Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Maxine Crissman, "Lefty Lou"
Depression Californians brought a new music to the state, old timey hill tunes and style. Woody Guthrie is usually honored for playing the key role in introducing this format, but he was not alone. Guthrie settled in LA (not the farmlands) in 1937, where he met California-raised Crissman, an experienced singer, guitarist, and sax player. (His brother Jack had worked for her father and dated her for a while. During their lifetime, Jack actually gained much greater popularity than Woody as a performer.)
The duo were hired by a progressive radio owner, J. Frank Burke, to do daily programs on KFVD radio. Titled Woody and Lefty Lou, the pair introduced a wide variety of music, including old blackface minstrelsy, hillbilly, and public-domain folk ballads. Guthrie's lyrics to established tunes, including some by the Carter family, reached out to the working-class listening audience. Crissman's alto voice provided the lead, while Guthrie's higher voice offered harmony. The result was known as a "crossnote trademark."
Crissman and Guthrie used their own experiences to encourage listeners to realize they were part of a community. Populism ran through their songs, which grew increasingly political through attacks on political leaders and police who abused the migrants. They urged listeners to vote, to join political groups, to walk on picket lines. Outside the radio station they appeared at rallies in support of the Ham and Eggs Plan of Francis Townsend.
Crissman was on the show only two years. I have not been able to discover what she did afterwards. Anyone who knows, please tell me! Did she drop out of performing completely? This seems strange, given her popularity equal with Woody's at the time. Together they helped make country music an urban phenomenon, as well as contributed to populist pride among migrant Californians.