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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 >>

Subtly challenging gender ideals through songs

Greenlief addresses her mother's proclivity for singing songs that contained themes about "getting back at men." Throughout the interview, Greenlief emphasizes her mother's inability to fully challenge gender norms and the ways in which her professional and personal life were controlled by men. Her comments here are indicative, then, of the ways in which her mother did find subtle ways in which to challenge ideas about proper behavior for women and to assert her discontent.

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:
Now would you say that songs like "Pretty Polly" were the dearest to her heart? Or, you referred to that as…
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I think the driving songs were the dearest to her heart. She sang a lot of the mournful kinds of songs around the house, but I think they were more to rock Cari, or, you know, later to rock Cari and to, you know, or earlier on to take care of kids with. But when people came to hear her play, there were local musicians like, oh, what's his name. A black musician who plays blues; what's his name, that came to the house a lot, too. [Her husband comes in and says name is Sparky Rucker.] He would come a lot and, once she moved to Lexington, and stopped having the music parties with Dad, you know, the kind of more Nashville like, then people started finding out she was over there who played traditional music, through UK and through Loyal and people like that, and Sparky was one who came a lot. And he was playing in other states a little bit and was hooking up with some of these festivals some. So I'd say he was probably one of the ones who was instrumental in Mike [Seeger] finding out about her. I'm trying to think of others who were more local. The Albans, you know, who would have her come play at the state parks in Kentucky, and Sparky would play those a little bit. I'd say Jean Ritchie.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Jean Ritchie would be another one. Jean was playing locally a lot, so Jean would have been another one. But I think probably Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard found something in her that was different from Jean's music. Which was a more raw, kind of more the—Jean's music was more the acceptable to the middle social class, and Mom's was the more driving, down-home kind of stuff that the poor people played. And saw a different—something different, you know, that she had that way.
LISA YARGER:
When she sang songs like "Pretty Polly," those murder ballads, do you think there was any particular reason that she was interested in those kinds of songs?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
[Laughter] I think the songs like "Wild Bill Jones" and "Pretty Polly," some of the ones that had messages that were getting back at men, or you know that men were one way or another, appealed to her, because it was an outlet for her. Mmm hmm. Yeah, I think so. I think they appealed to her.
LISA YARGER:
Yeah, because that one song, "White Oak Mountain," I saw in the Appalshop film; there's one clip of her singing that, and it is so powerful when she talks about getting down a 44
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
And blowing off a sorry man's brains! [Laughter]
LISA YARGER:
You know, you're going, ‘God, who is she thinking about?’ Because she—she's really very serious and solemn as she sings it, and it's very—there's a lot of sadness in her voice, too.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
She was a very frustrated woman about that element of not being able to confront men. That was a big element of her frustration in her life.
LISA YARGER:
Did she recognize that what she was doing, as far as, that she wasn't confronting them? Did she recognized that she had for some reason an inability to do that? Or did she just see that, you've been talking about how she felt like: why don't they understand!
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
She did not recognize that she had a problem with that. No. She thought they had a problem, I think. And if she did, she may have privately recognized it and not been able to voice it. I don't know.
LISA YARGER:
"Banjo Pickin' Girl" is another song that I wanted to ask you about. I know that she and Lair and Rosie all kind of, it sounds like, wrote verses to that. Do you know if that had a special meaning for her, that particular song?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I think the wanting to break away part, you know, of ‘I'm going around the world’ probably did. Yeah, I think it was a, you know, a need to break away, a need to be independent. I don't, you know, ‘I'm going around the world; I'm a banjo pickin' GIRL,’ you know, was probably a longing she had to do that, but I've never heard her say that. She would never say that. That's a guess.