- Patrick Joseph O’Connor
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. Jimmie Rodgers played the tenor banjo before he took up the guitar for his country material.
Ford’s first foray into the musical field was in the genre of Dixieland, organizing Benny Ford and His Arkansas Travellers in 1922. Ford took this popular form of music (primarily performed by white musicians, distinguishing itself from the similar New Orleans jazz style that was played by blacks) on the road. Performing in small towns with his Dixieland band, as well as with other ensembles playing popular and country music, Ford made use of medicine shows, tent shows, burlesque, and vaudeville to earn a living. Ford first broadcast on KTHS, Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1924, after which he played the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit with Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboys. At this time the western swing of the territories had begun to make its impact on country music and was at the height of its popularity at this stage in his career.
In the 1930s Ford’s comedic talents caught the attention of Gene Autry, who invited him to become part of his radio show on WLS in Chicago. WLS was one of the first radio stations to broadcast country music across the nation. Ford often had his wife (the details of his marriage are unknown) planted in the audience to answer his lines. These broadcasts capitalized on the homesickness and rustic tastes of the thousands of transplanted white ruralists—much as the country blues of the 1920s had appealed to the black populations living in cities; they proved immensely popular. Doing comedy, playing the banjo, and acting as master of ceremonies, Ford came into the three roles that would stay with him throughout his career.
Before 1937 Ford had joined the musical program “Showboat” on WLS, which became the “WLS Barn Dance.” During this period of his performing career, Ford began to be known as the Duke of Paducah, capitalizing on his comic capabilities and assuming the role of a rube attempting sophistication: “They told me to read plenty of books in college so I went over to the library and they had a smart alec sissy behind the desk. I said, ‘I’d like to have the life of Caesar.’ He said, ‘I’m sorry but Brutus beat you to it.’ ”
In 1937 Ford left WLS to act as master of ceremonies on “Plantation Party,” which was broadcast over the NBC network. He was also the program’s main comedian, writing the script and beginning a collection of jokes that later comprised more than half a million. He stayed with the show until 1939.
Ford was a partner with brothers Red Foley and Cotton Foley in broadcasting the “Renfro Valley Barn Dance.” The show originated from Renfro Valley, Kentucky, in 1939 and capitalized on the national appetite for country music. It was the first program to be broadcast from a rural region rather than from studios in Chicago or Cincinnati.
In 1942 Ford went overseas to perform for the men and women stationed abroad during World War II. After his return, on 19 September, he did his first show on the Grand Ole Opry, a venue that is generally recognized as the pinnacle of country music showcases. Ford found a home on the Opry for the next sixteen years. During this period he developed his coat of arms, which consisted of button shoes, two corn cobs, and a wagon. This capitalized on his famous closing line, “Take me back to the wagon boys, these shoes are killin’ me.”
During the 1950s and 1960s millions of Americans watched the Duke of Paducah perform on television shows such as “The Jimmy Dean Show,” “Gary Moore,” “The Red Foley Show,” “The Porter Waggoner Show,” and the Grand Ole Opry. Ford also made up to 200 personal appearances a year, which were reminiscent of his career’s beginnings in vaudeville and tent shows. He enjoyed playing to a live crowd in small towns and cities with country fans, doing a monologue as well as playing a number or two on his tenor banjo.
A look at Ford’s material, available in recorded form on Button Shoes, Belly Laughs and Monkey Business (Starday, 1961) and At the Fair (Starday, 1963), as well as on transcribed 1953 Royal Crown Cola radio programs, gives a vision of rustic humor. He made use of what would later be considered offensive topics—jokes about his fat wife, for instance. Nonetheless, Ford’s contributions to country music entertainment were substantial. Like many country comics—often a costumed musician in the band—Ford offered a relief from the hard times mirrored in the downhearted lyrics of country music. The sentimental and rousing qualities of the music were offset by his self-deprecating personage.
Ford was well thought of by his contemporaries. He became an after-dinner speaker in his later years and frequently chose self-fulfillment and happiness as topics. He retired to a chicken farm in Brentwood, Tennessee, near Nashville. Confined to a nursing home, Ford died of cancer.
Ford donated his writings, more than 600 scripts, and a collection of 499 books to the Emory University library in 1985. His scrapbooks and other personal material are at the Country Music Foundation archives, Nashville, Tenn. Ford published two books, These Shoes Are Killin’ Me (1947) and Funneee (1980). Douglas B. Green, Country Roots: The Origins of Country Music (1976), has some information on Ford. There is an entry on him in Barry McCloud, Definitive Country (1995).