7. The Coon Creek Girls

DISCOGRAPHY SOURCES PLAYLISTS

Lily May Ledford, six feet tall, wearing a black and white floral robe, leans back in her armchair and smokes a cigarette. It’s a January day in 1977, in Lexington, Kentucky.

“You know, many times I have sat here,” she says. A sweep of her cigarette hand takes in the living room, its TV, its gold-colored velvet couches and matching drapes. “And the Coon Creek Girls and everything that happened—none of it ever was. It was just a dream or not me at all.”

“Then someone like you comes to see me,” she nods to her interviewer, Ellesa Clay High, and to High’s tape recorder, which purrs on the coffee table. “And hear me play, and I know that it did happen, is still happening, and my music does matter.”

“Just sometimes it seems so long ago and I guess a lot of it was.”

Sowing on the Mountain

There are four of them here this morning in Chicago, eight AM on the second-to-last day of May, 1938. The Coon Creek Girls, from Pinch-Em Tight Holler in the Red River Gorge of eastern Kentucky (a fib—only two are; the others are Yankees).

Lily May Ledford, a radio pro but still uneasy at the microphone, looks sharply around the studio. She sings and plays banjo and fiddle. Rosie Ledford, jovial where her younger sister is reserved, sings and plays guitar. On mandolin, Esther Koehler, stage name “Violet,” the dreamiest and most shadowy of the quartet. And on bass fiddle, Evelyn “Daisy” Lange, a showbiz kid who elbowed her way into the group, playing an instrument that she’d never touched until half a year ago.

They are the first all-woman country string band in the United States, or at least they’re the first who recorded. None of them are more than twenty-two years old.

They set up around the microphone. John Lair, their manager, has chosen the selections. The record business is still getting back on its feet after being leveled by the Depression, and Vocalion wants variety in the titles. So Lair’s picked old-time love and murder ballads, hillbilly comedy numbers, uptempo pieces, songs soaked in religion but not quite gospel.

The first thing that the Coon Creek Girls cut is the latter. “Sowing on the Mountain” works over the Carter Family’s “Sow ‘Em on the Mountain,” from 1930. As he often did, A.P. Carter had knocked a song together from a few Appalachian folk pieces, nicking gospel lines as well. The refrain—sow ’em on the mountain, reap ’em in the valley, you’re going to reap just what you sow—is from the Bible (see Job 4:8 (“they that plow iniquity and sow wickedness reap the same”) or Galatians 6:7 (“for whatever a man soweth, so shall he reap”)). But because the song is such a stitchwork, the metaphor doesn’t hold together. You’re supposed to sow and reap the same field. Sowing in the mountains but reaping in the valley seems like you might be getting away with something.

The Coon Creek Girls make the Carters sound genteel. They take the song fast, rocketing through the changes (“their zeal is so irrepressible you’d swear they were gaining momentum with each successive verse,” Bill Frizkics-Warren wrote). Where Sara Carter has a steady phrasing, singing like a judge, the Ledfords are the wild angels of rebuke, giving a lash to the first syllables in their ranks of sinners: drunnk-ard, gamm-bler, liii-errr. Lily May takes to the field against the gossipers:

Ohh if you been a TATT LER, you better quit TATT LIN’
Better hold your TONGUE and keep it from a-RATT LIN’

The Gorge

Red River Gorge today, as seen in its 2020 hiking guide

Fifty miles southeast of Lexington is the Red River Gorge, a piece of the jagged border between the Appalachian Mountains and the bluegrass fields. “A country of overtowering edges,” Wendell Berry called the Gorge in 1971. House-high boulders, deep hollows, and everywhere water, which runs from the mountains in countless trickles and gushes, “all moving towards their union in the river,” Berry wrote. He likened the Red River to a great tree, “steadily incising its branches into the land.”

Centuries upon centuries ago, the Adena lived here; later, the Shawnee. Settlers, mostly from Virginia, came after the Revolutionary War and drove the Shawnee out. The story of the modern Gorge is one of successive extractions. Spindly coal deposits. Saltpeter and pine tar and iron ore. Most of all, lumber. In the half-century after the Civil War, men logged through the Gorge, at first dragging trunks of oak and poplar and birch to the river and sailing them down. Then the railroads came. In 1910, engineers for the Dana Lumber Company dynamited through solid limestone to make the Nada Tunnel (a photo of its opening is below).

These were the boom times: logging shantytowns built along tracks that snaked through the Gorge; the occasional drunken murder on a Saturday night; revival meetings by the riverside with snake-handling Pentecostals. By the Twenties, the land was logged out; the railroads left, taking most of the workers with them. Those who remained were families that had farmed by the Red River for generations, some holding deeds granted by Patrick Henry. And the people of the Upper Gorge, scattered through the hollows and hills, who scratched out a living by moonshining and tenant farming. “People just had to make do with what they could get,” as Lily May Ledford said.

The Soldier and the Lady

The Coon Creek Girls take five while engineers get the next platters ready, then fall back into position around the mike, making some furtive tunings. The next number is an ancient one, dating to the 17th Century: “One Morning in May,” also known as “The Nightingale’s Song” and “The Bold Grenadier.” Their version is called “The Soldier and the Lady.”

The story’s the same no matter what it’s titled. The singer sees a young woman walking with a soldier. The pair sit by the riverside, he woos her with his fiddle. Afterwards she asks him to marry her and he tells her he has to go. Sometimes he says he’s already married, sometimes he lies and says he’ll be back in the spring.

Over a waltz rhythm on Rosie’s guitar, the Ledfords sing in a knowing harmony, fastening on high notes to make “orchard” and “lady” and “affection” ache with tension, then sliding deep in their range to put a verse to rest. Their mother had hummed songs like this over her busy cradle, half-remembered remnants of the old country. She’d know one verse, a neighbor in the Gorge would know another, someone’s grandmother knew a third. Here in Chicago, the Ledfords commit the song to a record, making it a final thing.

The Uplanders

Photos of Red River Gorge, ca. 1970, by Ralph Meatyard

Daw White Ledford and Stella May Tackett lived in the Gorge and had fourteen children, several of which died in infancy or early childhood. They had Rosie in 1915, Lily May on St. Patrick’s Day, 1917. Their home in Chimney Top was a tiny three-room house that could barely hold all the Ledfords: four brothers slept in one cornshuck bed and fought each other all the night through.

“If it hadn’t been such a rich, rich country, it would have been impossible for us to have lived on what we raised,” Lily May recalled to Ellesa Clay High. “The woods was full of nuts and berries and all kinds of things to eat and beautiful things to look at.” She and her siblings picked huckleberries to sell to motorists on Highway 15, alongside moonshiners who sold bottles of white lightning from stands in which you couldn’t see the man cooped inside.

Their parents were ill-matched. Stella, pregnant nearly every year for two decades, was hard-tempered and pitiless. “She wasn’t a pampering woman,” Lily May said of her mother. “Nobody got petted but the baby.” As Lily May’s daughter Barbara Greenlief said of Stella, “she had very defined roles in her mind about [what] women should do and men should do. She didn’t view it as musical talent, which a lot of [her children] got. She viewed it as learning to be lazy from their father.”

