Friday, March 25, 2011

Blue Grass and Cotton Mills

Many of the early pioneers in Country Music and Blue Grass were in the small town of Danville, Virginia early in their career। After World War II, there was a flood of men coming home looking for jobs. During the war, Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills, which was established in Danville in 1882, was a major supplier of cloth and canvas for military uniforms and material. Only a few of the big name musical groups could make a living by their performances alone. The mills in Danville grew to a peak of 18,000 employees during the War. Since shortly after 1900, the mill had advertised widely to attract workers from the farms and mountains. The mill complex, with about 800 mill-owned houses for working families, grew to be the largest single-unit operation of its kind in the world.

Riverside Cotton Mills began operation on water power। Shortly after 1900, a high dam was constructed above Danville to produce hydro-electic power for a mill and village which became Schoolfield. About 800 houses were constructed on 1,700 acres for mill workers and their families.

In June 1947, there was a Danville event that would eventually greatly expand country and Blue Grass music in America. Oscar G. Fentriss, president of the city council, threw a large switch at the City Auditorium to open Danville’s second radio station. WBTM was the first station, which opened in 1930. The acronym came from both “World’s Biggest Textile Mill” and “World’s Best Tobacco Market.” The new station WDVA, at 1250 AM on the dial, was obviously derived from “Danville, Virginia." WDVA officials were Howard Hylton, Bert Flowers (long-time manager of Sears, Roebuck & Co.), Ralph Hess, Jr. (who remained with the station for 30 years), and Dick Campbell (who became general manager). Ross DeRoy was musical director of a 15-piece orchestra at the opening. Other groups there were “Gurney Thomas and the Hillbilly Pals” and “Jim Willie Pruitt and The Smiling Troubadours."

In the early days, WBTM radio was located on Floyd Street in the Hotel Danville building and WDVA operated Market Street in the American National Bank Building। According to Tommy Cundiff (aka Tommy Ford) WDVA was on the second floor over a music company on Main Street at one time. Tommy was a teenager performing at WBTM with Curly Howard & the County Cavaliers. When Jim Eanes went to South Hill, Tommy went to WDVA with Clyde Moody. When Tommy was applying for his union card, Clyde Moody told him that Tommy was okay, but how about Ford for a last name. I talked with Tommy today (March 27, 2011) and he still performs in Charleston, South Carolina with this group "The Tommy Ford Band." At one time Tommy lived in one of the trainers at Fairground Trailer Park with a Mr. Vaughn who operated Vaughn's Grocery Store on Bradley Road. There were only three trailers at that time and Clyde Moody lived in one of them. Tommy talked about live shows at the Rialto Theater including Janis. Janis was 15 years old when she and young Tommy eloped to South Carolina to be married on January 7, 1956. The marriage was a secret from just about everyone for a while (more below).

This is the “Transmitting Room” in 1930 in the Hotel Danville. The transmitting tower was on top of the hotel, which was Danville’s tallest building. station WDVA began to sponsor a Barn Dance during the 1940s. The Danville Fair began back in 1908. In 1941, six large buildings were constructed for the fair and to be used for weekly livestock auctions during the rest of the year. The area on the corner of highway US 58 (Riverside Drive) and highway U.S. "Alternate" 29 (Piney Forest Road) was out in Pittsylvania until Danville annexed this area in 1951. One building adjacent to the Fairgrounds, which was used for the Barn Dance, had one end staged to look like the inside of a barn. There was space for up to 1,000 attendees. WDVA hired Clyde Moody as "Director of Country Music" for the radio station. Moody was widely known for his hit song "Shenandoah Waltz," which he recorded in Cincinnati, Ohio in February of 1947. Clyde wrote the words while drinking coffee with a friend. The record sold a million and half copies. His success was clouded by the tragic loss of his wife and four year old son on May12, 1947. The house caught fire in his hometown of Marion, North Carolina. Clyde and the other children got out safely but his wife Janie Louise Parker Moody and son Jimmy died.

Clyde Moody's wife and young son were buried in Marion, North Carolina in 1947. This newspaper clipping shows the new buildings in 1941 just before the grand opening of the new location for the annual fair. At the left on the banks of Sandy Creek, there was a small "Fairgrounds Trailer Park." During 1953 and 1954, Clyde Moody lived in one of these trailers. Curtis Finch headed up the Danville Fair. In 1958, for the 50th anniversary, people who brought a 1908 or 1909 penny were admitted free. 4,825 pennies were received. Still there were 53,770 paid admissions. The Danville Traction and Power Co. provided free transportation to the Fairgrounds during the 50th anniversary. Bobby and I removed this roller-sign from a 1946 REO bus.

