By Leah Esslinger
Grants coordinator Toni Doman currently spends her days at Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum sifting through content for the museum’s upcoming Women in Old-Time Music exhibit. But you can tell that she’s really a musician. Her degree concentration in bluegrass music from Glenville State College serves as evidence. The real proof is evidenced by the way her voice gets when she talks about the lives of the legendary women she’s studying, women like Ola Belle Reed, Hattie Stoneman, and Lulu Belle Wiseman. She’s in awe, sure. But there’s an intimacy too. Doman isn’t separate from her subjects. She is one of them.
The museum’s head curator and one of Doman’s co-researchers Rene Rodgers, on the other hand, is definitely not a musician. “I’ve tried to play the banjo,” she says, laughing. “I cannot.” She states this fact with a level-headed certainty that I suspect belies a meticulous yet decisive investigative style. My suspicion pans out. Before she became the museum’s head curator, Rodgers worked on the museum’s content development team. Rodgers and Doman seem like a new take on an old-school cop show. Their contrasting styles complement each other. Along with a group of expert collaborators, they’re an investigative dream team.
Getting Hardworking Folks Through Harder Days
The first mystery of a research investigation is identifying the research subject. Despite the easy musical genres that organize your Spotify playlist, music is notoriously difficult to categorize. Old-time music is probably more difficult to define than most. The team’s basic definition is rooted in old-time’s diverse musical influences and the instruments used to create it:
“Its origins lie with the sounds of the voice, fiddle and banjo, and the later addition of instruments like guitar, mandolin, autoharp, harmonica, and piano. Old-time encompasses a range of musics including African and African American styles, minstrels, dance music, ballads, play party songs, Anglo Celtic fiddle tunes, Victorian parlor songs, and sacred songs,”
The fluidity of the definition is striking, but formal genres are the work of producers and marketers, according to Rodgers and Doman. Though the musicians they discuss span formal genres, one aspect of old-time music is never in dispute. Old-time music belongs to Appalachia.
Old-time started as the music that got hardworking folks through even harder days. “You could work and sing a ballad, and it could be like ten minutes until you’d get to the end. Ballads were meant to be sung while you were working and doing your chores, you know,” says Doman. She and Rodgers tell me that through work songs, women were heavy contributors to the creation of old-time. Singing lullabies to their babies, teaching songs to their children and singing ballads while children played nearby was how musical legacies survived. “Women were the ones that were the tradition bearers,” Doman says. “They were the ones that were carrying these songs and passing them down.”
The Perfect Women
Women singing, working, rocking their babies in the unfettered Appalachia countryside. The image conjures a sweetness, a sense of simple pleasure tinged with more than a little nostalgia. It’s a seductive image, as much now as it would have been in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Then, like now, people fretted over the radical demographic shifts that ushered in political uncertainty. Then, like now, there was much handwringing over growing economic inequality amidst unprecedented technological change. Radio was one of the new technologies, and it didn’t take long for producers to realize that the sense of nostalgia the American South evokes could be marketed to a national audience through the music of the American South.
Women had a role to play in the imagined version of America’s South. They were to be cast–quite literally–as the pillars of society. “When you had female singers, they were often told by producers that they really shouldn’t sing anything that’s not uplifting or that was deemed inappropriate,” Rodgers explains. “Their personification and the characters they were playing through the radio were on the moral high ground.”
“They were supposed to be the perfect woman,” adds Doman.
Although this characterization gave them a role to play, the heavy restrictions took a toll. Producers often controlled how they dressed and how they could behave after hours. If they didn’t comply, they could be fired. Women performers were expected to fulfill the role of wife and mother in addition to their duties as a working musician, even though marriage and pregnancy might also leave them unemployed. “The Coon Creek Girls always had rotating members because somebody got married or somebody got pregnant,” says Doman. “Bands broke up for that reason.”
No One’s Fool
There’s a weight in all the lost opportunity, the missed potential. But pitying these early performers risks overlooking the ways many of these women managed to take control of their images. Sometimes they’d embrace the tropes and use them to their advantage. Like Myrtle Eleanor Cooper who performed with her husband under the stage name Lulu Belle Wiseman. As one half of the popular duo Lulu Belle and Scotty, Lulu Belle Wiseman looked every bit the gingham-clad country bumpkin. Two decades later, when she was running for a seat in North Carolina’s House of Representatives, Myrtle Eleanor Cooper was clearly no one’s fool.
“I think some of the stories of artists who took more control than you would assume they would be able to are really interesting,” says Rodgers. I Agree. But we forget that simply performing in public as a woman in the 1930s and 40s would have been an act of defiance–a fact not so easily forgotten by the women themselves. After that first public breech of social order, would these women have found each consecutive rebellion a little easier? I ask Doman and Rodgers.
Doman nods emphatically, “There’s definitely a transition point there when women started writing, sharing their own stories and words. It’s Ola Belle.” Of course it’s Ola Belle. It’s hard to conjure an image of Ola Belle Reed, known for songs like, “I’ve Endured” and “My Epithet,” feigning perfection, smiling prettily for the camera.
As we begin to wind down the interview, I ask Doman and Rodgers how things have changed over the years. Their review is mixed, but it’s tinged with hope. “I think there’s still a long way to go, honestly. I think that this is a great exhibit to show an audience what happened in the past and bring these issues to light.”
“You’ve got a lot of contemporary musicians out there right now who are deeply interested in the history of the music they’re playing,” Rodgers adds. “They’re creating old-time music that tells some of the stories of people in the past, but also about the future of old-time through that interest in history.”
You can visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol in the fall of 2022 and experience the Women in Old-Time Music exhibit for yourself. The exhibit is made possible in part by a grant from Virginia Humanities. To learn more about old-time and other traditional music in Virginia, visit our Virginia Folklife Program at VirginiaFolklife.org.
Rodgers and Doman would like to publicly recognize and thank everyone who contributed to the research and development of museum content– old-time musician and scholar at East Tennessee State University, Kalia Yeagle; musician Cathy Fink; curatorial manager at Birthplace of Country Music (BCMM), Erika Barker; BCMM’s digital media, programming & exhibit logistics manager Scotty Almany; and East History Tennessee History Center’s senior curator & operations manager Adam Alfrey.