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.
Music for the evening was provided by the finest representatives of American culture, including opera tenor Lawrence Tibbett, classical musician Marion Anderson, pop diva Kate Smith, and Alan Lomax singing Western songs. The evening also featured four energetic young women called the Coon Creek Girls, who would play traditional stringband music and accompany Bascom Lunsford’s square dance group from North Carolina.
“Coon Creek Girls was a very happy time. As far as I know, we were the first all-girl string band,” recalled band leader Lily May Ledford at Berea College during a 1980 solo performance there. “We startled the audience by being all girls — our sound was drowned out by the uproar of applause and yelling.”
Ledford has been widely recognized in Kentucky and throughout the nation by scholars, musicians, and listeners who have unanimously credited her with bringing the musical culture of eastern Kentucky to the world. She was an inspiration to generations of younger musicians, including Pete Seeger.
Ledford learned to play on an old discarded fiddle formerly belonging to “Gran’pappy Tackett,” who was a famous old-time fiddler of the Kentucky mountains, as was her father, White Ledford. She told the story of how she made her first fiddle bow from a willow switch and a generous portion of the tail of “Ole Maudie,” “Gran’pappy’s” white mare.
In 1936, at the age of nineteen, Lily May left Pinch-em-Tight Hollow, KY to begin her public music career in Chicago, where she joined the National Barn Dance. A year later she ventured on to Cincinnati, where she became a regular on musical promoter John Lair’s newly formed Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
It was here that Lair, an early promoter of women entertainers, encouraged Lily May along with her sister Rosie, Violet Koehler, and Daisy Lange to form the Coon Creek Girls. It was called that “so that people will know at once what kind of music they’re going to hear,” Lair said. The group made its broadcast debut on October 9, 1937.
How Many Biscuits Can You Eat? was their first number at the White House soiree, featuring Lily May’s outstanding five-string banjo, Rosie on guitar, Violet on mandolin, and Daisy 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.
Meantime John Lair, in order to get in to see the performance, had to pose as the the bass fiddle carrier for the group. Lily May said they laughed in the back of the limo as Lair lugged the big bass along, “Law, how times has changed, back home he’s king, and we’re the subjects you know, up here we’re riding in the limo, and he’s trailing along totin’ the bass fiddle—that done us good!”
In 1939, after Koehler and Lange left the band, the Ledfords were joined by their other sister Susie. The high mountain harmonies of the group proved to be an exciting contrast to the sentimental home-and-mother styles of the period. The trio, singing and playing with the true family mountain sound, served as a musical standard for the old-time genre for years to come.
At a time when traditional music was being brushed aside by many in favor of bluegrass, swing, and smooth country crooning, the Coon Creek Girls stepped up to the mike with a fresh, energetic approach to tunes, songs, and instrumental styles that were as old as the hills.
Listen here to Coon Creek Girls play ‘Flowers in the Wildwood’ —>
“Lily May Ledford: A Legend in Our Time,” by Kennty C. Hull, undated booklet, collection of Western Kentucky University