musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lella Todd -- 4. Well-Rosined Bow


Lella always kept her instruments—fiddle, banjo, guitar—on a red upholstered fainting couch in her living room, Letha remembered. “She never would let us play her music instruments. Probably could’ve taught us to play music, but they were precious to her. She kept them on this couch, and we were never to touch them.” Letha bought the couch after Lella passed away, showing it to me proudly, sitting in the corner of her living room.

She played “all the string instruments,” as Letha remembered. “She played fiddle a lot,” she said. “She’d get that thing and cut loose on it… And if I can remember right, she got that old banjo, and really let it go.” She was, as Letha described her, “in her first heaven, playing music.”

There were a lot of folks who played banjo and fiddle in that area, at that time. “There were a lot of country banjo players and fiddlers,” said Letha of Powell County during her childhood. Her father played banjo, but when one day the children took the strings off it, a joke perhaps, “he took his banjo and sold it, and never did play no more.”

Lella, amongst so many musicians, was an exceptional fiddler, and was often playing. She played by herself, or for the children’s dancing feet, but also went off on weekends, to jam sessions and dances throughout the county.

Among those she played with, were a cousin Travis Wells, members of the Passley family who lived close by, and neighbors Zora and Vernon Judd. “Travis would come and get her,” Letha remembered—for a long time, Lella didn’t have a car. “And they would go different places and play music. You know, like, they’d go to different homes and things, always playing some place, ‘bout every Saturday night.” Serna remembered; “Anytime they came by… the men would call and want her to come and play with them, why she was ready, so I’m sure she enjoyed it.” She was a fiddler in demand, amongst local pickers. “The whole population of Powell County knew her,” Garrett Brown supposed.

Claude didn’t always go with her: “he was just kind of a stay at home guy, you know,” remembered Letha. “He let her be out in front,” she said, with a laugh.


Lella’s work, while she wasn’t playing, was around her house on Forge Mill Road. As Letha put it, “Back then, women didn’t work out much, see: they were homebodies. No, as far as I know, she never worked out… she worked all the time, but not getting paid for it.”

Lella played out in her community, but never on any large stage or radio program, as some around her had pursued. “If she would’ve had the opportunity [to perform] she would’ve been wonderful” Letha mused. “If she just had the opportunity. But she didn’t have the opportunity. Back then, you know, women didn’t get into too much. They were kind of handicapped for some reason, weren’t they?” Yet there’s no indication that Lella had interest in that sort of career. As Letha said, ““I never heard her talking about wanting to do anything other than what she was doing.”

Though perhaps there were obstacles for women performers, there didn’t seem to be any issue with Lella playing fiddle in her own community. She was, in fact, a fiddler celebrated in her own community, a woman who seemed to do what she pleased.

I said as much, to Letha, that it seemed that Lella was the sort of person who did whatever she wanted to do. Letha agreed, adding, “she was right at home doing it, too, you know.”

No one seemed to recall Claude’s trade: an old neighbor supposed he had been a carpenter, or employed elsewhere in Clay City. “He didn’t have enough land there, to be called a farmer,” Serena’s husband Garret recalled. Serena added, “He was sick quite a bit, there. And I’m sure he didn’t work [near the end of his life, due to illness.] They had a very hard time there,” she remembered.