During April (National Poetry Month), we shared works by a number of Kentucky poets: Wendell Berry, Frank X. Walker, Marianne Worthington and others.
Marianne Worthington is a poet, educator and editor whose talent has been recognized by numerous awards and fellowships. She is a founder and editor of Still: The Journal and keeper of her own blog, Fixing to Shout & Sing. Check out her entry on the women of country music and her other writings about her Appalachian Music Fellowship experience.
The Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship for 2009 allowed Worthington to explore the Library’s Department of Special Collections and Archives to study the likes of Lily May Ledford, Cousin Emmy and Linda Parker.
Here, she discovered how completely the on-air persona of each woman was “groomed” by the men who produced the shows in which these artists performed. Costumes, words, songs, names and biographies were dictated by the producer in an effort to concoct a character that conformed to the strict gender roles that could be handily sold to sponsor and listener alike.
Emblematic of this process was Linda Parker.
Parker was born Genevieve Muenich in Covington, Kentucky, but grew up in the shadow of the steel mills of northern Indiana. By the time she was 20, she was singing in the nearby saloons of Chicago. She was soon “discovered” by John Lair, producer of The National Barn Dance, who transformed her into “The Sunbonnet Girl” by dressing her in gingham and replacing her blues repertoire with songs of the Carter Family.
As “The Sunbonnet Girl,” Parker became enormously popular. Not three years into her fame, she was on tour with other Barn Dance performers when she died suddenly from appendicitis. She was 23.
Even in death, John Lair continued to managed her mythology. He told news outlets that, taking a cue from one of Parker’s popular ballads, she was buried beneath a weeping willow.
WLS was flooded with mail and for the year that followed, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” was one of the most frequently requested songs.
Marianne Worthington wrote the following poem about all of the women who served as each producer’s personal pygmalion, but especially about Linda Parker.
The Barn Dance Costume
by Marianne Worthington
Reject the lace petticoats, the ric-rac
hems. Reject the gingham bonnet’s
stranglehold, the myth of calico
for righteousness sake. Forsake
the man whispering backstage
your fate, his eyes green
as dollar bills. Step out
your high-topped shoes and
ankle skirts, dye your petticoats
red and face them with the yellow,
wail the blue notes that howl
your heart’s longing. Hop high
and sing the song about my Lulu Gal
wearing that red dress from the railroad
man and those shoes from a driver
in the mines. Stay in the pit
with them rough and rowdy men
and leave your calico behind.
The Barn Dance Costume first appeared in Kudzu (2014) and is reprinted with permission from the author.