Secret History of Austin Music: Henry Lebermann

When Henry Lebermann was 6 years old in 1879, his mother, Alice Marie, born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans, took him from their home in Galveston to visit her parents' native Paris. What a glorious time it must have been in young Henry's life, meeting relatives he didn't know he had and discovering that there was so much more to the world than Texas.

 

The next year, the boy was stricken with spinal meningitis, which left him completely blind. Without the ability to read music as he played, it seemed impossible that Henry would equal the musical accomplishments of his father, noted Galveston composer and music professor Heinrich August Lebermann. But Henry Lebermann, the grandfather of late Austin City Council veteran Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., in many ways surpassed the high standard set by his father.

 

As a music teacher and orchestra leader at the Texas School for the Blind from 1901 to 1938, Henry Lebermann had a positive influence on such students as Fred Lowery, "the King of the Whistlers" of the Big Band era; legendary sheriff Pat Garrett's daughter Elizabeth Garrett, who would go on to write the state song of New Mexico; and country songwriter Leon Payne, who wrote "Lost Highway" for Hank Williams, among other classics.

 

But perhaps Lebermann's most wide-reaching musical contribution was when he, assisted by his sighted wife, Virginia, transcribed scratchy field recordings for John A. Lomax, setting such standards as "Home on the Range," "Git Along Lil Dogies" and "The Old Chisholm Trail" into sheet music for the first time. Those songs and 25 others transcribed by the couple were collected for posterity in the landmark 1910 Lomax songbook "Cowboys Songs and Other Frontier Ballads."

 

The longtime organist for the Central Christian Church at 12th and Guadalupe streets, Lebermann was a well-known Austin figure who was often seen walking to and from his home on East 23rd Street and the Texas School for the Blind at 45th Street and North Lamar Boulevard, more than three miles away. He'd meet his co-worker R.M. Perrenot at 30th and Guadalupe streets each morning, and they'd walk together the rest of the way.

 

"Lowell Jr. was only about 2 when his grandfather Henry died and so had no clear personal memories of him," said Lois Pattie, who was Lowell H. Lebermann Jr.'s personal assistant from 1982 until about five years ago. "But he always spoke of him with pride, particularly in relation to his having played the organ at the Paramount Theatre during the Depression." Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., who passed away in July 2009, was instrumental in the efforts to restore the Paramount in the 1970s.

 

Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas "Little Campus" in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.

 

During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments.

 

Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology.

 

Disaster in Galveston

 

After graduation, Lebermann moved back to Galveston and then to nearby Alvin to become a farmer. Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941.

 

In 1900, a hurricane destroyed Galveston, killing Lebermann's father and brother Lee. According to a 1937 Austin Statesman article, Henry Lebermann and another blind farmer spent seven days with water up to their waists, with no food, abandoned by their terrified hired hand.

 

With a heart heavy with grief, Lebermann went back to the place in Austin that had been his home, his musical training ground, for 11 years. But this time, he would be an educator and leader. Kristi Sprinkle, a historian of the school, found records that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.

 

The school orchestra he led was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.

 

After a year's courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.

 

In 1929, the family moved to 3110 Walling Drive, in the same North Campus neighborhood where the Lomax family lived.

 

The subject of a 1994 master's thesis by Baylor student Kelly Stott entitled "The Emerging Woman," Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), who went with a one "n" spelling, was shown to be a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

 

"We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people," Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline "Blind Genius at State Capital." "Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home."

 

Encouraged to follow her artistic and philosophical pursuits, Virginia Leberman was new age before the term was invented.

 

"This social grande dame was quite bohemian to her core," Stott observed of Virginia's fascination with the Pueblo Indians and their customs and beliefs.

 

When he accepted UT's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, Lowell Lebermann Jr., who was blinded after a shooting accident at age 12, credited his grandmother with expanding his cultural curiosity. "I'd go by the studio behind her house, and she'd be beating a tom-tom, breathing deeply and chanting," he said. "How many grandmothers that you know do that sort of thing?"

 

In correspondence with Stott, Virginia Leberman's friend Lady Bird Johnson recalled the night of a full moon in New Mexico, when Virginia asked their driver to pull over so they could get out and take in the view. "It was a high moment filled with respect for our surroundings and an experience that was a typical part of Virginia Leberman's personality."