Daw took what fortune gave him and played music every night (“you couldn’t get no work from him,” Lily May said of her father. “It was his books and the fiddle.”). He’d once made good money in the oil fields but now he was sharecropping for his brother, a savvier type who’d bought a few parcels of the Gorge. When the floods and bad crop years came, Daw’s family sank deep into poverty.

With all those tunes running so clear through my head all the time, I wasn’t worth a dime at home or at school. I just felt that was keeping me from what I wanted to do.

Lily May Ledford.

One day Lily May took a thin rubber string from an inner tube and tied each end to a green willow stick. She’d meant to make a bow, then found that the string, when plucked, sang a boinging low note. Soon she learned to work out a tune by moving her mouth along the string.

She took up banjo as well: her brothers had fashioned one from hickory wood, groundhog hide, and strings from the Montgomery Ward catalog. But the fiddle was how she spoke.

Out in the fields, she saw a boy swinging a fiddle around, whacking the tops of weeds with it. “Now to me, a fiddle was a sacred thing, like something alive,” she recalled. Lily May traded with him for it, giving him a box of crayons, a sweater, and a flashlight without batteries.

“I believe it was fate, because I never heard or saw that boy again.”

She Will Have Music

Lily May for Pinex cough syrup, in the 28 November 1936 WLS’ Stand By. The strip ran weekly beginning in October 1936 (other 1936 strips are above and below); by early 1937, “Lily May” was no longer a fiddler but more of a Lil’ Abner type.

Her fiddle was a mere shape (“it didn’t have nothing on it, no strings and keys or apron”). She whittled a tailpiece and pegs; she found “old scraps of banjo strings” and, using a hot wire, burned holes in the wood to hold them. She mortared wood-cracks with mud and put a rattlesnake rattle inside the fiddle, to give her tone a buzzing ring and to keep out moisture. For a bow, she used a green willow stick and hair from a white horse’s tail, rosined with pine tar.

“I tuned it to that old-fashioned A tuning and learned to play ‘Callahan’ that very day. It’s one that kept ringing in my ear that I hadn’t heard my daddy play in two or three years.”

The songs came from her father, who’d fiddle tunes like “Old Joe Clark” and “Sourwood Mountain” in his nightly performances (“those songs were all in my head,” she recalled). They came from an Edison phonograph the family owned for a time, playing sides from boxes of Riley Puckett, Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers 78s that Daw had bought during some moment of prosperity.

And the songs came from her mother, despite Stella’s hatred of the fiddle, which she considered the voice of drunkenness and sloth. “Her people were hard-shell Baptists and string music wasn’t allowed in the house—it was of the Devil and so on,” Lily May said. “So any ballads she learned she had to slip in and hide.”

By her mid-teens, Lily May was in a string band, the Red River Ramblers, a quartet formed by three Ledford kids—Lily May and her brother Coyen on fiddle, sister Rosie on guitar—and a neighbor boy, Morgan Skidmore, on whose family farm the Ledfords worked. By the early Thirties, the Ledfords had moved to the Red River, the Gorge’s greater-populated region, and closer to Stanton, the county seat, where string bands from Lexington came down to play. There were fiddling contests on those nights and the Ramblers started winning them.

Coyen was an accomplished fiddler but Lily May was the star, bowing “Pop Goes the Weasel” behind her back, behind her knees, atop her head. The Ramblers grew in demand for house parties and square dances along the river. Her mother saw nothing but doom in this. “They’ll marry someone down in Stanton that’s of their own standing,” Lily May recalled her saying about boys at the dances. “They’re prosperous people—you are poor girls—your reputations are all you’ve got.”

Lily May wanted nothing to do with school, nor with farming, nor with getting married. “I know she viewed Mom as lazy,” Barbara Greenlief said, speaking of her grandmother. “Mom was a real daydreamer…I think she viewed Mom as her most worthless child in terms of what she would ever become.”

Carrying her fiddle in a flour sack, Lily May would walk eight miles on Sundays to Natural Bridge, where tourist trains ran from Cincinnati. She sat on the platform and played all day, joining in with any other musician who showed up, passing the hat for pennies and chewing gum. “That’s all in the world I wanted.”

It always helps to have prosperous friends. Morgan Skidmore had family in Indiana who came to visit and loved the Red River Ramblers. With the Indiana Skidmores’ help, the Ramblers auditioned for radio in Fort Wayne and did sets between movies in a Rochester cinema.

Their big audition was for the 50,000-watt WLS in Chicago, the greatest “hillbilly music” station in the Midwest. The program director John Lair liked what he heard, but Coyen was too young to sign a contract and Lair didn’t think the other two were needed. He only signed Lily May, whom he transformed into the Mountain Gal, to be depicted in comic strip ads in WLS’ magazine Stand By as a tall, barefoot, feisty Appalachian girl in a tight dress.

While waiting for Lair’s contract, Lily May worked on the River Road in the Gorge—New Deal money was flowing in and the county was widening and flattening the roads for cars. At the end of August 1936, her friends put her on the train at Winchester. She wore her best outfit, a grey flannel suit that was stifling in the late summer heat and which she realized was well out of fashion upon boarding the train. No matter. “I had my fiddle in its case shaped like a coffin beside me,” she told High. “I was already on my way. I was nineteen years old.”

Banjo Pickin’ Girl

She never slowed down during a tune; if anything, she went to going faster.

Mike Seeger, recalling Lily May Ledford

The Coon Creek Girls move on to “Banjo Pickin’ Girl.” They’re keyed up. This isn’t some old hokum, it’s theirs, it’s what they tell their crowds every night. I’m goin’ round the world, baby mine, Lily May and Rosie sing while the guitar, banjo, and mandolin dance in tight circles around Evelyn Lange’s fluid bass (Lange gives the Girls a touch of swing). The band pushes through the song, they are moving, they’re not staying home. I’m goin’ to Arkansas, you stay here with maw and pawI’m goin’ across the ocean, if I don’t change my notion

Another goulash like “Sowing on the Mountain,” “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” took melodies and lyrics from “Baby Mine,” a late 19th Century parlor song, while its direct ancestor was Emry Arthur’s “Going Around the World” (1928). But where Arthur’s bringing his banjo girl along on his world tour, the Coon Creek Girls ditch the guy to become the headliners.

“We just had one verse of it. It was a man’s song,” Lily May said decades later. Her brother had heard the song while working in Pike County, but only came back with a slice of it, the opening title verse. “Well us girls sat down with Mr. Lair and we made up thirty or forty verses of that and had a lot of fun doing it, and finally we got right silly with it and quit, but we saved about seven or eight verses of it for our recording session.” (Needless to say, none of them got songwriting credit.)

At her WLS audition, she’d played the banjo along with guitar but she assumed she’d mostly fiddle on the air, as that was what she most loved to do, that’s what she was best at. But John Lair said there were so many fiddlers out there, even girl fiddlers. Now a girl who played the banjo—that was new, that could make your name. As with many things Lair would tell her over the next twenty years, she had doubts but accepted it. “I can see [the song being] a double-edged sword for her, since she was sort of forced to be a banjo picking girl,” said her friend Sue Massek, of the Reel World String Band.

