King Of The 12-String Guitar
In the first place, look at that little road running from Blanchard to Latex. You'll find it on few
maps, including one from Mapquest. I drew it on both of these maps. In the second place, that
little road has two names: the Blanchard-Latex Road and Caddo Parish # 6. In the third place, the
great State of Louisiana doesn't spend much or any money on signs for country roads. Guess the
state figures that country folks know where they are and where they're going. |
This country boy and two city girls sure knew where we were going, but we drove in circles all damned afternoon to get there. And we didn't know where we were until we got there. Is that confusing? Well, you'll learn the meaning of confusing if you hunt Leadbelly's grave without those maps.
Don't bother asking directions. I asked directions somewhere in the vicinity of Mooringsport:
Redneck Man #1: "Never heard of the Shiloh Baptist Church. Who's Leadbelly?"
Redneck Man #2, pointing in the general direction of over his left shoulder: "You go up here a piece an' git on 169. Go down 169 a piece an' turn at the blinkin' light. It's a few miles down that road. Who's Leadbelly?"
I should have asked him the difference between a "piece" and a mile. Now, I can firmly state that a piece is a long distance--far more than a mile mainly because most of it is up and down and round and round.
We went in the over-the-shoulder direction and up and down hills and around sharp curves for what we considered two or three pieces, and we couldn't find a highway upon which we could "git." So I turned the Bluesmobile around in somebody's driveway, and we went back in the front-of-the-shoulder direction, looking for the elusive Highway 169. "We didn't go far enough," the city girl in the front seat beside me said when we reached Man #2 again.
So I turned the Bluesmobile around again, and we went back in the over-the-shoulder direction for what we considered four or five pieces. "We've missed it somehow," the city girl in the front seat said.
"How?" I asked. "I ain't seen a damned thing that looked like a highway. In fact, I ain't even seen a highway sign. Have y'all?"
"All I've seen is woods and dead ‘possums and ‘coons," the city girl in the back seat said.
"Turn this son-of-a-bitch around," front seat girl said.
So I did. After maybe 1/2 piece, the rear end of a hardly-moving, heavily-smoking and heavily-loaded pulpwood truck loomed in front of us.
"Where'd that son-of-a-bitch come from?" front seat girl asked. "Pass him."
"Can't," I replied. "The road's too narrow, and there's too many hills."
After seemingly an eternity of breathing smoke and dodging flattened opossums and racoons, back seat girl said, "There's a road."
"Can't be Highway 169," I said. "Doesn't have a sign."
"Take it," front seat girl said.
So I took it. It looked like the original road. Narrow. Up and down a hill and up and down another hill. Around a curve and around another one. Flattened opossums and racoons everywhere. Dead skunks in the middle of the road and stinking to high heaven. Carrion-eating crows and buzzards flapping skyward at the last possible moment. But it was a road. It was going somewhere. "It's headed generally south," I informed my two also-lost companions. "Maybe it's 169. Y'all look for signs. Damned I'm glad I filled the Bluesmobile's gas tank before we left."
After we traveled maybe ten miles that seemed like a for-certain one hundred miles, front seat girl said, "I'd like to shoot the redneck son-of-a-bitch that gave us those directions."
"We've gone way too far," I said.
"Maybe they took down the blinking light, and we missed the road," back seat girl said hopefully.
"That's it," I said, also hopefully. "Got to be." So, at the next intersecting pig trail, I turned the Bluesmobile around again and headed generally north. After heading north for maybe two pieces, the rear end of a hardly-moving, heavily-smoking and horribly-dented $100-Cadillac loomed in front of us. But we drove slowly without complaint, looking for an intersecting road which looked large enough to have once merited a blinking light.
The only roads we found were narrow and gravel or very narrow and dirt, all of them meandering through woods and thickets and quickly disappearing. We reached the original road again. "What now?" I said, stopping the Bluesmobile and just sitting there in the middle of the road in exasperation.
Behind us, the sun had disappeared over the tops of the trees. It was getting late. "Maybe we didn't go far enough," front seat girl said. "Let's turn around and take this road until it gets somewhere. It's got to go somewhere. "
So we did. Worried about the setting sun and missing the opportunity to photograph Leadbelly's grave for you, dear reader, I drove fast, too fast. On that country road, the effect was like riding a roller coaster made by Chrysler. Mile after up and down and round and round and crow and buzzard flapping mile disappeared behind us. Beside us, between the trunks of the trees we raced past, the setting sun flashed me a golden Morse code message that read Y-O-U A-I-N-T G-O-N-N-A M-A-K-E I-T B-E-F-O-R-E I S-E-T.
But we did. Front seat girl soon exclaimed, "Look! Way up ahead! A blinking light!"
We reached the light and the intersection it guarded, and we turned. A couple of minutes later, the welcome sight of this sign greeted us. I quickly parked the Bluesmobile in what looked like a brand-new asphalt parking lot. That's the rear of the Bluesmobile poking from behind the left of the sign.
Chattering happily--all of this was a grand adventure for them--the girls got out and headed for the cemetery, which is located directly behind the church.
The sign reads:
I finished taking the above photograph and strolled around the left edge of the church, headed for the cemetery. My two city girl-adventurers were almost running between rows of tombstones and reading the inscribed names.
I approached the wide gate in the cemetery's chain-link fence and saw this little asphalt road connected to the church's asphalt parking lot. It led to the crest of a small rise and a wrought-iron fence around a grave. Above the fence protruded the edge of a tall black tombstone. "Hey, girls," I said and pointed. "That's probably the grave."
