This is my last blog about Lily May Ledford for a while. I can only say that her life has touched me in a profound way; in a way I never expected when I painted "Banjo Picking Girl" (close up of Lily May from my painting above) while I was living in Illinois last year.
She was certainly one of the finest fiddlers and banjo pickers from that era. The Coon Creek Girls weren't just a publicity gimmick created by John Lair. They could play and hold their own with any string band of that era. They were talented musicians that could play all the string instruments.
Lily May was genuine and authentic in every way. She loved people and channeled that love through her music, the one area she had some control over in her life.
Leaving Renfro Valley
The 1940s were the best years of Renfro Valley. Huge crowds descended on the valley where time stands still to see the Coon Creek Girls, Homer and Jethro and the talented acts John Lair had created.
Lily May married and had a child, Benjamin Joseph, "Benny Joe" on May 16, 1943. The union did not last. Lily kept working and bought a house in Mt Vernon. "I was finding life hard in many ways by now," said Lily May. While her brothers went overseas to fight in the War, Lily May struggled to keep the Coon Creek Girls going. "For several years the Coon Creek act was touch and go, being shattered again and again by pregnancies or illnesses. We were losing prestige and fading from the radio little by little."
Around 1946 Lily May "remarried a returning soldier who had sung bass in a gospel quartet." Glenn Pennington became the father of her next three children; Barbara, Jimmy and Bobby. Glenn eventually became the Master of Ceremonies (emcee) at Renfro Valley and managed several touring groups.
Lily May appeared by herself in the Alan Lomax ballad opera "The Martins and the Coys" in 1944. A once-in-a-lifetime cast featured Will Geer, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Lily May Ledford, Pete Seeger, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, and Hally Wood. In the early 1950s Lily May was again featured this time with the Coon Creek Girls in Lomax’s mountain ballad opera, "The Old Chisholm Trail" in New York. This time Cisco Houston and Wade Mainer and his Mountaineers were added to the star studded line-up.
One of the last big shows the Coon Creek Girls did was Sunshine Sue’s Old Dominion Barn Dance which went to Broadway in 1944-45. Needing a banjo player Sunshine Sue hired Lily May and the Girls headed to New York where they shared the bill with Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys and met Ralph Rinzler, who was there attending Columbia University.
By the mid-1950s TV was quickly replacing radio as American's form of entertainment. Sponsors began pulling out of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. "An unhappiness had set in," recalled Lily May, "and we yearned for the first great years of Renfro, plenty of shows, hundreds of thousands of paying guests, the horse races, ball games and mule races (which I rode one for fun)."
After 20 years (1937-57) the Coon Creek Girls called it quits. Lily May's marriage also ended and she devoted much of her time raising her children after moving to Lexington, Kentucky. It's not surprising that they all became involved with music.
Her 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. Bob Pennington, played drums and keyboards in the Renfro Valley Band. Her grandaughter Cari Norris now plays Lily's banjo and performs Lily's songs. Will the circle be unbroken...
Her Second Career
With the resurgence of the folk music scene in the late 1960s and '70s, Lily May started her second career. Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, John Ullman, Alice Gerrard, Ellesa High, Loyal Jones, and others played an important part in bringing her talent back to new audiences at folk festivals across the country.
Lily May's solo performances delighted audiences with her charismic stage presence, singing, excellent fiddle and banjo work. After several years of illness she passed away in 1985.
Now she has taken the songs and stories from the hills of Kentucky 'round the world. She truly is- a banjo pickin' girl.
Thanks Lily May!