musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lois Short -- 4. Renaissance

Sheridan died, in 1973. Her sons moved to Cincinnati. In her solitude, Lois found a musical renaissance. In Candie Carawan’s words, Lois “just kinda had this coming out,” musically speaking. “She really picked up the banjo again, and she just loved going out to community gatherings, or anything where she could play her banjo.”

“I don’t remember her being bitter about that, or putting it in the context of feminism,” said Candie. Instead, it was, “you know, just almost more a matter of fact.”
“Her life just kind of opened up again,” she said.

In 1978, Lois wrote to the Appalshop, about her music. Appalshop, a county over in Whitesburg, had been operating for a few years at that point, a group of artists, filmmakers and musicians interested in celebrating and documenting local music and culture. Nancy Carden was working there at the time, and remembered the letter Lois had written. “She was talking about, you know, that she had been playing all of this old-timey music for a long time, and ballads and things like that.” Carden was interested, noting that there were few women being recorded by Appalshop at the time. Besides which, there was “something about that letter that just really… moved me, or something, for some reason,” she remembered.

She visited, expecting to stay for a little while. “I ended up spending a long time there that day.” She remembered a woman who was “very shy, at first.” The kind of person who was “very reticent, but then you could get her talking, you know, and you could just have these conversations that would go on forever.” She remembers hearing the story of her life, and hearing her music, and you know, walking away feeling like [it was] something we really needed to do, that we needed to make some recordings.” “

“She had an incredible memory of all this music. I think it got harder for her as she got older, but she really, initially… I mean she just knew all the verses to everything, and could go on and on, you know. That was pretty impressive.”

She was recorded, by folks at Appalshop: six ballads, a capella, which are available for listening at the Appalshop Archive, and at the Berea College Special Collections. But larger plans for a recording fell through, because of a lack of funding. Carden went off to grad school. “And I felt bad,” she said, “that it was never going to happen… but there was just… the money thing at that time was getting really bad.”
Lois’s relationship with friends at Appalshop led to other musical friends, and performance opportunities, at long last.

“Music had always been a dream of hers,” Carden said. “She always had this dream of being a musician, and… of being a performer. I think it had always been there, from when she was really, really young. I think that she had always been singing and always been playing music, and it all got shelved by marriage and children, and someone who… if anything [was] discouraging her from doing anything. Once he was dead, I think it just kept floating around in her mind… It was like, she really felt like she knew a lot of music that nobody was playing anymore, and that she had something to share.”

She was, at that point, in Carden’s estimation, “really isolated. And I think it was wonderful for her to come out of that holler… and go to Cincinnati and come to Knoxville, and play music with people.”

She met Guy and Candie Carawan, who ran the Highlander center, in New Market Tennessee, another center of ideas and music, like Appalshop. There, they led workshops, bringing people together: “to gather together not a huge group of people, but 20-30 people who can learn a lot from each other.” They began to invite Lois to these workshops, as one of their honored guests. A lot of the workshops we did here, we tried to bring older figures like this”—folks like Lois Short, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Florence Reece, Hazel Dickens, Nimrod Workman, connecting them with “a lot of younger people, especially people who were writing songs or doing music connected to community issues, to let them know they were joining a long tradition of people” who were engaged in similar music and struggle.

Lois, said Candie, “wasn’t a protest singer or anything, but she was such a warm, wonderful person.” She wasn’t strictly political like some of the others involved at the center, “but she certainly wasn’t put off by being in a room with people who were more political,” noted Candie. “I think her appeal was more on the human spirit, like that poem, [to] write out her feelings on being in the mountains, and not always having everything you need.”

At workshops, she’d often recite a poem she’d written, Candie remembered, a poem about a poor family, a boy with generous parents—the text of which can be read, below. “I just remember her doing it,” Candie said, “and how it really moved people. For instance, we’d have people here, maybe black women from the deep South or something, and they might be a little mistrustful of where they were and who they were with, and she’d do that poem, and they’d say, oh I see, we’re all on the same page here.”

At the workshops, she’d sing ballads, sometimes sing songs with banjo or guitar accompaniment. Of her singing, Guy said, “I think she could tear you up with… the feeling she would put into the song.”
Lois began to perform, at the Highlander Center, local festivals, and a number of times at the Appalachian Festival, in Cincinnati; she played for the Jubilee Festival in Knoxville, a program of ballads and banjo playing, usually playing by herself. She opened for the Dillards at Renfro Valley, and for Bill Monroe.
“She said she got so nervous when she got introduced on the program, that she couldn’t remember her own name,” Candie said, laughing fondly at the memory. “I think she was able to play the banjo, but she was just totally… awestruck… to be on this program with Bill Monroe.”

Nancy, too, remembers a woman nervous about performing. “I think she was very, very nervous about performing, though… she got so nervous that her voice, the quality of it, was really shaking, and I don’t know that she ever really got past that in performance. I think it was really hard for her. But if you were just sitting around, just playing music, that was a totally different thing.”

“Anywhere she could play and sing, she was excited,” Larry said, recalling her experience playing for the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati in 1980. She enjoyed performing, Larry remembered, “you can just see it… she would just light up.”

“I mean, she wasn’t real egotistical or anything like that, not the prima donna type at all,” noted Candie, “but just genuinely loved to make her music, and when people appreciated it, she was really good about appreciating other people. She was a generous spirit, and maybe, especially appreciative, because I’m sure she had a good 20 years or so where she had put it all under wraps.”

“She just had a great sense of humor and spirit, and exuberance about the banjo,” Candie continued. “I know people here, in these workshops that we had, just always responded to her so positively.”
Candie remembered another story, laughing. “Another story…about her exuberance [is that] one time… she had some bruises on her arms, and I said, ‘gosh, Lois, what happened there,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I was running through the house, playing with my little dog, and I bumped into the door several times.” She laughed, trying to picture “this lady, running through her house with a little dog careening off the doors. It was very funny.”

“She was a sweetie,” banjo player Sue Massek said of her friend. “She knew just [a] gazillion old ballads and poems. She always had a sweet face. She’d be singing these horrendous old murder ballads, and grinning. She was fun loving, obviously, getting up dancing.” She remembered one day, at the Highlander Center; her band, the Reel World String Band, was performing. Lois had a broken leg, but she danced anyway. In a cast.

Lois passed away in 1984, after a brief battle with a lung cancer.