America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

By Lee Bernstein | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

In 1924 Huddie Ledbetter played a concert at the Sugar Land Prison Farm for the governor of Texas. Ledbetter, who would go on to international celebrity as “Lead Belly,” was doing time as “Walter Boyd,” the name he assumed after escaping from a previous prison. This time, Ledbetter was arrested after he murdered a relative during a fight in 1917, receiving a sentence of seven to thirty-five years at Sugar Land, a former plantation near Houston. Ledbetter cut sugar cane on the prison farm and entertained other inmates and the prison staff with ballads and blues songs. Ledbetter was particularly good at reworking the lyrics of well-known prison songs to include references to the exploits of other prisoners, prison staff, or notorious Houston police officers.1 In January 1924 a captain at the prison asked Ledbetter to perform for Pat M. Neff, the Texas governor who was then on a tour of the state’s prisons. Ledbetter danced a demeaning number he called the “Sugar Land Shuffle,” in which he lampooned an eager and happy cotton picker. The songs included the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and the minstrel song “Ole Dan Tucker.” He also played an original ballad in which he asked for forgiveness. The plea went over well: Neff returned to the prison several times to hear Ledbetter perform and specifically requested the original ballad in which the musician asks for his forgiveness.2 Just before leaving office in January 1925, Neff delivered on a promise he made to Ledbetter by granting him— as Walter Boyd—a full pardon.

Many years passed before Ledbetter became a fixture on the folk music circuit with songs like “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight, Irene.” In the meantime, Ledbetter supported himself as a laborer and musician in Louisiana and once again ran into trouble with the criminal justice system. In 1930 Ledbetter received a sentence of sixto-ten years of hard labor for assault with intent to murder after an

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America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - We Shall Have Order 19
  • Chapter Two - The Age of Jackson 51
  • Chapter Three - What Works? 75
  • Chapter Four - We Took the Weight 99
  • Chapter Five - Cell Block Theater 129
  • Chapter Six - Radical Chic 151
  • Conclusion 173
  • Notes 185
  • Index 215
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