The Coon Creek Girls by John Lilly

On the evening of June 8,1939 limousines began to deliver the cream of Washington D.C. society to the East Room of the White House. President and First Lady, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England and had arranged a command performance in their honor. Chandeliers sparkled, jewelry glistened, and the royal guests sat in the front row with their hosts. Music for the evening was provided by the finest representatives of American culture, including opera tenor Lawrence Tibbett, classical musician Marion Anderson, the large and popular Kate Smith, and Alan Lomax singing Western songs. For many, the highlight of the evening was a performance by four energetic young women from the Ohio Valley called the Coon Creek Girls, who would play traditional stringband music and accompany Bascom Lunsford’s square dance group from North Carolina.

As their performance time gradually approached, the Coon Creek Girls readied themselves in a warm-up area. They had beautiful new dresses to wear; Lily May in white, Rosie in pink, lavender for Violet, and Daisy dressed in gold and white, all trimmed in lace and ribbons. After an impromptu jam session with fiddling Vice-President Jack Nance Garner, several miles-of nervous pacing, and just the right amount of rehearsal, it was time for the Coon Creek Girls to go on. Rosie tucked a $20 bill in her garter belt for safe keeping, and they bounded onto the stage with all the fire and enthusiasm of an old-time Kentucky barndance. “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?” was their first number that night, featuring Lily May Ledford’s outstanding five-string banjo, sister Rosie on guitar, Violet Koehler on mandolin, and Daisy Lange on bass, with all four sharing the comical verses. They knew this piece was a favorite of Mr. Roosevelt and had performed it countless times back home in Kentucky and Ohio. Another FDR favorite, “Get Along Miss Cindy” was planned as well as an English ballad, “The Soldier and the Lady,” in honor of the royal couple. Yet there was a nervousness for them in this strange situation; singing about ham and biscuits to the caviar crowd, with the leaders of the Western World sitting one broken string’s length away.

 

Lily May stole a glance out of the corner of her eye. The Roosevelts were smiling. Rosie’s $20 bill had slipped from her garter belt and down the front of her hose where it stuck. The Queen was smiling, but the King looked dour and dead-pan. They played and sang their hearts out. Then, one at a time, their hearts were put at ease as they glanced to the floor and saw George VI quietly tapping his royal foot in time to the music. They knew they had him! The tremendous success of the Coon Creek Girls in their 1939 White House appearance was a testimony to their stature as professional entertainers, and renewed evidence of the universal appeal of their traditional mountain music repertoire. In fact, the story of the Coon Creek Girls is a study in the commercial application of old-time music and how, at least in their case, large audiences from diverse backgrounds roundly embraced the music and songs from way back up in the hills when presented with enthusiasm, sincerity, professionalism, and. a healthy sense of humor.

It is also the story of several pioneering young women and the unusual, visionary gentleman who brought them together and kept them busy: John Lair.

Born in 1894 in Rockcastle County, Kentucky, John Lair was deeply affected by the barn raisings, tent meetings, singing bees, play-parties, circuit riders, pie suppers, and square dances which made up the unique way of life enjoyed by people in that remote and picturesque part of Kentucky. As the twentieth century came to the hills, Lair was keenly aware of the changes around him and noted the apparent passing of important traditions with no small regret. Nonetheless, he pursued his education, joined the Army, and began to see the world outside of his native valley.

A series of career changes landed Lair in Chicago where he was hired as Music Librarian for WLS radio. From this position he began to exert influence on the programming content of the shows which, in the early 1930s, consisted of many hours a day of live music. He soon became Talent Manager and began recruiting performers from his native Kentucky to come to Chicago, eventually assembling an air staff including Karl and Harty, Bradley Kincaid, Slim Miller, Red Foley, and many others. Chicago’s gain, however, was Kentucky’s loss. On a holiday visit back home to the hills in 1936, John Lair heard the hills fall silent; the traditional culture he had loved so well was all but gone, owing to the passage of time and the luring away of the remaining talent by big city radio stations.

He realized his hand in this process and began devising a plan to reverse it. He would build a community in “the valley where time stands still,” preserving mountain culture for future generations. It would include authentic buildings, native people, and, as one might guess, a radio show featuring traditional music. He wrote a song at this time called “Take Me Back to Renfro Valley” which became his theme as he returned to Chicago, a man with a mission.

