New England Country & Western Music

We are pleased to post a guest blog by Cliff Murphy, folklorist at the Maryland State Arts Council and co-director of Maryland Traditions. While a graduate student at Brown University, Cliff interned with us. In 2008 he received a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Brown University, where he wrote a history and ethnography of New England Country & Western music.

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On any given weekend night, head out to the Canadian-American Club in Watertown, Massachusetts and you’ll find the unmistakable sound of New England Country & Western music. Honky-tonk steel guitar blends with Acadian twang and the occasional song that alternates verses sung in French and English. The house band – the Country Masters – and the lead vocal of singer Jimmy Spellman will remind you of Nova Scotian country star Hank Snow – or, better yet, Maine’s legendary truck-driving songster Dick Curless. And the community that gathers here – a community predominating in immigrants from maritime Canada or their descendants – never questions the authenticity of its country musicians.

Yet in the popular imagination, Country & Western music is firmly rooted in the American south, an expression of Protestant, white, working-class Southerners. A scan of modern Country radio reveals song after song with a deep southern twang in the vocals – even when it comes from Massachusetts natives like Jo Dee Messina of Holliston.

So what do we make of the fact that Country & Western has been a rich and vibrant form of multicultural working-class expression going all the way back into the 1920s? And, perhaps even more puzzling is how we come to grips with the fact that Massachusetts has been a hotbed of cowboy yodeling for just as long – a place where women like Georgia Mae Harp of Carver, Kenny Roberts of Athol, Vinny Calderone of Everett, and Johnnie White (Jean LeBlanc) of Stoneham have been yodeling their troubles away for the better part of a century?

As a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Brown University in 2003, I had the good fortune of landing an internship with Maggie Holtzberg – folklorist extraordinaire and editor of this blog – who encouraged me to find the answers to these questions, and even accompanied me on fieldwork visits with a few of the abovementioned yodelers. What emerged over the next four years of fieldwork throughout New England was a picture of Country & Western music as a deeply expressive form of multicultural working-class culture.

The highly ornamented, virtuosic yodel of cowboy music (as opposed to the “blue yodel” of Mississippi Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers) can be traced directly to the farms and lumber camps of Maritime Canada and Maine. An intensely personal form of expression, men generally developed their yodel while working alone with animals – driving teams of oxen in the Maine woods, or driving apples to market in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

Massachusetts remains a vibrant center of country music-making, and its style is distinguished from its Southern counterparts by the multicultural background of its participants. Massachusetts’ country music community has produced a number of nationally significant figures like surf guitarist Dick Dale of Waltham and bluegrass banjoist Bill Keith of Brockton. Down-home local country music associations like the New England Country Music Historical Society and the Massachusetts Country Music Awards Association remain dedicated to promoting the region’s musical legacy through live events. And while network country radio remains unfriendly to local music, friends have been found in the most unlikely places, like WHRB-FM at Harvard University, whose “Hillbilly at Harvard” broadcast has been a staple of that station’s Saturday morning programming since 1948.

Those looking for quality Country & Western music from Massachusetts should check out the recordings of John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Revue of Cambridge, who achieved legendary status in the late ‘70s with the single Living in Braintree with You In Methuen (Is Almost Like Living In Lowell).” Another sure bet is the Country Masters or Dick Curless’ posthumous “Traveling Through” on Rounder Records. You might also wait for a collection of 1940s radio transcriptions from Georgia Mae Harp, star yodeler of WBZ radio, forthcoming from the British Archive of Country Music.

One outgrowth of New England’s Country & Western legacy is its vibrant bluegrass scene. That scene is too vast a topic for this blog entry, but Boston honky-tonks like the Hillbilly Ranch helped spur an explosion of bluegrass music in this region, launching the careers of many, including Joe Val (born Joseph Valiente in Everett), whose name graces the annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival each February in Framingham.

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We just learned from Georgia Mae Harp’s nephew Fred Kingsbury, that Ms. Mae passed away on July 25, 2014 at the age of 93.

22 Responses to “New England Country & Western Music”

  1. Dennis Martin Says:

    While I find this information interesting I am curious why it fails to mention the New England Country Music Club which I founded in 1967, for the purpose of preserving and promoting country music as well as local talent. The club holds monthly jamborees and features local talent and has been benificial to the members, the community, it’s residents, and local charities.

  2. Vicky Says:

    So glad I found this site. The other day I introduced my grandmother to the internet by showing her videos of Johnny Cash & June Carter. She was amazed. Asking me if I could find videos of this singer and that singer which I could. Then of course, Grandma, had to come up with a name I never heard of and couldn’t find on youtube and that was Georgia Mae the Yodeling Cowgirl. It seems Grandma had a recording of Georgia Mae which broke and she has had my mom looking for a replacement for it. Which Mom hasn’t been able to do, So how can I find these archives so my grandmother can listen to Georgia Mae.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    AND WHO CAN FORGET THE FIRESDE LOUNGE WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

  4. Be Says:

    Important site!
    where can I find the song that says
    With you in Methuen and me in Braintree, it’s almost like living in Lowell?

