Monday, December 24, 2012

Patsy Cline as "white trash"

This story in today's New York Times tells of Winchester, Virginia's slow path to embracing a famous native daughter, Patsy Cline.   The headline for Dan Barry's story is "For Patsy Cline's Hometown, an Embrace that Took Decades."  (The alternate headline is "Years Later, Singer Patsy Cline Celebrated in Hometown").  Virginia Hensley, who became known as Patsy Cline, was born in 1932 in Winchester.  She was the first child of a 16-year-old woman, Hilda, and her 43-year-old blacksmith husband.  Cline's mother eventually moved her three children into a "converted log cabin" on Kent Street in Winchester, "keeping poverty at bay by sewing for the rich." Cline's childhood home--on the other side of the metaphorical tracks--has only recently become a tourist attraction, as folks in Winchester have slowly come to appreciate the tourism opportunity represented by Cline's association with the small city.  

Barry writes of Virginia Hensley's early years:
Young Ginny left school to help pay the rent, working, for example, as a waitress at the Greyhound bus station and as a soda jerk at Gaunt’s Drug Store. She also sang wherever and whenever she could, first in the big-band style of her idol, Jo Stafford, and then in country style, often wearing Western outfits sewn by her mother. 
As a dropout living with a single mother, she did not embody the Winchesterian elite’s ideal of young womanhood. She was considered to be nothing more than a Kent Street girl who did not know her proper place.
These sentiments persisted even after thousands descended on Winchester for Cline's funeral in 1963, just six years into a career that was launched with her 1957 performance of "Walkin After Midnight" on Arthur Godfrey's nationally televised talent show.  Papers outside Winchester gave Cline's death "more empathetic coverage" than the local paper, which had included only a two-sentence notice about her Carnegie Hall appearance.    

By way of explaining the ostracizing of Cline--and even her post-mortem rejection, Barry quotes Douglas Gomery, the author of Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon
There were two kinds of people that the elites in Winchester didn’t mix with.  Poor white trash and African-Americans. And she was seen as poor white trash.
Winchester's slow embrace of Cline also speaks, it seems, to the lack of anonymity associated with small towns.  Though Winchester is the hub and largest city in the Winchester, VA-WV Metropolitan Statistical Area, Winchester's population is just about 25,000 and the population of Frederick County, for which it is county seat, is less than 80,000.   

For more on the culture of Winchester, Virginia and its class stratification, don't miss Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus, which I have written about here and here.  Like Cline, Bageant was a  native of Winchester.  

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