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Ashley, Thomas Clarence (29 September 1895–02 June 1967), folk singer and instrumentalist, was born Clarence Earl McCurry in Bristol, Virginia, the son of George McCurry, a bartender, and Rosie Belle Ashley. Shortly before he was born, his father, who was locally known as an old-time fiddler, revealed that he had a second family and left to be with them; it was only years later that the young singer met him. The boy took the name of his mother’s family and moved with them to Ashe County, North Carolina, about 1896. In this remote mountain area he grew up, learning folk songs and the old clawhammer style of banjo-playing. By 1907 he had received his first guitar, an instrument only then becoming popular in the mountains, and by the time he was a teenager he was gaining his first professional experience by traveling with Doc White Cloud’s medicine show. Such shows, common in the rural South through the 1930s, featured a self-styled doctor who sold patent nostrums to the public; to attract an audience, the doctors hired musicians to play on a makeshift stage. Ashley played off and on in such shows for about twenty years, often portraying a traditional blackface comic character called “Rastus” in addition to making music. Later he helped train another young singer in the show, ...

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Boggs, Dock (07 February 1898–07 February 1971), folk singer and banjoist, was born Moran Lee Boggs in West Norton, Virginia. His father worked as a blacksmith and carpenter. He grew up in a family of musicians; three of his older brothers played the banjo and sang, two sisters were excellent singers, and his father could even read music and sing “written” music. Dock grew up attending typical Appalachian music-making events—square dances, molasses stir-offs, barn raisings, pie suppers—but the area’s mining and railroading enterprises also put him in touch with a large number of African-American folk musicians, from whom he learned the blues and other types of popular songs. In his own work later he sought to combine the two styles, the black and the white, creating a unique strain of “mountain blues.”...

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Bumgarner, Samantha (30 October 1878–24 December 1960), folksinger and instrumentalist, was born Samantha Biddix in Jackson County, North Carolina, the daughter of Has Biddix, a well-known local fiddler. (Her mother’s name is unknown.) She grew up in the hilly area southeast of Asheville, a region rich in fiddle and banjo music and in old ballads. Her father could, she recalled, make his fiddle “croon like a lovin’ woman,” but at first he would not let his daughter touch his instrument. She persisted and became adept at the fiddle; she also, like many mountain musicians of the time, developed skill on the banjo. Her first banjo was “a gourd with cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax,” but by the time she was fifteen she had learned to play it so well that her father bought her a “real” store-made banjo. She began to travel with her father as he went around the region playing for dances and fiddling contests. (Before the turn of the century, the guitar was rare in the Appalachians, and a mountain “string band” often consisted of a fiddle and banjo.)...

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Carson, John (23 March 1868–11 December 1949), early country fiddler, vocalist, and entertainer, known professionally as “Fiddlin’ ” John, was born in Fannin County, Georgia, the son of J. P. Carson and Mary Ann Beaty, subsistence farmers. Carson was raised on the family farm, where he learned the rudiments of music-making. His early education was spotty, and the extent of his training unknown. Although he worked as a professional entertainer, he also held odd jobs such as painter and carpenter and probably worked as a subsistence farmer. In 1894 he married Jenny Nora Scroggins (or Scoggins). They had at least nine children....

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Cockerham, Fred (03 November 1905–08 July 1980), banjo player, fiddler, and singer, was born in Round Peak, North Carolina, near the Virginia border, the son of Elias Cockerham and Betty Jane (maiden name unknown), subsistence farmers. One of seven children, Fred grew up among a musical family; many of his brothers played music, and his father played harmonica and buckdanced. His uncle Troy was a fiddler, as was his older brother Pate. Given such a musical background, Fred began playing music when he was about eight years old. On the banjo he was influenced by local players Mal Smith and Charlie Lowe, who both played in the traditional frailing style, although Lowe “dropped his thumb” from the fifth (drone) string to play melody notes, a method that also influenced Cockerham’s melodic playing. Cockerham’s interest in the fiddle was spurred by hearing ...

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Cotten, Elizabeth (05 January 1893–29 June 1987), folksinger, was born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the daughter of George Nevills, a day laborer and part-time farmer, and Louise (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Her parents’ blue-collar jobs were tied to the largely agrarian economy that supported the black community in Orange County. One of five children, “Libba” Cotten’s formal education did not extend beyond elementary school. She was attracted to music as a child. She began playing her older brother Claude’s banjo and guitar shortly after the turn of the century and taught herself to tune and play both instruments left-handed (upside-down). She was exposed to a wide variety of music during a fruitful and creative period for southern music. Blues was just beginning to emerge, and the ballads that developed in the United States, country dance tunes, minstrel show songs, and sacred songs were all commonly heard. Around this time Cotten wrote two songs—“Freight Train” and “I’m Going Away”—for which she later became famous....

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Fariña, Mimi (30 April 1945–18 July 2001), folksinger and activist, was born Margarita Mimi Baez in Palo Alto, California, the third daughter of Albert Baez, a physicist, and Joan Bridge Baez. Both parents were first-generation immigrants, her father coming from Mexico and her mother from Scotland. As a girl Mimi studied violin and ballet. In 1958 the family moved to the Boston-Cambridge area, and Mimi and her older sister Joan discovered the burgeoning folk music scene. They both learned to play guitar and began performing at coffeehouses. Mimi was the better guitarist, but Joan had the stronger voice, dazzling audiences with her angelic soprano. Mimi, still in high school, watched in amazement as Joan outgrew the coffeehouses, moving on to bigger gigs and signing a recording contract with Vanguard Records, the leading folk music label....

