musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lella Todd


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Lela Todd

“Living now… is a lot different than when we were (young), cause there (were) no shows and no television, no radios. So you had to make your own entertainment. So, if you had somebody like Lella, you had it made.”

 -- Letha Sexton, about her old friend






Lella Christopher was born in 1891, in Estill County Kentucky, where the mountains roll gently, the hillsides covered in farmland.

She grew up on a farm, with her parents Ida Barnett and Hal “Buddy” Christopher, and her five siblings, in Spout Springs, outside of Clay City.

Lella’s dad was a singer, and taught singing schools, as they were called, leading local congregations—one Methodist, the other Baptist, through songs in hymnals that used a shaped-note systems of notation.

 “I’m sure she got some of her talent from him,” Lella’s niece Serena Brown recalled. Serena is Lella’s only living relative, and one who never spent much time with her aunt, as she lived in Winchester her entire life; much of Lella’s childhood, therefore and the details of her life, in the country, are lost.

Lella got her fiddling from her mother’s kin: a duo of musicians, Ross and Asa Barnett. “As for [Asa] and Aunt Lella,” Serena supposed, “I’m sure they went about playing and having a big time in people’s homes.” They played evenings at neighbors’ houses, as people danced on porches and the living rooms, as they cooked in the kitchens, and snapped beans.

Lella got married in her early twenties to Claude Todd, a match which, apparently, wasn’t favorable with her parents. “I don’t know whether she slipped off and married him or not,” Serena laughed, but remembered, that it “didn’t go over very well” with Lella’s parents. At least, “that’s what I understood,” Serena said.

The two moved over the border into Powell County. They lived, first, in a rented house on his parents’ property, down Forge Mill Road. The house has since been torn down, and the house which Claude later built, just across the road, has burnt down, but the road’s still there, right off Highway 82. The road runs next to the Red River, the banks at the back of each house.

“Any time she wanted a mess of fish to cook,” Serna remembered, “she just went down and got in her boat and got her some.”