  5. John Juan Coyote Says:

    Be,

    The full title of the song you are looking for is “Living in Braintree with You in Methuen Is Almost Like Living in Lowell” by Larry Flint (no relation to the other, more famous Larry Flynt). Its may have also been recorded by Billy Madison (also no relation to the other, more famous fictional Billy Madison played by Adam Sandler). The song is sometimes played on WildWestRadio.Com

  6. Tom Morse Says:

    I believe the definitive version would have to be from the John Lincoln Wright & The Sourmash Boys album: S.R.O. Live at Jonathan Swift’s — a rare gem, indeed.

  7. Joey Grieve Says:

    Hi wanted to see if we can update the link to the massachusetts country music awards association to the following http://www.mcmaa.info if you can email me at the address above to confirm the link change. thank you

  8. Fred Kingsbury Says:

    Sadly, my aunt Georgia Mae, did yesterday at 93 at Jordan Hospital (Beth Isreal) in Plymouth.
    Contact me personally.
    I have some recordiings.

  9. Gordon Brown Says:

    So sorry to hear that my Queen of Country Music has gone on to Hillbilly Heaven. Georgia Mae was a great yodeler and pioneer in the music. She was inducted into the MA Country Music Assoc. Hall of Fame in he 1980’s and more recently into the Maine CMA Hall of Fame.
    It was my pleasure to bring her first white cowboy hat and boots and a beautiful five piece western outfit to Maine when she was inducted. All are on display in the Maine CMA Hall of Fame.
    Happy Trails, Georgia Mae…you will always be remembered.

  10. Johnny White Says:

    She was a beautiful lady and she will be missed by all. I worked with her a few times and.
    will never forget her.

  11. Patty Kempton Rogers Says:

    My heart goes out to all of Georgia’s relatives. My husband & Hall of Famer Rusty Rogers (deceased) was very fond of “Georgie”, as he called her. They did many shows together through the years and Georgia appeared on Rusty’s TV show on more than one occasion. They had know eachother since the ’40’s and shared many a yodel. They’re up there in “Cowboy Heaven” yodeling up a storm!!!

  12. Slim Andrews, Maine County Music Hall of Fame Says:

    So Sorry to hear of Georgia Mae’s passing. She was an institution in Country Music here in Maine and was, and always will be, a member of the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame. We are sad to hear the news. Georgia Mae is the 8th member of the Maine HOF that we have lost this year. May they all Rest In Peace. Happy Trails Georgia Mae. Slim Andrews, Chairman, Maine Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.

  13. Dr. Kathie Clark Says:

    Fred, Gordy Brown forwarded me this news of your aunt’s passing. I met Georgia Mae at several Hall of Fame Shows in Maine with my (now-deceased) husband, Yodeling Slim Clark. I remember her bright smile and obvious joy in performing. I pray that she is now restored to her glorious yodel and singing voice. May you and all her family know God’s consolations.

  14. Evelyn of The Tenney Sisters of the Massachusetts Hall of Fame... Says:

    Happy Trails, dear friend….Evelyn of The Tenney Sisters, and Bill(y) King.

  15. Evelyn of The Tenney Sisters, Massachusetts Hall of Fame... Says:

    All my responses have been “put in moderation”…how can I do this, as I want us to be a part of the memorial remembrances for Georgia Mae.
    Evelyn, of The Tenney Sisters

  16. Penny Tiernan Says:

    I will personally miss Georgia Mae (Jiggs) at family events. She was an amazing lady.

  17. Evelyn of The Tenney Sisters, Massachusetts Hall of Fame... Says:

    The Tenney Sisters played many a show date with Georgia Mae and our latest meeting was the night we three were inducted in the Mass. Country Music Hall of Fame, on 9/28/08. She sat at our table with Billy King, Patty & Rusty Rogers, and it was a very special time for all of us. Georgia Mae was truly “one of a kind” and will always be thought of in the grandest sense of a Country Music Star. God bless, Georgia Mae. It’s been nice knowing you.

  18. Bob Bourque Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. My father played in a local band out of Fitchburg, MA before WWII called the Prairie Rangers.. they often played at the LoneStar Ranch. I was looking for any old memorabilia from those days, posters, flyers, photos of shows in the early 40’s… He told us kids of opening for Roy Rogers at a big rodeo show at the Boston Garden!
    ramblinbob@comcast.net

  19. Kate Dunlay Says:

    “The highly ornamented, virtuosic yodel of cowboy music (as opposed to the “blue yodel” of Mississippi Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers) can be traced directly to the farms and lumber camps of Maritime Canada and Maine. An intensely personal form of expression, men generally developed their yodel while working alone with animals – driving teams of oxen in the Maine woods, or driving apples to market in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.”

    I have never heard this theory before. It is not one of the usual explanations for the yodel in Country & Western music. Could you please provide a citation?

    – Nova Scotia folklorist

  20. Michael McDonald (Mike Preston) Says:

    Some years ago, Georgia had spoken kind encouraging words to a youngster coming up in the business as many mentioned in these comments had done. Being a yodeler myself starting early in my teens, the pioneers like Georgia were still available to coach. I am just now coming to the news of her passing and feel a sense of gratitude for the very short moments I had available with her.

  21. Leona Says:

    When will the radio transcriptions oh Georgia Mae (Hart) be released .My Mom is 96 and she learned to yodel listening to Georgia Mae . Mom was yodeling a little today .

  22. Linda hogue Says:

    Does anyone remember a female guitar playing country music musician who had a radiishow in the 40′ in Brockton?

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