Monday, November 22, 2010

First Days of Family Research Fellowship

Timi researching in the KHS reading room
Several months ago, we were awarded a Family Research Fellowship from the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS).  We had originally planned to conduct a continuous week of research during October, but with the convergence of my two part-time jobs, we had to reconfigure our research schedule.  So we decided to spread out the full week we proposed across several weekends before the library closes its doors to the public for three months of in-house organization.  This weekend we spent two full days (Friday and Saturday) starting our first research shift at the KHS Martin F. Schmidt Research Library and Special Collections.

We were pleased to finally meet Jim Kastner, Library Services Administrator, who helped us coordinate our visit and gather research materials from our proposal.  We also had a wonderful conversation with Sarah Milligan, Kentucky Oral History Commission (KOHC) Program Administrator, who we met through our participation in the Community Scholars Program.  We caught up on some of the interesting discussions and presentations that she participated in while attending the Oral History Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta.  She retrieved the oral history materials that we planned to review as well as a couple of interviews from another collection that she thought might be helpful.

Both days at the library were extremely educational and productive and slightly overwhelming.  We quickly realized how short our scheduled time actually was and that we will likely return when the library reopens in March to conduct additional research beyond the formal fellowship period.  We began by exploring several collections and publications that we listed in our original fellowship proposal, some of which were more relevant than others.  For example, I was disappointed to discover a that the Bluegrass Music News publication was not about "Bluegrass music" at all but rather music education in the Bluegrass region.  The subtitle Official Publication of the Kentucky Music Educators Association should have been a clue from the beginning, but I think I just glossed over that detail in my eagerness to find relevant resources.  However, for the most part, we found several interesting facts and leads in the preliminary sources we selected.

Two of the collections that Sarah pulled for us were the Renfro Valley Barn Dance Oral History Project and the Sarah Gertrude Knott/John Lair Oral History Project.  Timi read through the Renfro Valley transcripts, and I began looking through the Knott/Lair interview logs.  Timi kept laughing out loud while she was reading the interview transcripts for Manual "Ol' Joe" Clark.  He was quite a character and apparently far more bold and brazen in his interview humor than his family-friendly comedy routines at Renfro Valley.  Timi recalls meeting him a few times when she was a kid, and her grandmother remembered him fondly in her stories about playing there.

She found Clark's and Jim Gaskin's interviews the most interesting and relevant because they referred to more of the lesser known artists who performed at Renfro Valley and talked about the roving tent shows and community gigs that they played around the region.  They both also offered an honest account of the way in which Lair controlled the ultimate level of fame and financial success for many artists.  While neither reference the Reedys directly, the information about the conditions of some of the more working-class musicians provides a substantial context for their experience performing at and for Renfro Valley.

Jim Gaskin was also interviewed in an additional collection that Sarah pulled for us, which was the Folklife of Kentucky River Oral History Project.  In fact, he is interviewed in several oral history projects at KHS, so we'll make sure to request his interviews from these additional collections when we return to the library in a couple of weeks.  We must also find out if he is still around, and if so, perhaps find a way to talk to him directly.

I mostly skimmed through the interview logs pertaining to Sarah Gertrude Knott as she was not directly relevant to our project.  In the folders about John Lair, I read through the interviews with three of his four daughters: Virginia, Nancy, and Barbara.  Some of them also referred to more obscure performers, but they mostly recount memories of the primary well-know players.  They were all born in the 1930's and 40's, so there may also be a possibility that some of them are still around as well.  They really loved their father and had many interesting tales about growing up in the middle of the Renfro Valley compound throughout its heyday.

One of Lair's daughters referenced Emory Martin, one of the performers affiliated with the tent shows, and she indicated that he may have kept a journal about them.  I'm not sure where we would find out more about this, but such documentation would be invaluable.  I've only begun looking through this collection, but there are already several leads to follow.  I'm looking forward to resuming my review of interview logs with Loyal Jones' folder when we return.

Another fruitful item on our original list of sources was the grassroots genealogy publication Harlan Mountain Roots.  Timi started looking through these because she would more easily recognize names and photos of her actual or possible ancestors from Harlan County.  She found a lot of references to family members or family names and wants to go back to some of the issues she's already reviewed and look at them again.  She learned so much more about the history of the community and was surprised to discover that the railroad did not come to Harlan until 1911, and prior to the subsequent coal boom, it was a community of subsistence farmers known as Mount Pleasant for its breathtaking beauty.  So Timi's grandparents were born and raised during Harlan's massive economic and population explosion.

Our original resource list included some books about Appalachian migration and regional music such as Bluegrass: A History; Invisible Minority, Urban Appalachians; and Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky.  I browsed the music indexes for references to the Reedys, and like most historical accounts focuses on more mainstream artists.  They definitely provided other topical and contextual leads, but I later looked to see if they were at the Berea College library as well.  Rather than spend too much time reading and taking notes from these and several other relevant books I discovered by browsing, I decided to make a list of them and their call numbers at Hutchins Library so we can just check them out later.

