In the vast array of American music, few cities can stake claim to an influence as far-reaching as Shreveport and its sister across the Red River, Bossier City. From jazz and blues to country and rock and roll, Shreveport-Bossier’s musical past has permeated the entire spectrum of America’s music history. Music enthusiasts around the world recognize this fact and honor Shreveport-Bossier’s music history through festivals, commemorative albums, books, and documentaries.
The million-dollar question is: why don’t we?
Shreveport’s unheralded music history begins with Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lead Belly’s first encounter with the nightlife—which ultimately influenced his music—came as a teenager in the Red Light district known as St. Paul’s Bottoms just west of downtown Shreveport. With a litany of songs to his name like “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” and “Rock Island Line,” Ledbetter is regarded as one of the most prolific and influential folk and blues singers in American history.
The list of notable musicians that Lead Belly influenced goes on and on—from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison and even The Beatles. The list of those who covered Lead Belly’s songs is also seemingly endless—among them The Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Cash, and Nirvana. Kurt Cobain even included Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on the Nirvana live album MTV Unplugged in New York.
As the earliest and most pronounced patriarch of Shreveport’s music history, Lead Belly’s place in the pantheon of music greats was confirmed by his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Lead Belly’s grave—a popular destination for music enthusiasts—is just outside of Shreveport at Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery.
Another example of Shreveport’s vibrant yet faded musical past is found in a derelict building on Snow Street—tucked away out of sight from the world. In the early 20th Century, the original Blue Goose Grocery Market, was a full-time grocery store and part time blues house. It is well known to music history buffs but largely unknown outside the academic community.
The bustling African-American neighborhood around the Blue Goose Grocery Market was simply called Old Blue Goose. Adjacent to the long-gone Union Railroad Station, Old Blue Goose was a stopping-off point for itinerant blues musicians traveling through Shreveport by train. Old Blue Goose attracted some of the greatest blues singers of the time—everyone from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Oscar “Buddy” Woods and Ed Shaffer. Shreveport bluesman Jesse Thomas immortalized the area in the song “Blue Goose Blues” which he recorded in 1929. Due to its location next to the train station, Old Blue Goose was an early and critical purveyor of blues music in America.
Across the railroad tracks from Old Blue Goose is a mostly unknown structure that stands as yet another monument to Shreveport’s forgotten music history—The Calanthean Temple. The Court of Calanthe, an African-American women’s association led by Cora Murdock Allen, constructed the building in 1923. The building on Texas Avenue provided office space for African-American lawyers, doctors, and other professionals in the early 1900s.
The most noticeable feature of the four-story temple still is the roof, a large covered area that served as a party spot where popular jazz bands performed throughout the Roaring Twenties. Known colloquially as The Roof, the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and a young Louis Armstrong performed “on the roof.” Like other buildings in Shreveport with a colorful music history, the Calanthean Temple was almost lost to history. Luckily, the building was saved from ruin. The current owners Jason Brown and his partner Melissa Albritton are currently renovating the building.
In its musical heyday, Shreveport-Bossier also had its own roster of legends. Stan Lewis was a record producer, songwriter, and owner of Stan’s Record Shop. Lewis was known nationwide for his nationwide record mail order and distribution service and connections and influence in the music industry. Lewis later went on to found Jewel Records. One of Lewis’ earliest customers was a young man named Bob Zimmerman, who later took the stage name Bob Dylan.
Stan’s Record Shop, located at 728 Texas Street, was not unlike the famed Sun Records in Memphis. The only difference is that today Sun Records is a museum and Stan’s Record Shop is a parking lot.
The connection between preserving Shreveport’s music history and architecture is self-evident. Kelly Rich, director of the Highland Jazz and Blues Festival as well as president of the Norla Preservation Project is one of those spearheading both.
“Our local history is entangled with multiple components including the people, places, and things,” Rich said. “Shreveport is full of amazing buildings that were witness to amazing stories that not only need to be protected and honored but shared as well.”
A few blocks from where Stan’s Record Shop once stood is the Municipal Auditorium. The auditorium is the most widely recognized edifice of Shreveport’s music history.
