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Good God, why doesn't that man yodel and be done with it? - A woman in the audience commenting on Peetie Wheatstraw's signature "ooh, well well", recounted by Teddy Darby, quoted in Paul Garon's The Devil's Son-In-Law

Author Topic: A visit to Lemon Jefferson's and Huddie Ledbetter's graves, in 1971  (Read 626 times)

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Offline RB

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In 1995, now about fifteen years ago, I wrote a poetical of a day in 1971when my I--with my wife and her brother--started a drive from Austin, Texas, back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Lincoln, Vermont.  I was from Philadelphia and had met my wife, who had been born in Paris, France, attending college there.  The two of them had been raised in Austin, from 1955 till 1971.  

The drive home included stops at the graves of Lemon Jefferson and Huddie Ledbetter, which is why I offer it here.  I know this is unusual writing and probably won't be liked by all, but I have liked it and I chance that some of you will be interested--not because of the writing but because of the subject--also.

The 'expert' I refer to in the reminiscence--when discussing Ledbetter's grave was Sean Killeen--whom I corresponded with a little bit about this, sometime in the mid 1990's.

I know this may seem long, but youmight be interested; here is the reminiscence:

Four Songs, Two Graves: Excerpts from the Recollections of a Pennsylvanian, RB

It was poetry I was after at the dining room table, the lambskins on the floor, the dachshund that, at noon, howled with the noontime siren.  I shot odd little Walter?s twenty-two rifle off in the woods on the side of the house: he?d given me permission just before he?d left for the fazenda.  We ate cabrito, my wife knew something about it.  Contemporary paintings (from a University of Texas professor friend of the professor) on the dark walls.  I read the books, of which the house had many, Ambrose Bierce and a life of Leonardo, Lunar Caustic, or Ultramarine, by Lowry.  We slept on the porch, and, once, made love in the shower.  Poetry was hard, rock hard.  I made songs and played them on a dark guitar?I won?t quote them but I still sing them, three or four of them.  I still own the dark guitar.

When we left Austin that August, we didn?t return for twenty years.  Leaving, though, for old Philadelphia, we traveled first to the rural area of Wortham and Teague and Mexia, Texas to visit the grave site of the once well known and soon to be re-remembered black entertainer, Lemon Jefferson--Blind Lemon--who had been buried in his hometown in 1928 or so, not really so long before.  This was my idea.  I think it was the mid-morning of the day?a light rain was falling. (It was the last time any of the three of us?my wife, her little brother, and I--saw our older friend, Tom McMahon, a UT professor of literature, alive.  Tom died of cancer in 1972, only a year later, leaving a younger wife and two very young boys.  McMahon?a 1940?s Yale graduate and a man unusually and perhaps even uniquely kind--had known the folk singer Hally Wood who had married the well-known Texas professor Sing Stephenson.  She had met Lead Belly in Manhattan in the 1940?s and McMahon wanted me to meet her.  But she was living in Puerto Rico then, where McMahon had also taught college.  Perhaps McMahon knew that Lead Belly, another black entertainer, had known Jefferson, though probably not.)

Arriving in those little Texas crossroad towns (I can't now remember in which one Jefferson was buried, Wortham, I think) I asked at a Wortham filling station where Jefferson's grave might be located in that small and bleak--it seemed to me--location.  The filling station itself was not prosperous, just oil soaked.  A young man directed me--without comment or idle talk that I recall--after I explained a bit about who Jefferson had been (I don't think he'd heard of him) to a cemetery back from a road, in a pasture, which, if I remember right, could be seen from the road.  I recall climbing a wire fence to cross the pasture and walk to the graves, and climbing another wired fence to get into the cemetery, which was of course fenced off from the pasture.  There was no marker for Jefferson, I don't think, but I believe we found a marker of some kind for a relative--his mother, perhaps--that seemed to us to give some evidence that he was interred there.  A box turtle was walking on the grave site.  A light drizzle was falling, the sky above the wide rolling landscape was gray, little droplets were clinging to the barbed fence wires, then falling.

We drove off after a short while.  Three young white adults (well, perhaps, my brother-in-law was only seventeen years old then) brought up in upper middle class families.  One of us--me--had a deep and somewhat odd, I think now, interest in black American folk music.  (I shared this with a number of my contemporaries, but my interest seemed--to me at least--a little stronger.)  This was an interest somewhat balanced by the realities of the situations it brought me into.  On that drizzling day it brought the three of us to Jefferson's unheralded grave in a small Texas crossroads town which at that time paid his memory no coin.

