Cousin Emmy: Looking for a Name

CD Cover, Carolina Chocolate Drops seated with instruments, sepia-toned to appear oldLast year, while writing a final research paper on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ wonderful 2012 album, Leaving Eden, I encountered the music of the late hillbilly performer Cousin Emmy. The Carolina Chocolate Drops had covered her single “Ruby” for the album, notably adding a beat boxer for their arrangement. I loved the song, and the difficulty of finding anything beyond variations on the same basic biography of Emmy was intriguing. Besides wondering how her actual childhood and life compared to the brief anecdotes I found mentioned constantly, I came upon a more simple question: what was her real name?

In theory, the answer was as simple as the question: several credible sources mentioned Cynthia May Carver as Cousin Emmy’s real name. However, the 1946 Decca single that featured “Ruby” credited the songwriter as one “Joy May Creasy.” When the Osborne Brothers had their first hit on MGM Records in 1956 with their rendition of “Ruby Are You Mad,” the song was simply credited to Cousin Emmy, suggesting that Joy May Creasy and Cousin Emmy were one and the same. This seemed to be further confirmed by an oft-cited 1943 Time magazine profile that claims Cousin Emmy was christened Joy May Creasy outside Lamb, Kentucky. After searching pictures of gravestones, countless liner note mentions, copyright renewals, and census records, I had found many more instances of both names, including some minor variations (Mae instead of May, Jo rather than Joy, etc.). I felt that I could safely conclude that both these names held some truth, and the variation in reporting was probably due to a failed (and unmentioned) marriage, the use of pet names, and/or some other unknown factor.

Record label, Cousin Emmy's song "Ruby," Decca Records; LP Cover, Osborne Brothers sitting with instruments, stylized writing of Ruby

This summer, I was fortunate to begin working here in the Southern Folklife Collection, where I have been exposed to a wealth of information on early hillbilly performers like Cousin Emmy. As I pulled items for researcher questions and digitization, I began to revisit Cousin Emmy and to try to add some more context to her story. I settled on a simple goal: find a resource that mentioned both Joy May Creasy and Cynthia May Carver, or at least something that explained the difference.

In the SFC Song Folio Collection (30006), I found Chimney Corner Songs, FL-0137, which offered an interesting biography of Cousin Emmy and her fellow performers. Although it did not specifically mention her real name or a marriage, it led me to two different, illustrative sources in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College. First, I searched a similar songbook collection and found a songbook that includes a biography for Johnny Creasy, the announcer on Cousin Emmy’s show, that also mentions his attraction to Cousin Emmy. Chimney Corner Songs was published and largely credited to John Lair, whose papers and correspondence are held at Berea. In that correspondence is a 1941 letter from Cousin Emmy, in which she champions herself and her husband, an announcer: “My husband is a very good announcer. We both work nice together.”

Song folio cover, drawing of fireplace and photos of Cousin Emmy and Frankie MooreBlack and white photograph of cousin emmy

So, Cousin Emmy was born Cynthia May Carver outside Lamb, Kentucky. At least at some point, she also went by Joy. She was married to a Johnny Creasy (whose first name might have been Alfred) for some time, despite many claims, including in the Time article, that she had never married.

Of course, I also found a scribbled note card in the SFC Artist Name File (30005) for Cousin Emmy, NF-538, that states “Cousin Emmy was married to Joe Fred White before she was in radio (He’s in Florida).” In the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, an online database, I found a small blurb in a 1949 issue of Variety magazine:

“St. L.’s ‘Cousin Emmy’ Divorced

St. Louis, June 14

Elmer Schaller, farmer living at Lenzburg, Ill., near here, last week won an uncontested divorce from his wife, who has been the “Cousin Emmy” of KMOX’s early a.m. hillbilly program. Couple was married April, 1945, and separated March, 1948. Mrs. Schaller has been a radio entertainer for seven years.”

handwritten notes on Cousin Emmy

Cousin Emmy’s on-stage persona and biographical information were constantly being tailored to her audience, from hillbilly music on the radio to the folk revival with Alan Lomax in the 1940s and the New Lost City Ramblers in the 1960s. Separating all the details of her life from the stories spinning all around her would surely be an impossible task, but I plan on putting on “Ruby” and digging around a little more.two posters, one featuring Cousin Emmy and other performers, the other is the Cousin Emmy Show

Latest video roundup: From Tennessee to Hawaii

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As the AV Preservation team waits on the next large batch of digitized video content (check-in later this summer!), a small selection of videos has been described and made available for streaming in the last week, including:

VT-20004/1: 5th Annual Tennessee Grassroots Days
Held in Nashville’s Centennial Park in 1980, this video features performances by Leola Cullum, Gospel Stirrers, Bud Garrett, Lizzie Cheatham, Nimrod Workman, Jo-El Sonnier with Frazier Moss, Sam’s Ramblers, and Hazel Dickens. Also included are shots of the festival grounds, with demos spanning quilt-making to beekeeping.

