I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music

Close-Up on Women in Old-Time Music

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Lily May Ledford

Photo of Lily May Ledford
Courtesy of Reel World String Band


Powell County, Kentucky

Date of Birth

March 17, 1917

Date of Death

July 14, 1985

Lily May Ledford learned her driving clawhammer banjo style and adept fiddling at home. By the age of 12, she was playing fiddle with her banjo-playing father, and she also began taking part in talent contests from a young age. As a teenager, Lily May was in a string band called the Red River Ramblers with her sister Rosie and brother Cayen. The band auditioned for talent scouts in the mid-1930s, and she was chosen to appear on WLS’s National Barn Dance in Chicago. Producer John Lair worked with Lily May on one of his long-time ideas: an all-girl string band. The Coon Creek Girls debuted on stage in 1937 as part of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and performed together for 20 years. Of their first performance, Lily May noted: “We startled the audience by being all girls — our sound was drowned out by the uproar of applause and yelling.” 

Led by Lily May, the group had different members over the years, including her sisters Rosie and Minnie, Evelyn Daisy Lange, Esther Violet Koehler, and Martha Carson. In 1939, The Coon Creek Girls were invited to be part of a concert of American music at the White House, performing in front of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the king and queen of England. After The Coon Creek Girls broke up in 1957, Lily May – sometimes alone and sometimes briefly reunited with the rest of the band – continued to play and perform at venues like the Newport Folk Festival in 1968 and as Berea College’s Artist-in-Residence in 1979–1980. She also performed on or recorded several albums, influencing future generations of musicians, including Pete Seeger. In 1985 Lily May was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award winner “in recognition of her legacy of traditional tunes and banjo picking techniques.”

Take a Listen

Select Discography

  • Banjo Pickin’ Girl (Greenhays Recordings)
  • Gems: Lily May Ledford Rare Concert and Studio Recordings 1968–1983 (June Appal Recordings)

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