Later that day, well before dark but probably after supper time, we were in Louisiana, in Shreveport.  My wife and brother-in-law convinced me that, since I had talked to them about Lead Belly and his hometown of Mooringsport we ought to visit there.  We did.  I can picture the two-lane highway from Shreveport north to Mooringsport now.  I was a little shy of this; I wasn't a very outgoing person.  They convinced me again, in Mooringsport, to inquire about Ledbetter?Lead Belly?s original name--which I might not have done otherwise, as I felt out of place.  I did ask, though, as I was buying gasoline, near Caddo Lake (I believe an arm of that lake was in sight from the service station).  The attendant, in a non-committal or non-involved way suggested I might ask at a store, of which there were several a little bit back down the road.  I did inquire at a general store--I recall it had wide screened, double doors and old wooden shelving.  The shopkeeper (whom I don't think had heard of Ledbetter, or, perhaps, only acted as if he hadn?t), when I asked about the musician, in a way I now know is often a small town habit, asked if I was a friend of his.  I explained--and probably startled the shopkeeper--by saying that he had died just a little before I was born but that he was to some people a well known folk musician.  I did try to learn what I could at the store but didn't explain my own role further.  Ledbetter had died ten days before I was born.

Given directions, in that store, to a Negro church, we followed them, which took us well off the main road and confused us a good bit.  I think we traveled West on a one lane graveled road at least part of the time.  We were lost, or thought we were, but arrived at a white painted (and clapboarded, I think) church and its cemetery.  As I recall it this was in a wooded part of town (I think it seems strange now that the church was in the woods) and I was not certain that this was where we had been directed.  It was not surprising that no one was about on a weekday afternoon when we parked the odd car?a gray, old, Citroen station wagon with a green Vermont license plate--and walked about.  I don't recall looking much at the church building--I'm sorry now I didn't.  We did see that the graveyard was still active and I remember noting that it had the body of a Vietnam War casualty.  I didn't see any sign of a marker for Huddie Ledbetter, or for anyone with that surname.  I think I saw one grave marked in fashion strange to me, in a fashion that I know now has several times brightened America.

So, in one unexpected day, three people visited the unmarked graves of two of America?s well known entertainers.  The two had known each other, had played together.  I don?t mean music only.  Jefferson?s recordings are said to be ?a flux of desire and punishment, sin and luck, joke and horror?as in a dream.?  Leadbetter, when once alone with the Mississippi born Texan so-called ballad hunter John Lomax (whose first book contained a preface by ex-president Theodore Roosevelt) who wished to oversee something for him, or in him, raged (after he?d domiciled much of the prior fifteen years in Texas and Louisiana prisons sentenced for several violent murders) and threatened him with an unsheathed blade.  There are different sides to every person and a lot of fortune or fate.

The daylight, in that woodland, was dimming and we left the spot after a fairly short time there, no more than twenty minutes or so.  I was unsure then--as I am now--whether that was Ledbetter's burying place (though an expert assures me that that was the place?which now has a large monument of black marble enclosed in an iron fence and Jefferson?s, in rural Texas, has a low white well carved granite stone).  I did feel that I'd made a serious--though impromptu and hurried--attempt to search it out.  I'm proud that I did, though a little embarrassed that I was not organized enough to search a little more surely, more carefully.  I'm probably not much different now.

My wife died several years ago.  She'd be proud and amused to think of me recalling that odd day.  We drove straight through to teeming Philadelphia after that Texas-Louisiana woodland stop?I think we pulled over in the morning mist of Tennessee to cook some breakfast.  

That Austin wooded hill with the professor?s house (at the time the little road leading there crossed the Colorado by a low water bridge below the Tom Miller Dam), with dry creeks and geckos, disarming hummingbirds and very large butterflies, wooded with cedar and live oak?we had a little garden there of tomatoes and cantaloupe, it was the Summer of 1971?the green gar, the boat-tail grackle, the gray-green moss, and the rodent armadillo burrowed.
Neither of us returned to good old Texas until her high school reunion a good many years later.  On a later visit?an after visit--I spread some of her body?s light dusty ashes in three places there: first, at the house in which she grew in the fine old Tarrytown section of Austin, second, in the playground?West Enfield Park--where she as a child frolicked right by the house, and, third, near the chapel of the Episcopal church boarding school in the limestone and brushy cedar hills just upriver and outside of Austin on the escarpment of the Balcones fault line, an institution that aided her substantially to play the good part she did in our lives.  The school, which was then in the country, is now in the city.

[RB: 1995]


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