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    MUSIC IN AMERICAN LIFE

    A list of books in the series appears at the end of this book.

    PRETTY GOOD for a Girl

    Women in Bluegrass

    MURPHY HICKS HENRY

    University of Illinois Press

    Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield

    © 2013 by the Board of Trustees

    of the University of Illinois

    All rights reserved

    Manufactured in the United States of America

    1 2 3 4 5 C P 5 4 3 2 1

    This book is printed on acid-free paper.

    LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

    Henry, Murphy.

    Pretty good for a girl: women in bluegrass/Murphy Hicks Henry.

    p. cm. — (Music in American life)

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-252-03286-8 (hardcover: alk. paper)—

    ISBN 978-0-252-07917-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)

    1. Women bluegrass musicians—United States—Biography.

    2. Bluegrass musicians—United States—Biography. I. Title.

    ML394.H457 2013

    781.642092’52—dc23 2012036560

    [B]

    To my favorite

    bluegrass musicians:

    my husband, Red; my

    daughter, Casey; and

    my son, Chris.

    With special thanks

    to Casey for

    her unwavering

    enthusiasm and help

    with this project.

    CONTENTS

    Acknowledgments

    Introduction

    IN THE BEGINNING: THE 1940S

    Sally Ann Forrester

    Wilma Lee Cooper

    Rose Maddox

    Ola Belle Campbell Reed

    THE SECOND DECADE: THE 1950S

    Bessie Lee Mauldin

    Vallie Cain

    Grace French

    The Lewis Family: Miggie, Polly, Janis

    The Stonemans: Patsy, Donna, Roni

    Margie Sullivan

    THE NUMBERS ARE GROWING: THE 1960S

    Jeanie West

    Betty Amos with Judy and Jean

    Gloria Belle

    Hazel and Alice

    Dottie Eyler

    Vivian Williams

    Bettie Buckland

    Rubye Davis

    Ginger Boatwright

    The Whites: Pat, Sharon, Cheryl, Rosie

    Wendy Thatcher

    Martha Adcock

    The McLain Family: Alice, Ruth, Nancy Ann

    THE FLOODGATES OPEN: THE 1970S

    Beck Gentry

    Suzanne Thomas

    Delia Bell

    Buffalo Gals

    Betty Fisher

    Katie Laur

    Dede Wyland

    Lynn Morris

    The Women in California

    Laurie Lewis

    Kathy Kallick

    Claire Lynch

    Lee Ann Lenker Baber

    LEADERS OF THE BAND: THE 1980S

    Missy Raines

    Alison Brown

    All-Female Bands

    Alison Krauss

    TOO MANY TO COUNT: THE 1990S AND BEYOND

    Kristin Scott Benson

    Rhonda Vincent

    The Dixie Chicks

    Cherryholmes

    Conclusion: Not Just Pretty Good for a Girl!

    Sources

    Bibliography

    Author Interviews and Emails

    Index

    ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

    During the ten years that I have been working on this book I have had an amazing amount of help from the bluegrass community. My first and biggest thanks go to the women who shared their life stories with me. In the midst of hectic schedules they carved out time for interviews, answered a long list of questions, endured endless follow-up emails, and trusted me with their revelations. Their belief that I would take them seriously, listen without judgment, sympathize with their choices, refrain from prying into personal issues, and respect their confidences meant the world to me. Thank you for this trust. I was ever aware of it as I was writing, and I have tried hard to present your stories with the admiration I feel for your accomplishments. Any errors of fact or interpretation are mine alone.

    My research almost always began in the pages of Bluegrass Unlimited, and I am greatly indebted to everyone who keeps this venerable publication rolling off the presses. Pete Kuykendall has been at the helm (or very close to it) since its inception in July 1966, and he and the entire staff were only a phone call away. (It did help that I’ve been writing the magazine’s “General Store” column since 1987.) Thanks to Linda Shaw, Kim Yates, Katie Blankenship, Pat Jeffries, Sally Pontarelli, Lisa Kay Howard, and Sharon McGraw for always taking my calls with good cheer, even when they were up against their own deadlines.

    I was consistently aided and abetted in my quest for corroborative detail by a number of other talented bluegrass writers. Three of these became my “go-to guys,” whose vast knowledge of all things bluegrass was ever at my disposal. For an entire decade Walt Saunders, Dick Spottswood, and Frank Godbey answered questions both deep and trivial at the drop of a hat—or rather the click of a mouse. Special thanks to Walt for insisting that I include Delia Bell and then lending me all of her albums, and to Dick for sending a complete list of Alex and Ola Belle’s 45 rpm recordings.