Lily May once said of her banjo playing that her thumb wasn’t as flexible as it should have been. “I could never bend it, it stays stiff. And that way I make a bigger racket than I should sometimes.”

Mr. Lair

John Lair and WLS fan mail, ca. 1936

I think [Lily May] both loved and hated the man. She resented his control over her, his control over everybody. Just practically owned everything…She couldn’t even take…the sheet music that they’d done on the day’s show, she could not take that home.

Sue Massek

John Lair liked to say that women were the musical half of his family—his great-grandmother and grandmother were ballad singers, while his father and grandfather didn’t care for fiddle playing and dancing. Born in Kentucky in 1894, Lair served in the “entertainment forces” during World War One and taught high school for a time. When he was thirty, he married a former student of his.

At WLS, Lair built a “pipeline between the Upper South and the [WLS] National Barn Dance,” as Anthony Harkins wrote, and worked his musicians over to make them more rustic, more “mountain.” Lair even wrote his radio program copy in grotesque hillbilly dialect: “the genuwine article…no frills and no furbelows, jest plain folks frum the hills of Kintuck and Tennessee whur they bin livin purty much the same lives that their foreparents lived…most of the songs they know ar purty much the same ez they wuz when these same foreparents…wuz choppin Ameriky out of the Wilderness.”

Lair was always searching for a down-home country girl. First he turned a Chicago nightclub singer named Jean Muenich into Linda Parker, the Sunbonnet Girl. After Parker left WLS, and died of appendicitis not long afterward, Lair found Myrtle Cooper, who was a Linda Parker fan. He christened Cooper Lulu Belle, his new radio queen. Then Lair auditioned Lily May Ledford. At last: a musician who didn’t need a name change nor biographical fabrication. She really had been born in the Kentucky mountains, she really had made her own fiddle, she was “even more real than Lulu Belle.” He signed her to a five-year contract: not with WLS, but as her manager. Lair was about to go off on his own.

Stand By welcomes the new talent; 26 September 1936

Mr. Lair preached to me all the time about staying that way…Don’t start getting permanent waves. Don’t overdo the makeup. And don’t lose your mountain brogue. It will get you a million dollars. ‘Course, it didn’t get me a million dollars.

Lily May Ledford

Thanks to the stacks of letters WLS got, Lair knew his audience: Southerners who’d left their ancestral homes, heading to the cities of the Midwest to work the auto plants and factories. Sore with nostalgia, they longed for songs about mountain hollers and grandpa with his fiddle, Sunday morning biscuits and log cabins down the lane. For some, modern musical styles were calamities akin to the Depression. “Please don’t let Lulu Belle sing any more popular songs,” pleaded one letter writer to Stand By. “Anybody can sing jazz but there is only one Lulu Belle and if you spoil her, you’ll never find anyone to take her place.”

Lair would devote his life to fabricating a past for these people, a better past, a past cut to suit the present: he was a modernist.

In 1937, he left WLS, taking many of his radio stars with him. At first broadcasting the Renfro Valley Barn Dance on WLW in Cincinnati and Dayton, by the end of the decade Lair had moved operations to a newly-built complex close to where he grew up in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. Lair positioned Renfro Valley as the modest cousin of the Grand Ole Opry. “They were local. Opry was Hollywood,” the writer Jack Womack, who grew up in Kentucky in the Sixties, told me.

For Renfro Valley, Lair wanted an all-girl string band, centered on Lily May. He was exacting as to their look, telling them to buy gingham and calico cloth (at their expense) and for each to sew her own dress, which should come down halfway on the lower leg, with big sleeves and frilly skirts. High-top shoes, white cotton stockings, and ribbons and flowers for their hair. His girls would hail from a non-existent creek in a lost Kentucky, and would be photographed on farms and wading in brooks. Their names would all be flowers. They would be modest and unaffected, offering the conceit that they’d learned their songs at their grandfather’s hearth, as if their families didn’t own the radios on which their performances were heard.

Inventing Coon Creek

The original, classic Coon Creek Girls: Rosie Ledford, “Violet” Koehler, Lily May Ledford, “Daisy” Lange

Rosie Ledford: I just didn’t feel like I was quite as good as the other girls. I had a lot of convincing to do to get on that all-girl band. I’ll tell you one thing, though—I wasn’t quite as good but I believe I was really the loudest one of the bunch.

Lily May Ledford: You had more pep than all the rest of them put together on stage. [to interviewer] She was very cute on stage and the audience loved her better than any of us.

Rosie: Oh, well, you’re too kind.

Interview with Charles Faurot, 1966

Rosie Ledford was a rarity among siblings in that she freely acknowledged that her younger sister was more talented. Where Lily May, had life permitted it, would have devoted her waking hours to the fiddle (“the only time Mom was truly happy was when she was playing or when she was going to play,” Greenlief said), Rosie took things easier. She was “the one in the family who was most outspoken and funny, and she had a real funny flair to her personality.”

“Lily May had already gotten her job at WLS, even though I’m the older of the two, she got the job, and I kind of flunked,” Rosie recalled in 1966. She soon won a talent contest on her own. “I got in there with my yodel and won that, and that’s how I got that little job. About a year later, I joined Sis up at WLS and she kind of managed and helped me to get on the road shows…I believe Sis’ homesickness got me up there…That was before the Coon Creek Girl band was formed. And so when the girl band was formed, of course it included we two sisters along with Violet and Daisy.”

I was going to play no matter what, anything to be with the girls, to be on the radio. I didn’t care what I had to do, stand on my head or whatever.

Evelyn “Daisy” Lange, 1993

Lair already had auditioned Esther Koehler, a ballad singer from the Milwaukee area. All we know of Koehler is through the words of others—she was, to my knowledge, never interviewed in her life. Given the stage name “Violet,” she was reserved, the band’s Romantic, playing mandolin, singing mournful ballads and writing mournful poetry (when Linda Parker died, Koehler sent a poem to Stand By dedicated to her: “Silent Singer,” in which she hoped to meet Parker in heaven). “Strange girl, hard to understand her thinking,” her bandmate Evelyn Lange once said. “She was kind of an altogether different person than we were.” Koehler eventually married one of the Ledford brothers and vanished into the family.

Evelyn Lange, born in 1919, got her first fiddle at age seven; she learned her repertoire from the radio. “I would hear a song one week, get one line of it, because they were fast, two weeks later hear it again…I learned my hoedowns that way,” she said in 1993. Living in Ohio put her at the crossroads of musical styles. “I learned to play the fiddle in not bluegrass but just kind of a conglomeration of everything.”

She became a stage performer, a red-haired girl in a white sailor suit, fiddling all afternoon long to win a pound of coffee or a five-pound sack of flour. She played medicine shows and accompanied silent movies. When she was seventeen, she auditioned for Lair after winning an amateur show in Union City, Ohio. Lair said he couldn’t use her but added that “he was getting ready to start a barn dance in Cincinnati, he was going to bring Lily May down from Chicago and her sister Rosie and there was a girl in Wisconsin that he’d found that sang a lot of sweet songs and played mandolin and guitar.”

