musical lives, remembered in story & sound

IN HER FIRST HEAVEN

The Project & Introduction

"She was in her first heaven, playing music." 
                     -- Letha Sexton, about her old friend Lella Todd

Here, are the stories of six woman, stories told in living rooms, in kitchens, in parking lots: the recollections of old friends, daughters, sons, and sisters.

They played banjos and fiddles, they sang songs to those who listened, and for themselves. These are stories of rifles, and pies baked. Of dreams held back, and dreams realized. There are stories of faith, and stories of hard work.

The Introduction

"She was in her first heaven, playing music." 
                     -- Letha Sexton, about her old friend Lella Todd

Here, are the stories of six woman, stories told in living rooms, in kitchens, in parking lots: the recollections of old friends, daughters, sons, and sisters.

They played banjos and fiddles, they sang songs to those who listened, and for themselves. These are stories of rifles, and pies baked. Of dreams held back, and dreams realized. There are stories of faith, and stories of hard work.

Blanche Coldiron -- 1. Fond Memories

 Blanche

 “I never saw anyone that loved it any more than she did.”
Irene Coldiron, on her sister’s love of music
 
“Blanche was the only person in my life that had a passion for music as much as I did. Because of this, I spent most Sunday afternoons at her house playing music all day. It would start off with me calling down to her house and asking if she’d want to “play.” Like two kids getting ready to embark on an adventure we’d get our guitars ready and I’d take a drive two miles down the road. She’d already have a pot of beans on the stove. Sometimes we’d get so busy playing music we’d burn ‘em, but mostly we had us a heck of a meal when we were done feeding our souls with music.”
Lisa Shaffer, a musician & friend
 
The friends and family Blanche Hurt Coldiron left behind are filled with memories of her, the banjo player, the markswoman, the tireless mother, the firey fiddler; they told the stories eagerly, and with a chuckle.
Over the course of this year, I’ve visited with Blanche’s two children—spent an afternoon sitting on her son Jim’s living room floor, surrounded by photographs as he and his sister Sandy told me story after story, finishing each other’s sentences. I met Blanche’s sole surviving sister, Irene, 83, a woman with a faltering voice, but dear smile, living with her daughter. There was an incredible fondness in their voices, and in the voices of musicians Sue Massek and John Harrod, and in the writing of Brandon Godman and Lisa Schaefer, as they remembered Blanche. It seems, the woman left an incredible legacy of generosity and warmth, with those lives she touched.
 
So, what follow, are memories of a remarkable woman, who lived a life filled with great laughter, great sacrifice, and great faith, told to me with great enthusiasm.

 

Blanche Coldiron -- 2. Childhood Mischief

Blanche was born in 1922 in Wolfe County, Kentucky, one of five children. Irene filled me in, stories of her sister as a child: “One thing,” she said, “she was a tomboy. She liked to get out and climb trees. And I couldn’t get to the first limb. But we lived on a farm, and… She’d always make me go with her, and I’d stand at the bottom of the tree and look up at her, as she went up.”
 
She was a spunky girl; “She would try anything,” said Irene. One particular instance of Blanche’s sense of adventure had crept into family lore, a story told by Irene, and then by Blanche’s children.

Blanche Coldiron -- 3. Picking Up the Banjo

Blanche began playing music at a young age. “I was six, seven, eight, maybe,” she said, in an interview with John Harrod. She remembered hearing Uncle Dave Macon on Grand Old Opry broadcast on their radio, inspiring her to play. “I would listen, and try to get that sound. That’s where I learned. Didn’t have anyone to teach me.”
 
Powell County, at the time, was filled with musicians, picking banjos and playing fiddles; it seems, though, that Blanche never came in direct contact with any prominent older players, when she was first learning to play. Her parents didn’t play music; as she put it, they “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it.”

Blanche Coldiron -- 4. The Radio Star

Shortly after, Blanche went back on the radio—broadcast in earnest, this time, as an entertainer. Blanche the Mountain Girl, she was billed, to an audience larger than her own living room.
 
Asa Martin, a Winchester-born guitar player, bandleader and radio personality of some local fame, was in search of a new banjo player, in 1938 for radio shows on WLAP in Lexington, and tours around central Kentucky. His previous banjo player, Stringbean Akemon, had left the Kentucky tour to play on the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became one of the show’s enduring stars.
 

Blanche Coldiron -- 5. The Road Not Taken

For all its early success, Blanche’s career was short lived. The tour with Asa came to an end. The crowds died down; perhaps because of the war, perhaps because people wanted other forms of entertainment; perhaps because the novelty of Blanche the Mountain Girl had worn off; perhaps because her parents made her leave. The circumstances of its end are left only to speculation.
There had been another opportunity. Blanche got a call from Nashville, to follow in the footsteps of Stringbean, as her family imagines.
 
 But Blanche never got wind of it. Her parents never told her. It was only on his deathbed, that her brother Ossie told his sister.
 

Blanche Coldiron -- 6. The Young Family

Blanche returned to the family farm. Around the age of 19, married Earl Coldiron, an outgoing, confident man who’d grown up on a neighboring farm, right before he left to fight in WWII. After he’d left, she had their first daughter, Ann Carolyn.

Blanche Coldiron -- 7. The Musical Family

Her music career was set aside, busy taking care of her daughter. But theirs was a household filled with music, Jim and Sandy remembered.
 

