Thursday, January 25, 2007

Banjo pickin' girls

Banjo girl

If they hadn't already existed, someone would've had to invent this clutch of banjo picking, fiddle playing, guitar strumming mountain women, these Coon Creek Girls. And, in fact, someone did: a Chicago radio (WLS) man named John Lair. It was the 1930s, and a nascent country music industry knew that packaging and marketing old-timey music to the Appalachian diaspora, in the midst of tectonic cultural and economic shifts (agrarian to urban, subsistence farming to industrialized mining), was profitable. But the nostalgia peddlers struggled to find enough talent to populate its on-air barndances and road tours; many acts were plucked from thin mountain air.

Lair rustled up real country gals -- a pair of sisters from Kentucky (Lily May and Rosie Ledford), and two regional talent contest winners, one from Ohio (Evelyn Lange), another from Wisconsin (Esther Koehler). All singers, all multi-instrumentalists. He renamed a couple (to the more authentically rustic Violet and Daisy), clothed them in calico, saddled them with the unfortunate Coon Creek Girls moniker and introduced them to Cincinnati radio station WLS' barndance stable. They were a hit. The Girls wasn't Lair's only, or even most ambitious, exercise in cultural false consciousness. His grand scheme, one that took many frustrating years to realize, was the Renfrow Valley Barn Dance entertainment complex in his own home state of Kentucky:

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. (John Lilly, Old Time Herald, Winter 92/93)

Decades before Dollywood, Lair attempted a simulacrum of 19th and early 20th century mountain life, an idealized recuperation of a half-remembered past -- a kind that continues to inform our own representations and readings of "Appalachia."

But the Coon Creek Girls were no mere commodities. Enormously talented musicians, they wrote many of their own songs and arrangements of traditional standards. And if the wanderlusting whoops and hollers and greyhounding rhythms of "Banjo Pickin' Girl" are any indication, they had fun doing it. The song mocks its own parochial weltanschauung, conflating Arkansas with Europe, Chattanooga with Cuba, North Carolina with China and toys with the man they've outgrown: If you ain't got no money/Get yourself another honey. It's a wink, a show of seams by cool-headed, ambitious women who have no intention of getting stuck in some cold water cabin, but don't mind participating in the production of barefoot-and-fresh-scrubbed-sass if it's gonna be their ticket out.

Banjo Pickin' Girl - The Coon Creek Girls

Poor Naomi Wise - A'nt Idy Harper and The Coon Creek Girls

"Naomi Wise" is, of course, an old, unhappy American murder ballad. A'nt Idy Harper delivers it with disconcerting cheer. And her backing band of Coon Creek Girls play it like an afternoon tea dance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

very swingin, very clever

5:46 PM  
Blogger Raven said...

I like this song but i need to kno stuff about it a little more!! I think da it is GREAT and i would shake my Banjo for ya anytime! LOL

3:08 PM  

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