Lechner on Williams, 'Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott'

Michael Ann Williams
Zachary Lechner

Michael Ann Williams. Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. xvi + 221 pp. $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07344-1; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03102-1.

Reviewed by Zachary Lechner (Department of History, Temple University) Published on H-Southern-Music (February, 2007)

The Authenticity and Artifice of Folk Music

In her dual biography Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott, Michael Ann Williams relates the lives of two key, but often overlooked, figures in the popularization of folk and country music during the twentieth century. Williams, the head of the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology at Western Kentucky University, not only fills a gap in the musical and historical literature, she also adds another layer to the scholarly conversation about authenticity in folk and country music.

Williams presents Lair's (1894-1985) and Knott's (1895-1984) biography in the form of a chronological, declension narrative. These individuals crossed paths only occasionally, so Williams alternates her focus between Lair and Knott throughout the book. Generally, the approach works well, fueling the author's argument that despite their different techniques Lair and Knott both sought to be center stage by presenting "traditional" culture in a theatrical manner. Lair utilized the radio airwaves while Knott employed the festival stage. Knott, Williams states, differed from her folk mentors such as Paul Green and Frederick Koch "in conceiving of folk art as a form of theatrical performance rather than as source material for theatrical presentations" (p. 16). She incorporated this ideology in her creation of the National Folk Festival in 1934. Noting Knott's emphasis on folk arts rooted in ethnic or regional identities, Williams emphasizes the festival's inclusiveness. By the end of the 1930s, Knott allowed participation from American territories and other countries in the Americas. Despite the breadth of her productions, Knott showed a penchant for staging shows. She tended to follow her own tastes rather than those of her artists. She also sought the advice of others, especially academic folklorists. When she excluded Delta blues performers from the festivals, Williams points out that Knott took advice from middle-class black leaders who often looked down upon the tradition. This advice, rather than any racism on Knott's part, kept Delta blues out of the festival.

Knott's popular staging of the folk arts found kinship with John Lair's staging of country music. Lair began broadcasting his radio program the Renfro Valley Barn Dance on Cincinnati's WLW in 1937. He recognized Americans' interest in hearing "authentic" musical acts. Acting as a folksy master of ceremonies, Lair told his listeners that all of his performers hailed from Renfro Valley in Kentucky, where he moved the Barn Dance in 1939. Describing his exploitation of nostalgia, Williams describes the location as "[a] stand-in for whatever loss of the past his listeners felt" (p. 50). Lair made sure that his artists dressed the part of rural folk. For instance, he placed his popular Coon Creek Girls in gingham dresses and high-top boots even though their star Lily May Ledford preferred more cosmopolitan fashions. The post-World War II period, not surprisingly, marked a turning point in the life of the National Folk Festival and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. During the Depression, Knott could sell the festival traditions as a way to escape the national malaise. Postwar prosperity made that objective less relevant. Lair's program suffered from television competition and from bad commercial investments. By all accounts, the folk boom of the 1950s and 1960s should have revitalized Knott's and Lair's operations, but both producers felt alienated from the young purveyors of folk and traditional country music. Likewise, the folk revivalists found Lair's radio program and Knott's family-oriented festivals quaint and out of touch. For her study, Williams mines a wealth of primary materials culled from both archives and oral histories. The John Lair Collection a Berea College in Kentucky, the Sarah Gertrude Knott Collection at Western Kentucky University's Folklife Archives, and the Library of Congress's National Folk Festival Collection are indispensable repositories of letters, festival programs, and other writings. These sources offer a critical perspective on Lair's and Knott's visions for their endeavors and how performers, academics, and businesspeople responded to those visions. Williams also draws on many recorded interviews with Knott and Lair, as well as conversations with family members and artists such as Pete Seeger, fiddler Jim Gaskin, and many others. With this strong source base, Williams moves beyond a simple retelling of Lair's and Knott's lives. She makes a larger argument about folk music and authenticity. Strangely, Williams never defines the latter term. Because scholars use it so frequently, it risks becoming devoid of meaning, and so a definition is needed. In his 2003 study Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs, sociologist David Grazian offers a cogent, two-fold definition of "authenticity." "First," he writes, "it can refer to the ability of a place or event to conform to an idealized representation of reality: that is, to a set of expectations regarding how such a thing ought to look, sound, and feel. At the same time, authenticity can refer to the credibility or sincerity of a performance and its ability to come off as natural and effortless."[1] According to Grazian, the search for authenticity will never succeed in recovering the idealized representation. The purists of the folk and blues revivals certainly adhered to this categorization. But what about Lair and Knott? Williams contends that these two producers created something of a balancing act when it came to authenticity. Folk and blues revivalists, for the most part, rejected any tinge of commerciality. That emphasis sometimes resulted in a skewed vision of the music's established connection to the popular realm. Lair and Knott, on the other hand, rarely assumed the stance of purists. In fact, Williams states, "neither authenticity nor commerciality seemed to much influence their choices" (p. 15). Their true interest laid in theatrics, the act of staging, not in crafting a "real" slice of southern and Appalachian musical life. Lair, for example, decried the Nashville sound and the increasing electrification of country music in the 1960s but then took pride in helping to incorporate the string bass and Hawaiian guitar into the genre. Williams argues that such paradoxes in Lair's and Knott's career demand that scholars rethink their conclusions about these individuals and what is "genuine" in music. "In the end," Williams asserts, "the issue was not about authenticity but audience and a generation's popular tastes" (p. 173). Knott's folk dance revival and family entertainment conflicted with the differing goals of the folk revival. Similarly, Lair fell behind the trends once television damaged the popularity of country music radio. Lair and Knott increasingly retreated into the trope of authenticity during their later years, convinced that their creations, in contrast to the folk revivalists, were accurate and traditional representations of folk music despite their obvious technological and cultural manipulations. To her credit, Williams consistently cues her readers to Lair's and Knott's ambiguous relationship to authenticity and commerciality.

