Part One Of Two Parts:
Lily Mae Ledford Of Powell County
Led All-Girl String Band
The Coon Creek Girls Were Featured Regularly For 18 Years
On The "Renfro Valley Barn Dance" Radio Program
Editor's Note: In the April 2005 issue, page 29, of The Kentucky Explorer was a photo of the Coon Creek Girls submitted by James Madden of Hazard, Kentucky. Since the photo was published The Explorer has received numerous inquiries regarding the Coon Creek Girls who were from the Powell County area. Following is an article written by John Lilly about these famous ladies who performed in 1939 at the White House for FDR and were featured at Renfro Valley for many years. Mr. 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 he has served as editor of Goldenseal magazine, a quarterly folklife journal published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
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 string band 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 barn dance. 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.
The Coon Creek Girls. L-R: Susie Ledford, Lily May Ledford, and Rosie Ledford Foley. These sisters were the famous Coon Creek Girls from the Powell County area who performed in 1939 at the White House for FDR. For many years they were featured at Renfro Valley. They disbanded in 1957. (Photo courtesy of James Madden, P. O. Box 413, Hazard, KY 41702.)
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 deadpan. 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 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 20th 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 as 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 11 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 in 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 19-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 barn dance and historical community in Kentucky and about his plan to have an all-female string band, of 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 WLS 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 130 miles south in Kentucky. Arriving in Ohio, Lily May and Rosie were introduced to the rest of their "all-girl" string band, 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 Lair's 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 renamed "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. 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 20s, 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, 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 ex-patriot 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, 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, 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 and 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."
This article will continue in the September 2005 issue.