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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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Woody Guthrie Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113276).

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Guthrie, Woody (14 July 1912–03 October 1967), singer and songwriter, was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of Charles Guthrie, a cattle rancher and real estate salesman, and Nora Belle Sherman, a schoolteacher. Guthrie’s roots were in the soil of the American frontier. His maternal grandfather had been a dirt farmer in Kansas who settled in Oklahoma at the end of the nineteenth century, and his father’s family had been cowboys in the territory. Woody Guthrie’s childhood was uneventful until he reached the age of seven, when he experienced a series of family tragedies that set the tone for his adult life as a loner, a wanderer, and, at the same time, a man who spoke for America’s “little people.” His sister was burned to death in a fire that his mother was suspected of setting, his father’s business ventures failed, and the family lost a total of three homes. When his father was also injured in a suspected arson fire, his mother was institutionalized. She had begun to show signs of Huntington’s chorea, the degenerative and hereditary disease of the central nervous system that would eventually kill her son....

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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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Holcomb, Roscoe (1913–25 February 1981), singer and banjo player, was born in Daisy, Kentucky, near the town of Hazard, the son of a coal miner. (His parents’ names are unknown.) Holcomb remembered hearing music from the time of his birth and was particularly impressed by a neighbor who played the harmonica (which he called a “mouth harp”). He received his first banjo at the age of ten and began accompanying a local fiddler at dances. Holcomb worked as a farm assistant as a teenager and then as a coal miner; he was employed as a miner for several decades. During slow times, he would work laying ties for the railroad....

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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).

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Jenkins, Andrew (26 November 1885–1956), folk composer and gospel singer, was born in Jenkinsburg, near Atlanta, Georgia. His parents’ names are unknown. Jenkins was partially blinded as an infant when the wrong medication was put into his eyes. By the time he was nine he had joined the Methodist church and was climbing up on tree stumps to preach sermons to his family and friends. He preached his first formal sermon in a church in 1909, when he was twenty-four. Among his influences were two Atlanta residents who had gained nationwide reputations in the field of religion, composer Charlie Tillman (who had written the song “Life’s Railway to Heaven”) and evangelist Sam P. Jones (who published many gospel songbooks and traveled around the South doing tent revivals). To supplement his income, Jenkins sold newspapers on the streets of Atlanta and soon acquired a reputation as a folk preacher....

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Kazee, Buell (29 August 1900– August 1976), folk singer, banjo player, and minister, was born at the head of Burton Fork in Magoffin County, east of Richmond in eastern Kentucky, the son of Frank Kazee and Abijane Conley Helton, farmers. Kazee learned old hymns and songs from both parents, who “just sang by nature.” By the time he was five, Kazee had received his first banjo, and within a few years he was playing at the rural mountain “frolics” (dances) in the area. Up through his teenage years, Kazee led a lifestyle typical of many mountain musicians of the day. This changed, however, when he decided to prepare for the ministry; he went on to complete high school and attend Georgetown College in central Kentucky....

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Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) With his wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter, 1935. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-35026).

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Lead Belly (15 January 1888–06 December 1949), folk singer and composer, was born Huddie Ledbetter on the Jeter plantation near Caddo Lake, north of Shreveport, Louisiana, the only surviving son of John Wesley Ledbetter and Sally Pugh, farmers who were reasonably well-to-do. Young Huddie (or “Hudy” as the 1910 census records list him) grew up in a large rural black community centered around the Louisiana-Texas-Arkansas junction, and he would later play at rural dances where, in his own words, “there would be no white man around for twenty miles.” Though he was exposed to the newer African-American music forms like the blues, he also absorbed many of the older fiddle tunes, play-party tunes, church songs, field hollers, badman ballads, and even old vaudeville songs of the culture. His uncle taught him a song that later became his signature tune, “Goodnight, Irene.” Though Huddie’s first instrument was a “windjammer” (a small accordian), by 1903 he had acquired a guitar and was plying his trade at local dances....

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Ledford, Lily May (17 March 1917–14 July 1985), folk music singer and musician, was born in the Red River Gorge, Powell County, Kentucky, the daughter of Daw White Ledford, a sharecropper tenant farmer, and Stella May Tackett. The Ledfords had fourteen children, of whom ten survived childhood. The family moved several times to farms within a few miles in the gorge and then around 1920 moved to a farm owned by Daw’s uncle in Chimney Top. Lily and her siblings, who sometimes made their own instruments, learned to sing hymns from their mother and to sing and play folk tunes on the fiddle, banjo, and guitar from their father, an accomplished amateur musician. Lily May seemed passionate about music and often stole away from her chores to practice. She attended a single-room schoolhouse a few miles from their home but dropped out in the eighth grade....

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Lipscomb, Mance (09 April 1895–30 January 1976), songster and guitarist, was born on a farm near Navasota, Texas, the son of Charlie Lipscomb, a former slave who became a professional fiddler, and Janie Pratt. Mance learned to play fiddle and guitar at an early age, learning mainly by ear because his musician father was seldom home to teach him. While still a preteen, Mance supposedly traveled with his father for a time, accompanying him on guitar. However, when Mance was around eleven years old, his father stopped coming home altogether, and the youngster went to work on the farm to help his mother....