Leaves and pine straw covered the little road, so, in this photo, it appears to end at the foot of the large tree on the right. It continues around the left of the large tree, up the slight rise, and surrounds Leadbelly's grave on three sides, like an asphalt horseshoe. Unfortunately, because of the late hour and the dim light, this photo doesn't show the fence and the edge of the tombstone. They are located several yards beyond the center tree and blended into the dark tree-line. Notice the rays of the setting sun on the large tree to the left. Leadbelly's grave is orientated west to east. His head is to the right, his feet to the left. Leadbelly faces the rising sun.
That brings a question to my mind. Most of the graves in that cemetery face north, toward the church. The other Ledbetter graves face west. In the photo, that's Ledbetter tombstones between the center tree and the little road. Why did Leadbelly's family place his grave so he will forever face the rising sun? I wonder if it has something to do with a very popular song he wrote.
Here's a photo of the grave. Notice the empty vases. If you visit the grave, take some flowers.
Click here for the full-size version of this photo. Use your back button to return. Please! Non-profit use only! The for-profit fee for use of this photo is $50.00, which I will forward to the Shiloh Baptist Church.
The light at the top of the tombstone is my camera's flash. That's the image of a 12-string Stella guitar carved on the slab. The words above the carved guitar read: KING OF THE 12 STRING GUITAR.
Look closely at the slab. In addition to leaves and pine straw, it and the ground around it are covered with coins and guitar picks. The slightly reddish tinge to the G in GUITAR is a red guitar pick. Leadbelly's grave is like a musical wishing well.
We--my two partners in adventure and I--stood there in awe, looking down at the grave. On that cool late afternoon day, November 8, 1997, I finally looked up from the grave to the sun setting through the brilliant red, green, orange and yellow foliage of the autumn forest surrounding the cemetery on three sides. What a beautiful place to spend eternity, I told myself.
We spoke in hushed tones. We threw coins and made silent wishes. My two partners couldn't believe that something so awesome was so close to Shreveport. I remembered the names of a few of the many songs Leadbelly wrote, and I spoke the names: "The House of the Rising Sun; The Midnight Special; C.C. Rider; Irene Goodnight; John Henry; Cotton Fields; Skip to My Lou."
"Wow," the back seat girl whispered.
After a while, the girls left me and Leadbelly and started exploring. After another while and from far behind me, I heard the front seat girl yell, "Hey, Junior!"
When I finally located her and the other girl, they were in the edge of the woods on the east side of the cemetery. I left Leadbelly and walked out of the cemetery and to the girls. "Look," the front seat girl said, holding up a section of an oak tree trunk. "It's firewood. Back up your car and let's take it home with us."
Someone had cut down a dead oak and sectioned and split the trunk for firewood. They left several large and small chunks. From the way the grass was dead beneath the chunks and grew over the chunks, they had been there for a couple of weeks. It would all soon rot, I knew, so, What tha hell, I decided. Why not take it home?
"It's Leadbelly wood," front seat girl declared. "I'll save a piece of it forever."
I backed up the Bluesmobile, and we--my two partners in crime and I--loaded the back seat with Leadbelly wood, leaving a small space for the back seat girl. Off we drove, happy as larks, singing, There is a houuuse in Newww Orleans they callllll the Rising Sun. . . .
On the way to the front seat girl's apartment, we stopped at the downtown Shreve Memorial Library and took this photo of me and my friend Leadbelly.
"Man," the back seat girl said, "my bus goes by that statue every morning on my way to work. I've always wondered who it was. Now, I know. "
"Yep," I agreed, "and I'll bet that you now know more about him than anyone else on the bus."
We managed somehow to get all our Leadbelly wood inside front seat girl's second floor apartment. While she built a roaring fire in her tiny fireplace, the back seat girl and I kicked off our shoes and popped the tops on a couple of Buds. Breathing sighs of happiness at a day well spent and a grand adventure well completed, we relaxed and watched the fire. Our Leadbelly wood made dandy flames.
Front seat girl soon joined us in relaxation and sighs of happiness. I handed her a beer. She raised it, clicked it against mine and said, "Here's to Leadbelly."
"Yes," I replied. "He will live forever."
Hours later, far into the night, I remember singing, Well, C.C. Rider, well the moon is shining bright. / Yeah, yeah, yeah, C.C. Rider, the moon is shining bright. . . .
|Watch the Side Trip!
section for an update sign on the link to this page. Next trip to Shreveport, front seat girl and I
are gonna do some looking around in beautiful downtown Mooringsport and in Oil City, a little
town across Caddo Lake from Mooringsport. That's where Leadbelly got his throat slit.
To learn much more about Leadbelly, read:|
by Charles Wolf & Kip Lornell
HarperCollins, NY, 1992
|Click on the icon and go to the book's|
page at Amazon.com
Click here and go directly to Leadbelly's music page at Amazon.com.
|Shreveport now has an annual Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter
Music and Arts Fair. It's free! Check out the web page.|
Also check out the online Leadbelly Web for lots of Leadbelly links and info.
You can also send $17 to the Lead Belly Society and receive their outstanding quarterly Lead Belly Letter.
They call it "A quarterly newsletter filled with personal recollections, rare photos, concert reviews, and features about Lead Belly and his music." |
I call the last issue an 18-page booklet filled with great stuff.
Send $17/year (Canada $20; Foreign $24) to:
PO Box 6679
Ithaca, NY 14851
For info e-mail SK86@Cornell.edu