For Shreveporters, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter (1888-1949) represents an iconic music figure from our own backyard. Growing up in nearby Mooringsport, the bright red lights of St. Paul’s Bottoms neighborhood (renamed Ledbetter Heights in 1982) attracted Leadbelly to Shreveport where he honed his guitar skills.
His time spent in the Bottoms left a deep impression on Leadbelly. In fact, his song “Mister Tom Hughes’ Town” tells the story about visiting the area against his mother’s wishes. Over the years, he recorded this song nearly a dozen times — versions for the Library of Congress, versions for commercial records sold to the public, and versions recorded at live concerts exist. In contrast to these rich audio recordings, few resources have surfaced that document his time in the Bottoms. Nevertheless, the basic story of Leadbelly in the area is outlined below.
Leadbelly was born in 1888 on the Jeter Plantation located south of Mooringsport, Louisiana. This plantation was approximately 20 miles west of Shreveport. Leadbelly recalled first discovering Fannin Street by accompanying his father to Shreveport. Around 1904, sixteen-year-old Leadbelly began leaving home to explore the area on his own.
One year earlier, in 1903, Shreveport city officials established a red light district inside a portion of the St. Paul’s Bottoms neighborhood. The neighborhood was named after St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church located at 618 Common Street. The red light district was located just beyond the west side of downtown. The district consisted of a nearly two by four block area — from Common Street (on the east) to Christian Street (on the west), and from the Texas and Pacific Railroad tracks (on the north) to Fannin Street (on the south). Within this designated section, prostitution was legal until the city closed the district in 1917.
For about two years, teenage Leadbelly hung around St. Paul’s Bottoms. Although this time in the area was relatively brief, Leadbelly’s visits to the Bottoms proved to be a formative experience that he referenced for the remainder of his life. To explore this topic in great detail, visit the Shreveport Songs blog to hear Leadbelly sing about the Bottoms, see photographs of the area, and read newspaper articles about the neighborhood’s saloons.