    Other exceptionally knowledgeable folks who were quick to reply to whatever information crisis I was facing at the moment include Tom Adler, Fred Bartenstein, Nancy Cardwell, David Dees, Jon Hartley Fox, Ken Irwin, Dan Hayes, Cherrill Heaton, Tom Henderson, Randy Pitts, Gary Reid, Neil Rosenberg, and Jon Weisberger. Their replies were often lengthy and thoughtful.

    A host of musicians who worked closely with the women profiled here graciously filled in some elusive biographical tidbits. Many thanks to James Brooks, Andrew Buckland, Pat Cloud, Wayne Clyburn, Dudley Connell, Ed Dye, Tony Ellis, Bill Emerson, Pat Enright, Kristin Ericsson, Bill Evans, Bob Forrester, Joe Forrester, Bob French, Troy Gilchrist, Tom Gray, Jim Greer, Marvin Gruenbaum, Dave Harvey, John Hedgecoth, Bill Keith, Keith Little, Barbara MacDonald Magone, David McLaughlin, Ann Milovsoroff, Bruce Nemerov, Andy Owens, Todd Rakestraw, Wayne Rice, Mike Seeger, Elmo Shropshire, Rick Shubb, Tim Stafford, Peter Thompson, Tony Trischka, Butch Waller, Peter Wernick, Marshall Wilborn, and Mark Wingate.

    The Bluegrass and IBMA Listservs kept me connected to the worldwide bluegrass community. Any time I posted a question (“Does anyone know who played banjo with Ola Belle before Ted Lundy?” “Does anyone have the Good Ol’ Persons’ first album?”), someone would shoot back an answer, offer to copy the album (“Don’t tell Laurie Lewis!”), or provide a telephone number. My heartfelt thanks to all of you. As Charlie Monroe used to say, “I’d like to buy you all a drink…and I would if I thought one would go around!” Some of the fine folks who came through with recordings or information include Tom Armstrong, Cary Banks, Nick Barr, Cindy Brooks Baucom, Geoff Berne, Andrea Broadstreet, James Bryan, Meredith Bub, Mike Bub, DeeDee Bunnell, Joe Bussard, Lauren Calista, Jean-Mark Delon, Debbie Durant, Leo Eilts, Stewart Evans, Tom Ewing, Mark Freeman, Lena Taylor Isner, Rienk Janssen, Fred Jasper, Mike Kelley, Paul Kenny, Jerry Keys, Bill Knowlton, Kitsy Kuykendall, Kevin Lynch, Art Menius, Rod Moag, Harry Moore, Terry Moorehead, Julia Mottesheard, Alan Munde, Brad Paul, Jeremy Raven, Archie Warnock, Andy Wilkinson, Joe Wilson, and Ellen Wright. Pam Bock transcribed interviews early on. My apologies if I failed to mention any of you who extended a helping hand. The blame rests squarely on my faulty memory and less-than-stellar record keeping.

    Other fellow travelers who went to great lengths to help out include Elena Sky, who Xeroxed Ola Belle Reed’s entire unpublished autobiography; Richard D. Smith, who shared copies of his own original research into Bessie Lee Mauldin’s life; and Eddie Stubbs, who duplicated cassettes of his live, on-air interview with Wilma Lee Cooper. Writers who generously provided entire unedited transcripts of interviews they conducted themselves include Ira Gitlin, Derek Halsey, Casey Henry, Henry Koretzky, and Carolyn Wright. Ira also interviewed Dede Wyland specifically for this book. And near the end of my journey, dozens of wonderful photographers, along with the women themselves, dug through old photos and then generously granted permission to use those I selected. I am greatly in your debt.

    I was also blessed to have not one but two editors during this long labor. Judy McCulloh offered the initial idea for the book and was unwavering in her support. Her suggestions were always insightful and kind. Laurie Matheson, who took over when Judy retired, has been patient with my numerous questions and my hit-and-miss work ethic. Her enthusiasm over early portions of the book boosted my confidence and fired me up to write more while her hand-holding eased my angst. This is a better book thanks to my copyeditor, Jill R. Hughes.

    My thanks would not be complete without mentioning those who have been with me for the long haul. My sisters, Claire, Argen, Nancy, and Laurie, were my first singing partners. We learned to sing from our mama, who eased us into slumber with songs like “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch.” Daddy didn’t sing so much but supported our early bluegrass endeavors by listening and saying, “Stop tuning and play!”

    My final thanks goes to my own family, to whom I have dedicated this book. To Red for keeping the Murphy Method going so that I could write, for proofreading, and for going above and beyond the call to scan and tweak more than a hundred photos; to Casey for carving her own feminist bluegrass path, banjo in hand; to Chris for his stellar songwriting, which always makes me smile and sometimes moves me to tears. And to my first grandson, Dalton Whitfield Henry, whose favorite song of the moment is “Larry Perkins Had a Dog and Banjo Was His Name.”

