This book was first published 38 years ago by Bernard Geis Associates, at the time the highest flying publishing house in New York, following a string of smash best-sellers beginning with Valley of the Dolls. Needless to say, Dick Garvin and I were near catatonic with excitement; Bernie Geis was the most glamorous publisher we’d had to date, and had elevated the fine art of book promotion to Olympian heights. He practically invented promoting books on radio & TV – we were headed for the best-seller list!
And indeed we were — the book quickly sold out its first printing! But after a whirlwind promotional tour of the great USA cities, newspaper interviews, bookstore appearances, radio and TV (including one memorable on-air dust-up with Pete Seeger and F. Lee Bailey on the nationally syndicated “The Virginia Graham Show”), Johnny Carson, plus a full-column excellent review in the NYTBR, Bernie Geis filed a Chapter XI in New York. Bankrupt! The distributor and everyone else chose not to do any more business with him.It was the fastest roller coaster ride in publishing history.
Dick Garvin, a close friend and nonpareil collaborator (we’d had two previous novels published), died in 1980. Over the years since, it has often been suggested that I polish The Midnight Special from a prospective of decades later and re-publish it. For example, there has been a resurgent interest in Leadbelly’s music in Europe. However, it was difficult to interest a new publisher; traditional publishing today is still mired in the mid-1900s. There are a lot of publishers today who don’t even have cell phones, much less are able to tell the difference between a biographical novel and a straight biography. One publisher wanted to re-publish TMS if I’d supply “new” information about Leadbelly. He couldn’t grasp the idea that there was no “new” information; Dick Garvin and I had spoken with everyone who had known him, and today they are all dead. And one cannot create “new” archival records or historical documents –- unless, of course, one is a politician.
Now, through the digital miracle of independent publishing, maybe The Midnight Special can continue its interrupted journey.
Leadbelly was not only an outstanding musical talent who achieved the status of a deity in American folklore, he was also a selfish, temperamental rough hewn ex¬-convict to whom invention was more interesting than truth. He so loved his own fables that he seldom excluded them from his recollections to folklorists, who often set them down as gospel.
A product of the bruising back country of Louisiana, Leadbelly survived both the prison gangs and the bewildering silverware society of New England suburbs by constantly re creating himself. Because he was a consummate and imaginative storyteller and not a historian, there remain periods in his life that are either blurred or blank. When restoring an unfinished painting, even the most scholarly expert sometimes must use his own imagination to fill in the missing details. Thus, when we wrote this novel based on the life of one of our greatest folk musicians, we created scenes and reconstructed events in order to provide smooth transitions between known periods in Leadbelly’s life. In these few cases, such as the scene with Sycamore Slim, any similarity between fictitious characters and actual persons, alive or dead, is coincidental.
(This idea of a biographical novel was mistakenly overlooked in 1976 when a movie called “Lead Belly” was released by Paramount Pictures, and which contained three distinct scenes, including the Sycamore Slim scene, that Dick Garvin and I had completely made up out of whole cloth. It wasn’t a good movie, didn’t depict Leadbelly accurately, and bombed at the box office. Somebody should try it again.)
In all scenes, including these fictional restorations, we did our utmost to preserve historical accuracy. We logged three years of research and thousands of miles in retracing the meandering trail of Huddie Ledbetter from his birth in a Louisiana swamp to his pitiful burial in a black cemetery on the Texas Louisiana border. Many of the places we visited in 1968 — and the way of life –- were virtually unchanged since the turn of the century: the tattered, deprived prisoners sweltering in the fetid pens of the Angola State farm; the hovels and unbearable poverty in the Deep Elm district of Dallas; the acres of cane, corn and cotton growing from the red earth of the broiling Texas Brazos; the bits of broken glass and crockery that served as tombstones in the graveyard behind the Shiloh Baptist Church in Mooringsport; the bully tough ghettos of Harlem; the snug and smug security of 1930s Wilton, Connecticut.
At the time, few white men had ever visited the sleazy barrel and bawdy houses of Saint Paul’s Bottom in Shreveport, and fewer yet — none, we suspected had waded through the dusty records in courthouse vaults or sat for hours sipping cool drinks and listening to the stories about Leadbelly told with childlike awe by most of his friends and relatives. Dick and I were grateful to have been able to do those things and to see for ourselves what previously we had only read or heard about. And we were privileged to have been welcomed by so many people, black and white.
On the other hand, it sometimes seemed to us that a small circle of Leadbelly’s “friends” at the time considered his life their own personal property, to be clutched and guarded like a family heirloom. They were wrong. Leadbelly belongs to no one, and at the same time to anyone who can hum the song that was made popular as “Goodnight, Irene.”
An important word to reviewers and critics about dialog. Our editor at Geis at the time was the late Don Preston, who edited a few more books of mine with other publishers and who remained a friend until his death. Don gave us the best possible advice regarding the treatment of Southern black dialect vis a vis sociological thinking –- at the time — on racial priorities: “The only certainty about the use of deep South dialect is that anything you do will be wrong.”