This is an old leather postcard which was handmade at the 1913 Danville, Virginia Fair. The old fairgrounds was on Whitmell Street off Industrial Avenue. Corner of Riverside Drive (US 58) and Piney Forest Road (Alternate US 29 which was built as a by pass). The round-top building was used for The Fairgrounds Skating Rink, in the 1950s was operated by Ernie Warshow. Ernie lived in the trailer park. The buildings at right were used for livestock auctions, except when the fair exhibits were there during a week in October. At left was the Fairgrounds Trailer Park. Entrance sign for the Danville Fairgrounds. These enterprises used the buildings and fairgrounds throughout the year.

Jim and Jesse McReynolds of "The Virginia Boys. Jesse worked for Riverside and Dan River Mills and lived in the Leeland Hotel while in Danville. He once had to pawn his mandolin to pay his hotel bill here. Clyde Moody with his guitar. Clyde wore a big gold ring with a C & M spelled out in diamonds (Tommy Cundiff).The 1920 census record for Marion, North Carolina shows Clyde L. Moody at age four. His father worked in the cotton mill there. Clyde was born in Cherokee, but moved to Marion as a baby.

Chubby Wise, one of the greatest of Bludgrass fiddlers, worked with Clyde Moody from 1947 until 1949. Together they wrote the words and music to "Shenandoah Waltz." Clyde said: “I had driven through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia when I was playing shows in that area and I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. And I started to thinking that there wasn’t a song about The Shenandoah Valley. So one day Chubby and I were drinking coffee at my house and I mentioned that to him so we just started writing it. I wrote the words and he wrote the music to the song.”

Bill Monroe said that he was offered $20,000 for this mandolin. This is a poster for the famous Cantrell's Horse Farm show at Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. The show was promoted by Carlton Haney. Haney was working at Riverside and Dan River Mills in Danville when he met Clyde Moody. Haney quit his mill job and became Bill Monroe's manager for a year and a half.Chubby Wise, Lester Flatt, Carlton Haney & Mac Wiseman, Carlton Haney.The crowd at the horse farm festival in 1965. The Fincastle show is said to be the first of many outdoor Blue Grass Festivals which drew large crowds of fans. Carlton Haney is said to have preferred Blue Grass as two words. According to Bill Board Magazine Haney was one of country music's most successful promoters. In 1967, he booked 104 country shows. In 1968, he is said to have rented 130 coliseums in 27 cities. Haney married Kathleen Collins in Danville in 1958. The Collins family was frequent sponsors of Bluegrass and Country music on WDVA in the early 1950s. Before we had a television set, the big 1930s radio with vacuum tubes that we had was tuned to WDVA and the live music shows on Saturday morning. I remember well the catchy tune of a commercial. I think if was written by “Smiling” Jim Eanes and backed up with bluegrass music by Don Reno and Red Smiley. It went like this: “Step on the starter Step on the gas Go to South Main Produce And go there fast Plenty of parking And all of it free South Main Produce Means E-con-o-me. South Main Produce, South Main Produce, (fading out) South Main Produce De, dum, dum” South Main Produce was operated by Kathleen’s brother Leonard and her mother Lizzie Jane (Stanley) Collins. I found Lizzie on the 1920 census in the New Bethel District (west of Reidsville) of Rockingham County, North Carolina. Lizzie was 20 and her husband William J. Collins was 41 years old. The oldest of five children was 12, so they were probably stepchildren. By 1950, Kathleen’s brother was living in Danville and operating Harry’s Place. On Carlton and Kathleen’s marriage certificate, she is shown to be owner of Harry’s Place. Harry operated a produce and meat stand on North Main Street for many years. It was a shed with no walls and sawdust on the floors. I remember going there in the early 1950s with my Uncle Rig Reynolds who lived next door. He would pick several of the biggest of the watermelons floating in a large tank of water with big blocks of ice. He would do the customary thumping and use to pocketknife to take a plug out to make sure it was red and ripe. I remember now the smell of fruits and sawdust. Harry’s Place and South Main Produce were far apart, on opposite sides of town, so as not to be in competition with each other. Harry also advertised and had a similar ditty on WDVA: “For fruits and vegetables Every kind you can mention Visit Harry’s Place On North Main Extension For a full line of meats From bacon to scrapple Where you see the sign With the big red apple.”

