Why the ‘braided blonde’s’ gooey voice made the leap to 1930s hillbilly music

The female duo of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley has forged a career with fun covers, old standards and fables, but for their second holiday album, The Very Christmas Songs, they wanted to tap some interesting historical figures for the covers.

They first traveled to the Civil War battlegrounds, including Atlanta’s Fort Pulaski and William Tecumseh Sherman’s Texas Plantation, and created a country version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” the hauntingly beautiful song that became known as “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

They then revisited Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Kentucky to record “If I Had a Hammer,” a 1939 No. 1 hit by singer Hank Thompson that became known to youth of the time as “the hammer-in-the-air song.”

They then consulted historical figures for their holiday tribute to John Adams, with whom they recorded “Sir, Give Me a Hammer,” based on the meeting in April 1798 that formed the Declaration of Independence.

“It’s an emotional song for me,” Angaleena Presley said. “I thought the experience of Washington visiting our family farm and hearing my ancestors speak for the first time was important. We hope to entertain, but we also hope people will see a different side of a historical figure. I think you can learn more about them and about America.”

All of these recordings feature assistance from folklorist David Neiwert, who says it is his mission to dispel myths about some of the most fascinating figures in American history.

“I brought that theme to The Very Christmas Songs,” Neiwert said. “The John Adams recording — all six of us making this together — is very unique. Everybody is invested in the script. It is not at all the usual ‘just a cut for Christmas’. We’re very invested in the accuracy of everything. And I don’t know of any version of this story of a Civil War period piece that doesn’t have some version of ‘We hear your children cry’ at the end of the piece. That’s the universal reflection of a conflict that brought into being the Declaration of Independence. The John Adams song is nothing like that. You go back to being a child at the meal and to hearing that instrument that is meant to comfort you. People hear the music in a different way than they are used to.”

The song is a satire on language, particularly what “for colored girls” represented in the 1865 Daughters of the American Revolution song. The song’s lyrics mocked language and dynamics of the time.

“We have been trying to educate children and adults about that song,” Neiwert said. “The Founders had no language like the convention speakers do. A woman could not even speak to a speaker like that. He would just call her some names. She would say nothing back, and we have come full circle.”

“One of the things that resonates is that you had to use simple non-slang terms to talk about race in the time,” Lambert said. “He could not talk about her ‘my poodles.’ It wasn’t as universal as we say now. So the slang has been quite removed from our demographic. I think sometimes it’s not this open race to use simple terms, or even the next most archaic word. I know when I was younger, I would have a hard time figuring out some of the terms they used back then. But it’s fascinating.”

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