In addition to the preset list of materials we planned to explore, I found several spontaneous and serendipitous sources by browsing and following leads.  For example, in the vertical files I found a collection of articles about miscellaneous Kentucky musicians, and there was a newspaper article from a 1990 edition of The State Journal about then-Frankfort resident Guthrie Meade who played the fiddle and maybe a couple of other instruments.  However, he's most famous for compiling a comprehensive discography of traditional and country music, including artists, composers, and recordings, which his wife donated to the University of North Carolina (UNC) after his death in 1991.  He also published a book version called Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music, which I discovered is available in the Berea College Special Collections (Call # 781.621 M481c).  The book is obviously more accessible than his complete discography and correspondence, but we would like to figure out how we might be able to arrange a visit to the UNC Southern Folklife Collection to review the Meade (and other) materials firsthand. 

The Meade collection also led me to a really interesting online exhibit called Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol.  "The materials used in the exhibit were arranged around a rough chronology outlined in Archie Green's "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol" a landmark article published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1965."  The site includes several images of old record labels, like Okeh and Vocalion, that are among the numerous vinyl recordings in Frances Reedy's personal record collection.  It also provides an important history of the early country music that Reedy's listened to as well as its evolution as "hillbilly music."

Through my brief browsing of books, I found reference to an article on "Small Specialty Record Companies in the United States" that was published in the JEMF Quarterly published by the John Edwards Memorial Foundation.  I had never heard of the publication, so I ended up searching for a reference in Google Books and inadvertently discovered a reference to John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Hillbillies in a 1979 issue!  The image snippets of the pages were incomplete and hard to read, but fortunately there are hard copies of the JEMF Quarterly 784.4 J65q).  So we have several items to follow up on during our next trip to Hutchins Library. in the Berea College Special Collections.

Timi and I both learned, through separate sources, that the call letters for the radio station in Bristol, TN/VA when her grandparents might have played there were WCYB.  As noted in previous posts, their first commercial recording was a 78 of "Somebody Touched Me" on the Bristol "Twin City" label.  So I did an online search and found that there is a collection of WCYB Radio Tapes at the East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.  The Reedys are not listed among the artists on the recordings in the collection, but they would provide an interesting soundtrack for the time period and some of the artists they likely encountered. 

From previous internet searches, I was already familiar with the "Women in Bluegrass" newsletter published by banjoist Murphy Henry from 1994 to 2003.  I had even sent her a link to our project blog when we first began our Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship.  So it was not really a surprise to find some references to her and the keynote address she gave at the IBMA tradeshow in 1998 that gave birth to her newsletter.  But most recently I discovered that she also maintains a blog that includes more recent updates and references to the topic of "women in Bluegrass," so I'm going to try and touch base with her again to see if she has any information or leads in terms of Frances' history or her female contemporaries.

While most of our research and related leads were useful, there were a couple of items that led to dead ends.  For example, I was very excited when I found the WHLN Radio Songbook in the KHS catalog because WHLN was the Harlan radio station where the Reedys played for 17½ years.  However, the book was simply a generic compilation of gospel songs that appeared to be a custom publication commissioned by and printed for a particular family.  So it included only common church hymns and none of the Reedys' gospel songs they likely performed on the station. 

Another seemingly promising but disappointing source was an index of names and subjects in the Harlan Enterprise, the community's local newspaper.  But  the index only covered a couple of years in the 1920's.  We had hopes that a comprehensive collection of the Harlan Enterprise would be available in the University of Kentucky (UK) archives, but a preliminary search of their library catalog did not result in much else.  My hope is that I'm not searching or understanding the results correctly so I plan to contact them directly to find out what they really have.  Meanwhile, there are a couple of other important resources at UK that we would like to explore sometime: the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

Overall, we spent an amazing and rewarding two days researching at the KHS library.  We obviously found a significant amount of information regardless of a few detours and dead-ends.  However, first days also reminded us how short our fellowship time really is and how we must make the most of the time that we have.  When we return after the Thanksgiving holiday, we still have several oral histories to go through.  We also plan to explore more of the county and state records they have as well as more genealogical resources.

I would be remiss if I didn't include a final note about our dining experiences during our two-day visit to Frankfort.  On Friday, we ate lunch at Clare Ann's, where we both had a bowl of tomato basil soup with our sandwiches.  Timi had the "Pretty Pesto Wrap" and I had the BBT, which was turkey, bacon, benedictine, sprouts and lettuce on homemade oatmeal walnut bread.  Yum! 

Then on Saturday, we ate lunch at Gibby's alongside lots of families and even a Girl Scout troop.  Timi had a bowl of chili and a three salad sampler with tuna salad, bacon romaine, and broccoli walnut.  I ordered the "Isaac Shelby" sandwich, which I could've eaten ten of!  Quoting the menu description is sufficient to convey why: "Two slices of Texas Toast bread grilled with garlic butter topped with Swiss & Provolone cheese, roast beef, sauteed mushrooms & red onions."  Need I say yum?!

At Gibby's we also ran into some former Berea folks who live outside of Frankfort now.  We enjoyed the unexpected encounter and chatting about our respective projects.  Next time we're in Frankfort, we hope to check out their very beautiful farm and retreat center in person.  At any rate, we know that we're going to eat at Gibby's again when we come back for our second round of research!

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