Home on the Grange
Home on the Grange
The Frontier Between “American” and “Immigrant” Worldviews in New England Country and Western
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter traces how the rules that governed New England working-class sociability changed dramatically at country and western events. The cowboy names, the clothing, the decor, and the music worked in concert to suspend everyday rules—sociologists would call this phenomenon “alternation.” Normally used to explain how groups of people construct alternate symbolic universes, alternation relies on the use of name change, different dress, and different music in order to radically change individuals' worldview. Alternation describes the constructed frontier space of the country and western event and helps to explain how New England country and western fans of different ethnic backgrounds came to share the same space and work across difference to create a new community.
Imagine for a moment entering into the following setting: A roughhewn cattle ranch gate stands over the archway of the entrance to the community hall. You may have just walked in past a real live horse, resplendent in decadent tack, hitched up outside. Though it is Waterville, Maine, in 1942, the hall is filled with men and women in frontier dress—men in cowboy clothes and hats, boys in overalls and kerchiefs, girls and women in homemade calico dresses—and the floor is strewn with hay bales and wagon wheels. Across the room is a stage, decked in the same shambling frontier flotsam, and on the stage is a band dressed exactly like the audience—though maybe a little better, excepting the toothless comedian—surrounded by their instruments and equipment. The room is filled with the distinctive sound of country and western music—its swinging gait, its loping emphasis on the offbeat, its eagerness to be one with the audience, and its simultaneous push to stand apart from it. A young man and woman stand at the front of the stage—clearly the leaders of the group and married—and they have the rapt attention of the crowd. The man is tall and would be considered handsome even without the assistance of his expensive, hand-tailored cowboy suit. The woman, although petite, fills the stage with her impish grin, flashing dark eyes, and elegant beauty, and her shapely handmade dress sways wonderfully as she moves to the music. The man steps to the microphone and sings:
- Come out and listen while I sing and play for you
- I am the Lone Pine Mountaineer
- Come out and listen while I sing for you
- Those songs you love to hear
- I hope I please you, and if I do
- Please tell your friends to listen too
- (p.125) Come out and listen while I sing for you,
- I am the Lone Pine Mountaineer
Yodeling fills the hall. The audience—each person partnered off and dancing—cheers spontaneously. This is what they’ve come for. The band continues its welcoming song as the singer steps again to the mic and speaks directly to the crowd: “Well, howdy folks, I’m your old friend Lone Pine. The whole gang is here today to entertain you for the next couple of hours. We’ll play songs by yours truly here, plus some others by the folks in the band. We’ve also got some fine singing from little Betty Cody, and Little Abner is on guitar. We hope you enjoy it.”
The group resumes its welcome song and closes with a cheer. “Now here’s a song,” says Lone Pine, “called ‘The Old Chisholm Trail.’”
With that the band is off again, and the dancing resumes in full. Everyone seems to be dancing. Partners change freely during square dances. You join in on the dance floor, and in short order you spend a few fleeting moments with many others, changing partners freely and constantly.
The frontier world you have stepped into is an alternate world to the one you engage in at home, at work, and at church. In that other world, you do not engage at all with the multitudes you’ve met here on the dance floor. In the world of home, work, and worship, everyone speaks the same language as you. Their families came from the same regions of the same home countries together. And they work in the same rooms of the mill as you. And they likely discourage you from straying too far from the fold.
But the multitudes from the mills, from the churches, and from the nearby towns have all been drawn together in this frontier space because they are all devoted listeners of Lone Pine and Betty Cody’s radio shows. And, for a change, it feels like the rules can bend. It is, after all, a space into which everyone arrived for the same reason and at the same time, welcomed here by a group whose faces look just like the ones seen every day at the mill.
Alternation, Inclusiveness, and the Imagined Frontier
Rules that governed New England working-class sociability changed dramatically at country and western events. This was not the West, of course, but the cowboy names, the clothing, the décor, and the music worked in concert to suspend everyday rules. Sociologists would call this phenomenon “alternation.” Normally used to explain how groups of people—particularly religious cults—construct alternate symbolic universes, alternation relies on (p.126) the use of name change, different dress, and different music in order to radically change individuals’ worldview (Berger and Luckmann 1990; Pilarzyk 1978). Alternation describes the constructed frontier space of the country and western event and helps to explain how New England country and western fans of different—and normally segregated—ethnic backgrounds came to share the same space and work across difference to create a new community.
Historians have long posited theories about the transformative effects of the American frontier. Most notable among these historians was Frederick Jackson Turner, whose frontier thesis initially claimed that Americans became less European the farther they traveled west across the continent. Though such theories have come under intense criticism, even by Jackson himself (Turner 1984; Bogue 1998; Steiner 1995; Turner and Faragher 1998), he, perhaps like those in attendance at a country and western event, recognized that America’s strongest and most culturally distinctive communities were multicultural ones where people had to work across difference. The transformative powers of the frontier remained strong in the American imagination.
New England mill workers at a Lone Pine and Betty Cody show in 1942 would not be thinking of Turner and his frontier thesis. But this idea had taken hold of the American imagination and bore powerful, popular fruit in the western novels and films that gripped the nation, including even its newly arrived immigrants like Betty Cody. Powerful politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and popular singers like Gene Autry espoused the transformative—and even morally cleansing—effects of the frontier. The frontier’s hold on the American imagination remained strong even into the Space Age of the 1950s and 1960s in both popular culture (e.g., Star Trek) and politics (the “space race”). Before Star Trek brought Americans to “new life and new frontiers,” President John F. Kennedy took the pioneering spirit of Turner’s thesis to new realms when he dubbed his 1961 administration the “New Frontier.” The aims of the New Frontier included space exploration, battle along the Asian Pacific frontier of Communism, development of the Peace Corps in the Third World, and the passage of civil rights legislation (Bernstein 1991). So while critics including Turner himself have rendered the frontier thesis questionable, history shows that these themes have remained a powerful part of the American imagination over centuries. In Turner’s frontier, vastly different people arrived on the frontier together, worked together against shared hardships, and became Americans together. This was true of the “old” frontier as well—it produced American archetypes like the Appalachian frontiersman, the blackface minstrel, and the rustic Yankee who disdainfully tells the effete (more European) city slicker “you (p.127) cayant get theyah from heyah.” These distinctly “American” old frontier archetypes rolled into one on the imagined western frontier in the form of the singer in the cowboy hat. Real or imagined, the frontier space of the country and western event helped transform ethnic New England working-class sociability.
