Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

Add caEd Wood, country crooner? It could have gone that way.ption

Mountain Music

Ed does his part for war bonds.
When we think of young Ed Wood growing up in Poughkeepsie, envisioning what he will someday be, we'd be forgiven for imagining a movie-mad boy dreaming of fame in Hollywood. The requisite elements of that story are there: getting a job as usher at a movie theater, childhood idols including Buck Jones and Bela Lugosi, and—the clincher—receiving a home movie camera as a birthday present. The seeds were sown, back home in Poughkeepsie, of the Hollywood filmmaker.

The story does, though, neglect the very real possibility that things could have gone another way. In this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays, we're taking a peek at Ed Wood's career (yes, that's a fair designation) in music, where he had his first breakthrough in the entertainment industry.

The Poughkeepsie New Yorker from October 24, 1943 includes a brief article in which Ed Wood urges the public to buy more war bonds. It's a curious piece, quoting a letter from Ed to the paper. After his war bond pitch, the article goes on to mention a recent letter to Ed's parents, before closing with the detail that's relevant here: He was one of the "original" Sunshine Mountaineers heard over WGY radio. 

The detail that Ed started a band called the Sunshine Mountaineers isn't new; that little factoid is generally mentioned in concert with information that Ed started his own band called Eddie Wood's Little Splinters in his teens and that he played several instruments. Both bands consisted of Ed and his friends, and it appears the Splinters came first. By the name of the band, you'd be hard pressed to know what sort of music they played. A big band, a jazz combo? I found reference to the Splinters being a Country and Western band. And that would make sense, as Ed's hero was cowboy film star Buck Jones. 

Going back even further into Ed's musical roots, 1924, the year of his birth, was also the dawning of traditional mountain music upon the popular landscape. Scottish immigrants brought their musical traditions to North America centuries prior, leaving England in fear of religious persecution, where they had settled after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Settling from Quebec to Nova Scotia and across the Catskills, the Scots' traditional musical forms merged and morphed through the years, from barn dance music to Northern Woods lumber camp folk songs. The name Wood, indicating one who lives near a wood, incidentally, has its roots in Scotland before the migration to England. The motto of the family coat-of-arms is to defend. 

Ed Wood's boyhood hero Buck Jones
By the early part of the 20th century, two forms of mountain music had emerged: the "hillbilly" style out of Southern Appalachia, and the more somber strain hailing from the Catskills. It was then, in the latter half of the 1920s, that the hillbilly stereotype came into being. Popular radio and record bands included The Rex Cole Mountaineers, and some bands took the stereotype to its extreme, dressing in straw hats and overalls, bearded and barefoot, toting jugs in addition to their string instruments. In your typical mountain music band, you are likely to find a guitar or two, a banjo or bluegrass mandolin (in Appalachia) or dulcimer (in the Catskills), a fiddle and/or a bass fiddle. 

This style of mountain music would remain popular right into World War II. By the late '30s, however, both country and western influences began to take root in America. In the post-war years, the genre eventually known as Country and Western would supplant traditional mountain music. Naming his band—or possibly renaming the Splinters—The Sunshine Mountaineers would situate a particular style of music in the minds of the audience. Though mountain music was waning, the Catskills, the mountains west of the Hudson River, remained a foothold of the tradition. 

Debuting in 1922, the pioneering WGY was the first radio station launched by General Electric. The station could boast of its range, reaching London and Havana, as well as its accomplishments. Within mere months after launch, WGY performed the first full-length live drama on radio—two and a half hours long, complete with the medium's first-ever use of foley effects. The station's home was Schenectady, New York, just north of the state capital of Albany, and an hour and a half's drive due North from Ed's hometown of Poughkeepsie. 

The Wood family—as we know from the 1930 US Census Record that oddly captures this bit of information—possessed a "radio set" Before he fell in love with movies, Ed was surely introduced to the world of entertainment via the radio. And it's worth noting, too, that the Bardavon Theatre, where Ed worked as an usher in high school, was also a full-fledged performing arts venue, staging vaudeville acts and playing host to every form of popular music. 

While the details behind Ed being "heard over" WGY as one of the "original" Sunshine Mountaineers remain unknown, we can surmise a few things: 
  • Of the instruments Ed could play, a string instrument or two was likely among them. 
  • Ed's initial artistic ambition, and breakthrough, was musical, heading a band.
  • The style of music Ed's bands played was country and western, to a significant if-not-dominant degree influenced by the popular regional mountain music styles popular on the radio when he was a child. 
  • The Sunshine Mountaineers continued performing even after Ed left the group.

The pioneering WGY. Note the GE logo on the side.
WGY increased its broadcasting signal strength a few times through the years, and in 1938 built the largest radio tower in the world, standing half the height of the Empire State Building. WGY dropped all programming immediately after Pearl Harbor, devoting itself entirely to the war effort (and no doubt urging listeners to buy war bonds). 

Exactly when and how often The Sunshine Mountaineers played on WGY, we can't say. (Presumably Ed and his friends would have driven north to the studio and performed live, as was customary) Nor do we know how The Sunshine Mountaineers scored the gig or what their background was. What we can say is that, sometime circa 1938-1941, Ed played in a band heard by what could fairly be described as a worldwide audience. 

Fighting in the South Pacific came next, and then a brief pursuit of life in the theater after he returned from the war. Finally, Ed began work in the medium for which he is best-remembered: film. Years later, in 1963, he would script Shotgun Wedding, drawing on hillbilly stereotypes, as had become common practice in the pop culture from Betty Boop to Hee Haw. He even purportedly wrote a spec script for the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies that was never produced. (Side note: The Beverly Hill Billies was also the name of a mountain music band that made its first recordings in 1930.) Little did we know that his kinship with this iconography lay deeper.

And little do we still know about Ed's career as a musician in his teen years. But we'll keep digging, and we'll travel back again to Poughkeepsie, right here at Ed Wood Wednesdays.

Special thanks to Raleigh Bronkowski, who shared the newspaper article of Ed hawking war bonds, and whose blog The Scene of Screen 13 is a mind-boggling treasure-trove of exploitation film newspaper ads. Further thanks go to Bob Blackburn, co-heir of the Wood estate, who shared priceless scans from an original copy of Buck Jones sheet music.