Two counties away and further up into the hills than John Lair’s still-imaginary Renfro Valley was the Powell County home of the Ledford family. Real country people who sharecropped corn and sorghum cane on the steep hillsides and sparse bottomland near Red River, they caught ground hogs, squirrels, rabbits, and fish, and gathered ginseng and yellow root to scrape together sustenance for a family of eleven children and two hard-working parents. They lived in two rooms plus a lean-to kitchen. Flour sacks were used for underwear. Skunk, possum, and occasional wildcat hides were traded for shoes. Medicines were made from wild roots and herbs. The Ledfords were living the life that John Lair dreamed about.

An integral part of that life was the homemade music which they shared when there was enough time. Papa Daw White Ledford was a multi-talented and versatile individual who played fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Mother Stella May Ledford worked and rocked her babies to sleep singing old ballads and religious songs. Several of these babies grew up profoundly influenced by this music. Lily May Ledford, born 1917, was the most musically ambitious child and eventually mastered fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass, as well as being blessed with a strong, deep singing voice. Her younger brother, Coyen, became an accomplished fiddler, and older sister, Rosie, took naturally to the guitar and sang many of the old songs. They learned fiddle tunes from their father like “Old Joe Clark,” “Sourwood Mountain,” “Cripple Creek,” and “John Hardy,” and songs from their mother such as “Pretty Polly,” “The Soldier and the Lady,” and “The Thorny Desert.” Through neighbors they also became exposed to recordings and radio performances by the Carter Family, Riley Puckett, the Skillet Lickers, the Delmore Brothers, and Jimmie Rodgers, and set about learning songs and tunes from them as well.

Calling themselves the “Red River Ramblers,” the three Ledford children, together with neighbor boy Morgan Skidmore, began to perform locally, and were called on more and more to play for events outside their valley, eventually winning contests and receiving offers from as far away as Rochester, Indiana. It was there, in 1935, that they won a contest which put them in touch with John Lair and WLS in Chicago. Unfortunately for the rest of the Red River Ramblers, Mr. Lair was only interested in Lily May. In 1936, she went to Chicago as a staff musician for WLS, while the rest of the band stayed back home in Kentucky.

Lily May Ledford was a big hit in Chicago. A tall nineteen-year old with a heavy accent, she impressed the audience and staff with her authenticity and natural flair for showmanship. All this while, she was under the careful guidance of Mr. Lair, who selected the banjo as her main instrument (Lily May preferred the fiddle), dressed her in calico, and urged her to keep it country. Lily May fit in well and learned volumes from Red Foley, Patsy Montana, the Girls of the Golden West (Dolly and Millie Good from Cincinnati), Lula Belle and Scotty Wiseman, and the other seasoned professionals on WLS.

At the same time, she was instructed by John Lair not to sign any papers there, because he had other plans for her. He told her about his intention to build a barndance and historical community in Kentucky, and about his plan to have an all-female stringband thereof which Lily May would be an essential part. Lily May had signed a five year management contract with Lair and was happy to go along with whatever he suggested. She was also happy when, in 1937, her older sister, Rosie, came to join her in Chicago, easing some of her homesickness, and reviving some of the musical material which they had played back home. Later that year, Lair consolidated his recruits and led an exodus away from W LS in Chicago, relocating his entire congregation in Cincinnati, where he would begin broadcasting the Renfro Valley Barn Dance program while awaiting completion of the final facility 150 miles south in Kentucky. Arriving in Ohio, Lily May and Rosie were introduced to the rest of their “all-girl” stringband; Esther Koehler and Evelyn Lange.

Evelyn was from North Star, Ohio, 100 miles north of Cincinnati and the home of Annie Oakley. She was inspired by a musical uncle when she was six years old, and eventually taught herself to play fiddle by following her mother’s harmonica playing. The first tunes she remembers learning this way were “Redwing” and “The Prisoner’s Song.” Also a gifted mandolin and guitar player, she won a talent contest in Union City, Indiana, and, like Lily May, was introduced to John Lair and WLS. As a contest winner, she performed only once on WLS, but returned to Ohio with John Lairs assurance that she, too, would be part of Renfro Valley and the “all girl” stringband. Esther Koehler was from Wisconsin, played mandolin, bass, and guitar, and, like the others, reportedly became acquainted with John Lair through winning a talent contest.

Lily May, Rosie, Evelyn, and Esther immediately set about the work of becoming a band. Evelyn became “Daisy” and Esther was re-named “Violet.” Pooling their prodigious musical resources, they decided on primary instrumentation consisting of Lily May on banjo and fiddle, Rosie on guitar, Violet (Esther) on mandolin, and, although she was already accomplished on fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, Daisy (Evelyn) agreed to learn the bass in the two weeks they had until their first broadcast. All the women sang in varying degrees, and they began working up material, drawing mostly from the rich traditional repertoire which Lily May and Rosie brought with them from their childhood.

