Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe (Music in American Life)

Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe (Music in American Life)

by Marty Godbey

ISBN: 9780252078255

Publisher University of Illinois Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups

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Sample Chapter


Centered in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Region, Lexington, seat of Fayette County, was the prosperous market center of an agrarian economy at the end of the Great Depression. Here were the famous horse farms, with their bluegrass pastures surrounded by white fences; tobacco was the "money crop" for farmers.

Lexington, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, had little industry. There were stores that sold feed, seed, farm implements, and horse supplies, and auction barns for horses and tobacco. Two racetracks, the new Keeneland Race Course for thoroughbreds and the Red Mile trotting track, attracted thousands to their meets.

The Depression had not devastated the area as it had industrialized cities, but recovery was slow, hampered by a severe drought, until 1937, when a devastating flood of the Ohio River destroyed many river towns. The Bluegrass was unaffected, except that the saturated soil helped to produce a record tobacco crop that signaled a return to normality.

It was into this optimistic atmosphere that James Dee Crowe was born on Friday, August 27, 1937, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Lexington, then at Second and Jefferson streets. The first child of Orval Dee and Bessie Lee Nichols Crowe, the little red-haired baby was special; most of his family had dark hair, and although there was red hair on both sides of his family, it was uncommon. "My dad's dad's brother had red hair, and my grandmother, my mom's mom, didn't have really red hair, but it had a kind of reddish tint. My mom's brother's first son and my dad's brother's first son were redheaded; then I was redheaded. None of the other children in either family were," J.D. said.

Orval and Bessie had grown up in large farming families; Orval was born in Montgomery County, some thirty-five miles east of Lexington. His immediate family was living north of Lexington, on the Scott-Fayette County line, when he and Bessie met, and music was already an important part of his life. "His family lived right across from my family on the Newtown Pike." said James "J." Wood. "[Live] music was more important then; there was no television, and hardly any radio. There was no electricity out here on Newtown Pike until the mid-1930s, and if you wanted to hear music, somebody had to play it. People would have parties, especially the young people, and if you could play, you were always welcome."

"My dad," J.D. said, "was the oldest of thirteen children; he quit school to help on the farm, and then after a while, he was the only one working, so he left and got a job so he could make some money."

Bessie's family lived in Jessamine County, just south of Fayette. She and Orval met in 1934, and Orval immediately asked for a date. "He came to my house in Jessamine County," she said, "and we went together for two years. We were married in 1936, at Keene, in Jessamine County, and went to his mother's before we went to housekeeping." Shortly after J.D. was born, they moved to Lincoln Avenue, in a subdivision just east of downtown Lexington. Orval drove a truck for the Donaldson Bakery Company.

According to his mother, little J.D. (he was never called anything else) had a sunny disposition and showed his musical talent at an early age. "When J.D. was two years old, he started singing—the music came from my mother's side—and the first song he learned was 'The Books of the Bible.' He sang it in church, and they gave him a little Bible for doing that."

To the young family, with their extended families nearby, Lexington must have seemed the ideal place to live. J.D. remembers his childhood impressions:

Lexington was a fun town, because it was downtown. It was all downtown, and you had your ten-cent stores—Woolworth's and Kresge's—and there were a lot of restaurants around, and a lot of movie theaters we used to go to. In fact, there's only a couple still left I used to attend when I was a kid: the Opera House (but they no longer show movies there, they just have concerts and plays) and the Kentucky Theatre (that's where the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Theatre is). There were a lot of other theaters, probably three or four more, but they're all gone; they're now parking lots. Urban renewal; it's changed a lot.

In the early 1940s, Orval became manager of a 443-acre farm about six miles south of Lexington, in Jessamine County, where the family would live for twelve years. "It was located on the east side of the Harrodsburg Road, where the Crosswoods shopping center is now," J.D. said, "and my dad raised everything on the halves." The Crowes lived on a 5-acre tract across the road in a white frame house on a hill. "My dad tried to buy that tract after [the owner] died," J.D. said, "but his son wouldn't sell." The house where they lived is no longer standing, but the office of present-day Bluegrass Memorial Gardens cemetery is on the same spot. "The cemetery was my mom's brother Milton Nichols' farm," J.D. said.

The Harrodsburg Road curved through wooded acres and large and small farms that raised essential food, with some tobacco, during World War II, and the farm where the Crowes lived was somewhat isolated. Today, the rolling terrain is still there, but hardly recognizable from that time; the road has been widened, and subdivisions have replaced the farms.

J.D.'s teenage thin frame was no indication of the family's eating habits—his mother, an excellent southern cook, always kept a garden, and the family had three hearty meals every day. "My family's always been good eaters," she said.

"My mom's rare, I'll tell you," J.D. said. "She's ninety-four years old, or will be the first of March. I can remember her working on the farm, doing whatever needed to be done. She was always there and supportive. Of course, she didn't spare the rod, either, which I deserved. I got into all kinds of meanness when I was growing up. She's always been there, and still is; she was a great cook, and still is. One of the things I really remember is all the good food we had, that she'd fix from scratch, off the top of her head."


Excerpted from "Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe (Music in American Life)" by Marty Godbey. Copyright © 0 by Marty Godbey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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