Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Barbara Greenlief, April 27, 1996. Interview R-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Grandmother's influence on music and ideas about gender

Greenlief discusses her grandmother's influence on her mother's musical career. Although Greenlief argues that it was primarily her grandfather who cultivated musical sensibility in his children, the ballads her mother sang to her also strongly influenced Lily May Ledford's later career in music. Additionally, Greenlief explains her grandmother's thoughts on proper gender roles, particularly in relationship to music. Elsewhere in the interview, Greenlief discusses her mother's difficulty with negotiating those roles and her comments here reveal the ways in which such ideas about gender are constructed and learned.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Barbara Greenlief, April 27, 1996. Interview R-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

LISA YARGER:
You were talking about which person in the family Lily May got most of her musical influence from. But didn't she learn some ballads from your grandmother?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
She did. Back then, I think, early on she sang occasionally when she was rocking them, when she would rock the babies, which was something everybody did. You know, that was the common thing. But in terms of my grandmother interacting with other people, like when other people came around—my grandfather had friends who would drop by to play music, and she never interacted, as a matter of fact, it made her angry when they would come. She felt like, well, they'll probably stay a couple of days. I remember Mom saying sometimes they would stay, and she would know that he wasn't going to work, you know. [Laughter] But I think all women in the mountains sang ballads to their children, you know, when they were rocking. It could be that she sang around the house; I have never heard those stories. You know, if mom said she sang a lot around the house, that would surprise me, because I understood that it was mostly just rocking babies, and would sing a little, and mom, you know, got really interested in the songs and kind of drew her out and learned them. And sometimes would have to go other places to learn the whole song, because my grandmother wouldn't know it; she'd just know one verse, enough to sing to the babies.
LISA YARGER:
Got you. And I know she's written in a couple of places which songs those were that she learned from her mother. I guess "Pretty Polly," "Barbara Allen," do you remember others?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
The "Little Benny" song, I think, was a song, I'm not sure about that, but I think the "Little Benny" is a song her mother song, and also "The Two Orphans," the song about the two orphans, which is a song that Jean Ritchie and a lot of others do in different versions. It's done a lot in the Kentucky mountains. Those are the only ones I know about. There's one called "The Brown Girl," which could be from her mother. I would say it probably is, because it's a very old song and it's not done much anymore. Or from someone around that area, because it's not something she would have picked up on in her teenage years in mingling with dance groups, you know, so I think that's probably another ballad that she learned at home.
LISA YARGER:
What made a song acceptable or not to your grandmother? Because I know she, there were certain things that she really did not want especially her daughters to sing.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I thinks she felt it was unladylike to sing driving—fast, driving songs, no matter what the subject was. Things that had to be played with a fiddle, as part of the background instruments. The fiddle has a real bad reputation among women in the mountains, as going along with drinking and carousing and all that. I think they thought it stimulated certain kinds of feelings in men, you know, that they didn't want them to have. So, the fast, driving songs were kind of a no-no. And I really—I know that she didn't, you know, the "Pretty Polly," she didn't want Mom to sing "Pretty Polly" later even though she had sung that song to her, because of the subject matter.
LISA YARGER:
Oh, really?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Yeah. That bothered her, once she got out and started singing it in public, you know, she didn't want that to represent what they were—a song about a murder. So, I don't think she had any idea that what was done there at the house would ever be a representation of the Ledford family.
LISA YARGER:
I see.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
You know, but it was.
LISA YARGER:
When you say unladylike, what do you think that she meant by that? Why do you think that those songs were not fit for ladies to sing?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I think that my grandmother had a very different view of what she would have liked the family to be, than my grandfather. I think she probably had more discipline built into her than he did, and she, I think she wanted them to go consistently to church on Sunday, she wanted women to act one way and men another. She had very defined roles in her mind about women should do and men should do. But, when you've got the kind of talent that I think was ingrained in him, you know, and transported to Mom, art kind of exempts that. You know, that holding down of traditional kinds [she pounds her fist into her hand to emphasize] of roles and, we don't move out of that, you know, and so, I think she was very frustrated about that. She didn't view it as a musical talent, which a lot of them got—a lot of the children got—she viewed it as learning to be lazy from their father. And it was real difficult for her to look beyond that. She just, that's the way she viewed it. So, all of the kinds of traditional things that other families did, or that the quote "acceptable" families did, they didn't do. And I think that that's where, her eye was on that. That's what she wanted, but she couldn't achieve that with this family. And maybe that came from the Baptist background, you know, the real hard-core Baptist background: if you do things one way, and that's the only way you do them and you don't step out of it one way or the other or you're going to hell. But she was always frustrated about them not walking a narrower course.