It was not only disabled veterans who benefited from contest charity. In 1926, Ford Motor Company agents spent $305.51 “tak[ing] care of the Old Time Fiddlers,” including providing the one-armed Westmoreland, Tennessee fiddler Marshall Claiborne a barber’s cut, a new suit of clothes, and treatment at a Detroit hospital. The Ford agents’ patronage of one-armed fiddlers is particularly ironic. In 1923, Henry Ford, perhaps conscious that industrial accidents in his factories actually created amputees, publicly hailed his automated Model-T assembly line as “enabling” its “less than able-bodied” workers: in a Ford factory, the automobile mogul proudly claimed, 670 operations could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, 715 by one-armed men, and two by armless men.12
Fiddlers’ contests, apparently like Ford’s factories, offered diverse opportunities for veterans with all kinds of limb differences. The one-armed Oxford, Georgia veteran-fiddler Colonel A. V. Poole both performed at contests and acted as master of ceremonies. In 1899, Texan fiddler Henry C. Gilliland, who famously recorded the “first” old-time record for a commercial phonograph company in 1922, applied for a Confederate pension in his adopted home of Oklahoma, claiming that periostitis of the leg and hip joint, muscular atrophy, and the shortening of a limb caused by “exposure and heavy duty guarding the gulf coast of Texas” during the war, meant he could no longer conduct manual labor. It was after Gilliland’s claim was rejected because he owned too much land (even though he claimed the land was arid) that he wholeheartedly began to engage in contest culture, even presiding over the influential Old Fiddlers’ Association of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Without Gilliland’s wartime injuries, and the ableist postwar society in which he lived, the “birth” of early country music may have taken a different route.13
Like Gilliland, who helped inaugurate old time music’s phonographic era, Emory Martin, born in 1916 to a sharecropping family near Bon Aqua Junction in Hickman County, Tennessee, hitched his ride to stardom on another development in sound technology: radio. At age seven, Martin began to play the banjo on the floor with his stump, feet, and then teeth before getting his “break” as a teenager at a Nashville talent contest. The white musician soon was performing with Sid Harkreader and “Uncle” Dave Macon at the Grand Ole Opry and recording with Kitty Wells. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a regular performer on the Louisville, Kentucky–based radio show Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Unlike one-armed veteran-fiddlers with acquired amputations, Martin’s six-inch left-arm stump (or “stub”) was a congenital anomaly. That Martin became successful with what would have been considered a “birth defect” is significant. This was a period rife with eugenic theories and derogatory depictions of poor white southerners, particularly Appalachians, as genetically deformed “hillbillies.” Perhaps some audiences, especially those from outside the South, viewed Martin’s disability as a signifier for mountain people’s supposedly isolated, “inbred,” and impure characteristics, but neither Martin nor Renfro producer John Lair let such ideas germinate. Martin dressed smartly in suits rather than the stereotypical yokel costumes that other barn dance performers wore. It was a source of pride for the Renfro Valley promotional machine when Martin married and had children with the able-bodied and musically talented fiddler and fellow Renfro star Wanda “Linda Lou” Martin. Although Emory Martin was always identified by his disability (“the one-armed banjo player”; “radio’s only one-armed banjo player”; “America’s greatest one-armed banjo player”; “the world’s only one-armed banjo player”), other descriptors of his talents (“wizard”; “champion”; “king”) highlighted his mastery of his instrument, or, to borrow from music scholar Matthew J. Jones, his “crip virtuosity.” Martin’s brilliance was accentuated even more, one contemporary reviewer claimed, because the banjo was “one of the most difficult string instruments to play in the world.”14
Martin nurtured his public image as a disabled genius. It was he who insisted on being introduced as a “one-armed” performer because he “knew from experience” that advertising the fact would draw crowds to their stage shows. As Martin later recalled in a newspaper interview, with a dose of pragmatism, “I had to be seen, I had enough sense to know that.” Keeping in mind childhood experiences when strangers travelled to the Martin family home to see how he played but quickly became uninterested once they had witnessed the spectacle of his disabled performance, Martin set upon enhancing the complexity of what he played. Disability, for Martin, was about difference, not deficit. As a teenager, he worked hard to master particularly dastardly tunes which showcased his stub-, toe- and teeth-picking abilities. The song “When You and I Were Young Maggie,” Martin recalled, was “quite a hard tune to play” but he “didn’t want it to look too easy, I wanted to use every string there was on the banjo.” Five frets was about the limits of Martin’s dexterity when playing with his feet. While there were plenty southern folksongs that only required two frets, Martin “didn’t think that was hard enough” and “wanted to make it more complicated than that.” It was a deeply complex learning process, with his disability profoundly shaping his musical approach:
My style was completely different … I had to make a note and get away from there or it’d muffie the whole thing. If it was instrumental, I played the lead. If it was a song, I played the melody. The only chord I could make was a bar chord straight across.