Still in their teens and early twenties, these talented and ambitious young women worked tirelessly, and apparently with great enjoyment, to create a sound that was true to the mountain heritage they represented, yet lively, clean, and professional in a way which would appeal to urban and rural audiences alike. John Lair had chosen them well, and they delivered to him an act which surely exceeded his highest expectations. Having already opted for “flower names,” the girls decided on a theme song of “You’re a Flower That Is Blooming in the Wildwood;” and wished to name the group the “Wildwood Flowers.” John Lair thought the name “Coon Creek Girls ‘sounded more country, however, so the Coon Creek Girls is what they became.

The Renfro Valley Barn Dance began over WLW in Cincinnati on October 9,1937 featuring mostly expatriot performers from WLS in Chicago: Red Foley, Slim Miller, the Girls of the Golden West, and Lily May Ledford, now with the Coon Creek Girls. Eventually moving to WCKY and then to an auditorium in Dayton, Ohio, Lair attempted to keep his cast fed and working while he struggled to complete construction on the Renfro Valley facility in Kentucky. The Coon Creek Girls, together with other staff musicians, would travel out and perform to large and enthusiastic live audiences at theaters and schoolhouses throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, while always making it back in time for their radio commitments. Lily May, in her autobiography, Coon Creek Girl, (8 1980, 1991 Berea College Appalachian Center) remembered these days with great relish:

“We were writing songs at this point. We did vocal duets, trios, and even quartets, with me singing bass. We did fiddle duets, mandolin duets with Violet and Daisy. Violet would do songs and poems and old ballads-I played banjo, Rosie would sing tenor and do an occasional Jimmie Rodgers solo-yodeling her best. I had the best rollicking guitar backup behind my banjo breakdowns I’ve ever had. What a good time we had on stage, playing mostly fast pieces, jumping up and down, sometimes ruining some of our songs by laughing at each other. Sis, when carried away by a fast fiddle tune, would let out a yell so high pitched that it sounded like a whistle. Sometimes, when playing at an outdoor event, fair or picnic, we would go barefooted. We were so happy back then. Daisy and Sis, being good fighters, would make short work of anybody in the more polished groups who would tease or torment us. We all made short work of the “wolves” as they were called, who tried to follow us home or get us in their cars.”

In March of 1938, Lair took the Coon Creek Girls to Chicago to record for the Vocalion label. Produced by the legendary Art Satherly, these sides show the band as an extremely versatile and entertaining unit, trading vocals and switching instrumentation with almost every number. They recorded traditional songs including “Little Birdie” and “Pretty Polly,” a pair of John Lair originals, and some novelty material backing up Renfro Valley comedienne, Aunt Idy. For whatever reason, these fine recordings never sold very well, but today they provide us with proof positive of one of traditional country music’s finest performing groups during the height of their career.

Back in Cincinnati, the ties binding John Lams empire together were beginning to fray. Performers were becoming disgruntled with low pay and the persistent delays in the long-awaited move to Kentucky. Some performers began to take offers from other radio stations and even the Coon Creek Girls tested the waters in Nashville by calling WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. They were startled when the Opry offered them only $12 a week, compared to the $40 a week they were struggling with already from Lair. They decided to stick with the program.

Spirits were lifted in late 1938 when the offer to perform at the White House was extended, and that opportunity in June 1939 was among the Coon Creek Girls’ finest hours. By November of that same year, however, just when Lair’s facility in Kentucky was finally completed after two hectic and history-making years together, the original Coon Creek Girls split up.

Evelyn and Violet went with the Callahan Brothers, Howdy Forester, and Georgia Slim to Tulsa, Oklahoma and then to Dallas, Texas. According to Evelyn, they were ready for a taste of “big city life.” Lily May and Rosie, meanwhile, added another Ledford sister to their act, Minnie (stage name “Black-eyed Susie” or “Susie” for short) and appeared as the Coon Creek Girls when John Lair at long last began broadcasting from his new Kentucky home. His dream had come true, much to the appreciation of audience members who filled the auditorium and thousands of radio listeners. Lair functioned on stage as emcee and lovingly guided the program, song by song, week by week, as it developed into one of the great institutions in American radio.

The Coon Creek Girls, usually Lily May, Rosie, and Susie Ledford, but occasionally including other women performers from the area, were, as Lair had promised, an essential part of Renfro Valley. They performed their own traditional material, backed up other singers and musicians, and worked out beautiful and intricate vocal trios for the Sunday morning gospel shows. In 1957, Rosie and Lily May, officially left the group, calling a halt to the Coon Creek Girls as a radio performing unit.