Additional footage, PSAs and television coverage of annual Grassroots Days through the 80s can be found in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (#20004)

 

VT-20466/5: James “Son Ford” Thomas at Bacchus, Newark, Del., winter 1978

I highlighted a different James “Son Ford” Thomas video in the Robert Bethke Collection (#20466) in a previous post, in which he performed with George Thorogood and Ron Smith. Primarily playing solo, but joined by Ron Smith eventually, this performance takes place at the University of Delaware’s Bacchus Theater.

 

VT-20018/1 & VT-20018/2: Walter Raleigh Babson at UNC Chapel Hill with Andy Cahan, 1987
Walter Raleigh Babson performed twice at Chapel Hill in 1987, including his last public concert with Andy Cahan on November 12th (VT-20018/2), 26 days before passing away. Along with the performance, this tape includes a retrospective of Babson’s life through home movies and photographs.

 

Babson gracefully executes advanced yoga pose in home movie, undated (VT-20018/2)

VT-20018/1 documents Babson’s performance earlier in 1987 at Gerrard Hall on March 28th for the Southern Accents Fine Arts Festival at UNC, where he is again joined by Andy Cahan. Additional audio recordings and interviews of Babson can be accessed in the Andy Cahan Collection (#20018).

 

VT-20379/20 part 1 and part 2: Gene Bluestein with Nona Beamer on Folk Sources in American Culture, 1986

Gene Bluestein tries out the gourd rattle, with guidance from Nona Beamer

Gene Bluestein hosted a number of guests on his series Folk Sources in American Culture while at California State University. Many of these segments can be found in the Gene Bluestein collection (#20379). On this particular day, he hosted Nona Beamer, who shared examples of instruments and related Hawaiian folk traditions.

 

 

 

Workers of the World Unite! May Day in the Mike Seeger and Broadside Collections

flyer from album FC25202 in the Mike Seeger Collection, Southern Folklife Collection , UNC Chapel HillFor all workers, past, present, and future on this 126th International Workers’ Day we present this promotional flyer for the 1978 Folk Song Festival in Helsinki Finland, found inserted in a LP sleeve (along with miniature sticker versions of the flyer) in the SFC’s Mike Seeger Collection, FC-25202.

The 1978 festival and flyer honored Chilean activist singer-songwriter Victor Jara who was murdered, along with thousands of other victims, by the Chilean Army a day after the military coup September 11, 1973. Jara’s 1969 composition “Plegaria a un Labrador” (“Public Prayer to a worker”) remains a powerful call for solidarity in the struggle for human rights. Hear Jara perform “Plegeria a un Labrador” with his group Quilapayún here.

Open reel tape, FT9374, in the Broadside Collection (20289) includes recordings from a series of 1974 benefit concerts for Chile organized by Phil Ochs in New York City after the death of President Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and countless others. Musicians included Larry Estrige, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and Arlo Guthrie. The latter performed a song dedicated to the life of Victor Jara based on a poem written by Adrian Miller. Listen to that track below:20289_FT9374_Victory Jara of Chile_Arlo Guthrie_5_9_1974_SouthernFoklifeCollection_UNC_Chapel Hill

And finally on this May Day we would like to leave you with one of Woody Guthrie’s protest ballads, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” The heartbreaking song memorializes the nameless migrants killed in a plane crash in Los Gatos canyon in 1948. It is sung by Sis Cunningham, recorded on FS5695 in the Broadside Collection (20289).20289_FS5695_Deportee_Sis Cunningham_Southern Folklife Collection_UNC_Chapel Hill

 

 

More photos of the week: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys

Life as a country musician has never been easy and Earl Scruggs spent grueling years on the road in the late 1940s pioneering the bluegrass sound with fellow road warriors Bill Monroe, Chubby Wise, Howard Watts, and Lester Flatt. After Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948, the popularity of Bluegrass music began to grow and through the resourceful management of Louise Certain, soon to be Louise Scruggs, the band secured the sponsorship of Martha White Flour and what was hopefully a more comfortable means of transportation. Still between radio performances, recording sessions, and live shows, the band often performed multiple times per day. The image below features The Foggy Mountain Boys on an unknown stage in the 1950s.

 

 

SFC Photo of the Week: Mike Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten

Another image from the Mike from the Mike Seeger Collection, this time playing guitar with his dear friend, Chapel Hill’s beloved Libba Cotten, in 1978 or 1979.

Join us tonight, March 23, 2012, in Wilson Library on UNC’s campus for a discussion and concert in celebration of the life and work of musician, documentarian, and scholar Mike Seeger.

SFC Photo of the Week: Mike Seeger

We wanted to share a few photos from the Mike Seeger Collection in advance of the tribute concert and lecture on Friday, March 23. The image above, featuring Seeger recording William Bragg along with a group of interested students, was captured in Widen, West Virginia by Alice Gerrard in 1967.

Gerrard will perform at the tribute concert along with Ginny Hawker and Mike Seeger’s former band mates from the New Lost City Ramblers, John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz.