Friday, October 24, 2008

Coon Creek Girls play at the White House


I'm going to do several other features of Lily May Ledford: Banjo Pickin' Girl. This one details the Coon Creek Girls performance at the White House for President and Mrs. Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England on June 8, 1938.

You can hear Lily May give an account of the event on "Gems: Lily May Ledford" a CD produced by her granddaughter Cari Norris on JuneApple. If you want to get a copy you can get one here: This striking collection of songs, instrumentals and stories showcases the natural talent and honest humor of Lily May.

A Big Year- 1938

1938 was a big year for the Coon Creek Girls: Lily May (photo on left) and Rosie Ledford with Ester Koehler (guitar, vocals and mandolin) a contest winner from Ohio and Evelyn Lange (fiddle and bass) another contest winner from Wisconsin. They had just had their first radio performance in Oct. 1937 and were becoming stars on WLW radio in Cincinnati on The Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Kentucky native John Lair had created the Renfro Valley show after leaving WLS in Chicago and bringing Lily May and other stars like Red Foley with him.

John Lair met banjoist Bascom Lamar Lunford at a folk festival in Asheville, NC. When Lunsford attended the National Folk Festival in Chicago in 1937 he visted with Lair in Chicago. Lair was appointed to the Board of the National Folk Festival by director Gertrude Knott as "a student of the origins of folk music." Lair was working at WLW in Cincinnati having started the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Lair asked Lunsford to find talent for WLW and teach square dancing to various clubs in the Ohio valley. Lunsford also performed on WLW’s Saturday night concerts.

Knott asked Lair and Lunsford to organize the Ohio Valley Folk festival to find talent for the next National Folk Festival to be held in Washington DC later that year. Lair included the Coon Creek Girls and Red Foley to the Festival roster. On March 27, 1938 Ohio Valley Folk festival sponsored by WCKY was held in the Cincinnati Music Hall. The Library of Congress, to record the event, dispatched Alan Lomax. The Coon Creek Girls highlighted the event and secured a spot along with Robert Day on the National Folk Festival roster for 1938 plus important connections with Lunsford and Lomax that would help them later in the year get an invitation to perform at the White House.

After the Festival recording engineerAlan Lomax complained about all the hillbilly music. Back then hillbilly music was commercial country music and not folk music that a purist would follow. Director of the National Festival Gertrude Knott seemed to approve of the Coon Creek Girls and Lair promoted them as Kentucky girls from remote mountain areas that sang old ballads. Years later Alan Lomax seemed later to change his mind and invited Lily May to star in his theater production.

According to a Washington Post newspaper report with a photo: "These Kentucky mountain girls make up one of the winning teams from the Ohio Valley Festival held in Cincinnati in preparation for the National Festival. Each plays all four instruments in the picture and sings ballads known in their families for generations."

In May the National Folk Festival directed by Gertrude Knott was held for the first time in Washington DC at Constitution Hall. The Coon Creek Girls and Robert Day accompanied by John Lair made the trip financed by a mere $92 from the Ohio Valley Festival.

Also in May 1938 John Lair went with the girls and A’nt Idy Harper to record their first session with Vocalion Records under Uncle Art Satherley. They recorded nine songs including "Little Birdie," "Pretty Polly" and two of Lair’s songs. At this session they also recorded the song that Lily May would become identified with: "Banjo Pickin’ Girl." Lily May was already being called "Banjo Pickin' Girl" on her WLW shows.

The White House

Late in 1938 an invitation came for the Coon Creek Girls to perform at a White House concert for President and Mrs. Roosevelt in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth who were to visit in June 1939. Perhaps the invitation was made through Lunsford, who knew the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from the 1933 White Top Festival. Lily May thought it came from the Coon Creek Girls performance in Washington DC at the National Festival although I haven't found any record of Eleanor Roosevelt attending but she may have or at least heard a radio broadcast. John Lair later credited Alan Lomax although Lair couldn't remember his name, with the invitation.

Regardless of who secured the invitation, the first royal visit to the States by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth while visiting the Roosevelt’s would feature a performance by Lily May and her Coon Creek Girls.

Mrs. Roosevelt decided the concert would show a cross section of American music. Bascom Lamar Lunsford and his square dancing group was invited along with Marion Anderson the concert contralto, opera baritone Lawrence Tibbet, pop singer Kate Smith, folklorist Alan Lomax, and The Coon Creek Girls. Local churches formed a black gospel choir to sing spirituals.

John Lair was not invited but he and his wife decided to accompany The Coon Creek Girls to Washington to attend this prestigious event. Arriving several days before the June 8 performance Lily May recalled "The day of the concert we went over for an early rehearsal. We went through the material we were going to do that night. A distinguished looking gentleman came to the door and listened for a while. Then he asked how long I’d been playing and I said, "I’ve been playing a long time." He said he played a little and asked if he could play with us. Then he said "I’ll get my fiddle."

"After getting his fiddle he introduced himself as Cactus Jack so that’s what I called him. We went to another room. He would play a tune then I’d play one. Then we’d both play one together. This went on for quite some time. We barely made it out in time for the show." Later John Lair told Lily May that Cactus Jack was in fact Vice President John Nance Garner, a pretty fair country fiddler!

Each performer was scheduled to do three songs plus the Coon Creek Girls would play fiddle tunes for Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s square dance group. So 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. Security was tight as President and First Lady, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. John Lair, who wasn’t invited followed the Girls limousine with his wife in their car. The only way he could get in was to carry the bass fiddle for the Girls.

"Well on Renfro Valley he was boss," explained Lily May. "So here we were the stars with him behind us toting the big bass fiddle. Security stopped him and searched the pockets of the case, shook the bass fiddle and looked in the fiddle. They finally decided to let Mr. Lair in but they turned his wife away." Viginia Lair, who had bought a new dress for the occasion, reportedly left in tears.

"We were ushered up there while Alan Lomax was playing his final song, Old Chisolm Trail," said Lily May. "We ran out there an lit right in to ‘How Many Biscuits Can You Eat,’ that was the song they told us Mrs. Roosevelt wanted. I glanced out of the corner of my eye and right down there they were…the King and Queen in the front row. Why they were so close you could have spit on ‘em."

Lily May continued, "The king had rather a long-faced, dour, deadpan look, and he worried me a little. Then as I glanced down, I caught him patting his foot, ever so little, and I knew we had him."

The Coon Creek Girls played another FDR favorite, "Get Along Miss Cindy" as well as an English ballad, The Soldier and the Lady, in honor of the royal couple. They also played "Buffalo Gals" for Lunsford’s square dance group from North Carolina.

Next: Lily May Ledford and Orson Wells. Life is stranger than fiction!


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