Evelyn and Violet had returned to the Cincinnati area in 1941 and played together on the Boone County Jamboree. Violet, who had married Lily May’s younger brother, Custer, settled in Berea, Kentucky, performed a few times at Renfro Valley, but devoted her time to raising a family and writing original songs, described as having a German folk flavor reflecting her Wisconsin upbringing. She passed away in 1974.

Evelyn married a man named Perry from Indiana, and largely retired from music at her husband’s request. With the exception of one or two reunion performances, she remained inactive musically until his death in the mid-1980s. Since that time she has become increasingly involved with music and performing, usually appearing as a fiddler at festivals and special events. Still making her home in Frankfurt, Indiana, Evelyn Perry is the last surviving member of the original band, and occasionally shares the stage with a contemporary all-female bluegrass band from Kentucky called the New Coon Creek Girls.

Rosie Ledford married Red Foley’s brother, Cotten, a local historian. She remained active in Renfro Valley and lived with her family in nearby Berea until her death in 1976. Minnie (Susie) Ledford developed an interest in the printed word, worked as a writer for the Renfro Valley newspaper, and wrote poetry. She later moved to Florida and passed away in 1987.

Lily May Ledford raised her family in Mt. Vernon, Berea, and then Lexington, Kentucky, eventually becoming quite active in the developing folk music scene of the 1960s and ’70s. With the help of Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, John Ullman, Alice Gerrard, Ellesa High, Loyal Jones, and others, Lily May became a popular figure at folk festivals from New York to California, delighting audiences with her arresting stage presence, beautiful singing, fine fiddle, banjo, and guitar work, and her priceless repertoire of songs and stories from the hills of Kentucky to the East Room of the White House. She passed away in 1985. (Lily May’s son, J.P. Pennington, was a founding member of the highly successful country-pop group, Exile. His original songs have been recorded by such popular acts as Alabama, and he is currently developing a solo recording career in Nashville. Another son, Bob Pennington, played drums and keyboards in the Renfro Valley Band up until last year.)

John Lair spent the rest of his years in the home he had built for himself and the music he loved, Renfro Valley. He remained at the helm and surprisingly active up until his death at the age of 91 in 1985. The Renfro Valley Barn Dance is still thriving, just off I-75 at exit 62, filling their newly rebuilt entertainment complex with a variety of events year round. (For information call 1-800-765-7464.)

The musical legacy of the Coon Creek Girls is being enjoyed by a growing number of musicians and listeners every year, as their impact continues to be felt in ever widening circles. At a time when traditional music was being brushed aside by many in favor of bluegrass, swing, and smooth country crooning, these women stepped up to the mike with a fresh, energetic approach to tunes, songs, and instrumental styles that were as old as the hills. Yet, in their hands, this material was fun, exciting, and of keen interest to listeners ranging from the wilds of Eastern Kentucky to the King and Queen of England. The fact that they were all women in a musical field predominated by men makes them even more unique and significant as future generations of successful female entertainers follow their lead. Suzanne Edmundson, Carol Elizabeth Jones, and Cathy Fink are only a few of the many remarkable women old-time musicians and singers who today owe a debt to the tremendous work of the Coon Creek Girls.

Of special note is Lily May Ledford’s grand-daughter, Cari Norris of Louisville, Kentucky who owns and plays Lily May’s banjo, drawing from it a sound strikingly similar to that which was recorded by her grandmother in 1938.

Recordings of the Coon Creek Girls are available on a re-issue LP from Old Homestead entitled Early Radio Favorites (OHCS-142). (Old Homestead Records, Box 100, Brighton, MI 48116). Avid fans and collectors might locate out-of-print issues featuring Lily May and Rosie Ledford (County 712) or a solo recording by Lily May on Voyager recorded in 1979. Anthologies from Rounder Records (Banjo Pickin’ Girl) and a Time Life Country and Western Classics boxed set called The Women (TLCW02) contain rare and previously unissued selections from the Coon Creek Girls.

 

Special thanks to Loyal Jones, Evelyn Perry, Barbara Greenlief, Cari Norris, Dr. Charles Wolfe, Roger Bellow, Ronnie Pugh and the Country Music Foundation, Ivan M. Tribe, and Wayne W. Daniel.

John Lilly is an old-time musician and songwriter, currently living in Charleston, West Virginia. He is the editor of the book, Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music From Goldenseal, published by the University of Illinois Press, and since 1997 has served as editor of Goldenseal magazine, a quarterly folklife journal published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Contact john.f.lilly@wv.gov

THE OLD-TIME HERALD WINTER 1992/’93

Rural Roots of BluegrassFor more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s popular book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.

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