The Use of Frontier Stage Names
Most New England country and western performers choose a “frontier” (or “cowboy”) stage name. Country and western stage names tend to be chosen because of their alliterative qualities (they “sound good”), and they aim to represent a western cowboy, southern Appalachian, or Yankee frontier persona. New England performers have tended to choose a western cowboy stage persona over a southern Appalachian or Yankee persona. Around 1935 New Englanders began changing their names to project a cowboy image. New England country and western musicians explain that a name change served four functions. First and foremost, country and western music is about entertainment and performing a role, and the use of a fictional name is standard practice in most stage productions (musical or otherwise). Second, a stage name like “Rusty Rogers” simply sounds good and is easy for promoters to remember and spell correctly. Third, the adoption of a stage name was a means by which performers would self-authenticate by associating themselves with a perceived site of country and western authenticity. Fourth and finally, “ethnic” musicians found it easier to get gigs if they had “western” (read: English, or, more to the point, “American”) sounding names and personas. Hence Russell Kempton became Rusty Rogers, Vinnie Calderone became Jimmy Cal (Calderone interview 2004), Jackie LeBlanc became Johnny White (LeBlanc interview 2004), and Raymond Beaudoyn became Ray Dixon (Beaudoyn interview 2006).
New England country and western groups tended to be multiethnic ensembles from the very beginning. Stage names create the false impression that these groups were of uniform ethnicity or agents of Americanization. The process of name change bears close examination to see how this self-fictionalizing tradition was further utilized by “ethnic” New Englanders to gain entrance into mainstream “American” venues while also perpetuating their own ethnic traditions. Ethnic New Englanders did not simply seek to Americanize themselves through the use of a cowboy persona and stage name; instead, name change was used as a tool to build a bridge between traditions, to reshape ethnic boundaries, and to navigate or resolve the frontier tension between American and immigrant worldviews.
(p.128) For ethnic New Englanders—ostensibly, community outsiders from non-Protestant (Roman Catholic and Greek, Russian, and Armenian Orthodox) backgrounds—adopting an Anglicized frontier stage name came with distinct advantages. First-generation American performers tended to be well known in the rather parochial or clannish ethnic communities from which they emerged. As a result, their new stage identity did not obscure them from their home community, and their group continued to be booked for country and western performances (which generally included a good deal of immigrant music, both traditional and popular) at ethnic social clubs, church-related social gatherings, and other social events that tended to be of homogeneous ethnic composition. According to many performers—many of whom insisted we speak of these matters off the record—ethnic clubs would only book ethnic performers, whether of the club’s home ethnicity or not. This practice was extended to all ethnicities except Anglo-Saxon Americans. Ethnic communities were made aware of other ethnic country and western musicians by their appearance at other ethnic social clubs. For example, a performer of known Italian extraction (with the requisite frontier stage name) was made known as ethnic to other ethnic communities by his or her performances at Italian baptismal parties, parish suppers, or weddings. Other ethnic fraternal organizations (such as the German Club or the Polish American Club), parishes, or private persons would then be more inclined to hire that country and western performer for their event(s). To the general radio public, ethnic country and western performers using frontier stage names were assumed to be American (not ethnic), giving them entrée to American clubs as well as ethnic ones. So while an Anglo-Saxon performer like Yodelin’ Slim Clark was known for being friendly and openminded to matters of ethnic integration, he was booked almost exclusively into Anglo-Saxon-dominated venues and events in the first few decades of his career. In other words, ethnic musicians working under frontier stage names actually had greater ability to move within the broad socioethnic spheres of the New England country and western world than did “insider” Anglo musicians.
Choosing a Stage Name
Several of New England’s most prominent country and western figures were first-generation Americans performing under Americanized pseudonyms: Eddie Zack (Zack is truncated from the Armenian Zackarian), Johnny White (Jean LeBlanc), Flo Cody (Florence Coté), Sleepy Willis (Taso Golios), and the Lane Brothers (Frank and Pete Loconto). Although ethnic performers (p.129) would occasionally make their ethnicity the focus of a live performance, they did not choose to make ethnicity their calling card with regard to their stage name. In other words, an ethnic performer would not seek to identify himself as “the Greek cowboy” with a name like Hopalong Cassadeseus, nor did performers always truncate, translate, or Americanize the spelling of their name, like Eddy Zack(arian), Johnny White (Jean LeBlanc = John The White), and Flo Cody (Coté). Generally, names were chosen because they had a cowboy or frontier “sound” or association and sounded compatible with the dominant language of country and western music (English). For instance, John White—no relation to the aforementioned Johnny White—was one of the first prominent singing cowboys, recording extensively in the 1920s and 1930s. Likewise, performers never chose frontier names that evoked the Native American, French, or Spanish heritage of the western frontier.
Rhode Island country and western singer Ray Dixon is another example of this phenomenon. He grew up in Johnston, Rhode Island, speaking, reading, and writing French but was irritated by confusion over the spelling and pronunciation of his name by non-French-speaking people in the music business: “Yeah, well, my name is Beaudoyn. B-E-A-U-D-O-Y-N. But they used to call me Bo-deen, Bo-dine, and Iodine. And I said, ‘Let me change this’” (Beaudoyn interview 2006). Note that Dixon did not choose to adopt one of the common misspellings of his last name (e.g., Bodeen), instead choosing a name intended to associate his stage persona with country and western authenticity by way of Dixie.