Floyd Poindexter said that Carlton Haney wore a rolex watch which was given to him by Conway Twitty. They were long-time friends. Conway had 55 number-one hits and some were written by Haney. According to his brother Charles Haney, “He’s the only man in four bluegrass music halls of fame that doesn’t play bluegrass music,” He said his brother never learned how to play an instrument, but he did write plenty of tunes that became number one hits, among them “To See an Angel Cry” and “PaPa Sing Me a Song,” both by Conway Twitty. Carlton Haney often gave the songwriting credit to his brother Charles, although he did most of the songwriting. We almost met Carlton Haney. My son Bobby talked with his granddaughter Amanda Carol Tarte of Florida. She said he would probably enjoy and interview and was "always there." When we arrived at the assisted living facility in North Carolina, we found that he was taken to the hospital that very morning. He suffered a stroke and died on March 16, 2011.

In June 1949, the WDVA Virginia Barn Dance began broadcasting nationwide on the Mutual Broadcasting Co. One half hour of the three and a half hour show was broadcast live. Featured on the first show were Clyde Moody and His Woodchoppers, Simon Bowes and the Bowes Brothers, Mug and Jud comedy team. The master of ceremonies was Homer "Little Bit" Thomasson of WDVA, who dressed the part of a farmer on occasion. "Homer T." operated "T-Bird Country" on US 58 east of Danville after the fairgrounds buildings were torn down. Homer "Little Bit" Thomasson live nationwide on WDVA in 1949.

Janis Martin was born at Sutherlin, east of Danville, Virginia in 1940. Her music career began when she was eleven years old in 1951 at the WDVA Virginia Barn Dance. She began recording with RCA in 1956. Later on, Janis was especially popular in Europe where she toured.

Janis Martin, the female Elvis, album cover. I remember seeing Janis live on stage at the Rialto Theater in Danville during the early 1950s. We were both very young. She was one year older than I. Janis lived north of Danville on my wife Nancye's mail route in her last years. Nancye some times talked with her at the mail box on rural route 7.

Elvis Presley signed with RCA in January 1956 and Janis Martin signed with RCA in March that year. Promoters used Elvis' success by calling Janis "The Female Elvis" (with his approval). Col. Tom Parker was quick to pull this album when he found out about it. Janis Martin gave his reasoning in an interview: First, "NOBODY performs with Elvis. and second, It was called "Janis and Elvis" and not "Elvis and Janis." I met a man in Hamburg, Germany (that) had paid $2,700.00 in American Dollars. It's so rare because it was only on the market Friday and maybe half a day an Saturday (in South Africa only). That's the only ones that exist."

Bill Monroe added Earl Scruggs and his banjo to his group in 1945. Along wih Lester Flatt, Howard Watts, aka Cedric Rainwater, the were later called the "original bluegrass group." This group recorded 28 songs for Columbia in 1946 and 1947, including "Bluemoon of Kentucky." Both Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe in early 1948. The new group was called "The Foggy Mountain Boys." The band first played as a trio on radio station WDVA in Danville, Virginia. Just days later, Jim Eanes, who was already performing on the station, joined the group. A few weeks later, a telegram came from Bill Monroe in Nashville. Jim commented later: "I had always wanted to sing on the Grand Ole Opry and I had never been there, so I left and went with Bill." No doubt, there was a little pay-back involved. Flatt said later that Bill Monroe kept them from appearing at the Opry because of hard feelings over them leaving his group. In March of 1948, the Foggy Mountain Boys left WDVA. 1962 Photograph. Bill Monroe, Doug Emerson, Bobby Adkins, Ryland Hawker, and Allen Mills. On Saturday April 2, 2011, my son Bobby and I attended a concert by Doc Watson. Appearing with him was David Holt, T. Michael Coleman and Richard Watson. Doc is among the best of guitar players and still going at age 88. Before the show Bobby went backstage to meet Doc. “He was warming up with his grandson Richard nearby. After listening for a minute I asked Doc if I could take his picture. He didn't say anything for a minute, then started playing fast on the guitar. As he was playing fast he said to me, "Well.......I reckon so". I spoke to him a minute longer, then left him alone to warm up. Doc is playing his Wayne Henderson guitar.”

My daughter Jo is married to Kevin Hawke, son of Ryland Hawker (4th from left above). Ryland is among the best of banjo players in a style identical to Earl Scruggs. Look here to see a sample:

Live at the Ricketts

Our daughter Jo is 13 years old here at the first annual Ricketts Reunion 1982 in Ballou Park. Bluegrass music by the West Fork Band. Julie Lillard King Nancye Barbour Ricketts, Jo Ricketts, Richard Langford, John Hines, Greg (Sasquatch) Salvek and Julian A. Lillard. (Click on pictures for a larger image.)

Also check out Jo singing the blues:

Vocal Jo Ricketts Hawke, banjo Ryland Hawker, guitar Kevin Hawke

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Copyright 2011 Danny Ricketts. Do not post or publish without permission. This blog is a work in progress beginning on March 25, 2011. I have more. Plese send corrections or additions to Danny Ricketts at email .