Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Leadbelly at the MLA

A story from Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues (New York: Basic Books, 2008):

[W]ord of Leadbelly had begun to spread. [John] Lomax's American Ballads and Folk Songs had been published in late October 1934, and it included many of the songs gathered from convicts and credited Leadbelly as an important source. The glowing reviews the book received provoked the head of the Modern Language Association to invite Lomax to unveil his discovery at its annual convention in Philadelphia in late December. Though Lomax claimed to be apprehensive — the idea, he said later, "smacked of sensationalism" — he, Alan [Lomax], and Leadbelly duly took the stage with lecture notes and guitar at the evening smoker in the Crystal Ballroom in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, billed as "Negro Folksongs and Ballads, presented by John Lomax and Alan Lomax, with the assistance of a Negro minstrel from Louisiana," and sandwiched between a performance of Elizabethan madrigals and a sing-along of sea chanteys.
"[W]ith the assistance of"! The most important person on the stage is thus transformed into a personal assistant and a nameless representative of a type. (Yes, an invisible man.) It's no surprise to learn that John Lomax employed Huddie Ledbetter as a driver and valet.

Edward Sorel could turn this improbable MLA scene into a wonderful First Encounters illustration.

comments: 0