The author's careful parsing of this ambiguity allows for a fair judgment of their work. Whereas scholars of the folk revival might portray them as masters of artifice, Williams suggests that musical purity remains elusive. Indeed, she echoes David Grazian's discussion of authenticity by asserting the unavoidability of artifice in any portrayal of folk culture. "Despite exhortations to folk artists to act and dress naturally," she writes in her final chapter, "… we know full well that the most successful participants are those who figure out how to stage their own culture" (p. 181). Lair's and Knott's supposedly tenuous ties to "real" folk and country only serves to reinforce Grazian's point about the losing struggle of authenticity to recover any semblance of reality. All folk artists--whether they played in 1960 at the National Folk Festival or the Newport Folk Festival--constructed their own realities. From this perspective, the manipulations of Lair and Knott and someone like Alan Lomax, who paraded Leadbelly around in prison stripes in order to make him appear more "authentic," are actually quite similar.

Aside from her astute observations about authenticity, Williams raises two other salient points toward the end of her book. First, she suggests that the scholarly distinction between folk and country music, as advanced by Bill Malone and others, should be reassessed. She challenges the prevailing argument that Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) made the country genre acceptable to folk audiences. She provides several examples of Alan Lomax embracing country. She also mentions that Knott and fellow folk festival organizers frequently combed hillbilly radio for talent. Similarly, John Lair's career challenges the standard interpretation. "Of all the early country music radio entrepreneurs," she posits, "no one had their feet more firmly planted in the folk realm than John Lair" (p. 178). The author's other important point involves her rehabilitation of Lair's image. She argues that Lair does not deserve his reputation as an exploiter of talent. She admits that he profited from the work of others and could be miserly, but at the same time, he created many opportunities for inexperienced performers, which often set the stage for their later successes.

Such insights raise Staging Tradition above the level of a standard biography. Occasionally, the demands of telling Lair's and Knott's life story causes Williams to lose her focus on the subjects of staging and authenticity. I found my interest waning during the final third of the book, as Lair and Knott struggle--mostly unsuccessfully--to remain relevant in their fields. Nevertheless, Williams's excellent concluding chapter returns to the book's themes and drives them home. The author does more than recall the lives of two key innovators in the staging of folk music; she succeeds in drawing out the ambiguities of that staging. She recognizes the trap of authenticity while also demonstrating that we must continue to study why and how it was constructed. Aside from its target audience of folklorists and musicologists, this book deserves a wide readership among historians of southern and Appalachian music and culture.


[1]. David Grazian, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 10-11.

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Citation: Zachary Lechner. Review of Williams, Michael Ann, Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott. H-Southern-Music, H-Net Reviews. February, 2007. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=12852

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