Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lily May Ledford- Growing Up in Pinch 'Em Tight Holler

Hi,

Continuing my series on Lily May Ledford: Banjo Pickin' Girl. Some of this information and more will be presented in a feature I've written for the Old-Time Herald. It would be easy to write a book.

Lily May Ledford was born on a tenant farm in a remote area of Kentucky called Red River Gorge on March 17, 1917. Later, after achieving fame on the radio, Lily May was said to have come from Pinch'Em Tight Holler. The original Ledford family came to America in 1738. They bought land together in Virginia near the Roanoke River in the 1750s and moved to Randolph County, NC by 1769.

Lily’s father Daw "White" Ledford was born on Nov 23, 1882. He was the fourth generation of Ledfords born in Kentucky and married Stella May Tackett about 1907. Lily's parents were tenant farmers and life wasn't easy. Of the 14 children four died shortly after birth and several others died when still young.

"The main source of our livelihood was farming the steep cleared hillsides and the spare bottom land along the banks of the Red River and the many creeks, "said Lily May, "our main crop was corn and sorgum cane."

"We raised many vegetables in the many smaller patches ground closer to the house. We supplimented this with wild game, fresh berries, grapes, nuts and many kinds of wild greens. We raised hogs for meat and kept a milk cow or two."

"Our underclothing was made of flour sacks and shoes were bought only for winter and paid for with furs Papa trapped and sold."

This was related to me by Cari Norris Lily May's granddaughter, "Another great story she told was about her and her brother, Coyen: When they were little, their parents sent them to plant watermelons by the river in the spring and gave them a huge can of watermelon seeds. They planted about half the seeds, then decided they would dig a big hole, and dump the rest of the seeds in. They spend the rest of the afternoon fishing by the river and caught several fish, which really pleased their parents. But when a huge mass of watermelon vines grew in one spot a bit later, their parents figured out what they had done and I think they got spankings. Lily May enjoyed hunting and fishing in Red River."

According to Lily May, "Sometimes neighbors would visit at night with a banjo and Papa would take down his fiddle and they would play far into the night. Us little boys and girls would sit on the floor spell bound."

White Ledford also played the banjo, guitar and pump organ and Lily May learned to play both the fiddle and the banjo. One of the songs she learned from her father was John Henry when she was around 7 or 8 years old. Now Cari Norris plays the song on Lily May's banjo. John Garst, one of the leading researchers on the John Henry Ballad, was excited to see the lyrics. This was one of Lily May's favorites:

John Henry
(Lily May Ledford version, learned from her father, Daw White Ledford circa 1924)

When John Henry was a little bitty boy, sittin’ on his daddy’s knee;
He said the Big Ben tunnel on the C & O road, is gonna be the death of me; Lord, Lord, is gonna be the death of me.

When John Henry was just seven years old, holdin’ to his Mama’s hand; He said, “If I live to be 21, I’m gonna make a steel drivin’ man; Lord, Lord,...

Well John Henry made a steel drivin’ man, belonged to the steel drivin’ crew; And every time his hammer came down, you could see the steel walkin’ through, Lord, Lord...

John Henry had a pretty little woman, her name was Polly Ann; John Henry got sick and he could not work, Polly drove the steel like a man; Lord Lord...

Well they put John Henry on the right hand side, they put the steam drill on the left; He said before I let that old steam drill beat me down, I’ll hammer my fool self to death, Lord, Lord...

John Henry went up the boss and said, oh boss, how can it be; You know the rock is so hard and the steel is so tough, I feel my muscles givin’ way; Lord Lord...

Then John Henry went up on the mountain side, he looked to the heavens above; He said take this hammer and wrap it in gold, and give it to the woman I love; Lord, Lord...

So they took his hammer and they wrapped it in gold, they gave it to Polly Ann; And the last words John Henry ever said to her were, Polly , do the best you can; Lord Lord, ....

If I die a railroad man, bury me under the tie; So I can hear old number 4, as she goes rollin by;
Lord Lord....

But if if die a steel drivin’ man, bury me under the sand; With a pick and shovel at my head and feet and a nine pound hammer in my hand; Lord Lord...

'Til next time,

Richard

3 comments:

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Judge said...

Interesting "John Henry" lyrics, Lily May was my aunt and Daw White Ledford, my grandfather. Though with my mom and dad, many times (With Uncle Coyne, Aunt Rosie and others at Aunt Lilly's home in Lexington, KY), it was the mountain music, not so much, the lyrics, that I remember. Fiddle, guitar, and banjo.

Judge said...
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