Blanche Coldiron -- 8. Loss & New Beginnings

By the late 1980s, Blanche was taking care of both Carolyn and her husband, who had been severely affected by a stroke, which had damaged his brain, another invalid in the house, as her children described. He passed away in 1988. Upon his death, and then the death of Carolyn in 1995, Blanche experienced a bit of a musical renaissance, newly coping with the loss and all the time on her hands. Carolyn died, when she was 51. “She went for 51 years,” Sandy said; “of giving a person a drink every time they needed a drink, doing every thing for a person.”

“Every bite of food, every drink,” Jim said.

Blanche Coldiron -- 9. The Musician, the Performer, the Inspiration

Blanche was an exacting performer. I watched old videos of Blanche’s performances with her children—videos that are available for viewing at the Berea Archive; they noted her flaws, by looking at her face, a little smile and grimace coming across it when she flubbed.
 
She was fun to perform with, Sue remembered, though often nervous. “Really, really nervous. She was a perfectionist, she did not want to make mistakes. Once she got over her nerves,” Sue said, “she was just incredible. She was hot. Played fast. It was like whoa! I gotta get my forearm strengthened up for this Blanche gig. Kills you.
 

Blanche Coldiron -- 10. The Teacher

Blanche was an encouraging teacher, an inspiration. Two of her students went on to success, moved down to Nashville as their teacher never had. The two shared some of their memories of Blanche, by email.
Lisa Shaffer, a songwriter and singer, wrote, “I’ve never met a more selfless, giving, heart of a child woman in my life. She truly was a living saint… Music was a constant in her life that she enjoyed between taking care of her sick child. “
 

Blanche Coldiron -- 11. The End

Blanche’s music career “sort of matched the rise and fall of her own life. I think music was her lifeline. Whether she was performing, or sitting in her living room by herself, it was still her lifeline.” Sue and John, aided by the growing number of projects and festivals they and their peers were involved in gave them the chance, Sue said, to “get us into her living room, and it also helped us get her out of her own.”

Thanks To Berea!

This project was made possible by the Appalachian Music Fellowship at the Berea College Library & Special Collections.

(for more information about the grant, should you feel inspired to do research of your own, their website is HERE.)

There is, sometimes, a perception, that archives are where recordings and old photographs are stored & shut away, never to see the light of day, and never to be seen or heard by inquiring and eager musicians.

Effie Pierson -- 1. "Something Else"

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 “There’ll never be another her. She done everything in the world that she could. She was a midwife, she was a musician, she was a mother, she was a wife, and she was a workhorse. She done everything there was to be done except drive a car.”

Effie Pierson -- 2. A Working Family

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Childhood sweethearts, Effie Smith and Edward Pierson were married in 1918, Effie 16 years old. Ed, in an interview with John Harrod, in the early 1980s, remembered their courtship:
 
“Them days, we played games, you know, past times… Playing fox and the goose… we made a mark, put her foot over the mark, and the fox tried to catch it. I said if I can catch that goose, I’ll take it home with me,” he said, with laughter. “We’s just children, you know. So I run my legs off, trying to catch her but she got home before I got her…. Well, I finally got my goose, though.”
 

Effie Pierson -- 3. Music in the Family

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EFFIE3.jpgAmidst the work, there was always time for music. Music was a family affair, for Effie. She’d grown up hearing her grandparents, her parents, and playing with her siblings.

Effie Pierson -- 4. On The Radio

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Mixed with the old dance tunes, was an increasing influence of the radio, and the records and songbooks they’d buy. “We would listen to the Delmore Brother’s Records, and copy down the song,” Pauline recalled. They’d listen to their songs on the radio, or off their records, over and over and write down the lyrics. “At one point, we knew three hundred songs.” Effie liked listening to Little Jimmy Dickens, The Carter Family, and Jimmy Rogers. The Delmore Brothers were their favorites. “Nothing can compare with the Delmore brothers… harmony like you wouldn’t believe. They would tear your heart out and do anything they wanted with it,” Lillian said.

Effie Pierson -- 5. "A Gracious and Charming Lady"

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Her daughters grew up, left Owsley County. Effie continued to play the fiddle, to plant a garden each year.

John Harrod, a fiddler and inquiring mind who had been visiting and recording many Kentucky fiddlers, visited Effie Pierson in the early 1980s.

Two musicians, from Booneville, Kentucky, Hargis Goodman and his son Donald, took him out to meet her. “I was just trailing all through the mountains, looking for people… they told me about Effie Pierson, so I went out to her,” John said.

Dora Mae Wagers -- 1. First Sights

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 “Play like you feel. And if you don’t feel it, you shouldn’t be up there in the first place.”
                                                         --Dora Mae Wagers
 

 

A scene from a short video clip: Dora Mae Wagers plays the banjo, sitting in a golf cart, an old tune, Pretty Polly. Her left knee nods up and down, forcefully, to the beat; her head, crowned with her big gray hairdo, bobs to the music, playing like she means it. She wears magenta pants, a lavender running jacket; she wears big golden rings on her fingers, big round sunglasses, and, as the video begins, a big smile on her face. There’s a crowd gathered, in the parking lot; older men in ballcaps, a young man playing the bass, a woman in a western shirt, listening. A man sings the words, as she plays.