The typical open-tuning of the five-string banjo (where a chord is struck without holding down any frets) made all this possible. Martin did learn to play the guitar, but only by tuning it like a banjo. It was Martin’s ability to “produce a purity of tone seldom achieved by any banjo player” with “no mechanical devices of any kind” that at least one reviewer saw as unique. By contrast, one of Martin’s contemporaries, Luther Caldwell, a one-armed Kansas City, Missouri fiddler, performed with an elaborate system of mechanical pedals in order to bow the fiddle. Reportedly designed by a group of mechanics at a Mizzou plant, Caldwell’s machinery won him an appearance in Popular Mechanics magazine and a spot on Ted Mack’s NBC television show Amateur Hour in 1953. In Caldwell’s case, his prosthesis became the audience’s fixation; for Martin, though, everything rested on his bodily abilities.15
In producer John Lair’s hands, Martin’s life story became primarily an inspirational tale for able-bodied people. In a 1946 broadcast, Lair presented Martin’s indefatigable determination as totemic of the plucky American character:
Now watch this boy play the five-string banjo with his teeth, and listen to every note just as perfect as if he had 15 or 20 fingers on the strings … You take a fellow with that much determination, a boy who’s had one arm all of his life and is determined to learn to play the banjo, a very hard instrument to master, and a fellow who can do it that way, you must have to take your hats off to the good old American spirit that keeps a boy like [that] on the job until he got clear to the top in his particular profession.
Lair’s comments are interesting for two reasons. First, his use of a national trope (the underdog-done-good) moves away from the fiddlers’ contest identification of the overcoming narrative of disability with southernness; instead, disability is framed within a story of national reconciliation, ironically right at the cusp of a new wave of sectional divisions about to erupt in the postwar Civil Rights era. Secondly, it is telling that Lair doesn’t present Martin as a “regular supercrip” (someone with a disability who gains attention for “mundane accomplishments”). Rather, Martin more closely resembles what disability scholar Amit Kama calls the “glorified supercrip” (someone with a disability who accomplishes “feats that even non-disabled persons rarely attempt”). For a southerner to embody the “American spirit,” Lair implies, they not only had to work as hard as a one-armed person, they had to be professionally successful too.16
Radio, as an aural medium, made the representation of disabled talent challenging for producers hoping to portray supercrip narratives. Some Renfro broadcasts were recorded with live crowds, and the cast regularly toured as a revue show, but audiences typically first heard disabled musicians over their radio sets. Lair understood that listeners would be curious to see the one-armed picker in action. “Maybe you’ve believed it, maybe you didn’t,” the wily promoter told listeners during a 1959 broadcast, with one eye clearly on an upcoming Renfro tour, “you have to see it to believe it.” An advertisement for a Renfro road show in Florida, similarly, beckoned listeners who had heard Martin on air and “wondered if he really picks the banjo and if so, just how he hangs on to it.” The guitarist Chet Akins, who performed alongside Martin during a short stint at Knoxville’s WNOX, later wrote in his autobiography that “freaks” like Emory Martin “drew people to the roadshows.” Other musicians used kinder words. Jo Midkiff referred to Martin as a “showstopper” who could draw multiple encores. Country singer Kitty Wells, meanwhile, who had performed with Martin early in his career, recalled that he was “a great guy, and he was a good banjo player, too, in spite of what some people might think.”17