From 1948 through the end of the 1960s, the Municipal Auditorium housed the booming 50,000-watt Louisiana Hayride Saturday night radio program hosted by KWKH. Known as the “Cradle of the Stars,” the Hayride helped launch in part the careers of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Floyd Cramer, Slim Whitman, Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and later a young-gun country singer named George Jones. Author Tracey E.W. Laird called the Louisiana Hayride a “unique radio program of singular influence.”
On tours of the Municipal Auditorium, volunteer tour guides point guests toward a screw in the stage floor that artists used as their mark for performing on the large stage.
It was there that a lanky Alabama hillbilly singer named Hank Williams first belted “the Lovesick Blues” across the airways, ultimately skyrocketing to fame and paving the way for America’s first rock and roll star, Elvis Presley. In October of 1954, 19-year-old Elvis made his first appearance on the Hayride in the Lucky Strike guest slot. Before he played, Hayride announcer Frank Page noted that Elvis had a “new distinctive style.”
When he was done playing a throttled back version of “That’s All Right,” America would never be the same. Elvis’ unimpressive first appearance on the Hayride ultimately became recognized as a seminal moment in American history and the here-to-fore unnamed “new distinctive style” eventually became known as Rock and Roll. Later in his career, Elvis teamed up with Shreveport-native and guitar player extraordinaire James Burton. Burton’s earliest claim to fame was the creation of the world-famous guitar riff at the beginning of the Dale Hawkins song “Susie-Q.” In 2001, the Shreveport native Burton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joining Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter as one of two Shreveport natives enshrined in the hall.
In 1958, Shreveport’s musical influence reached beyond even the Iron Curtain. Twenty-three-year-old pianist and Shreveport native Van Cliburn waltzed into Moscow at the height of the Cold War and won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. His victory ushered in a new era of pride in American art and creativity as well as positively affecting US-Soviet relations. The quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth is named in his honor.
Once rock and roll were rocking and rolling and Van Cliburn was kicking down diplomatic walls, Shreveport’s influence didn’t end. Prolific Shreveport-born bass player Joe Osborn became part of an informally organized group of Los Angeles studio musicians who recorded with Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, the Mamas and the Papas and many others. They were later given the moniker “The Wrecking Crew” and their story was made into an eponymous 2008 documentary.
Shreveport-Bossier’s musical traditions have spilled over into the 21st Century. Today the city is home to songwriters, performers, Grammy winners and musicians of all backgrounds. Our latest music history includes Shreveport native Kix Brooks (one half of the prolific country duo Brooks & Dunn), Grammy-award winning bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Grammy-nominated gospel group Forever Jones, world-renown jazz drummer Brian Blade, and Shreveport-born country music wild child Hank Williams, Jr.
With the fingers of our music history reaching as far as the grunge-rock epicenter of Seattle, Washington, to the streets of Moscow, and the halls of Graceland, one might wonder where in Shreveport-Bossier is this incredible history highlighted and revered? Where can tourists and visitors to Shreveport-Bossier go to receive a greater and more comprehensive understanding of our music history?
The answer is nowhere. And the time has come for that to change.
The time has come for Shreveport-Bossier to establish a world-class music museum and educational center—to finally enshrine our music history in more than just the collective memories of those who lived it.
“The campaign for a music history museum is something that has been repeatedly tried in small doses over the years that would eventually fizzle because of lack of support,” Kelly Rich said. “Norla, in addition to several other people and organizations, need to coordinate the mission and work together to make this a reality. I truly feel now is the time.”
Over the years, valiant individual efforts have been made—but not comprehensive efforts. Priceless recordings have been assembled and archived. A statue of Lead Belly was placed on Texas Street pointing toward St Paul’s Bottoms—now renamed Ledbetter Heights. A Walk of Fame was established under the Texas Street Bridge. The Municipal Auditorium was saved from demolition years ago and has recently been renovated. (Tours of the auditorium are available by appointment only. However, those tours are mostly limited to the history of the Louisiana Hayride.) Downtown, the exterior walls of Tipitina’s are adorned with posters of Lead Belly, Van Cliburn, and Kix Brooks.
