Ice House

How Lead Belly Sang His Way out of the Hellhole on the Brazos

Famed bluesman Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter's song "Midnight Special" sheds light on the horrible conditions at the Imperial State Prison Farm in Sugar Land.

By Dianna Wray August 17, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

If you’re ever down in Houston,
Boy you better walk right

And you better not squabble,
And you better not fight

Bason and Brock will arrest you,
Payton and Boone will take you down

You can bet your bottom dollar,
That you’re Sugar Land bound

Let the Midnight Special,
Shine a light on me

Let the Midnight Special,
Shine the ever-lovin’ light on me

The graves were there all along, as Reginald Moore had maintained for years. He was proven right last April, when construction workers found the remains of nearly 100 people, most likely former slaves and black prisoners who, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, were forced to work in Texas’s brutal convict-leasing program, then buried and forgotten at the Imperial State Prison Farm in Sugar Land.

But before that heartbreaking discovery, anybody who listened to famed bluesman Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s 1934 recording of “Midnight Special” could have gathered just how bad things were at the prison. It’s all right there in the music, a folk song Ledbetter picked up while serving time at Imperial and doing everything he could to find a way out.

Ledbetter arrived there in 1918 to serve a 35-year sentence for murder and aggravated assault for shooting a man in a fight over a woman. This was only a few years after Texas had ended its convict-leasing program, in 1910, following a public outcry over the fact that the state was forcing inmates to labor for private parties, including area sugar plantations, where they were often worked to death.

But little else had changed, according to Moore, a former state prison guard and current community activist who has been working to get people to acknowledge the abuses of the Sugar Land convict-leasing program for the past 19 years.

“It was horrific. The buildings were unsanitary, no good water, the food was bad, they were swarmed with flies and mosquitoes,” Moore says. “The convict leasing was over, but Lead Belly lived in the same buildings black men before him had lived in, and he worked the prison fields.”

At first Ledbetter tried to escape. But when that failed, he decided to become a model prisoner. (Some say his nickname stems from his ability to work harder and faster than anyone else at the penitentiary.) He also got hold of a guitar and started playing for his fellow prisoners, as well as the warden, R.J. Flanagan. “When he played for the warden,” says Moore, “he was playing about a block from the unmarked graves of the black men who had died in that system.”

At the time, Texas political bigwigs loved to visit Flanagan’s white-columned house on the edge of the prison farm. After Governor Pat Neff, a sober, reform-minded businessman from Waco, took office in 1921, he made a habit of stopping in. And every time Neff came to dinner, Ledbetter was brought over to Flanagan’s back porch and asked to play.

Eventually the musician took advantage of these recurring audiences with the governor, penning a song asking to be released so he could go home to his wife. If I had the Governor Neff like you got me, I’d a-wake up in the mornin’, I would set you free, he sang. Goin’ back to Mary, sweet Mary. (The fact that she’d already left him never came up.)

The odds weren’t in Ledbetter’s favor. A previous governor had sold pardons, and Neff had made a campaign promise to issue them only in special cases. Still, each time Neff visited Sugar Land, Ledbetter would play that song, as Neff later recalled in his autobiography, and it stuck with him. In 1925, on his last day in office, the governor gave Ledbetter a full pardon.

“Lead Belly’s story isn’t the norm,” Fred McGhee, an expert in African American archeology, emphasizes. “The story of the Imperial Prison Farm goes far deeper than Lead Belly. What happened for him, singing his way to freedom, that didn’t happen for the majority of the quasi-enslaved African Americans who toiled there, many of whom died there.”

Ledbetter spent the next five years a free man, working odd jobs and playing music, before a charge of assault with intent to murder landed him in Angola, the most notorious prison in Louisiana. Some years later, famed musicologists Alan and John Lomax tracked him down there and recorded him playing “Midnight Special,” the song that would make him famous (it wasn’t long before Ledbetter was released and living the high life in New York).

When he made that first recording, Ledbetter changed the words to carry a warning about Sugar Land, a place still so merciless, the prisoners believed that if the train’s lights shone on them, they’d be released—either by a governor’s pardon, or by death.

“It was that bad,” Moore says. “Lead Belly had talent that let things turn out differently for him. He won his freedom here. Most other people weren’t so lucky.”

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