The following is a guest post from AFC Folklife Specialist Meg Nicholas.
Filed away in the archives of the American Folklife Center is a little piece of radio history in the form of an oral history interview and eleven black and white photographs. The subject of the interview is Burgess Hall, who began playing music with his siblings around the age of eight. In the 1930s, Burgess and several of his friends began performing music at shows within a 500–600-mile radius encompassing parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. During their three-year stint as the Burgess Hall String Band (also sometimes called Burgess Hall and the Cumberland Boys), they were invited to play several shows in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Wheeling – perhaps best known for its years as a major steel town – was the home of the Wheeling Jamboree, the second oldest country music radio broadcast in the United States, behind the Grand Ole Opry. WWVA, the AM radio station that broadcast the Jamboree, made its first broadcast on December 13, 1926, out of the basement in a local physics teacher’s home. A year later, WWVA relocated to a studio in downtown Wheeling and over the next few years upgraded from a 50-watt station to a 50,000-watt station. The station expanded its range to 17 states and six Canadian provinces by 1933 when their first live Saturday night country music show occurred, thus heralding the beginning of the Wheeling Jamboree. At one point, the show’s broadcast could be picked up as far away as England.
Arguably WWVA’s most popular program, the Jamboree each week included a lineup of regular talent who also often performed in recurring timeslots throughout the week, as well as new talent, who won spots through ongoing local talent auditions. They also sometimes featured invited guests, including the Burgess Hall String Band.
Unlike most of WWVA’s Jamboree talent, the Burgess Hall String Band was also invited to play on the Sunday program, known as It’s Wheeling Steel. This was a half-hour musical variety show that played mostly popular songs and show tunes. It’s Wheeling Steel maintained an orchestra of local musicians and also invited several amateur performers as special guests, all pulled from the Wheeling Steel Company’s own employees. Occasionally, the show also welcomed musicians from outside the company, including the Burgess Hall String Band, which was made up primarily of young coal miners from the West Virginia/Kentucky border.
I listened to the full interview with Burgess Hall at my desk, without the benefit of the accompanying photographs for context, planning to pull the numerical file for the collection during my next shift on the AFC reference desk. These files, which we keep in the AFC research center, contain basic information about each collection. They sometimes also have photocopies of archived photos and manuscript materials. I was hoping that would be the case for this collection, so that I would not have to ask an archivist to get the full collection from archival storage.
On a quiet Friday afternoon, with only one researcher working away on their own research materials in the corner of the room, I pulled the file and sat down at the reference desk to have a look. There was a copy of a letter dated July 18, 1984, from Joseph C. Hickerson, then Head of the Archive of Folk Culture, to Fay McGinnis, acknowledging the receipt of her interview with Burgess Hall and thanking her for donating it and several photographs to the archive. Next in the folder was a list of captions that corresponded to each photograph in the collection, followed by photocopies of eleven 8×10” black-and-white prints.
Half of the photographs are publicity shots taken of the Burgess Hall String Band in Freeburn, Kentucky. The other half are publicity stills taken by the Wheeling Steel Corporation while the group was in town for the Jamboree. The Kentucky pictures depict the original lineup of the Burgess Hall String Band in locations around Freeburn, including the steps of a building, a stage, and a section of railroad running through town. In the publicity stills taken by Wheeling Steel Corporation, the young men of the band are sometimes dressed in homespun “hillbilly” style: patches on their knees, straw hats, bare feet and, in the case of the bass player, a pair of comically oversized fake ears. The other pictures show the same young men wearing dapper three-piece suits. I noticed that the lineup of the band in the Kentucky pictures differed slightly from those taken in Wheeling. The captions explain why: one of the original band members, Thurman Fletcher, had been unable to travel to the WWVA as he was “stricken with polio” and couldn’t travel to Wheeling – a solemn reminder of other pandemics that have come before our current one.
The caption for Picture No. 4 stated:
“Reading from left to right; Ross McClellan on Bass; Tom Francis on Guitar; Burgess Hall on Fiddle; Willis Kirk on Guitar; Gene McClellan on Banjo; People in background was WWVA Jamboree Talent. Taken at the WWVA Jamboree, Wheeling, West Virginia.”
In the picture, Burgess Hall stands front and center, just behind the microphone, with his bandmates around him, clearly captured mid-performance. The front of the stage is strewn with what appear to be dried corn husks, and branches are haphazardly suspended from a metal rail running along the back of the stage, giving the venue a decidedly “rustic” feel. The band are dressed in their nicer clothing, sans jackets, rather than the patched and frayed clothing they are wearing in later pictures taken during It’s Wheeling Steel. There is a small gap between Willis Kirk and Gene McClellan, just wide enough to show one of the WWVA Jamboree performers clearly (another is partially obscured). Fully visible as she grins up at the band, one her teeth blacked out by wax and her washboard instrument resting across her lap, is my grandmother.
I had known that my grandmother was a performer on the Jamboree. In fact, that is what had originally led me to search the Library’s holdings for items related to the radio program. I had hoped to find recordings of the shows from the early days of the broadcast. The Library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center does have recordings of the Jamboree as part of the Armed Forces Radio collection, where re-broadcasts of the show were included as part of the “Saturday Night Country Style” program. They can be accessed in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Those recordings, however, start in 1942 and the act Gramma performed with had left the show by 1941.
At the time, my grandmother’s name was Clarabelle Simms, but she performed with a group known as Frankie More’s Log Cabin Girls – one of the first all-girl radio acts – under the stage name Sis Simpson. Two of the women in the act were already nationally known performers in their own right: Alma Houchen Crosby, known as “Little Shoe,” and Cynthia May Carver, better known as “Cousin Emmy.” At that time, the Log Cabin Girls were featured daily on WWVA at 9:15am EST, sponsored by “Pinex, America’s Largest Selling Cough Syrup.” In order to be paid, regular performers relied on listeners to send in box-tops from their purchases of Pinex cough syrup. In one of the few pictures I had seen of my grandmother from her time with the Jamboree, she is pictured with the Log Cabin Girls next to a pile of box tops and she is wearing the same dark plaid dress she is wearing in the Burgess Hall photograph.
I knew that Gramma’s run on the show went from 1936 to 1941, just as I knew that Burgess Hall’s group was invited and appeared on the Jamboree around 1937. Even knowing about that overlap, and despite harboring a hope of finding some echo of my grandmother somewhere in the Library, I did not expect to find her staring up at me from an archival photo in the American Folklife Center reading room. Such is the power and joy of researching in the archives.
As a final note: In the interview, Burgess Hall laments the fact that the band never recorded their music. Following their appearance on the Jamboree, they were approached by a record company and invited to cut a record at a studio in New York, but the timing was not ideal and the band eventually passed on the opportunity. Their music was, it seemed, lost to time. Knowing that the group had performed on It’s Wheeling Steel in addition to Wheeling Jamboree, however, I have reached out to the archivists at the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU, which holds recordings of all 326 Wheeling Steel shows that aired over the radio. I may never find a recording of my grandmother on the early days of Wheeling Jamboree, but with a little bit of digging it is quite possible that I can at least reunite Burgess Hall’s family with a recording of his performance from the same era.