FOLK, COUNTRY MUSIC PIONEER LILY MAY LEDFORD DIES
Lily May Ledford, whose singing and banjo picking took her from the hills of Eastern Kentucky to the White House and Broadway, died Sunday night at Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington. She was 68.
Ledford, one of the original Coon Creek Girls, an all-female string band heard on radio from the 1930s to the 1950s, had suffered from lung cancer, diabetes and arthritis for some time.
In addition to Ledford, the group initially included her sister Rosie and two musicians from the Chicago area, Evelyn "Daisy" Lange and Esther ''Violet" Koehler. Later the group consisted of Lily May, Rosie and another Ledford sister, Minnie, whose stage name was "Black-eyed Susie."
The group, which was built around Lily May Ledford's talents, performed for more than 15 years on Renfro Valley Barn Dance programs, first in Cincinnati and later at Renfro Valley in Rockcastle County.
After the Coon Creek Girls started performing, "we began to catch on like wildfire," Ledford said in an interview in 1983. "We were writing songs and writing poetry and answering our fan mail - we got bushel baskets of mail. People were lining up for our show. They started naming babies after us and farm animals after us."
Today the New Coon Creek Girls, formed in the late 1970s, are carrying on the tradition. Ledford allowed the use of the name and helped the group by giving it songs and tips on playing.
''I admired her as one of the very early women performers in folk and country music," Loyal Jones, director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, said of Ledford. "She certainly is among those pioneers. Her band, the Coon Creek Girls, is probably the first all-women string band.
"She played very well. She had just enormous talent and just a great stage presence. . . . She created quite a bit of excitement when she got on stage. She also was a great storyteller."
Ledford's married name was Lily May Pennington, and she lived at 973 Maywick Drive in Lexington.
Last month she was named a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award. The $5,000 award was one of 12 given for achievement in a traditional art field.
"Pete Seeger developed his original banjo style from countless hours of listening to Lily May's early recordings, and he is only one of hundreds of instrumentalists to do so," the National Endowment for the Arts said in a news release announcing the awards.
"Experts in traditional banjo playing have lauded Lily May as one of the finest instrumentalists alive."
Ledford was born March 17, 1917, in the Red River Gorge area of Powell County. One of 14 children in a tenant family that farmed in the gorge, young Lily May would play the fiddle at area dances.
When she was a child she, her sister Rosie, brother Coyen and a neighbor boy formed a band called Red River Ramblers.
Ledford's career advanced in 1936 after she won a Mount Vernon music competition. She went on to a spot on the National Barn Dance radio program broadcast from WLS in Chicago.
The Coon Creek Girls were formed later. One of the highlights of the group's career was a 1939 performance at the White House. She played before President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his guests, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Ledford and her group also appeared with Sunshine Sue in The Old Dominion Barn Dance on Broadway in 1955. Other performers in the show included Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
After her group broke up in the 1950s, Ledford devoted her time to her children, all of whom have been involved in music. A son, James "J.P." Pennington of Lexington, writes songs and performs with the country-western group Exile. Another son, Robert G. Pennington of Berea, has played at various places in Central Kentucky. A daughter, Barbara Ann Greenlief of Nicholasville, has performed with a traditional music group.
Ledford resumed her performing schedule in the 1960s, playing at such events as the National Folk Festival in Newport, R.I., in 1966. In the 1970s she performed at a festival in Montreal and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
She was Berea College's artist-in-residence in 1979 and 1980.
In 1983 she recorded an album on the Greenhays label called Lily May Ledford Banjo Pickin' Girl.
John Lair, who had been Ledford's manager, said in a statement printed on the back of the album: "The best thing about Lily May is her naturalness. She is the real thing. She has old-time songs that she got from her parents and is a great all-round musician. She worked for me for 40 years, and was the best woman banjo-player in the country, and she led the first all-girl band in the country."
In addition to her children, Ledford is survived by two brothers, Thomas Coyen Ledford of Stanton and Henry Kermit Ledford of Verona, Ohio; a sister, Minnie Jennings of Marathon, Fla.; and four grandchildren.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Berea Baptist Church. Burial will be in Berea Cemetery. Visitation will be from 6 to 9 p.m. today at Wray Funeral Home in Berea.
Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
July 16, 1985