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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 >>

Various ways of subtly challenging gender norms

Greenlief discusses the subtle ways in which her mother sought to challenge gender norms at various points in her life. Arguing that her mother did become more outspoken later on, after having left the Coon Creek Girls, Greenlief identifies political activism as one way her mother exhibited independence. Additionally, Greenlief describes how her mother and fellow Coon Creek Girls performers pushed against boundaries more subtly by doing things like smoking and drinking alcohol sometimes.

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

Do you think that in those later years, when she was giving her little spiel about John Lair wanted them to do this or that, was that a way of sort of—did she hint in those little anecdotes that she would tell in between songs, during performances, did she start to hint at that kind of manipulation? Was she kind of referencing that and letting people know, very subtly, what she thought about it?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
You mean, after she left Renfro?
LISA YARGER:
Yeah.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Oh yeah, yeah. I think she was. She was empowered by people like Reel World. People she—she loved that band. She was empowered by women who spoke out. And she admired women, like Maya Angelou, you know, read all of Maya Angelou's books. She was an avid reader. And when she got over to Lexington, she just read constantly, and those were the kinds of things she read. And so, she was able to voice, you know, voice some of what she'd never been able to voice before. She wasn't voicing it directly to a man, but she was voicing it to an audience. It was a little bit more protected, [Laughter] you know, than the direct man link, I guess. But it was always inside her; she just couldn't let it out.
LISA YARGER:
How far did she push that? How far did you ever hear her push that publicly?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I saw her perform at the Unitarian Church, like a picnic thing there one time with Reel World. And she was very specific about how she felt. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I remember being surprised. And then at the gorge, during some of the political fights they were having about the damming. She, when she would talk about the way they were manipulating the community, I felt that she was really talking about the way she'd been manipulated. It gave her an outlet, although it wasn't direct, you know. It wasn't directly related, I mean she didn't relate it directly to—I felt it's how she felt, what she was saying about what was being done to the community was really her voicing what had been done to her.
LISA YARGER:
Sounds like she was standing up to the big guy, in that case.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Mmm hmm, mmm hmm. And it felt really good, you know.
LISA YARGER:
Yeah, that's fascinating. Was that her biggest burst of political activism? Were there other occasions?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
That's the only one, really, that I can think of.
LISA YARGER:
And they were successful, weren't they?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Mmm hmm, yeah.
LISA YARGER:
You talked about this preacher coming over to save her and whatever. Did she, you said that your grandmother wanted them to go to church on a regular basis, and I guess there probably wasn't a preacher around to hold services weekly, but, did she grow up sort of a religious person herself?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I think that she probably, I think that she was like a non-church-goer religious person. And I think that's probably part of what kept her from being able to confront men, is that she felt that that was a sin, you know, or her mother felt that was a sin. I've never heard her express that she questioned, you know, God or anything like that. She, but she, I don't think she ever felt a need to go to church. We went occasionally, about the only time we ever went was at Easter, and it was because my dad made us go so he could look good in the community. [Laughter] It wasn't—didn't have anything to do with religion. So, none of us are really church-goers. We just, and I feel uncomfortable, the times that I've taken the children and tried to get involved—and I've done that several times—I've always felt that here was this group of people doing this activity, and I was on the outside of it and didn't know how to do it, and it didn't feel comfortable at all, and wanted to get away as fast as I could, so.
LISA YARGER:
Uh huh. I know that feeling. [Laughter] Yeah, yeah. The beer drinking, Sue Massek talks a little bit about that in the film, just how her mother would have rolled over in her grave or something if she had known it. Do you think that—I know she enjoyed it—do you think that was also a little bit of rebelliousness?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I don't know. I think she just, I didn't sense that it was a rebelliousness, although I know they started smoking as soon as they got to—she and Rosie started smoking as soon as they got to Chicago. Which ended up killing both of them, you know. But, I know that was rebellion. They said that was rebellion as much as anything, against their mom and, you know, her thinking they had to be so protected up there, and they weren't, you know. So I know that that was rebellion. I think she really enjoyed drinking, I think it relaxed her, and I've never seen her have too much to drink to the point where she was tipsy, or anything like that. But, you know, there have been times where I wondered if she was slightly alcoholic, because she drank, she'd get up and pop a beer first thing in the morning sometimes. Not always, but sometimes, and I'd think, wow! That's one of the classic symptoms, you know. So I was always kind of wondering about that, but I think she just really enjoyed it; I think it calmed her down. And none of her family—none of the men or anyone have been alcoholics, so I think it probably was just a calming factor for her. She just liked it, you know?
LISA YARGER:
Yeah, yeah. The smoking—how would—do you think John Lair would have approved of that?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
Oh, no, they never smoked in front of him. He didn't know they smoked. They would hide. They hid and did it.
LISA YARGER:
He never knew?
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
No. He may have known in very later years. I don't remember whether he did or not, but they never smoked around Renfro Valley or anything like that.
LISA YARGER:
Was that because—was there a stigma about women smoking? Or about, did that just not gel with their image as the, you know, sweet little country girls, or whatever.
BARBARA GREENLIEF:
I don't know if women smoked down there at that time or not. I don't remember that. Probably did. The dressing rooms, you know, at the barn dance, I was in them all the time. And they were pretty loose in terms of laughing and talking and having a good time. John Lair was always on the other side, the back side of the barn in the control room. He didn't mingle with any of that. And was very smart to do it, because you have to let entertainers kind of do their thing, if they're going to entertain well. You know, the more controls you put on them, the worse it's going to, you know, and I think he probably understood that. And that was probably an area where he was, you know, he let them be. Have their fun backstage and that kind of thing. He would have been a fool not to.