Lair didn’t contact her once he’d set up in Cincinnati. She took a bus, tracked him down, told him if he didn’t give her a job, she’d move on to Nashville. “He was in such a hurry to get rid of me he said, ‘well, meet [me] at my sister’s house,’ at a certain date. She lived in Covington, right across the river.” If Lair meant to put her off again, he failed again. Lange went to Covington on the specified date and “met the rest of the girls.”

The Ledfords, Koehler, and Lange, stage-dubbed “Daisy,” got along from the start. They soon could all communicate without hardly talking, and fell to rehearsing. But the group already had a master fiddler in Lily May (though Rosie Ledford later claimed “Daisy was a better fiddler than Sis was maybe”) and Lair envisioned the Ledfords as the lead singers. There wasn’t a place for Lange until Lair said they needed someone to play string bass.

“I had never touched a bass fiddle in my life but I said well, maybe I can learn to play the bass,” Lange recalled. “I wasn’t going to miss out on a good deal.” One of the Cumberland Ridge Runners taught her a few chords, and she plucked the bass strings until she blistered her fingers (she wore black kid gloves after that). “Two weeks after we all got together, we did our first show on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.”

Flowers Blooming in the Wildwood

In Chicago, the Coon Creek Girls are cutting “Flowers Blooming in the Wildwood.” Like “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” it reworks an Emry Arthur song of the late Twenties. It’s also their theme song. They often kick off radio performances with it, tweaking a verse so that all of their stage names appear in the lyric (“there’s a Lily that’s blooming in the wildwood…a Violet sweet with dew and a Daisy there too.”)

They had wanted to call themselves The Wildwood Flowers, but Lair said no, that a “country name would be better,” that anyone hearing ‘Coon Creek Girls’ on the radio would “know at once the type of music to expect,” Lily May said.

It’s been a frustrating session at times. “It was a frightening thing for us: it was our very first attempt at it,” Rosie recalled in 1966. “They had an awful time with us; all those instruments, you know, and some voices much louder than others.” Here, their voices jostle and jar together but there’s strength in their union.

“No Man’s Got a Chanct Agin’ Female Competition”

It was mostly the middle-aged and old people, farm people and the very, very poor that went for the Coon Creek Girls.Now the higher-class people were embarrassed by us, I guess.

Lily May Ledford

The Renfro Valley Barn Dance, at the Cincinnati Music Hall, 9 October 1937. John Lair’s warm voice rings out: Well, you’ve heard and you’ve seen the Ridge Runners, and Ramblin’ Red Foley. Now let’s have a big welcome for our newest act, making their grand debut on this very evening: the Coon Creek Girls, straight from Pinch-Em Tight Holler back home in Kentucky!

Four women run on stage in billowing gingham dresses, clutching their instruments. They break into “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?” Lily May recalled people in the seats looking startled at first, “they stared like they didn’t believe and craned their necks, but by the time we got done, they tore the house down with applause…we took on like a house on fire the first week.”

It’s a shame that the Coon Creek Girls are mostly documented by their handful of studio recordings, as their shows were of a different caliber: full of improvised bits and madcap solos, the mood on stage raucous, the band’s pace relentless, the Girls determined to bowl their audiences over. “Everybody applauded because they’d never seen an all-girl hillbilly band,” Lange said, adding that the Girls would run out on stage “like we were going to a fire.” Rosie “was so expressive on stage,” her niece Barbara Greenlief recalled. “Mom had the audience in terms of being charismatic [but] Rosie would dance, she would just fling herself, just anything on stage she felt like doing she would do. She was kind of a Jonathan Winters of traditional music. There needs to be a person like that in a band, who’s kind of the comedian, more social with an audience.”

They are always passing instruments from one to another. Mr. Lair speaks of two solos, two duets, three trios and two quartets among the four, but that is a fine point.

The New York Times, “Coon Creek Girls from the Kentucky Hills,” 4 June 1939

The Coon Creek Girls remade themselves with each number; they were eight groups nestled within one quartet. Lange, who could play reels and hornpipes on fiddle, would open a set with a solo. She and Koehler did mandolin duets, she and Lily May doubled on fiddle, tearing through “Golden Slippers.” “We were writing songs,” Lily May wrote in her autobiography. “We did vocal duets, trios, 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. 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 that I ever had.”

They played fast, jumping up and down as if angling to crack the stage boards, “sometimes ruining some of our songs by laughing at each other,” Lily May said. Rosie, if carried away by a tune, would let out a yell so high-pitched it sounded like someone had yanked a steam whistle.

Each of them got $40 a week, which was winnowed to almost nothing once they had paid for their housing, wardrobe, and food. “We were all so happy then,” Lily May recalled.

Old Uncle Dudy

Mr. Lair wanted me to sing little funny songs. But I didn’t feel funny. I liked lonesome songs.

Lily May Ledford, 1966

In the early days, the Coon Creek Girls’ mere existence on stage unsettled some. They weren’t married; they weren’t kid sisters of another Renfro Valley act; they didn’t sing with a backing group. They spent their thirty minutes on the boards whooping and hollering and carrying on, doing the sort of daredevil solos and wild improvisations normally reserved to the likes of the Georgia Yellow Hammers.

“A lot of people frowned on us playing instruments, [so we] got An’t Idy Harper and Little Clifford, who was three hundred pounds,” Lange recalled. “They tied us in as a family, showed the audience we weren’t out there doing something we weren’t supposed to do.”

An’t Idy Harper was born Margaret Lillie. She was an older vaudevillian who in early 1937 wrote to Lair to say she wanted to be on the radio, that “I have a blues voice [but] also sing hillbilly songs.” Lair, intrigued, said he couldn’t promise her much money at first but thought he could create a “Lum and Abner“-type act for her and his nephew Harry Mullins, who would become “Little Clifford.” He soon roped the Coon Creek Girls to Idy and Clifford, turning them into the wards of the Renfro family.

Early in the 1938 session, the Coon Creek Girls cut four sides with their chaperone. An’t Idy sounds vaudeville-bluesy and a bit sauced (see “The Old Apple Tree,” on which the Girls provide a mighty harmony for the refrains; it’s a gruesome tale of townspeople lynching an adulterous neighbor). Along with one of the breeziest versions of the murder ballad “Omie Wise” ever recorded, the Coon Creek Girls and An’t Idy plow through two Carter Family songs, with “Lulu Wall” the prime cut, Idy on the make and lusting over Lulu’s “aggervatin’ beauty.”

The benefit of the An’t Idy tracks is that they document the Coon Creek Girls as a full unit, with Lily May on fiddle and Rosie, Lange, and Koehler as a supple accompaniment. It carries over into their own “Old Uncle Dudy,” which is the closest we have to how freewheeling they were on stage: jazz harmonies in the refrains, goofball hayseed voices for the verses, seasoned with fiddle breaks.

