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Acuff, Roy (15 September 1903–23 November 1992), country music singer and composer, was born Roy Claxton Acuff in Maynardsville, Tennessee, just a few miles north of Knoxville in a spur of the Great Smoky Mountains, the son of Neil Acuff, an attorney and pastor, and Ida Florence Carr. The family moved to Fountain City, a suburb of Knoxville, when Acuff was sixteen, and he spent most of his high school years excelling in sports. After graduation he was invited to have a tryout at a major league baseball camp, but a 1929 fishing trip to Florida resulted in a severe sunstroke, and Acuff was bedridden for a number of months. During his convalescence he reawakened an early interest in music and began to hone his abilities on the fiddle. By the time he had recovered, he had given up his dreams of a baseball career and had determined to utilize his newly discovered musical talent....

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Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...

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Autry, Gene (29 September 1908–02 October 1998), country singer, actor, and baseball team owner, was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert Autry, a livestock dealer and tenant farmer, and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He later recalled that his family was poor but “never Tobacco Road poor. My father earned good money, when he felt like it, which was some of the time” (Autry, p. 4). They moved frequently during his childhood, to small farms and hamlets in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, eventually settling outside Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was five years old so he could join the church choir; his musically talented mother taught him how to play a mail-order guitar. As a teenager he sang ballads for tips at cafes, and around 1923 he toured for three months with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. During these years he was reportedly fired from a job as a ranch hand because his singing distracted the other hands from their labor....

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Gene Autry. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Canova, Judy (20 November 1916–05 August 1983), hillbilly singer, was born Juliette Canova in Starke, Florida, the daughter of Joseph Canova, a cotton broker and contractor, and Henrietta Perry, a concert singer. The family was quite musical, and Canova and her brother Zeke and sister Annie studied piano, voice, violin, and horn. Judy, an extrovert—or, as her mother put it, “a natural ham”—from age three, performed at family and church socials. At age twelve she and her best friend entered a series of Jacksonville amateur nights, often taking first place. When the friend dropped out, Zeke and Annie took her spot and the Canova Cracker Trio was born. They sang and did hillbilly comedy and were signed to do local radio. She claimed to have picked up her cornpone lingo from sharecroppers who patronized her father’s cotton gin....

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Chapin, Harry Forster (07 December 1942–16 July 1981), popular singer and writer of topical songs, was born in New York City, the son of James Forbes Chapin, a big-band percussionist, and Elspeth Burke. As a high school student, Chapin sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys Choir and, later, played guitar, banjo, and trumpet in a band that included his father and brothers Stephen Chapin and Tom Chapin. He attended the U.S. Air Force Academy briefly and studied at Cornell University from 1960 to 1964. Chapin was best known for his popular ballads, films, and cultural and humanitarian work for the cause of eradicating world hunger. He married Sandra Campbell Gaston in 1968; they had five children....

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Cousin Emmy (1903–11 April 1980), country singer, banjoist, and comedian, was born Cynthia May Carver near Lamb, a hamlet in south central Kentucky near Glasgow. The youngest of eight children, she grew up in a log cabin while her father tried to make ends meet working as a sharecropper raising tobacco. Her family was musical, and she learned old English and Scottish ballads from her great-grandmother. As she grew up, she became proficient on a number of instruments, ranging from the orthodox (fiddle, banjo, guitar) to the unusual (the rubber glove, the Jew’s harp, the hand saw). A natural “show off” and entertainer, by around 1915 she was leaving the farm and trying her hand at entertaining in nearby towns. Having no real interest in school, she taught herself to read by studying mail order catalogues....

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Crosby, Bob (25 August 1913–09 March 1993), jazz and popular bandleader and singer, and radio, film, and television personality, was born George Robert Crosby in Spokane, Washington, the son of Harry Lowe Crosby, a bookkeeper at the Inland Products Canning Company, and Catherine “Kate” Helen Harrigan. He attended Webster High School, North Central High School, and Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school and university. Not a remarkable student, he excelled at sports but chose instead to pursue a career as a singer, following his famous brother, ...

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Evans, Dale (31 October 1912–07 February 2001), actor and singer-songwriter, actor and singer‐songwriter, was born Lucille Wood Smith in Uvalde, Texas, the daughter of Walter Hillman Smith, a cotton farmer and hardware dealer, and Bettie Sue Wood. At an early age her name was changed to Frances Octavia Smith. During her childhood the family moved to Osceola, Arkansas, where Frances attended local schools and enjoyed singing with church and social groups. She was bright, skipped several grades, and entered high school at the age of twelve. Two years later, to her parents' dismay, she eloped with her boyfriend, Thomas F. Fox, and gave birth to their son the following year. Soon afterward Fox deserted the family, leaving Frances to raise the child on her own; the couple divorced in 1929 when Frances was seventeen....

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Dale Evans. [left to right] Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and their horse Trigger, 1958. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection: LC-USZ62-128588).

