Rarely a week goes by when I’m not asked the question, “are you related to, or do you know, (insert first name here) Ledbetter?” The name pure and simply is an odd tag that not only has seemingly endless arrays of humorous variations, but is a name commonly picked when spinning a yarn, writing a song, a joke, or making films about the American experience and an odd-ball character, who is often on the other side of the law, is needed to shake things up. If you need a Country Store that doubles as a Juke Joint and home base for all the moonshine runners, call it Ledbetter’s Store like Robert Mitchum did in his classic 1958 film, Thunder Road. Ledbetter’s daughter, Roxanna Ledbetter, played by Sandra Knight, adds to the romantic subplot with her crush on Mitchum’s character, the whiskey-running macho man, Lucas Doolin, who is already having an affair with a nightclub singer.
When Hollywood needed a feisty, shotgun-toting woman on the hunt for the people who stole her dogs enter Tracy Ledbetter who comes into your living room off of the Ponderosa Ranch in the wildly popular 60s TV series, Bonanza. It’s just one of those names! In typical Hollywood fashion of the times, Tracy is glamorized as a lovable but honest nimwit intent on seeing justice prevail, even if she has to use her ever-present double-barrel shotgun. You may question Tracy’s style and she is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but her motives are good. In the end Tracy falls for the other lovable Rube, the Cartright’s cousin, Muley Jones, who purchased the hounds from Tracy’s Pa, Abner Ledbetter so Tracy could get back to her real job, taking care of him instead of spending all of her time with her prized hounds. Not the kind of folks the good Cartright family is used to hanging out with, but they sure keep things interesting. Ya’ll just be on your way now.
Seeing how I have a personal relationship with the name and have spent a huge part of my life fielding questions about someone named Ledbetter, I started taking mental notes of all the references to this name that grace, for lack of a better term, American Popular Culture. In a strictly Southern sense, the name Ledbetter is as common in tall tales and Southern Gothic as are grits and ham hocks. Spending another huge portion of my early years hearing people call me one of the endless variations on the name intended to signify the speaker’s inherent sense of humor while making everyone aware that there is one of Them Ledbetters present, I’ve learned to react quickly and understand that the real message is, better keep an eye on that one. If you inquire about a Ledbetter or use one of the seemingly humorous nick names, be prepared for some cynical retorts, that you will more than likely take for the truth rather than the twisted humor I’ve learned to embrace. Some of the most common monikers include, Ledbutt, Ledhead, Ledass, and my all-time favorite, Bedwetter. Just what you want at your party is someone who still wets the bed, but he shore is funny, yeah buddy, he’s a hoot!
Back in the 80s when I served in the Coast Guard, my buddies loved to cut out the Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comics that featured the shady, yet entertaining Ledbetters. Besides being card sharks, these Ledbetters had a huge clan of kids that kept everyone entertained by their sheer numbers!
Perhaps the most famous of all the Ledbetters are the ones from Mississippi that famed Southern Comic, Jerry Clower immortalized in his standup routines. Marcel Ledbetter and his McCollough chainsaw were well known around the beer joints and had a large family including his parents, Uncle Versie and Aunt Pat and siblings Ardel, Burnel, Raynel, W.L., Lanel, Odel, Newgene, Claude, and Clovis. Always be forewarned before a Ledbetter cranks up a chain saw or loads his shotgun, because you might want to move on to another place for a while.
My Ledbetter story begins in 1884 with the birth of my Great Granddaddy, Oscar Lee Ledbetter. Oscar raised six kids (two more died young) in the years leading up to one of the darkest periods of the great depression where common folks like him drove from town-to-town with the family and all of their belongings on a truck looking for work in the fields and orchards. Stay tuned for Part two and follow Oscar as he leads his band of Ledbetters out of the dark times into relative prosperity selling coon skins and dragging a net in the river to keep his family fed.