Coon Creek Mania, 1938

Something went off the rails in this caption (Reddy May?); Indianapolis Star, 4 May 1938

We just played music, and that’s all we wanted in the world to do and we didn’t pay attention to anything else.

Evelyn Lange

There were days in 1938 and 1939 when Lily May didn’t take off her shoes except to change into her stage clogs.

They were a punk band in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Benny Goodman [see Quartet No. 5]. “We’d get out there, play hard and fast, do our part and off the stage,” Lange recalled. “They didn’t really have a chance to cut in on us, we were making too much noise. Had we not been that young, we couldn’t have taken it. But we had a lot of ambition, we could sleep standing on our heads.”

Within months, the Coon Creek Girls were one of the biggest acts on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Lair worked them hard: multiple sets for the Saturday night broadcasts in Cincinnati or Dayton; local radio spots; touring around Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana, playing movie theaters and fireman’s benefits, PTA meetings and county fairs. Plenty of what Lily May called “bicycle dates,” when the band was booked in two theaters in the same town, running from one to the other all day, staying in costume and lugging their gear (Lange had it the worst), playing five sets at each venue. Lange recalled being out “for a week at a time. Our clothes would get wrinkled and dirty because a lot of the fairs…we didn’t have a decent dressing room and the fairs are just naturally kind of dirty anyway…Once in a while, we’d have a day off.”

The demands of their stage work freed them from strict repertoires—Lair only cared about the songs they chose for the Saturday night show. They “sang all sorts of things and made up songs and sang them, and we all tried our hand at making up songs,” Lily May said. “And we just had a good time. Nobody bothered us.” The band could test on stage what worked, with Rosie recalling the audiences “liked those holy roller songs…and they were pretty crazy about the banjo. All the banjo tunes.”

We worked all the time and were not allowed to date. The boss watched us carefully. We were all very young and very dumb. We trusted everybody, we didn’t know there was mean people in the world.

Evelyn Lange

The bigger the Coon Creek Girls got, the more Lair wanted to preserve their image as four daughters straight from the hollers, girls who wouldn’t “upset the applecart in their community,” as Barbara Greenlief said. Lily May chafed at it sometimes, resenting the long, old-fashioned dresses and high-top lace-up shoes that he made them wear, which made her feel “like an old lady and not at all pretty.” She had gone to Chicago in part to get away from farm life, to live in the big city, to travel the world.

But Lair would tell her to not wear makeup, not curl her hair, not try to speak “proper” English. Stay a mountain girl, stay as you were when you first came here, he’d say. Be genuine and plain at all times. But don’t be common, have manners and grace. Be spunky on stage, yet don’t be pert. It was a life as the endless threading of a needle.

The Girls always took care as to what they wore, how they looked, how they acted on the street, Lange said, “because we didn’t know who was looking at us…we always tried to dress and look very presentable…we didn’t want anything to ruin our image. To be four nice good country girls. And we lived that way too. We didn’t want to do anything to disappoint our fans. Because they all knew us as being like that and that’s the way we were….People were different then than they are now.” Fans mailed them letters written on paper sacks. Once during a radio performance, a girl in a wheelchair was borne up a long flight of stairs to give each Coon Creek Girl hand-made pictures of birds, with real feathers. Lange, decades later, said she still had her card. “I change the pictures around. I wish I could have gotten her name.”

They became street-wise quickly. They walked as a group from their apartment to the theater, dealing with stage-door Johnnies and “wolves” in jalopies who whistled and yelled at them to get in their cars. “They knew who we were, we didn’t know who they were,” Lange said. Once Rosie got so fed up that she threw her purse at a lecher (“they got going real quick when they had her purse.”) “I didn’t trust any boy,” Lange said. “We weren’t supposed to trust anybody so we didn’t.”

Here and there in their recollections, you catch glimpses of the off-stage Coon Creek Girls. Lily May and Rosie smoking like chimneys. Lily May standing on a Chicago corner and eating popcorn, walking as if she owned the street. The band sneaking out to play to Black audiences between sets in segregated towns, doing jigs and reels behind the theater.

Lulu Lee

Lily May recalled “Lonesome Lulu Lee” (which she often sings as “Lula” on the Vocalion track) as being one of John Lair’s songs, though he’s not credited on the label as he is on “Old Uncle Dudy.”

If it is a Lair song, it’s one of his best, a catchy assembly of country tropes—lonesome girls, penitentiary stays, log cabins. Cutting “Lulu Lee” in Chicago, the Girls train-whistle yodel in the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers. “We just went wild about that,” Lily May recalled in 1966 about hearing Rodgers’ records for the first time. “Like kids do with the Beatle music nowadays.”

High Society, 1939

In June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to the United States on a goodwill tour. The royals were a scouting party. Franklin Roosevelt believed war between Germany and Britain was inevitable, so one aim for the royal visit was to strengthen family ties between parent and wayward child countries, at a time when American Nazi sympathizers could fill Madison Square Garden. The Windsors would provide elegance and grace, the Americans would charm with homespun truths and folk art.

For a White House reception on the evening of 8 June 1939, the musical entertainment would demonstrate, as per the program notes, that “American music today is made up of three distinct living idioms—a folk, a pop, and an art music.” For art: the contralto Marian Anderson and the baritone Lawrence Tibbett. For pop, Kate Smith, singing “These Foolish Things.” The folk contingent was the largest: Bascom Lamar Lunsford and the Soco Gap square dance team; Alan Lomax singing cowboy ballads; the North Carolina Spiritual Singers.

And the Coon Creek Girls, who were there “to represent the mountain kind of music,” Lily May later said.

Their presence was owed to the friendship of Lair and Lunsford. After meeting at a folk festival in North Carolina, Lair asked Lunsford to recommend prospects for WLS (Lunsford, who had recorded the uncanny “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” in 1928, also performed for the station). The two organized the Ohio Valley Folk Festival and suggested acts for the National Folk Festival in 1938. The latter were key—Alan Lomax saw the Coon Creek Girls at these festivals and, as he was in contact with Eleanor Roosevelt and National Folk Festival organizer Gertrude Knott as to who to invite for the royal performance, he suggested the Girls. Lunsford seconded him.

Lomax disliked the “hillbilly” acts he’d seen at Ohio Valley, which he regarded as cheapened music for radio stay-at-homes and movie cowboys. He had a sympathetic ear in the First Lady, who considered folk festivals a necessary bulwark against rising commercialism in music. As Kristine McCusker wrote, this was a core New Deal aesthetic: a return to an earlier age of American idealism, “moving residents back to a simpler time where communities supposedly shared with each other, not unlike the image of community that the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and early WLS shows broadcast on the radio.” 

The music of FDR’s America, as presented to the King and Queen, wouldn’t be hillbilly fare or jazz. It would be either refined or raw.

Lair played up the Girls’ mountain roots even more than usual. Thus you had the New York Times taking his word that he’d discovered Lily May singing old Appalachian ballads while lifting rocks on her father’s farm. That the Coon Creek Girls wouldn’t need to practice for the White House, as “all they need to do is be ‘nacharal.'”

