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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Barbara Greenlief, April 27, 1996. Interview R-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Personal turmoil regarding professional life and gender ideals

Greenlief speaks about the inner turmoil her mother experienced as a woman intent on pursuing a career as a professional musician, while simultaneously trying to abide by the gender ideals of the day. Earlier, Greenlief had discussed her grandmother's ideas about gender. Picking up on that theme here, Greenlief goes on to discuss how despite the fact that her mother was portrayed as an independent woman professionally, in her personal life she felt the need to demonstrate subservience to her male manager, John Lair, and to her husbands.

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:
What do you think she would have chosen for your mother and Rosie, also, had she had more control? What kinds of daughters would she preferred to have raised? Because all three of her daughters that lived ended up as professional musicians.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I'd say, probably her view of what she would have thought they should have done was to get married and stay home and raise kids and let the men work, and be domestic. You know, I certainly think the more modern kinds of conveniences that came along at the time they were raising kids would have been, she would have thought that was wonderful. You know, I don't think she would have necessarily have wanted the old-style of doing things. She would have wanted them to be as progressive as they could in terms of what their homes were like, but I think that she probably viewed women working as something they shouldn't be doing, maybe unless it was a teacher. But I don't know any conversations about her influencing them to be anything in particular.
LISA YARGER:
Right. Where did your mother get such a drive to pursue music? Because all of what she writes, you know, she was always sneaking off to find time, you know, swiping her brother's banjo. I mean, she really overcame a lot of obstacles to do what she wanted to do.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
You know, I think, myself, I've thought a lot about that. I think it's genetically inborn. I really do. I think when someone has enough of a talent—it's almost not just a talent, it's a—I think artists who have the perception in the area that they do develop a tunnel-visioned view of the world almost in order to refine that. And if you look back at artists they, you know, a lot of artists have had a very sad social life, or sad family life, because in order to do it and perfect it, they have to have almost that tunnel vision approach to it, where that is the only thing that drives them. And it's such an inborn kind of drive, that I don't think they can help it. I don't think it would be anything they could get rid of. That's sort of the way I view it. I've been around a lot of musicians, you know, and know a lot of families who have people who are successful musicians, and that seems to be what I see. Is that it's almost like a genetic mutation. You know, it's like a person who has no need to be what normal people are. They just have this inborn drive that drives them in the direction that they're going to perfect, whatever it is they have. And my brother is the same way. I mean, talk to him about business things, paying taxes, I mean his wife handles everything. He has no idea. He just keeps his eye on that one thing. And that's kind of the way she was. The only time Mom was truly happy was when she was playing, or when she was going to play, and when she was collaborating with people about the next show. You know, or knew that next Wednesday someone was coming to the house and they were all going to get together to play music. It was just, that was it. That was the one thing that drove her. And it was like nothing else really—she didn't want other things to get very much in the way of that.
LISA YARGER:
Did she have to sacrifice things in her life to achieve that, to maintain that tunnel vision that you are referring to?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
She, well, I think that the combination of having that inbred talent and that desire to perfect it, mixed with the kind of subservient view that women had to men, was really a difficult thing for her all her life. She would not openly challenge a man. And, you would not think that if you saw her on stage perform, you know, because she is so powerful. Her performances are so powerful and her stories are very powerful. But she could not get away from that not directly challenging men, so that John Lair, the other men she worked with, both of her husbands, pretty much set the stage for what her life would be, in terms of her success. She wasn't a business type; she did what they told her to do. All she wanted to do was play music; she just wanted to play music. And she did not have the professional kind of success I guess that like Jean Ritchie, whose husband was interested in her career and who promoted her career. I think Mom would have had a lot more wide-spread audience had that happened. But that was a real problem for her. She was always very privately angry about the manipulation, but she would not confront it. So, yet, she was so strong-willed that it ate her up, you know, because she was angry about it. And from a young age, I remember feeling, why don't you, you know, if you want a washer and dryer, and you don't want to go to the Laundromat any more, why don't you just go buy one and charge it, you know? And things like that, I recognized that from an early age, that she had that problem. She was always having women over and, talk about, you know, how their husbands were doing this, and they wouldn't let them have this, and they wouldn't let them do that, but yet she would not say a word to my father or to John Lair about how she felt. So, that was a big frustration for her all her life. That drive and that ability and that lack of power all combined together.
LISA YARGER:
That is very interesting, because the performances I have seen of her, you're right, I mean, she comes across as so independent and so strong-willed. And that's—one of the things I've noticed that a lot of country music scholars now writing about women performers tend to do is they tend to make her out to be a real feminist in her music. They talk about her as the leader of the Coon Creek Girls and sometimes even imply that she had the power to hire and fire band members, and she did not! It's just interesting to me how that kind of revision of history comes about. And I think it's possible that they knew her in her later years or saw her, and seeing that, could not believe that it could have been otherwise.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
The Reel World Band, who probably the most feminist women's group of musicians we have here in Kentucky, wonderful musicians, kind of just, you know—she was their inspiration! They were over there all the time, yet, I would be, you know, they were always, I'd take her to a lot of the things she did, the local things she did, and they would just talk to me and talk to me about how she was their role model. And I was always just kind of, you know, nodding my head and thinking, wow, [Laughter] you know, I'm not going to ruin this image! You know? But it was not what people think, at all. It was very different than people think. And she knew, in her heart, you know, that she needed to do those things, that she needed to be more aggressive, but she just felt powerless to do it. So, that was the problem.