Title: Oral History Interview with Barbara Greenlief, April 27, 1996. Interview R-0020.
Interviewer: Yarger, Lisa
Interviewee: Greenlief, Barbara
Abstract: Barbara Greenlief of Kentucky describes the life and career of her mother, Lily May Ledford, a popular southern singer. Greenlief begins the interview by describing her maternal grandmother's influence on her mother's ideas about music and about gender ideals. Although it was Ledford's father who instilled in her an appreciation for music, the ballads her mother sang to her when she was young would later serve as inspiration for her career. Perhaps more importantly, Greenlief describes in detail the expectations her grandmother had about gender roles, which were in many ways shaped by the Appalachian culture in which they lived. According to Greenlief, her grandmother did not see the pursuit of music as a "respectable" career, nor did she necessarily want her daughters to pursue any type of work that cut against the grain of gender ideals. Nevertheless, Ledford became a professional musician—along with her sisters—during the 1930s, and remained a member of the Coon Creek Girls into the 1950s. Assembled by manager John Lair, the Coon Creek Girls was an all-woman group that performed "hillbilly" or folk music. Greenlief describes the tensions that marked her mother's working relationship with John Lair, arguing that her mother was both appreciative of his impact on her professional success and resentful of the control he exerted over her. Throughout the interview, Greenlief focuses on the ways in which her mother struggled to reconcile her public independence with her internalized beliefs that it was improper for women to challenge men or gender ideals. Ledford struggled with this tension both professionally with Lair and personally in her two marriages, and Greenlief's descriptions of those struggles demonstrate the ways in which gender norms functioned in southern culture during the mid-twentieth century. After leaving the Coon Creek Girls during the late 1950s and divorcing her second husband in the late 1960s, Ledford began to exert more independence in her personal and professional life. Greenlief describes how her mother's work with musicians like Mike Seeger and academics like Loyal Jones, as well as her political activism during the 1970s, enabled her to exercise more control, although she argues that her mother never was able to fully confront the men who controlled her life in various ways.