Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an American Folk and Blues musician. Born in 1889 and died in 1949 at the age of 60, Lead Belly had a rough life, landing in prison in Sugar Land, Texas back in 1918. It was here that he most likely learned the song that has made him famous – Midnight Special – recorded many times but the version I first heard was by Credence Clearwater Revival. Lead Belly was pardoned by the governor of Texas in 1925 and set free. In 1930, Lead Belly was again sent to prison in Louisiana for stabbing a man but it was here that he was ‘discovered’ by John and Allan Lomax who recorded him for the Library of Congress. Through their actions, Lead Belly was released and this time stayed out of trouble. Lead Belly went on to record and perform his Blues and enjoyed the success of his talents. He gave us many wonderful recordings that have been covered by Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Elvis, Van Morrison and many more.
The abandoned Central Unit prison where Lead Belly was imprisoned adjoins the Sugar Land airport where I work. I am a music lover and a Blues fanatic. Not many people care about Blues history, but I do. Its the foundation for most of the rock and roll that I grew up on – from The Rolling Stones to ZZ Top to Stevie Ray Vaughn. Each day from my airport, I look out at the white prison building and the railroad tracks that run right in front of the prison along Highway 90 and I think of the time Lead Belly spent here. I actually get to hear the train whistle or horn as those same railroad tracks are in use today hauling passengers and cargo. Those prisoners heard that midnight train whistle back then and sang songs about it. Songs that longed for freedom and an easier life.
As awful as that time must have been, I have had a burning desire to see that prison. I have been so concerned that the City would just tear down this landmark and fail to honor the musical heritage of the prison blues and music that came as a comfort from such a horrible part of many men’s lives. Last month, one of the city officials who has access to that old prison, took me over there where I was able to explore and photograph the inside, which, of course was much different back then. But it quenched a 5 year desire that I’ve had since I started working at this airport.
By the way, my airport was originally started by Dr. Hull who piloted his own aircraft and would land in what was then just a sugar cane or cotton field that the prisoners farmed. He was a dentist who had a contract with the Texas prison system and flew to the different prison sites to administer to the prisoners.
Although its a smaller part of this image, the prison bars and Central Unit letters are from that photo shoot. This project allowed me to combine 3 of my lifetime loves into one image: The Blues, Photography and Texas History.