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Foley, Red (17 June 1910–19 September 1968), country music recording artist and television star, was born Clyde Julian Foley in Blue Lick, Kentucky, near the black community of Middletown, the son of Benjamin Harrison Foley, the proprietor of a Berea, Kentucky, general store, and Katherine Elizabeth (maiden name unknown). Foley’s older brother Clarence nicknamed him “Red” because of his hair color. The Foleys attended a black Southern Baptist church, whose music influenced Red. Family members recalled him “entertaining almost as soon as he could walk.” He began playing guitar in earnest when his father took one as trade for groceries. In grade school he was a prankster. At Berea High School (and briefly in college in 1928) he became a star basketball player. A teacher impressed by seventeen-year-old Foley’s singing entered him in a classical competition at Georgetown College (Ky.). Though he forgot the song’s words, he kept going and, said the contest administrator, “won not just for his voice but for his grit.” In 1929, during Foley’s first semester at Berea College, he frequently sang on WCKY radio in Covington, Kentucky, and on Cincinnati’s WLW, where a WLS radio scout heard him and offered a job. Foley left college and borrowed $75 to join the Cumberland Ridge Runners vaudeville group as vocalist and clown on Chicago’s “WLS National Barn Dance,” carried on fifty NBC radio stations. In 1930 he gained a solo spot, dubbed “Ramblin’ Red.” His rich baritone and ease with “high hard” notes earned him instant popularity as “the ...

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Ford, Tennessee Ernie (13 February 1919–17 October 1991), country-music entertainer, was born Ernest Jennings Ford in Bristol, Tennessee, the son of Clarence Thomas Ford, a postal worker, and Maude Long. Ford grew up in a religious family that valued song as an expression of faith. He later said of music, “It was part of our religion, part of our way of life… . God and the Bible meant a lot to us, and hymns and spirituals and gospel songs seemed to us just about the best way of saying what was in our hearts and minds” ( ...

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Ford, Whitey (12 May 1901–20 June 1986), vaudeville and country musician and comedian, also known as the Duke of Paducah, was born in DeSoto, Missouri, fifty miles from St. Louis. The names and occupations of his parents are unknown. When he was one year old his mother died, and he was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be reared by a grandmother. Ford attended Peabody Grammar School, acting in school plays and performing in talent shows. He ran away at age seventeen to join the navy during World War I and served four years. During this time he practiced on the tenor banjo, at that time a competitor with the guitar, until he became an accomplished performer. ...

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Gilbert, Ruth Alice “Ronnie” (7 Sept. 1926–6 June 2015), folksinger, actor, and therapist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Sarah and Charles Gibson. Her mother was a dressmaker and her father was a factory worker; both parents were Jewish. Ronnie inherited her lifelong leftwing politics particularly from her Polish-born mother, who was long involved with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and who took her daughter to a ...

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Hall, Adelaide (20 October 1901?–07 November 1993), vaudeville, musical theater, and jazz singer and actress, was born in New York City, the daughter of William Hall, a Pennsylvania German music teacher at the Pratt Institute, and Elizabeth Gerrard, an African American. She made many jokes about her birth year; on her birthday in 1991 she declared that she was ninety years old, hence the conjectural 1901....

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Hayes, Isaac Lee, Jr. (20 August 1942–10 August 2008), soul singer, composer, keyboard player, and actor, was born in Covington, Tennessee, the son of Isaac Hayes, Sr. and Eula Wade. In Hayes’s infancy, his father abandoned the family and his mother died in a mental institution. He was raised by his grandparents, William and Rushia Wade, who were sharecroppers....

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Hays, Lee Elhardt (14 March 1914–26 August 1981), songwriter, singer, and political activist, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of the Reverend William Benjamin Hays, a Methodist minister, and Ellen Reinhardt, a court reporter. The youngest of four children, Lee Hays left home at age fourteen for Emory Junior College Academy in Oxford, Georgia, a Methodist prep school from which he graduated in 1930. He had hoped to take a bachelor’s degree, but during the depression none of his family members could help with tuition....

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Hill, Chippie (15 March 1905–07 May 1950), dancer and singer, was born Bertha Hill in Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of John Hill and Ida Jones. From the age of nine she sang in church. The family moved to New York City sometime around 1918, and the following year Hill danced at Leroy’s Club in Harlem in a show led by ...

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Ives, Burl (14 June 1909–14 April 1995), folk singer and actor, was born Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives in Hunt City Township, Illinois, the son of Frank Ives, a tenant farmer and highway culvert builder, and Cordella White. A bird, singing on an oak branch outside his mother’s window, ushered in Ives’s birth, and his brothers made him a cornstalk fiddle when he was just a toddler, but it was his pipe-smoking grandmother Kate White who made him a singer. She knew hundreds of folksongs and would fix her bright, black-button eyes on him and sing. Ives was age four when, at an old soldiers’ reunion, he first performed in public. Although he had just eaten two hot dogs that he purchased on credit, he sang well, received one dollar, paid his debt, and spent the remainder on merry-go-round rides. At age twelve he sang and played his banjo at a local camp meeting and was asked while still in the sixth grade to be part of a high school theater group that performed in neighboring towns. He spent his junior and senior years in a consolidated high school in nearby Newton and played football as a fullback and as an all-conference guard....

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Burl Ives Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10367).