 

Although it was prevalent in that era of raging anti-German sentiments during World War I to alter a name to sound less German, it's not known if Virginia dropped the second "n" for her children's surname as well for that reason. But Henry Lebermann kept the original spelling, perhaps in homage to his beloved father, as well as his first teacher at the School for the Blind, Edmund Ludwig of Heidelberg. Though his father, prominent Commerce doctor Lowell Sr., used just one "n," Lowell Lebermann Jr. reverted to the original two "n" spelling after college and was "Lebermann" in 1971 when first elected to three consecutive terms on the City Council.

 

Successful students

 

In returning to the School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann may have hoped to have the same impact on his charges as Ludwig had on him. One such student was Fred Lowery, a native of Palestine in East Texas who was blinded at age 2 by scarlet fever. Lowery came to the school in 1917 at age 7 and took to the musical training with dreams of becoming a concert violinist.

 

In his autobiography, "Whistling In the Dark," Lowery recalls a "long, fatherly talk" he had with Lebermann about the steep odds facing a blind classical musician. "Here at the Blind School we can make music together because we use a system designed for the sightless," Lowery quotes Lebermann (blind musicians received their cues from the tapping of the leader's baton). "Sighted musicians are trained in a different system. They play by sight, reading the score, watching the conductor. Their system and our system won't mix."

 

Although the reality check discouraged him, Lowery credited Lebermann with sending him on the path of being a big-band whistler. Having noticed Lowery whistling around school, Lebermann asked him to stay after band rehearsal one day. "I think we could use your whistle in the orchestra," Lebermann said, astounding Lowery, who had never heard of such instrumentation. But Lebermann said he heard tones that suggested Lowery could mimic the sound of a piccolo, which the orchestra didn't have. Lebermann craved a piccolo sound on the John Philip Sousa marches that were crowd favorites.

 

Lowery went on to a great career as a whistler, making his name in the 1930s with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, whose arranger was a trombone player named Glenn Miller. Perhaps best known for whistling the theme to "Lassie" and his TV duets with Bing Crosby, Lowery was a virtuoso who perfected the double-note whistle and performed such complex material as "The William Tell Overture." (Hear samples of Lowery's whistling with this story at austin360.com/music.)

 

Entering the School for the Blind in 1923 was Leon Payne from the Northeast Texas town of Alba. Under the tutelage of Lebermann and other teachers, Payne (1917-1969) became proficient in guitar, keyboards, trombone and drums and joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys just three years after graduating.

 

As a solo artist, Payne had a No. 1 country hit in 1949 with "I Love You Because," written for his wife, Myrtie, a former classmate at the School for the Blind he reconnected with and married in 1948. Payne is best known today as a songwriter, penning big hits for Hank Williams ("They'll Never Take Her Love From Me"), Jim Reeves ("Blue Side of Lonesome"), Carl Smith ("You Are the One") and many more. Elvis Presley recorded "I Love You Because" at one of his first sessions with Sun Records.

 

As a teacher, your students' success becomes your own, in a way. But as a musician and scholar, Lebermann left his own legacy. Among his compositions were "Spring Song" and "The Blue Bonnet Song," but his invaluable preservation work with John A. Lomax deserves special citation in this 100th anniversary year of "Cowboy Songs."

 

Lomax first heard "Home on the Range" in 1908 from a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio who had been a camp cook on the Chisholm Trail for years. Lomax lugged an old Edison wax cylinder recording machine to record the barkeep. Lomax took the a capella recording to Lebermann, who, according to Lomax's notes, "used earphones and played the record over and over again until he felt he had captured the music as the Negro saloon keeper had rendered it." As Lebermann listened and played the piano, Virginia Leberman wrote the notes on sheet music.

 

"The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust, but the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives," Lomax wrote.

 

According to Stott's thesis, Virginia Leberman used to say that "a great mind is always humble and curious." It was an adage lived out by her and her husband and passed on to their children and grandchildren.

 

Henry Lebermann was blind, but not before he saw Paris. In darkness he created his own "City of Light" in a town he loved. As a conductor of music and life he led in the most meaningful way — by example.

 

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652

 

 

The Secret History of Austin Music

 

Our series goes back to John A. Lomax to tell the story of blind keyboardist Henry Lebermann, who helped save ‘Home On the Range' and other cowboy songs. We started this expedition of the unjustly obscure with the Gant family singers, who recorded more than 40 folk songs for Lomax and the Library of Congress in the 1930s. Then we uncovered the history of Domino Records, explored the 1950s western swing scene by highlighting Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys and waded closer to the present with the story of '70s rockers Too Smooth, who could sell out the Armadillo three nights in a row, yet never released an album.

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