Fledgling country and western performers chose a stage name (or had one chosen for them) very early in their professional careers. New England country and western legend often points to this event taking place just moments before an entertainer’s first public performance or chosen well in advance. I had a conversation with Maine country and western singer Robert Wincapaw—a self-described “mixed bag” of German and French ancestry—in which he explained the story of how he has become known to most people as Bob Elston:
Tell me about the decision to change your last name.
Well, that all goes back to a lifelong friend that I’ve had, I guess, since age ten. We kind of grew up together, and we’re neighbors. And his father was a great … great writer of baseball and reporter for baseball. And of course, his team was the New York Yankees. And when I first got into show business, he said, “Well, if you’re gonna be in that business, you gotta have a stage name.” And he said, “Well, let’s call ya Bobby Berra,” for Yogi Berra, catcher of the Yankees. Then he said, “Nope, nope, nope. Wait a minute,” he said, “how about Elston?” for Elston Howard, catcher of the Yankees. And (p.130) I said, “Yeah, I guess. Sounds good.” And I never used it. Went along about a year or two. When I joined the Curley O’Brien show and I did my first 45, he said, “Do you have a stage name?” And I said, “Yeah, I was given one, but I never used it.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “Elston.” He said, “Hmm, sounds pretty good.” He said, “Use it from now on.” So I’ve used it. Ever since 1958 I’ve used that name. And a lot of people don’t even know what my real name really is!
Interestingly, the fact that New York Yankee catcher Elston Howard was an African American did not matter to Wincapaw. What mattered instead was that the name “sounds good.”
Frank and Pete Loconto of Cambridge, Massachusetts, employed a method different from Wincapaw’s. Frank Loconto recalled searching for a stage name by thumbing through the L section of the phone book, settling on Lane. Later in life, Frank regretted his choice—not on account of a resurgence of pride in his Italian heritage but because he realized that Lane Brothers had a certain “generic” sound to it (Frank “Lane” Loconto, e-mail message to author, July 21, 2005).
Anglo-Saxon, Scottish, and Irish American performers in New England also chose frontier stage names. Such was the case with Yodelin’ Slim Clark (originally called Wyomin’ Buck), Dick Curless (the Tumbleweed Kid), and Russell Kempton (Rusty Rogers—Rusty was Kempton’s nickname as a boy, and Rogers was meant to conjure up associations with Roy Rogers). Name change was accompanied by a fictional frontier biography, and performers completed their persona with an army of accessories, including tailored rodeo clothes, holsters, guns, chaps, cowboy hats, and—with surprising frequency for a mostly urban-based musical form—horses.
Establishing Frontier Authenticity
Along with a stage name, performers often cultivate a fictional background rooted in one of country and western music’s accepted sites of frontier authenticity. At the height of western music’s popularity in New England, the “West” of the New England imagination appears to be somewhat differently defined from the “West” that plays out in a Texas beer joint, a Marty Robbins gun ballad, or a Bakersfield, California, country song. Based on the press materials and song book biographies of western musicians in New England during the barnstorming era, the West of the New England imagination was located in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Radio promoters regularly fabricated stories of western birthrights, and in the early decades of the music, performers (p.131) were generally willing and enthusiastic participants in these fabrications. For instance, WBZ radio and television regularly stated in press releases that cowgirl yodeler Georgia Mae, who was born in Connecticut and raised in Dedham, Massachusetts, was from Colorado (“Radio’s Wake-Up Girl” 1945). When the performing rights agency known as SESAC (Society for European Stage Authors and Composers) recorded a series of transcription discs in 1945 featuring Georgia Mae, the accompanying program notes also trumpeted her Colorado ancestry: “Georgia Mae was born in Denver, Colorado, and began singing when she was six years old. She went East with a kiddie review and decided to stay there when an opportunity was offered to her to have a radio program” (“Radio’s Sweetest Personality” 1945, 2). On February 6, 2007, Georgia Mae sent me an e-mail in which she explained the Colorado references: “The article stating I was born in Colorado was not right. I think it was put in to make me seem more of ‘A Cowgirl singing western songs.’ The truth!!—I was born in Bridgeport, Conn[ecticut], my Mother was from Stratford Conn[ecticut], and my Father was born in Springfield, Ma[ssachusetts]. My Grandfather moved to Colorado when I was very young and a mention of him may have seemed a good idea to make me seem more authentic. So—‘I am a Born Yankee.’”
SESAC’s transcription series was aimed at a national and international radio market, and as such it sought to tailor its artist biographies toward audience expectations. The Down Homers were another New England group in the 1945 SESAC transcription series, and the accompanying biography states that Rusty Rogers—born and raised in New Harbor, Maine—was from Missouri. St. Louis, Missouri, has been called the gateway to the West (as symbolized by the Gateway Arch, located in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park in St. Louis), but it is hardly thought of as being the West. Still, SESAC deemed it close enough to make Rogers a more authentic cowboy singer. As Georgia Mae implied in her explanation of the origins of her fictional Colorado birthplace, she and Rusty Rogers were willing and active participants in the cultivation of frontier personas, and their purpose was twofold. First, that persona provided an imaginary center for country and western performance within New England, and second, it allowed New England performers’ background sites of authenticity to be more in keeping with the expectations of audiences outside of New England.
