quicklike into, well, into the same better kinds of males and females that all of us know that we can be and will be oneday when we shake off all of our insane idiotic KKK robes and when we meet and greet one another up somewheres or down somewheres along our streets of Glory.
Your stud buddy, Woody Guthrie
Beluthahatchee, Florida: March, 1953
I got this letter from the late Fred Gerlach in August of 1998.