From “A Program of American Music,” 8 June 1939 (FDR papers)

Of course they did rehearse, on the afternoon of the performance. Vice President “Cactus Jack” Garner—estranged from Roosevelt, eyeing his own bid for the presidency, destined to be a footnote—turned up and traded off with Lily May on fiddle for a time.

The Coon Creek Girls recalled having to all but sneak into their own performance. “We met a little bit of difficulty getting into the White House. I guess we didn’t look the part,” Rosie said. “I don’t know. They didn’t much want us in there. We had to show the invitations to every guard. It seemed like miles of hallways…the dressing room looked like a mansion to us.”

Lily May, in her autobiography, recalled “we were scared. This was no school house or movie theatre. All that splendor! Dresses, white tie and tails, jewels, jewels, jewels!” Lair had allowed them to dress up for once, wearing different-colored gowns, silk hose, and patent leather shoes. Each wore a velvet ribbon around her neck and her namesake flower in her hair.

The setlist was “Soldier and the Lady,” to show how the songs of England were still in the American air; the folk song “Cindy” and “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat,” which came out of the minstrel shows. (The program says they did “Buffalo Gals,” too, but no one there remembered this.) “Biscuits” was the opener: the Coon Creek Girls worked over the set of assorted dignitaries, society snobs, ennobled bureaucrats, secret royalists, and Jim Crow politicians as if they were playing a fair in Hillsboro.

Lily May sized up the guests of honor from the corner of her eye. FDR was smiling broadly; the queen, politely (“on their faces was a different look than I was used to—a look of refinement and the kind of smiles that are…what you’d call ’em, rehearsed, and I began to get worried we wouldn’t go over with these people.”). The king was tough work, as he “could have been dead and just propped up. I thought he’d rather be in jail than be here.” At last she caught him discreetly tapping his foot; she claimed victory.

Within weeks, Lair was billing the Coon Creek Girls as the band who had played for democracy and royalty. From late June into July, they worked the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in the Mercury Theatre’s production of The Green Goddess, with Orson Welles as a rajah (“all right if you go in for hill-billy mouthings,” was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s review of the Girls). A variation on the White House royal performance, the Stanley revue was another American congress: Jack Lanney and the Statler Twins, a dance team; Jack Talley and Terry Howard, a comedy duo; a screening of Captain Fury; the Coon Creek Girls; Welles, in a turban, his play often beset by technical difficulties.

Lily May recalled Welles as being foreboding (“I heard him bawl out his valet in a manner that scared me”) although he asked her to help him with a bit. After the Girls’ last song, he said, Lily May was to tell the audience to hold onto their pocketbooks and boots—Welles would then kill the lights and plunge the theater into darkness. After delivering her warning, he said, “pick up your skirts and run to beat hell!” Welles, notorious terrorizer of crowds after The War of the Worlds, had a reputation to maintain.

Little Birdie

The last song of the Chicago session. The band, wearied by the long day, sets up one more time. The engineers have experimented all afternoon with positioning, moving Lily May back from the mike, moving Koehler closer.

“Little Birdie” is deep Appalachia, a banjo song dating to 1900, if not earlier. A song of freedom, longing, movement, “Little Birdie,” in some of its versions, is also a song of betrayal. “Purty woman, purty woman/ just see what you’ve done,” goes one 1931 variation. “You caused me to love you/ now your husband has come.”

Lily May sings it as if, in the breath before each line, as Rosie’s guitar, Koehler’s mandolin and Lange’s bass roll beneath her, she surveys the land ahead and decides how long of a stride to make.

The Split

She would say, ‘you girls don’t get married, it’ll break your band up.

Sue Massek, on Lily May Ledford

In the fall of 1939, the Renfro Valley complex was finished. Lair’s acts would now live in Renfro Valley as well as work there. Soon before the move, the Coon Creek Girls fell apart.

There had been trouble since the 1938 Vocalion session, where Koehler and Lange were often reduced to a barely-audible backing group. “Their music was a little different from ours,” Lily May recalled to Faurot. “They were hurt and disappointed that they didn’t get to sing more.” The Ledfords had had trouble harmonizing with Koehler in particular. “She spoke her words differently,” Lily May said. “We managed to get a pretty good blend in voice but our words couldn’t seem to fit. She tried real hard.” Rosie added that “we changed some, she changed some.”

Lair needed the Coon Creek Girls to have the deep country pedigree of the Ledford sisters, and “didn’t want a thing that would show those [other] two girls were from up North and Yankees,” Lily May said. “So they were kept in the background or at least not pushed for solos.” As there was another Ledford sister eager to join (Minnie, see below), Lair had few regrets about Koehler and Lange leaving. He reconstructed his all-girl string band as an all-family affair.

But money was the main issue. The Coon Creek Girls were a prime attraction of Renfro Valley but had never gotten a raise. Lange once estimated that Lair was bringing in $3,000 a week just on Coon Creek Girls shows, while paying the group a relative pittance (“we paid for a lot of Renfro Valley”). Further, they had to cover their expenses and Lair was constantly penny-pinching: he never gave the Girls copies of any of their records, for instance.

After some desultory efforts to find other work, they confronted Lair, asked for larger salaries, said they wanted their fair share of what Renfro Valley was bringing in. “We were carrying the Barn Dance load,” Lange said. “We were drawing all these crowds, the four of us…we were just barely making ends meet and we were working just like crazy.” Lair said he had no money to spare, that every dime was going back into the business, that he struggled to cover the tremendous overhead. Rosie broke down, said that Lair should stop paying her entirely if it would help keep the show going.

With that, the band broke. As Lange said, she and Koehler were sophisticates by comparison to the Ledfords—Koehler had lived in Milwaukee, Lange had been in show business since she was a kid. “I think we were a little more alert to what was going on, that we knew to put two and two together to realize that we were paying for a lot of the others’ salaries and we were doing the work…So we were the instigators, Violet and I.” They saw the move to Kentucky as Lair tightening his grip on them even further, and balked. They headed west, working shows in Tulsa and Dallas. (An’t Idy and Red Foley also quit rather than move to Renfro Valley.)

Barbara Greenlief said her mother and aunt had been homesick for Kentucky and didn’t mind going to Renfro Valley. But they also “didn’t know what else to do. They didn’t know that you could find people to represent you to get other jobs.”

Not long before she died, Lily May wrote to Lange. “She said it was never the same after we split up,” Lange remembered.

The Seashell Years

Lily May Ledford and Woody Guthrie, ca. 1944

Lair prospered during the war. His traveling bands averaged $5,000 in earnings a week. Billboard reported in 1944 that there were over 10,000 paid admissions on three different Saturday nights at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, with 5,000 as the average Saturday night’s audience.

Renfro Valley was a carnival now—there were trained mules, show horses, Rex the Wonder Dog. The gargantuan “Little Eller” was paired with the four-foot-nine pipe-smoking “Granny Harper.” Shows started at two in the afternoon and ran without a stop. Renfro Valley gave you both a modest Saturday night’s romp (the Barn Dance) and a Sunday morning’s repentance (the Sunday Morning Gathering).