As recently as 2012, local musicians Dan Garner, Blue Martin and Mark Goff formed the NXNW Louisiana Music Foundation with intentions to open a music museum on the second floor of the Woolworth Building on Texas Street. Their effort ultimately did not succeed—but the movement marches on.
Chris Brown is an Archivist at Centenary College of Louisiana. His hobbies include researching Shreveport music history. Brown and others have been actively involved in promoting the importance of Shreveport-Bossier by recognizing its history.
“Every community has a unique story to tell,” Brown said. “For us, the story involves fascinating musicians raised here and plenty others passing through. It’s the story of well-known songs like ‘Goodnight Irene,’ ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ and ‘Susie-Q.’ It’s also about influential radio stations, successful record labels, and celebrated venues.”
The efforts to shine a spotlight on Shreveport-Bossier’s vast music history have fallen short. Visitors to the area can still easily come and go without gaining a sense of the city’s undeniable influence on American pop culture. Billboards on I-20 are quick to advertise casinos and strip clubs, but our music history is rarely if ever, mentioned.
“Dedicated travelers from around the world already visit our local music history sites like the Municipal Auditorium and Huddie Ledbetter’s grave,” Brown said. “In recent years, Johnny Wessler has also led historic music tours of the city. I think there is potential to coordinate and grow this interest that already exists.”
As always, the supposed main obstacle is money. The first question typically is how can we afford it? The more important question is—how can we not? Other cities like Nashville, Tennessee recognize the potential of a burgeoning music tourism industry and have taken action. According to visitmusiccity.com, a record 13.9 million visitors traveled to the Nashville area in 2016 largely because of civic investments in music tourism. That translated into hotel tax collections of $61.1 million.
Similarly, Elvis’ famous home Graceland sees a torrent of visitors annually. Since it opened as a Memphis tourist attraction in 1982, Graceland has seen more than 20 million visitors. Guests have visited from 140 foreign countries and the tour is translated into nine languages. Basic admission price for adults next year is $39.75.
You do the math.
From restaurants to hotels to museum fees, music tourism is an economic gold mine waiting to be discovered. It is an untapped source for the North Louisiana economy. If we are going to invest in anything in Shreveport-Bossier, why not invest in ourselves? Why not invest in promoting our own inexhaustible music history?
So why exactly have we waited so long to do this? The reasons are as frustrating as they are prevalent: A conflagration of political interests and conflicting ideas and a frightful lack of support, spirited by various groups that would rather litigate Shreveport-Bossier’s music history than propagate it. The result is when it comes to capitalizing on our musical past while simultaneously honoring it, Shreveport-Bossier is failing.
Unfortunately, there’s no magical panacea to address this. It requires re-branding our own identity along with a complete shift in the cultural paradigm of our city. This effort begins with educating our own civic and political leaders of the untapped potential of music tourism. Additionally, and arguably as important, we must teach younger generations about the very music history they are a part of.
The Norla Preservation Project recently held a one-day music history symposium. The event included a pop-up museum containing privately owned Shreveport-Bossier music memorabilia. The museum, Kelly Rich hoped, would help kick-start the notion that Shreveport-Bossier should have a permanent music museum facility.
“Norla’s mission is to highlight our local history and culture’ Rich said. “In the past, we’ve had multiple learning opportunities on local people and places. What’s interesting is the aspect of music is repeated throughout these stories. It was natural that we eventually went in that direction.”
The miseducation of Shreveport-Bossier regarding its music history comes at a high price. The first home owned by Hank Williams, in the 800 block of Modica Street in Bossier City, was disregarded and forgotten until it fell into complete disrepair. Before the house could be demolished, it was purchased and dismantled in order to be moved to Nashville where it is being rebuilt. All that remains is yet another empty lot, entirely symbolic of Shreveport-Bossier’s empty efforts to preserve and promote its own music history.
The time is now for that to change. A new musical day is dawning in Shreveport-Bossier. Together, we can do better. Together, we must do better.
*April 20, 2018- Article has been updated for correctness*