A complete disavowal of New England roots would have been difficult in Georgia Mae’s case. Her affiliation with Massachusetts was well known far outside the region, as can be seen in detailed WBZ reports tracking the geographic origins of her fan mail (in order to better target advertisers). WBZ’s powerful fifty-thousand-watt clear channel signal meant that Georgia Mae—and the New England Farm Hour program on which she appeared (p.132) on a daily basis from 6:00 to 7:00 A.M. throughout the 1940s—could be received well beyond New England. Twenty-five percent of her listeners tuned in from outside of New England (Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ontario—in that order—represented a full 21 percent of her letter-writing fan base), and some were from locations as far away as Puerto Rico and Independence, Missouri (Westinghouse 1943). Closer examination of Georgia Mae’s press materials circulated within New England by her promoters at WBZ radio in Boston shows that they, too, trumped up the yodeler’s Colorado connection, and she would occasionally reference Colorado in her on-air banter between songs. Yet like many of the cowboy and cowgirl singers working in New England as “authentic” westerners, Georgia Mae had never set foot in the West—and still has not to this day (Harp interview 2004). New Englanders had close contact with Georgia Mae at her personal appearances and were well aware that she was a New Englander. (Radio listeners were also familiar with her mother and brother, who would periodically appear with her on her radio broadcast, and their accents made their New England heritage patently obvious to any listeners in New England.) Her Colorado background was understood as fictional by New Englanders and can in turn be understood as a device used in concert by both Georgia Mae and her audiences to orient their imaginations toward the frontier.
Since the rise of Nashville as a powerful country music business center in the 1950s, Tennessee and Texas have become the norm for fictional biographies of New Englanders today. Prior to that time, New England country and western performers claiming to be from the South always used the old colonial frontier from which the mythology of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink emerged (both men were real-life persons from the old frontier around whom a significant number of “tall tales” developed): Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, or eastern Ohio. Interestingly, few—if any—appear to have claimed Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, or Mississippi. Given the popularity and continuing influence of Jimmy “The Mississippi Brakeman” Rodgers in New England, the exclusion of Mississippi as a fictional birthplace is the most surprising of the bunch and lends credibility to the idea that New Englanders sought to associate themselves specifically with frontier regions.
An important exception to these tendencies is the particularly popular and influential minority of performers who self-consciously position themselves against those accepted sites of authenticity by foregrounding their Maine roots. The western cowboy/cowgirl, the southern Appalachian backwoods-man, and the woodcutting or potato-digging Mainer are personas intended to ground the imaginative site of their performance firmly on the frontier.
Performers who acknowledge their New England birthplace in their press materials tend to be Mainers. Maine’s association with the frontier had long been rooted in its booming lumber industry of the early to mid-nineteenth century, producing folkloric figures like Paul Bunyan and a prodigious body of balladry memorializing the hardship and death encountered by woods workers on river drives. In the late 1830s, the border of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick had been the last site of American-Canadian military conflict (the bloodless Aroostook War), and in the late nineteenth century, Aroostook County (Maine’s largest and northernmost county) became the site of what was then the most productive potato-growing region in the United States. Between the folklore spawned by northern Maine’s lumber industry, its characterization as a rugged wilderness region in Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods (1864), its status as one of the few remaining places where eastern Native American tribes remained unmoved from their ancestral lands, and its boom-or-bust potato industry, northern Maine developed a reputation (in New England as well as the rest of the nation) as one of America’s few remaining frontier spaces. With the publication of In Fair Aroostook (Pullen 1902) the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad began promoting Bangor, Maine, as the edge of modern civilization and celebrating Aroostook County’s reputation for fruitful game hunting and its history as a place of agrarian Acadian and Scandinavian settlement. The B&A Railroad called Aroostook County the “entrance into Maine’s great game and garden country” (7). Maine had been promoted as a frontier region (both Penobscot County, where Bangor, Maine, is located, and Aroostook County) in the popular imagination as early as 1908 with the publication of Holman Day’s popular novel King Spruce, and Aroostook County’s frontier reputation is the centerpiece of Charles Morrow Wilson and Alden Woodworth’s Aroostook, Our Last Frontier (1937) and Helen Hamlin’s Pine, Potatoes, and People (1948). Although the Hamlin book (written by a native of Aroostook County) speaks more flatteringly of Aroos-took County’s multiethnic heritage and shows women to be equal partners in the well-being of its inhabitants, Wilson and Woodworth’s Aroostook, Our Last Frontier captures the outsider’s perspective of Aroostook County as one of the last remaining vestiges of Frederick Jackson Turner’s western frontier:
Aroostook talk is lusty with a rare, breezy optimism, suggestive of the once unbounded West. There is spontaneous comradeship of men at work or at adventure; men who rub elbows, spit, and sweat, rather than men who fondle palms, sniff, and doubt. It is West, an earlier and more free-spirited West gone pell-mell and boundlessly East. Whatever the maps may show you, Aroostook (p.134) towns are Western towns—the same amazingly broad streets, new buildings, some of them undisciplined and spontaneous architecture; new automobiles, bright fronts, loud band music, the backslamming fellowship of a great frontier. (1937, 12)
Authenticity and Maine: Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody
The first and most important New England group to capitalize on situating their biography within the context of Maine as a frontier region was Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody. Lone Pine and Betty are considered by New England and Atlantic Canada country and western musicians and historians to be the most significant pioneers of country and western music in eastern Canada and New England. Lone Pine and Betty were significant in terms of establishing standards of professionalism and musical style and expanding the boundaries of New England country and western into eastern Canada and for retaining their regional accent and style on major-label recordings made for RCA Victor between 1951 and 1954. A legend of frontier authenticity was crafted around Lone Pine and Betty that draws from Appalachian, western, and Maine frontier legends, popular culture, and stereotypes.
It is possible that the origin of Hal Lone Pine’s public association with the state of Maine is rooted in his debut appearance on radio. In 1932 Lone Pine (Harold Breau) and two friends performed on WABI in Bangor, Maine, as the Lone Pine Mountaineers. Their first song—sung by Lone Pine—was Jimmie Rodgers’s “Brakeman’s Blues” (1928), which features the opening line “Portland, Maine, is just the same as sunny Tennessee.” From that point onward, Hal Lone Pine never felt the need to justify his place of origin in relation to his profession as a country and western musician. If anything, Lone Pine developed a knack for exploiting Maine as an exotic and authentic frontier region through the creation of his own legend.