Although in 1940 Lair wrote to a business partner that he was looking for “new and better talent,” as the Coon Creek Girls “seem to have gone to hell generally as far as their work goes,” the Coon Creek Girls were essential to Renfro Valley. But they weren’t the same group. Minnie Ledford, born in 1922 and stage-named “Black Eyed Susan,” now joined her sisters; she sang, played guitar and bass.

By the early Forties, the Coon Creek Girls became a rotating set of players—a Ledford sister would take time off and some newcomer to the Valley would fill her place. Photos of the Coon Creek Girls of the period include a number of faces lost to history (one later member was Norma Madge Mullins).

Some of its performers recalled Renfro Valley as being a good place to work—the cast eating supper together, doing jitterbug dances after hours. When someone got pregnant, they could take leave, have another Valley performer sub for them, and rejoin the troupe in a year or so. Lair didn’t hold grudges when a musician left: he welcomed back An’t Idy and Koehler later in the decade.

At one point Lair considered building a nursing home for his performers when they retired; it’s a wonder that he didn’t run a school for their children.

Lair and a version of the Coon Creek Girls with the Ledford sisters and Koehler

For a short while, Lily May had a life beyond Renfro Valley. In 1944, she took part in a New York radio broadcast of The Martins and the Coys, written by Elizabeth Lomax and arranged by Alan Lomax. She worked with Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie.

She visited Guthrie’s apartment on Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island, sitting on the floor as plates of Polish sausage, cheese chunks, and hard rolls were passed around (“you’d cut your own bread, everything was served roughly”); she remembered seeing Guthrie walk down Broadway and nudge his way through the crowds while playing his guitar.

The Coon Creek Girls got an offer from the Village nightclub Cafe Society: a six-month contract that could lead to further residencies. Now Guthrie played Lair’s usual role. He sent a letter that had a lengthy, opaque passage about sea shells, which the Ledfords interpreted as saying, once again, for the Girls to remain humble, down-home, “to stay as we were—clean,” Lily May said. “Those Uptown and Downtown Cafe Societies were stepping stones to Hollywood and other places, and if we went higher, Woody knew the fights and temptations we would go through.” So they would never go higher.

Lily May Ledford and Burl Ives, ca. 1944

Lair changed once the Renfro Valley complex opened—he became more isolated, more controlling of his performers’ lives. “Bloom had an Idea; now the idea has him,” Christopher Ricks once wrote of the critic Harold Bloom. Something of the same held for Lair. Devoted to preserving his ideal past within postwar modernity, he fortified the borders of his Valley to keep it secure. “He owned them, lock, stock and barrel,” Barbara Greenlief said. “Almost like a coal company….He had them sign contracts that they couldn’t record anything unless he said so; they couldn’t talk to other people; they couldn’t make any other deals.”

“John was smart that way,” said Jerry Byrd, a steel guitarist who worked at Renfro Valley. “He got a lot out of his people for very little money because they felt like they were at least doing something on their own that could possibly bode well in the future. Whereas the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t that way at all…[But] if you stayed there [at Renfro Valley], you’d dry rot.”

As Renfro Valley Barn Dance was on network radio for well over a decade, Lair’s signal failure was to develop his acts as recording artists—the Coon Creek Girls, for instance, issued only a handful of singles after 1938, none memorable. He was determined as always to keep everything in-house, to cut his own records for his own label, but his studio was plagued by defective equipment and soon enough burned down.

By the mid-Fifties, Renfro Valley declined in popularity, losing younger audiences to rock ‘n’ roll, older ones to the developing countrypolitan sound of Nashville. College students, who would take up folk music and make a star of Viper, Kentucky’s balladeer Jean Ritchie, rarely came to Renfro Valley. When the Coon Creek Girls went on the road, Lily May would cross to the other side of the street when she saw a group of young people. She’d be wearing her calico stage dress and “invariably one of them would say something and the rest would laugh.”

“Sometimes we were teased or ridiculed about our old-fashioned music, and I think we let that intimidate us a little bit,” she said in 1966. “We finally decided our music was obsolete and there was no use to keep it up because nobody wanted to hear it. I felt that way for five years before I left Renfro Valley. And then my own children begin to like rock ‘n’ roll music.” The Coon Creek Girls broke up in 1957.

Television also stole from Renfro Valley, even though there was a Renfro Valley TV show in the mid-Fifties (see the Coon Creek Girls do “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?” on one clip). Lair’s isolationism again hobbled him. His sponsor found doing remote shows too costly, and wanted Renfro Valley broadcast from a city studio. But Lair stayed in his valley, content to have his facilities used as backdrops for a few films. Hee Haw, a variety show filmed in Nashville starting in 1969, was Lair’s nightmare fulfilled: a Renfro Valley with “Hee Haw Honeys,” Laugh-In inspired redneck gags, and contemporary country performers. It was a hit; it aired for more than two decades.

By the mid-Sixties, Lair was no longer paying salaries, just giving performers a percentage of the door. In 1966 a group that included Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and the music publisher Hal Smith leased the Valley complex; Smith bought it in full two years later. Lair kept the radio show, and continued Renfro Valley in some way or another until he died in 1985. Among his last acts was to form the New Coon Creek Girls in 1979. They allegedly had Lily May’s blessing (she’d taught Vicki Simmons, a founding member, how to play clawhammer banjo), not that it was needed: Lair owned the band name.

Pretty Polly

I learned that from Mama. She was raised in Pike County.

Lily May Ledford, on “Pretty Polly.”

Lily May plays banjo for the length of this song, in her hard-picked, fast, utterly precise “frail” style, here with a G modal tuning. “On songs like ‘Pretty Polly’ [it] expresses the tragic side of life,” Lily May’s granddaughter Cari Norris said. “The drone string of banjo is constant and effective for conveying a sense of tragedy. You know in the song the man kills Pretty Polly and there are different ways to die.”

Sue Massek said of Lily May that “both of us like playing in the minor modal tunings…more melancholy and haunting. And crooked tunes. A measure too many or one too few. And it sort of makes you never know where the end of the song is. It’s crooked.”

“Pretty Polly” is an old crooked song; it was carried over the water, like the Scotch pine, from England to the Appalachians. Its details vary, its story is eternal. A man lures a young woman into a forest, where he murders her and leaves her corpse behind, the birds as her only mourners. The singer often, as Lily May does here, shifts from first person—the murderer, Willie (“Oh Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me”); the victim, Polly (“Oh Willie, oh Willie, please spare me my life”)—to third person at the end of the killing verse. It could be Willie disassociating, Polly abstracting her own murder as the knife goes in. It’s when the song finds itself unbearable.

Lily May sings fast, without effect, not indulging in suspense, only drawing out the last note of each phrase. The other Coon Creek Girls make a drone far in the distance. She recounts, she assesses evidence, while her fingers ring on the banjo. The song once had more colors—Willie was a ship’s carpenter, Polly was pregnant, she haunts him for eternity. None of that is here. Just Polly, with her little white hands, who follows her lover up the hills and into the valleys until she knows she’s going to die, and he says her guess is about right. He stabs her, dumps her in the grave that he dug the night before and goes home: unpunished, unrepentant.

