Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 9, June 11, 2009
Today I’m still working through some of the John Lair Papers, and mostly I’m confirming what many historians and country music entertainers have already said: Lair had a reputation for being tight-fisted and controlling. I’m amazed, and offended I guess, at how he could make a living by re-inventing people and exploiting their musical talents. I know I’m using 21st century sensibilities to judge his work from the 1930s-1940s; still, I can’t help but be opposed to how he used women (especially) performers and how they mostly put up with it and went along. I’m unclear if these early women radio stars acquiesced just because they were grateful to be performing or because they bought into these radio personas without question. The two major female personas on Lair’s Barn Dance radio shows were “the pure, good, country girl” who dressed in calico and sang proper (read: sentimental) songs and “the crotchety, coarse old granny” who told jokes and sang novelty songs. For Lair, there really wasn’t any other kind of woman performer.
Here, for instance, is a clause from the contracts that Lair made all his performers sign (the performer is the “first party” and Lair is the “second party”): “Second party shall write, produce, assemble or otherwise procure and furnish all songs, music, routines, spoken lines or sketches which in the opinion of said second party shall be necessary to the success of first party. . .” In other words, everything was scripted, including the color of ric-rac sewn onto the women’s dresses (which, by the way, were usually sewn up by the women performers themselves).
Today I read about how Lair turned Jeanne Munich, a blues singer from Hammond, Indiana into “Linda Parker, The Little Sunbonnet Girl from The Hills of Kentucky” for the WLS National Barn Dance Radio. Parker sang with The Cumberland Ridge Runners and as a soloist, but her repertoire was mostly Carter Family songs like “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” From a 1933 WLS Publicity Album, we get this description of Jeanne Munich a.k.a. Linda Parker (who just four years earlier had debuted on a rival Chicago radio station as the blues-singing “Red-Headed Rascal”—yes, still an invented persona, but at least it’s a feisty one with some sense of independence):
“When Linda Parker was a little girl around the old home at Covington, Kentucky, she learned many of the old ballads of the hills . . . You have doubtless detected in her singing that occasional plaintive note, so typical of mountain music. She sings just as her mother and grandmother sang, artlessly, but from the heart.”
Linda Parker died at the age of 23 in 1935. While on tour with The Cumberland Ridge Runners in Indiana, she fell ill but kept performing for two days before she was diagnosed with peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. John Lair noted in the obituary/tribute that he wrote for her that she was buried under a beautiful weeping willow. That detail was picked up by the news media and widely circulated as part of her mythology. But, guess what? It’s an invention. There is no weeping willow tree shading the grave of Jeanne Munich.