The legend of Lone Pine’s name takes on various forms in biographies issued by his various record companies and song publishers. Several facts are consistent throughout each, and, summarized, the story takes the following shape: Harold Breau was born in tiny Pea Cove, Maine, on June 5, 1916. He grew up exploring the woods in nearby Old Town, Maine—home of the famous canoe company of the same name—and befriended many of the Indian people in that area. One day when young Harold was about eleven years old, one of his Indian playmates fell through the ice and began to drown. In an act of selfless bravery, young Harold ventured out onto the thin ice and rescued the Indian girl. The Penobscot Indian Council was so (p.135) grateful to Harold for his act of selfless bravery that they bestowed upon him the honorary Indian name “Lone Pine” in recognition of his towering height over the Native people.
Four facts about this story are indeed accurate:
1. Harold Breau was born in Pea Cove, Maine, on June 5, 1916.
2. Pea Cove is near Old Town.
3. Old Town Canoes have been manufactured in Old Town, Maine, since 1898 (Audette and Baker 1998).
4. One of Maine’s largest Native American reservations is located at Indian Island, Maine, where the Abenaki people—primarily members of the Penobscot Nation—have made their home for centuries. Indian Island is located next to Old Town, and many Abenaki people (the People of the Dawn—the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mic-Mac, and Maliseet tribes) who choose not to live on the reservation make their home in Old Town (MacDougall 2004).
Living in such close proximity to Old Town and Indian Island, Maine, it is likely that Harold Breau had interactions with Native Americans either in casual play or through arenas related to the Roman Catholic Church, and it is possible—although not remembered by his ex-wife or youngest son—that he was friends with Native Americans living in the area despite strained relations between the Abenaki people and government agencies (on both the state and federal levels) actively seeking to “break” the Abenaki of their Native languages and customs (MacDougall 2004). Breau’s formal interaction with the Penobscot Nation in a “naming” ceremony is pure fabrication. Not only were relations between Native peoples and Americans strained at best, but no Abenaki tribes conveyed descriptive names like Lone Pine on anyone—Abenaki or otherwise. Traditional precolonial Abenaki names had long given way to Christian names derived from Jesuit Roman Catholic French influence, like Louis, Jean, Gerald, Francis, and so forth. The Abenaki never used descriptive names such as Sitting Bull—or, in this case, Lone Pine—famously used by western tribes.
However, the name Lone Pine is significant in its symbolism, as it is evocative of the place where Harold Breau was born and raised. Maine is known as the Pine Tree State on account of that tree’s prevalence on the state’s landscape, the importance the pine industry of the early nineteenth century had in building Maine’s frontier economy and identity, and the important role Lone Pine’s home region (the greater Bangor, Maine, area) played in processing the fruits of the lumber industry. Yet the word “lone” implies the kind of self-reliant, naturalistic loner celebrated in western novels, films, and (p.136) songs. Coupling both the “lone” ranger identity of the West and the “pine” identity of Maine conjures up an image of a native Mainer out alone on the frontier. Lone Pine created an elaborate cowboy stage persona built on this Maine Lone Ranger—type legend of a boy who grew up with Indians. He wore tailored cowboy clothes, bought a trick horse, and produced a batch of press photos of himself astride a rearing stallion named Champ. Lone Pine’s family members and former band members recall the singer’s persona to be charismatic, convincing, and thoroughly irresistible; yet they also believe the legend of Lone Pine to be entirely fabricated. Lone Pine’s son Denny Breau believes the name Lone Pine was actually derived from an old Hopalong Cassidy movie:
Yeah, the story goes that he used to have friends on the reservation in Old Town. And apparently he saved a little boy from drowning. And they named him Lone Pine as a result of that, because he was so much taller than all the other kids for his age. So supposedly that’s how he got the name. But I often wonder, because it was just maybe six months ago I was watching an old Hopalong Cassidy movie, and a lot of the things that were indicative to my dad’s realm were in that movie, like there was a town called Lone Pine, and there was a horse called Champ. I started wondering, “Hmmm. Wonder if Dad was watching this one time?” You know, “That’s what I’m going to call my …” It was as if there were too many coincidences not to have affected him at one time.
Denny Breau’s observations drive closer to the truth behind the myth of Lone Pine. A great many western movies—from the silent film era onward—were shot on Lone Pine Ranch in Lone Pine, California. These included the Hopalong Cassidy films. Incidentally, these also included the films of cowboy actor Charles “The Durango Kid” Starrett, who grew up in the same town (Athol, Massachusetts) as Yodeling Kenny Roberts. And while Hopalong Cassidy’s horse was actually named Topper, Roy Rogers’s horse was named Champion, which is likely why Breau chose the derivative Champ for his own horse.
Still, the legend of Lone Pine graces most of Harold Breau’s songbooks, LP jackets, and RCA Records press releases. Though his legend is embroidered, the association with the Abenaki people of Maine is clearly meant to convey a raw frontier existence. Lone Pine is a name that evokes the masculine self-reliance of the nomadic cowboy. The romantic association of cowboys with Indians was remarkably strong in the popular imagination at this time, and the appropriation of Indianisms was likely good for business. But there are aspects of Lone Pine’s story that go beyond simple cowboys and indians: country and western singers have a long history of associating their musical (p.137) upbringing with an inspired indifference to the social construction of race. It is a long list that includes most of the major figures in the music: Hank Williams and Tee Tot in Montgomery, Alabama; Bill Monroe and Arnold Shultz in Rosine, Kentucky; Jimmie Rodgers and African American railroad workers in Meridian, Mississippi; Wilf Carter and “The Yodeling Fool” in Canning, Nova Scotia; A. P. Carter and Lesley Riddle in Clinch Mountain, Virginia. Though some of these tales show that a mutual interest in music can help transcend racial tension in even the most violently segregated parts of North America, they also serve the romantic agenda of promoters (and musicians) who seek to exploit the frontier image of the country and western singer who fraternizes with the “other” and lives along the fringes of “decent” society.