    A few years ago I decided life is too short not to dance. By chance, fate, or kismet, I found square dancing. A great big THANK YOU to my square-dancing friends and angels for keeping me sane during the final push to finish this book, making me laugh out loud, and telling me I look good in a short skirt with a huge petticoat! And, as always, to Karen and Bonnie.

    INTRODUCTION

    This book has had a long gestation period. In fact you might say I’ve been preparing to write it all my life, since I am both a woman and a banjo player. That combination has always been fraught with some amount of tension, which occasionally found voice in my Banjo NewsLetter column. The second article I wrote, in 1983, was titled “For Girls Only” and contained the sage advice, “And finally, ignore all Slack-Jawed Bimbos who have the audacity to try to strike up a conversation with the comment, ‘You’re pretty good for a girl.’” When you hear that often enough, it makes an impact. You understand the intent is to offer praise, but at the same time the compliment comes with the hidden dagger “for a girl.” When I was growing up in the fifties, that line was the ultimate put-down. “You throw like a girl.” “You run like a girl.” “You pick like a girl.” “You are a girl.” I fought back the only way I knew how: by becoming a tomboy.

    Still, this book might not have sprouted wings at all if I hadn’t been at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards (IBMA) show in September 1993. My banjo-picking daughter, Casey, fifteen, and I sat in the audience and watched as a band of young male musicians, the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars, was referred to by one of the hosts as the “future of bluegrass music.” I was livid. When told that the show’s organizers had tried but couldn’t find a young woman to be part of the group, I decided to start a database of women in bluegrass so that no one could ever use that excuse again. The database grew into a quarterly newsletter, Women in Bluegrass, which was published for ten years, from 1994 to 2003.

    During this time period, fired up by the IBMA incident and inspired by the writings of feminist Carolyn Heilbrun, who authored the seminal Writing a Woman’s Life, I began working on my master’s degree at George Mason University in the summer of 1995. In 1999 I was awarded the Master of Arts degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in women’s studies. I wrote my thesis on Sally Ann Forrester, the first woman in bluegrass. Her story became the opening chapter in this book.

    But as I learned in my feminist studies, my own history informs every aspect of my research, my writing, and my thought processes. I once described my first twenty years of growing up in Georgia as “barren of bluegrass but not of music.” My musical roots are planted deep in the Broadman Hymnal and the Baptist Church, in sing-alongs at myriad Girl Scout and 4-H camps, and in the piano lessons that were requisite for well-rounded little girls in the June Cleaver era. I have had a stringed instrument in my hands ever since I got a ukulele for Christmas in the fourth grade. Guitar came next, allowing me to follow in the footsteps of my idol, Gamble Rogers, and become a folksinger in college. Finally in 1972, at the advanced age of twenty, following a suggestion from Gamble, I went to my first bluegrass festival in Lavonia, Georgia, where, as so many other women have testified, I got “bitten by the bug.” I also met my husband-to-be, mandolin player Red Henry. Shortly thereafter I got myself a good-sounding banjo and joined Betty Fisher and the Dixie Bluegrass Band—as bass player. I had entered the world of bluegrass and there was no turning back.

    To me this new world seemed to be populated by “men, men, and more men” as Hazel Dickens once noted. The bands I shared the stage with, the bands I worshipped, were all made up of men: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Osborne Brothers, and Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys. Even the hottest regional bands were all male: the Shenandoah Cut-ups, the Bluegrass Tarheels, the Sunshine Bluegrass Boys, Marty Raybon and the American Bluegrass Express.

    Culturally conditioned to dismiss women and their accomplishments as unworthy, I failed to even see, much less give credit to, the many women I worked shows with: Margie Sullivan; Miggie, Polly, and Janis Lewis; Frances Mundy Mooney; Gwen Biddix Flinchum; Connie Freeman Morris; Louisa Branscomb; Martha Adcock; Barbara and Gwen White; Pam and Connie Hobbs; Alice and Ruth McLain; Sharon and Cheryl White; Marlene Hinson; Betty Fisher; and even my own sisters, Claire, Argen, Nancy, and Laurie Hicks, who were budding musicians. I always had some excuse to dismiss the women I saw: she’s “just” a guitar player and singer, she’s “just” a bass player, she’s a wimpy banjo player. Many of the women who were interviewed for this book felt the same way and often said, “I was the only woman I knew playing bluegrass.” Although later on they would casually say, “Of course there was Wilma Lee.” Or Gloria Belle. Or Ola Belle. Or Donna Stoneman. Or the Lewis Family sisters.

