- Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott
On a May day in Chicago, 1937, two future leaders in the popularization of folk cultures and traditions gathered on stage for a taping of the WLS radio program The Dinner Bell. Sarah Gertrude Knott, founder of the National Folk Festival, stepped to the microphone with John Lair, WLS talent scout and future founder of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, to promote the National’s (as the festival was known) arrival in the city. Special segments were broadcast for each day of the festival, with Lair and Knott joined on air by festival participants. This encounter might have led to a lifelong partnership in the presentation of “folk music.” In fact, for many years, Lair served on the Board of the National Festival. But as Michael Ann Williams’s ambitious biography of both Lair and Knott proves, the drive of personality and singular vision can make cooperation a difficult endeavor.
To those least familiar with the exploits of Lair and Knott, this dual biography might seem bewildering. What could a radio man with a knack for writing ad copy and finding good talent have in common with a woman inspired by pageantry and the “folk drama” movement? They were both from Kentucky, a state known for the tenacity of its folk traditions. Beyond their shared home state, the pairing makes perfect sense: both were amateur folklorists who aspired to greater academic recognition but emphasized their individual visions of folk culture authenticity. That description in itself is a minefield of deconstruction. How did they evaluate the authenticity of folk performance? Why did they yearn for academic recognition and validation of their efforts? Both Lair and Knott persevered in their visions against the changing moods, styles, and politics of the twentieth century, from the 1930s, when their brands of popularism were at the height of interest, to the 1960s, which proved a test for their philosophies about the nature of folk culture and its presentation.
Amongst all this, Williams paints an intricate and detailed picture of each actor’s motivations and movements. In fact, the detail in this double portrait verges on encyclopedic. At times it seems that Williams and her many research assistants were swimming in archive boxes, intent on indexing every moment in the professional lives of Lair and Knott. It is those professional lives that this book dwells on, for the most part. Weaving back and forth in alternating chapters, Williams lays out the rise and fall of her subjects, as well as the changes in public attitudes toward folk music, country music, folk festivals, and radio programs over the course of the twentieth century. For radio historians, the chapters concerning Lair’s rise from part-time announcer to creator of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance illuminate a specific moment in the development of country radio and radio theater presentation. A radio program that had its inspirational roots in Lair’s Kentucky childhood (both real and imagined) and actively sought to feed the nostalgia of its urban audience, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance diverged from its rival, the Grand Ole Opry, in a fundamental way. Through Renfro Valley, Lair sought to present “authentic” American music on the radio airwaves, “the homefolks,” as opposed to Lair’s characterization of the performers for the landmark WSM program, the “show-folks” (p. 162). This obscures the fact that Lair was responsible for launching many “show-folks” himself, including Patsy Montana, Red Foley, and, of course, Lily May Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls.
It would seem natural that both Lair and Knott might have fallen into the trap of placing value only on “authentic” performance of folk traditions. It is an easy measure of quality to state that one’s presentation is the most authentic and hews most closely to the tradition, especially if endorsing nods from experts are sought. However, Lair and Knott’s approach was more complex and critical. As the title of Williams...