Despite the debt many country musicians owe African American musicians, racial integration on country music stages graced by Nashville recording artists was virtually unheard of until the emergence of singer Charlie Pride in the late 1960s. New England and Atlantic Canada were unusual for featuring a handful of groups with one or two African American or Native American members who traveled as equal members of the band and regularly played at personal appearances in community halls. At the height of his popularity in 1965, the Dick Curless Show Band included Buddy Johnson—an African American—on bass, and Johnson plays bass on the recorded version of one of Curless’s most popular Maine-themed recordings from the mid-1960s (“Tater Raisin’ Man”). In the early 1950s Allerton “Al” Hawkes and an African American singer/guitarist named Alton Myers formed Allerton and Alton, the Cumberland Ridge Runners in Portland, Maine. Allerton and Alton performed five days a week on WLAM radio in Lewiston, Maine, until they were both drafted during the Korean War. And a number of country and western groups in Maine featured Native American members, most prominently “Indian Gerry” Slaggert, who was a member of Curly O’Brien’s group in Bangor, Maine, in the 1950s and 1960s. Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody played with African American fiddle and banjo players in Atlantic Canada in the 1950s, but none was ever a full-time member of the group, and the group never featured Native American musicians.
However, the association of Lone Pine with Native Americans was strong enough in the regional imagination that many New England and Canadian fans of the group misinterpreted Betty Cody’s strong Quebecois accent on Indian-themed songs such as “Tom Tom Yodel” as a Native American accent and arrived at personal appearances expecting her to be a Native American. Betty Cody was born Rita Coté in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1921, and though she never fictionalized her birthplace, she adopted a stage name (p.138) that was a decidedly western frontier variation on Coté (Cody, as in Buffalo Bill Cody). She hand-stitched all of her stage costumes, choosing styles that were evocative of the western frontier and that matched her husband’s tailor-made rodeo suits. Lone Pine and Betty’s amalgamation of a Maine and western frontier identity proved simpatico with an Appalachian frontier image upon their signing of a record contract with RCA Victor in 1952. One of the first RCA singles recorded and released by Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody in 1952 was an old popular song called “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” The song is a romantic piece of vaudeville minstrelsy set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In 1908 author John Fox Jr. published a best-selling novel titled The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The book spawned the aforementioned song in 1913, was made into a silent film by Cecil B. DeMille in 1915, and was made again with color and sound in 1936 by Henry Hathaway and starring Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray. A version of the song as sung by Laurel and Hardy appeared in that comic duo’s 1937 western Way Out West. Despite the prominence of “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in the popular imagination, the repositioning of Lone Pine (from the western or Maine frontier) as the “lonesome pine” of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains was a seamless enough transition that many of Lone Pine and Betty’s New England–based fans do not question the popular misconception that the group wrote “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine” as their theme song. That Lone Pine and Betty positioned themselves on the western, southern Appalachian, or Maine frontier did not seem to matter so much, as long as they were positioned on a frontier.
Projecting the Frontier: New England Country and Western and the Legacy of Minstrelsy
Blackface minstrels have never participated in the New England country and western event. American literary critic Constance Rourke theorized that America’s three comedic personas (the rustic Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the blackface minstrel) became amalgamated on the frontier (Rourke and Brooks 1980). If so, the first step toward amalgamation of this trio was when the rustic Yankee was subsumed under the mask of the blackface minstrel. Musicologist Charles Hamm’s (1995) observations of what he believed to be the last minstrel show in the United States in Turnbridge, Vermont, in the 1980s certainly lend credence to the idea that by the twentieth century blackface minstrelsy in New England served as a vehicle for the ethnic (WASP) Yankee critique of encroaching (and increasing) multiculturalism in New England and beyond. At first glance, then, the minstrel’s absence (p.139) from the New England country and western stage is peculiar. However, closer examination of the hillbilly orchestra era in New England (1925–35) shows a preponderance of musicians with “uncle” names who doubled as hillbilly musicians and blackface minstrels. The ubiquity of popular culture’s last rustic Yankee figures—Uncle Zed and Uncle Josh Weathersby—and their impact on the stage personas of New England and southern hillbilly musicians, the decidedly backwoods persona of the hillbilly, and the role these musicians played in New England as the last major wave of blackface minstrels indicate both that Rourke’s theory of amalgamation played out as such in New England and that the rustic Yankee was still alive at the core of hillbilly orchestra performance practice.
It is difficult to say with certainty when multiethnic country and western music began in New England, but the emergence of Hal Lone Pine on WLBZ radio in Bangor, Maine, in 1932 provides the earliest known starting point. Lone Pine’s 1930s groups (the Lone Pine Mountaineers, the Noisiest Gang in Radio) consisted of a mix of performers of Quebecois, Irish, Italian, and WASP ethnicity. By the end of the 1930s, Lone Pine had begun working with Uncle Ezra Jones, Bangor, Maine’s most prominent rustic Yankee and blackface minstrel performer. In what was typical of interactions between multiethnic country and western groups and blackface minstrels like Uncle Ezra, Lone Pine employed Jones as an emcee and square dance caller at personal appearances, prohibited him from wearing blackface, and had him perform as Bozo the Tramp. Betty and Flo Cody recall that Lone Pine and the members of his group learned their stagecraft—microphone technique, makeup and costuming, comedic timing, pacing of repertoire, the creation of stage personas, and the ability to guide an audience through an evening’s entertainment—directly from Uncle Ezra. The recollections of major figures in the history of New England country and western—Betty Cody, Grandpa Jones, Yodelin’ Slim Clark, Gene Hooper, Ray and Ann Little, Betty Gribben, and Dick Curless—provide further evidence that multiethnic New England country and western groups owe a debt to blackface minstrelsy (and hobo, rube, Irish, Jewish, and other ethnic/racial minstrel forms, though to a much lesser degree) while also actively censuring blackface minstrelsy itself at country and western events. In short, blackface minstrels taught New England country and western performers how to create “authentic” stage personas and how to harness the imagination of the audience in order to produce an effective stage show.