    But I was not the only one who was blind to the presence and accomplishments of women in bluegrass. The idea that bluegrass was “man’s music” was shared by others more experienced and knowledgeable than I was. In the first scholarly work about the music, “An Introduction to Bluegrass,” folklorist Mayne Smith wrote, “Bluegrass bands are made up of from four to seven male musicians who play non-electrified stringed instruments and who also sing as many as four parts [emphasis mine].” Smith’s article was originally published in the Journal of American Folklore (1965) but was reprinted in Bluegrass Unlimited (1966), thus not only propagating that myth in academic circles but also injecting it into the bluegrass community.

    The glaring fact that Bessie Lee Mauldin had been playing bass—and recording—with Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, from 1952 to 1964 is somehow blithely ignored. She was undoubtedly dismissed because she was a girl—Monroe’s girlfriend. Still, Mayne Smith’s own band, the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, from California, used bass player Betty Aycrigg on some of their earliest gigs. Then there were all the other women who were playing bluegrass before 1965: Sally Ann Forrester; Wilma Lee Cooper; Rose Maddox; Ola Belle Campbell Reed; Vallie Cain; Patsy, Donna, and Roni Stoneman; Peggy Brain; Miggie, Polly, and Janis Lewis; Margie Sullivan. And these are just the better-known female musicians. The list goes on. What about these women? By his own admission Smith arrived at his definition by “following the ideas of the musicians themselves” to arrive at the “defining traits of bluegrass.” One wonders if any of those musicians were women.

    Earlier Ralph Rinzler had written a biographical sketch of Roni Stoneman in which he opined, “Just as it is rare for women to play ‘bluegrass’ style music it is even more rare for them to play this banjo style.” He expressed these thoughts in the liner notes to the LP American Banjo: Three-Finger and Scruggs Style (Folkways, 1957). As late as 1985 preeminent bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg, author of Bluegrass: A History, does not challenge Mayne Smith’s definition, but instead makes the tiniest alteration, saying, “The band members are almost always men; in fact, in its formative years bluegrass was virtually a male music [my emphasis].” Eight years later, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (1993), that wonderful work by Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann, would echo Rosenberg’s words, bearing the myth onward: “Bluegrass music remained an almost completely male domain [my emphasis] during its first twenty-five years.” Twenty years later this definition was still being quoted in other scholarly works, such as William Lynwood Montell’s Grassroots Music in the Upper Cumberland (University of Tennessee Press, 2006). And Mark Humphrey, writing in the liner notes to a 1992 Bill Monroe boxed set, would actually use the phrase “man’s music” and speak in sneering tones of the mandolin as a “woman’s instrument”: “[Bill Monroe] would create a ferocious and hell-bent man’s music [my emphasis] on an instrument disparaged as a kid’s or a woman’s.”

    Fittingly, it was Alice Gerrard, herself a pioneer woman in bluegrass, who would challenge Neil Rosenberg’s thinking. Neil wrote the liner notes to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard’s second Folkways album, Won’t You Come and Sing for Me, which was recorded in 1965 but not released until 1973. The eight-year delay required Neil to revisit his original liner notes. In the rewritten notes Neil talks candidly about what happened. In his 1965 notes he had quoted Mayne Smith as saying, “‘Bluegrass bands are made up of from four to seven male musicians.’” Neil then went on to suggest two reasons for this. He wrote, “Few women seem to possess the technical skill necessary to play bluegrass instruments properly and few women can sustain the ‘punch’ or ‘drive’ so essential for the successful presentation of bluegrass vocals.” On reading this, Alice wrote back to articulately explain that “one reason most women in bluegrass or even country music have tended not to possess the above-mentioned skills is not for lack of inherent ability, but more because they have not been encouraged to develop these skills and qualities; or have felt or been made to feel that the skills were not in keeping with their oft-defined roles as women.” To Neil’s everlasting credit, he printed Alice’s remarks as part of the new liner notes and graciously admitted that her writing “points out the flaws in my reasoning quite concisely.”

    I myself had absorbed what I had read so unconsciously and so well that in the liner notes to my own album M & M Blues (Arrandem, 1992) I wrote, “Twenty years ago there were not many women in this [bluegrass] world, let alone women who played banjo Scruggs-style.” What I failed to recognize back then was that I didn’t want to acknowledge the other women out there, because if I had, then how could I have been that “rare woman who has known this instrument [the banjo] understandingly enough to become a virtuoso,” which is what Nat Winston declared in his foreword to the instructional book Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo (1968). I wanted to be that Rare Woman. I told myself that I was. As this book will show, however, I was not. Roni Stoneman, Gloria Belle Flickinger, Sally Wingate, Lynn Morris, Janet Davis, Betty Amos, Bettie Buckland, Susie Monick, Connie Freeman Morris, Mary Cox, Connie Hobbs, Louisa Bran

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