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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 >>

Mother's working relationship with manager John Lair

Greenlief describes her mother's working relationship with manager John Lair. As elsewhere in the interview, Greenlief again focuses on her mother's difficulty in reconciling her independence with gender ideals of her era. According to Greenlief, her mother sometimes disagreed with the ways in which Lair worked to present her as a performer; however, she never confronted him because it would have seemed unladylike to do so.

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:
As far as the particulars of—you've talked about some of the reasons why she was frustrated with her relationship with Lair as far as not having the option to record or to do other things. What about the way he sort of molded her as a performer? I'm thinking especially of, like the costumes. That seemed to be a sore point with her. Can you talk a little bit about what she felt he was trying to do, and how would she have dressed, for example, in Chicago at WLS or with the Coon Creek Girls; how would she have done otherwise and what was it about that that was so irksome to her?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
She wanted to play the fiddle; she didn't want to play the banjo, is one of the earliest disagreements that they had. I think she felt, at the very beginning, when he was dressing her in the calico and the button shoes and all of that, that she was supposed to wear what he told her to wear, and I don't think she thought a lot about that at the beginning. But he wanted her to play banjo instead of fiddle. And she did that, but she did not want to do that. And so, I think probably that was her first in a long series of frustrations that she talked to her girlfriends about, and she wrote home about. But she did not confront him; she absolutely did not confront him about anything. She did a lot of privately commiserating with people around the house about him. He—he was very manipulative. He was very controlling. He was like black and white on the radio. That wonderful voice, you know, that wonderful way of talking about the country. And off the air, he was stern, he was not friendly, he would call performers together and say, ‘This is the way it's going to be done now.’ He did not give explanations about why he wanted things done the way he was doing them. I guess he felt that that was the business way to do it. And it worked for a good number of years. He was able to build his house, build his farm up, build all of what he had down there, because he paid his performers practically nothing. And he controlled their lives! You know, they would go out on these road shows for three or four days a week, leave their families, come in on the weekend, play the barn dance, leave again, with enough money to barely get by.
LISA YARGER:
And at that point, a lot of people of her stature could have been making good enough money just on the barn dance not to have to go away. That must have been hard when she had children.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Yeah, it was very difficult for her.
LISA YARGER:
Right, right. You say that she never confronted him. Is there any rebellious streak with her at all with regards to her relationships with Lair or men in her life, like husbands? She would talk about the situation with other women; was that how it came out?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
That's how it came out. She did not, you know, like you read in books, about like the river earth [unclear] book, James Deal [unclear] talks about the woman burning the house down and having to move into the smoke house to get rid of the guy's brother that lived with them, you know, and those kind of silent manipulative things that women did to keep from having to say anything. No, she didn't do that. She was just miserable in her private life. She was very angry; she knew she was being treated like she shouldn't be, but she did not confront it. She just had, most of her friends were performers. You know, they were women who, and I can remember them sitting at the kitchen table and them telling her, Aunt Rosie, my aunt, told her constantly what she needed to do. And my aunt had my uncle wrapped around her finger. You know, it was a very different relationship than my mom had with both her husbands. But she, it was as if she wasn't worth enough privately, beyond her music, to do that. And I don't know, I've always tried to understand that. And I've tried to work in my own life, you know, I knew it at such an early age and recognized it, that I have just kind of turned a hundred and eighty degrees from the way she deals with men. But she couldn't, she just couldn't, and it's impossible for people who see her perform to understand that. You know, Anne Alban, who is the very independent woman performer here in Kentucky, she'd get with her or with the Reel World ladies later on, or with some of the people at Renfro and just talk about, I mean, she would just lay it on the table in terms of what was going on, how Glen was doing this, and he wouldn't let her do this, or John Lair, wasn't he horrible? She absolutely would not say a word to them about it.
LISA YARGER:
But she would be very frank in her conversations.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Yes, and very descriptive, you know, and not protect them in any way in terms of what they were doing. But she couldn't take it any further than that.
LISA YARGER:
Because I feel like, now of course John Lair was still living when your mother died, I guess, so everything she wrote or said in her lifetime publicly she still, I think she still protected him publicly. In her autobiography there's a hint of resentfulness, the hint of, ‘I would have done this differently,’ but she always kind of laughs it off. And I guess her being polite not to confront them in public, even not to their face, she didn't want to do it.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
No, she didn't want to do it. I guess she saw him as kind of a father figure, in a way, you know, or a grandfather figure who had his faults, but ultimately he was the reason for her success. And in public, she was very, she had that notion that you just don't do that, it's not ladylike to, but, we paid for it, you know, because privately she was just, I mean, around the house she was just constantly arguing and fussing and talking to people about how horrible things were, and why didn't somebody do something about it? You know? But she couldn't.
LISA YARGER:
Unladylike, you started to say, unladylike to confront?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Unladylike to publicly rebuke John Lair or anyone.