From the very beginning, New England had no shortage of minstrelsy of all ethnic stripes—blackface minstrelsy (as performed by whites and blacks) was popular in urban centers and in rural stage productions in New England (p.140) and eastern Canada and played a prominent role in the development of the region’s yodeling tradition in the 1920s. In Massachusetts in 1935, Grandpa Jones’s “Grandpa” costume and persona were born on WBZ radio as an amalgam of elements of southern backwoods comedy learned in his home state of Kentucky with blackface minstrelsy (false whiskers, face makeup) learned from the blackface minstrels who originated the Amos ’n Andy Show on WBZ in Boston (Jones and Jones interview 1975). Betty Gribben explained that, prior to joining the Ken Mackenzie Tent Show in Portland, Maine, she learned her stage technique, comedic timing, and stage makeup from a local blackface minstrel. Gribben abhorred blackface minstrelsy, both for its demeaning nature and for the ability of burnt cork/greasepaint to unleash base and crude behavior in performers, but interactions with blackface minstrels at the amateur competitions where she got her start in the 1930s was unavoidable. “Once someone puts on that greasepaint,” Gribben said, “there’s no telling what they’ll do” (interview 2007).
As Betty Gribben’s quote shows, the costuming of minstrel performers enables them to behave in a manner contrary to social norms, engendering behavior that, without the costuming, would be considered bizarre, scandalous, embarrassing, subversive, or morally questionable. Eric Lott (1993) writes that blackface minstrelsy was a critical tool in the creation of “whiteness” and an engine in the social construction of race and the black/white color line that defines many discussions of American culture. Given Lott’s assumption, it is possible that the tools of minstrelsy could be repurposed to redefine socially constructed ideas of racial, ethnic, and American identity. That multiethnic New England country and western groups utilized key aspects of minstrel performance practice while rejecting blackface itself stands at odds with Michael Rogin’s (1992) characterization of blackface as the portal of the ethnic American’s passage from immigrant to “white” American. If, as Hamm (1995) suggests, the tools of blackface minstrelsy could be utilized to critique multiculturalism in New England and the nation, could they not be altered to promote it?
Blackface minstrelsy persisted in most of New England through the 1950s, when the momentum of the civil rights movement made it difficult for many New Englanders to justify the practice. However, blackface minstrelsy continued in some places as late as the 1980s. The universal rejection of blackface minstrelsy in New England country and western performance from its very beginnings in the 1930s indicates that the content of black-face minstrelsy stood at odds with the vision of frontier America that New England’s multiethnic country and western ensembles hoped to engender in their audiences. The tools of minstrelsy that enabled performers to construct (p.141) racial, ethnic, class, regional, and national identities were used instead to construct an imaginary frontier space in which participants could reconstruct their boundaries of identity.
The Pros and Cons of Name Change: The Circle C Ranch Boys
The Calderone brothers—Vincent and Joseph—of Boston chose to Americanize their names in order to gain better acceptance among country and western audiences, going by Jimmy and Joey Cal. In 1936 Vinny—or Jimmy Cal—joined a western group based in East Boston named the Colorado Ramblers, playing accordion and accompanying singer and bass player Angelo Boncore. The group had named itself in honor of its banjo player, who hailed from Colorado. Like Calderone, Boncore chose an Anglo stage name—Al Blake—because he thought it made good show business sense. The group secured a regular radio broadcast on Boston’s WHDH radio and a sponsorship from Community Opticians. The sponsorship, which paid the band a salary, coupled with the departure of their Colorado banjo player, prompted the group to rename themselves the Circle C Ranch Boys (the initials of Community Opticians were used to create a western “brand” in which the letter C appeared inside the letter O, which is the “circle”) (Boncore interview 2005).
Angelo Boncore was well known in the Italian neighborhoods of Boston’s North End and in neighboring Charlestown and East Boston. His family had been entrenched in the local business community, and Angelo owned and operated his own business, delivering range oil and ice by horse and wagon to Italian homes throughout Boston’s North End. Vinny Calderone’s family was also well known in the Italian communities of the North End and neighboring Charlestown. (Vinny’s father and grandfather played accordion on street corners, and his mother supplied both neighborhoods with bootleg wine during Prohibition.) When the Circle C Ranch Boys hit the airwaves in 1938, Calderone’s family was unfazed by his Americanized stage name. However, members of the Boncore family were dismayed to hear that Angelo was using the stage name Al Blake and took offense at what they perceived to be Angelo’s shaming of his Italian heritage. The fallout over this issue within the family was powerful enough to prompt Angelo to raise the issue with WHDH’s station manager. The station manager expressed reservations about a country and western group led by someone named Angelo Boncore, as well as doubts about the audience’s ability to accept a name change in stride, but he conceded and allowed Angelo to return to (p.142) his birth name. Al Blake became Angelo Boncore apparently without being a detriment to the group’s popularity (Boncore interview 2005).
