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“The local townsfolk do not like mountain music. They can’t stand to listen to it. They buy Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, etc.” The typewritten missive in my hand, dated September 8, 1937, location Harlan, Kentucky, described, with no small dose of disdain, the musical predilections of residents in the region. It was mid-August in Washington, D. C., and I was hunched over a table in the frigid air-conditioned reading room of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, scouring paper after paper, folder after folder, box after box of documents like this, along with recorded discs, photos, and handwritten address books, etched with the names of fiddlers and ballad singers and their approximate locales. I was searching for a specific name in the margins, a note scrawled on some hotel stationery, a sign.
These were documents from Alan Lomax’s 1937 recording trip to Eastern Kentucky, when, at the age of twenty-two, under the auspices of the Library of Congress, he and his wife Elizabeth set off for the coal fields, the trunk of their Studebaker packed with a Presto disc-recorder and a stack of blank discs, in search of traditional musicians. Two months later, they returned to the very place where I was sitting with over thirty-two hours of recordings—fiddle tunes and blues, Pentecostal hymns and murder ballads, work songs and lullabies, breakdowns and children’s games; absent, however, were the popular songs Lomax scorns above, ostensibly learned from radio and records that were becoming readily available in the area. Among what he did record were sounds of those now held up as masters of the old-time tradition: fiddler Bill Stepp (whose recorded performance of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” would, through Aaron Copland’s interpretation, later reach millions of Americans in the “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” commercials), and banjo players Richard Whitely and Walter Williams.
But neither Lomax nor Stepp were the subject of my search. I was looking for another name—that of a friend, neighbor, and music partner of those greats, but one who did not achieve their same renown. It’s the name of a banjo player, a harp blower, a songwriter, radio show host, band leader, sheriff, postmaster, general store manager, hotel owner, pig farmer, wife and mother, known in her day as “Queen of Magoffin County”: Nora E. Carpenter.
I had spent the month prior in Berea, Kentucky, as a fellow at the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives, studying the collection of Ms. Nora Carpenter (1888–1975). Hailing from Salyersville, the county seat of Magoffin County, Kentucky, Carpenter was a stronghold in her community. She had a daily radio show with her band “Big Mama (sometimes listed as “Hot Mama”) and the Half Mountain Hot Shots” on wsip out of Paintsville, and she owned and ran a twenty-six room downtown hotel with her husband that, along with offering lodging for out-of-town guests, was a community gathering place, the lobby providing the setting for many picking parties and bean-shucking gatherings. She played music not only with those Magoffin County musicians mentioned above, but also a mandolin player by the name of Bill Monroe when he came to town to perform at the Star [End Page 67] Theater. She wrote extensive transcripts of her repertoire that included ballads, early country songs, hymns, and her own compositions that documented local events and personal experiences, all etched on the back of hotel stationery, hunting safety exams (Carpenter was known as a crack shot), letters, grocery receipts, and other scraps. Carpenter also made home recordings of herself and her band, some of which she sent to relatives who had moved away. These transcripts and a handful of recordings made by...