This has happened before; it will happen again. The shabby cruelty of a small killing. Lily May sings “Pretty Polly” as a recurrence, as if you’re hearing one brief cycle of something which has no end. She stays a touch longer on her closing notes in the final verses and when she sings “into her grave Pretty Polly did go,” she holds the “ohhhh” long enough for it to link to the start of the next line. It is the only mourning she will allow.

A Big Time

Lily May in her local paper, 1983

In 1971, Evelyn Lange went down to Kentucky. “There was Lily May and Rosie was there and Violet was living there,” she recalled. “I think we were at Rosie’s house in Berea. I told somebody to get a tape, I wanted to see if we could do anything.”

Sitting in a living room, the original Coon Creek Girls played together for the first time in over thirty years, and for the last time in their lives. “Everybody knew their part and we just went right straight through this,” Lange said. “We just had a big time.” (The tape was reportedly aired on a Cincinnati radio station; I don’t know if it survives; I hope it does.)

The Coon Creek Girls—the Ledford sisters trio, which would be its last incarnation—had reformed in the mid-Sixties. They played the Newport Folk Festival (this performance of “Cacklin’ Hen” is for the ages—I wish it went on for twenty minutes) and, at last, cut an album, a self-titled collection for County Records in 1968. The long years were now in their voices, the Ledford sisters said at the time. “Gradually we got away from our way of singing,” Lily May said. “It’s not as nasal as it was, not as keen, not as high-pitched.” “It was lonesome-sounding,” Rosie added. “More a mountain type, lonesome and soul-stirring.”

The Ledfords—Susie, Lily May, Rosie—as the last Coon Creek Girls (Berea College Appalachian Center)

Barbara Greenlief, in 1996, is talking about her late mother, a woman who had to live within the parameters that men set for her, whether it was Lair, or her first husband, “a powerful man in Berea, owned a lot of coal trucks, had a lot of money, wanted to marry a Coon Creek Girl,” or her second, a union that produced J.P. Pennington, co-singer of Exile’s 1978 disco-country hit “Kiss You All Over” (he’s the higher voice), and thus offering the strangest footnote of the Coon Creek story.

“That combination of having that inbred talent, mixed with the kind of subservient view that women had to men was a really difficult thing all her life,” Greenlief said. “She could not openly challenge a man, so that John Lair, the other men she worked with, both of her husbands—pretty much set the stage for what her life would be, in terms of her success. She was always privately angry about the manipulation but she would not confront it. She was so strong-willed that it ate her up because she was angry about it.”

“She knew she wasn’t treated like she should [have been] treated. She empowered herself through her music. But that was the only power she had.”

Lily May had a good Seventies. She met and befriended Mike Seeger and Loyal Jones, played folk festivals, got an NEA grant, was an artist-in-residence at Berea College, wrote her autobiography, made solo recordings. She moved to Lexington, read Wendell Berry and Maya Angelou, became a local activist—she joined the effort to keep the Army Corps. of Engineers from building a dam on the Red River that would have turned most of the Gorge into a lake.

At parties she liked to play the hard-driving songs, not so much the old ballads. She’d sang those around the house while raising her children, as her mother had. She wasn’t fond of bluegrass, came to love gospel. She always called what she played “mountain music.” She liked to drink beer, garden, and read. After two marriages, living on her own at last in Lexington, “she was able to voice some of what she’d never been able to voice before,” her daughter said.

Evelyn Lange Perry in the Journal and Courier, 23 June 1983

Esther “Violet” Koehler Ledford died in 1973, Charlotte Rosie Ledford Foley in 1976, Minnie Ledford Jennings in 1987. Lily May Ledford Pennington died, at sixty-eight, of lung cancer in the summer of 1985, a month after she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. They all lie in Berea Cemetery, seventy miles west of the Gorge.

Evelyn Lange Perry would be the only Coon Creek Girl to see the 21st Century.

After some adventures in the Southwest, Lange got married in 1941. For a long while, it meant the end of her musical life. “I was having kids left and right and there wasn’t any way I could do it then,” she said, fifty years later. She and her husband moved to Frankfort, Indiana, where he bought a concrete-block plant. “There was no time to think about going [some] place and playing the fiddle. I was raised that when you got married, you raised your family , you kept house, you cooked and did what a wife is supposed to do. So I didn’t really think much about it that [my husband] didn’t want me to play the fiddle and travel around.” It wasn’t until the Seventies when she would play the fiddle again.

She dug out her fiddle one day and wondered if she could still play it. “I got it all tuned up and I thought, ‘this bow is terrible.’ Well, it wasn’t the bow, it was me!”

In 1978, she was invited to Nashville for a reunion concert with some other Renfro Valley acts, including Lulu Belle and the Girls of the Golden West. She said she was scared to death, as she hadn’t played before an audience since Franklin Roosevelt was president, and back then she was part of a quartet. She went on stage and played her fiddle to an audience of 13,000; PBS broadcast the show. Evelyn Lange: a solo artist at last. She kept performing, here and there (“I’m a ham, I guess,” she told her local newspaper). She died in February 2002.

Lily May at Midnight

Lily May in her later years (Jim Broadwater)

Ellesa Clay High, a young Southern writer, visits a small town in central Kentucky in the bicentennial summer. She’s considering writing about the Red River Gorge and, in 1979, she will live in a farmer’s tenant house in the lower Gorge for a summer, sharing her bedroom with a wasp’s nest “the size of a grapefruit.” In 1984, she publishes Past Titan Rock, a collection of memoir, reportage, and fiction based on her experiences and interviews.

There’s a party at night for a local farmer. At some “unseen signal,” High recalls, “instruments were pulled from closets and corners…the musicians inspected each other’s instruments, joked and offered a tentative song.” She’s struck by how easy and unassuming their performance is, how the room works in time with the music. The party guests clap along, then fall back into conversation, get some zucchini bread and fried chicken from the kitchen, sing along again.

A tall woman comes in. “Gray haired, smiling, and soft spoken.” The mood in the room changes at once—there’s a sense of happy reverence. The musicians stand and, each in turn, shake her hand. One offers Lily May Ledford his fiddle. She accepts, picks up the bow, places the fiddle on her chest and rips into “Sourwood Mountain.” A song her father had taught her, a song she’s been playing since before many people in the room were born.

The room fills with dancers, thumping the plank floor. By midnight, Lily May has played her way through the whole Coon Creek Girls instrumental repertoire—she moves from bass fiddle to guitar, mandolin to banjo. High will later describe Lily May as playing the banjo “with the expression of a child hovering over a birthday cake.”

Sue Massek once said she heard in Lily May’s playing an affirmation: “I know what I’m doing and I’m right here, and I’m going to show you all.”

It’s one in the morning, and High leaves at last, “jigged and shouted out.” The party is still going as High walks towards her car. Lily May Ledford is still playing, and she will play on, deep into the summer night, a musician who drops into a party and makes a room dance and sing, for hour after bright hour. An artist; a great one.

2 thoughts on “7. The Coon Creek Girls

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