Americanized names were a handy tool for Italians in Boston, who were viewed with disdain by the greater population on account of their Roman Catholicism and by xenophobic fears that the ethnic heritage of New England was being diluted. Italians in Massachusetts were also suspected of being socialist, communist, and anarchist agitators and of being members of the Industrial Workers of the World—a fear exacerbated by the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which began in 1920 and ended with both men’s still controversial execution in 1927 (Puleo 2007). Owen Wister, who authored the best-selling western novel The Virginian in 1902 (The Virginian became the blueprint of the idealized American West from which the western film genre was built), saw the western frontier as an escape from the very immigrant hordes (what Wister called “encroaching alien vermin” [Scharnhorst 2002]) from which performers like Calderone and Boncore came. Wister wrote in an essay in 1895 that the immigrants who filled America’s eastern cities “turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid face, who degrade our commonwealth from a nation into something half pawn-shop, half broker’s office” (Scharnhorst 2002, xi). Historian Samuel Adams Drake—another New Englander—complained that the air around the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End “is actually thick with the vile odors of garlic and onions—of macaroni and lazzaroni. The dirty tenements swarm with greasy voluble Italians” (quoted in Conforti 2001, 209). Clearly, then, for Italian American country and western musicians in Boston in the 1930s, a switch to an Americanized “cowboy” name could potentially leapfrog these ethnic prejudices and greatly enhance the likelihood of landing a radio broadcast with commercial sponsorship. Though the matter of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial represents the extreme end of ethnic tensions in New England during the early twentieth century, many “ethnic” New England country and western musicians explained that their motives behind Anglicizing their names were to ameliorate power dynamics in the entertainment business; cowboy names helped “ethnic” musicians negotiate matters of business with powerful, potentially xenophobic gatekeepers.
Having navigated past xenophobic gatekeepers, performers utilized their frontier name and stage persona to ameliorate ethnic tensions that may have existed in the audience inside the performance venue. What is particularly noteworthy about the case of Angelo Boncore and the Circle C Ranch Boys is that Boncore’s reversion from his stage name (Al Blake) back to his birth name in 1938 appeared to have no ill effect on the group’s popularity with their existing audience, their ability to secure other sponsored radio (p.143) broadcasts and schedule well-attended personal appearances, or their ability to win over new audiences—even in rural Maine, where Angelo was likely the first and only Italian American square dance caller. It is likely that the choice of a western band name like the Circle C Ranch Boys—a band name that did not mention the individual names of the performers—enabled audiences to be more accepting of “ethnic” musicians than they might have been otherwise.
Nonetheless, the use of Americanized or frontier stage names enabled ethnic Americans to assume the stage in many Anglo-dominated social arenas. This allowed ethnic audience members to hear “their” music at country and western events, with Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Portuguese, and French traditional dance music intermixing—upon request—with the standard country and western and popular fare. The ability of multiethnic country and western ensembles to satisfy a diverse audience was enhanced by the fact that where there was one ethnic musician in a group, there tended to be others. So while the Americanized names of country and western performers may give the appearance of an Americanizing leveler, it enabled the inclusion of ethnic musics in performances for the general public, exposed audience members to music that they were likely unfamiliar with (or perhaps suspicious of), and helped reinforce traditional musical values among specific participants. In other words, multiethnic country and western ensembles created a very real bridge between an American and an immigrant worldview—a frontier, if you will, between differing worldviews. Though the function of the country and western event aims at performers ameliorating tension between the band and the audience by honoring requests, requests that brought the ethnicity of the performers to the fore must have created tension and confusion in some settings. Some audience members were doubtlessly surprised—for better or for worse—to hear Betty Cody alternate verses of Hank Williams’s “Hey Good Lookin’” in English and French. Yet the same audience members who had xenophobic fears of Italians were likely confounded by cowboys Al Blake and Jimmy Cal singing “Mala Femina” in impeccable Italian, only then to launch into a thoroughly convincing rendition of Johnny Bond’s western standard “Cimarron.” While old Yankees like Drake and Harvard professor and ballad scholar Barrett Wendell fretted about the changing face of New England, Italians living near Boston’s Paul Revere House—like Vinny “Jimmy Cal” Calderone and Angelo “Al Blake” Boncore of the Circle C Ranch Boys—were busy making use of the frontier symbols and names of cowboy music to gain entrance to community halls and forge a more inclusive vision (or version) of America than that promoted by social Darwinists like Owen Wister.
At first glance, the Americanized frontier image of Lone Pine and Betty Cody obscures their Quebecois ethnic heritage, and—if the recollections of other ethnic New England country and western performers are to be believed—intentionally so. Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, while ostensibly fronting an “assimilated” ensemble, were bilingual Franco American band leaders fronting a multiethnic group that actively performed songs in French for their New England and Canadian audiences; they were also likely the only major label country and western act from outside of Louisiana to have scored a Top 10 country and western hit with an audible French accent. As such, the adoption of an Americanized stage name and persona by the ethnic performer is not necessarily indicative of “Americanization” or abandonment of one’s ethnic identity but rather is a means by which ethnic New Englanders subverted popular conceptions of American identity as understood through the frontier cowboy. New England country and western music promoted a vision of frontier multiculturalism, engendering a very real “alternation” between American and immigrant worldviews. While alternation is used here in the sociological sense, it is also a term used by New England’s Franco American country and western musicians to describe the practice of translating English songs into their native tongue and alternating verses of the songs between French and English during their personal appearances, a practice popularized in New England by singers like Betty Cody in the late 1930s. Italian American alternation was also common, and American pop music fans know of it through hit songs such as “That’s Amore,” “O Solo Mio,” and “Volare” as popularized by Louis Prima and Dean Martin (born Dino Crochetti). Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore” is hardly subversive, but alternation as employed (and engendered in the sociological sense) by an Italian American New Englander under the wide brim of a frontier cowboy—the paragon of authentic American identity—in an environment normally closed off to ethnic performers constitutes what social constructionists would call a radical attempt at reorganizing everyday life (Pilarzyk 1978, 382). It is a reorganization of American or New England identity inclusive of multiculturalism.