The fact is that Louisiana Negro speech in that era was a patois, with peculiar pronunciations and rhythms, and of course it reflects the life of those who speak it. But phonetic spelling would make any accurate dialog read like a foreign language. Therefore, Dick and I compromised somewhere between the extremes of a Stepin Fetchit-like “I’se gwine git dat ol’ debbil” and the uncomfortably embellished rhetoric of William Styron’s Nat Turner. We kept the “I’se,” as in “I’se seventy-two years old,” and “I’se known him for ten years,” because that particular contraction of “I is” was how people still talked on Fannin Street and Mooringsport in 1968. And we dropped the “g” in all dialog gerunds. It’s simply the way uneducated deep South black people spoke in those days, and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t maintain historical accuracy. Again, I refuse to make Leadbelly sound a Nobel Laureate in Literature, as Styron so disturbingly did with Nat Turner. (At the time, we were complimented by the way “two white boys” handled the dialog problem in The New York Times and several other reviews.)
The use of the word “nigga” is problematic. It was part of the everyday vocabulary of Leadbelly and his black contemporaries, so I’ve opted to keep it, since it’s closer to the actual sound than either “nigger” or “nigguh.” Given the intensity of today’s political correctness and the sensitivities of minority groups 38 years later, I fully expect to take much more heat about that word than we received when the book was first published.
We believed then, and I believe now, that The Midnight Special is the truth about Leadbelly, so far as anyone can ever know it, about a man who spent most of his life either in trouble or on the brink of it. He was — and still is — the “King o’ the Twelve String Guitars o’ the World” and the “hardest workin’, toughest, meanest damn nigga in the state o’ Loosiana!”
We pursued that truth long and far, and we had then, and I still have now, the deepest gratitude to the dozens of people who helped along the way, many of whom are probably no longer with us:
Mr. and Mrs. John A. Lomax, Jr., of Houston, Texas; Mr. Edmond Ledbetter, cousin, of Mooringsport, Louisiana; Mrs. Florida Ledbetter Combs, niece, of Shreveport, Louisiana; Mrs. Jessie Mae Ledbetter Baisley, daughter, of San Francisco, California; Dr. George Beto, director, Texas Department of Corrections; Mr. Jack Kyle, assistant director for business, Texas Department of Corrections; Assistant Wardens Hunt and Dickerson, Huntsville and Sugar Land, respectively; Assistant Warden Hayden J. Dees, Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana; Drs. Milton and Patricia Rickles of the University of Southwest Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana; Martin Fox and Lynne Butcher Fox of Mooringsport, Louisiana; Captain Robert Wilkins, Sheriff’s Department, Shreveport, Louisiana; Mr. Vel Davis, Jr., postmaster, Wortham, Texas; Mrs. Mildred Watkins, the Shreveport Journal, Shreveport, Louisiana; Mr. Grayson Smart, editor, Shreveport Magazine, Shreveport, Louisiana; Major and Ernest Lampkins, musicians, Shreveport, Louisiana; Mr. Eddie “Coot” Louis, musician, Shreveport, Louisiana; Mr. Booker T. Washington, friend of Huddie, Mooringsport, Louisiana; Mrs. Cynthia “Buck” Jefferson, friend of Huddie, Mooringsport, Louisiana; Mr. Eddie Baisley, friend of Huddie, Mooringsport, Louisiana; Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wipf, friends of Huddie, Mooringsport, Louisiana; Dr. Hector Lee, Sonoma State College, Sonoma, California; Mr. Chris Strachwitz, folklorist and president of Arhoolie Records, Berkeley, California; Mr. James McShane, playwright, New York City; Mr. Big Joe Williams, musician, Kansas City, Missouri; Mr. Mance Lipscomb, musician, Centerville, Texas; Mr. Jessie Fuller, musician, San Francisco, California; Mr. William Thorpe, musician, Mill Valley, California; Mr. Jeff Brown, LL.B., Fairfax, California; Mrs. Connie Naitove, friend of Huddie, Hanover, New Hampshire.
And also the many assorted people who helped in smaller but no less important ways, too numerous to name, but prominent among whom are: Harry D. Roffelsen, Patrick L. Murphy, Gerard St. Jovite, Chris Lunn, the staffs of the Dallas Public Library and the Shreveport Journal, Tom Glazer, Archie Goldhor, Arnold Caplin, Mike Nevelson, Roderick Anderson, Phoebe Sonenberg, Holly Wood Stephenson, Natalie F. Joffee, Janet Salisbury, Faith Zavon and Margo Mayo. Finally, a special thanks to Shirley and Pete Baucom, Lisa Wash Railsback, Sandra Haggerty, the Kirschky family and Walter and Ella Forsiak, then of Dallas, Texas and now of Sonoma, California.
God bless you all, wherever you are.
Mill Valley, California