Cousin Emmy (1903–1980)

Updated: February 28, 2011

Early country banjo player and singer.

The first woman to win the National Old Fiddlers contest in Louisville in 1936, Cousin Emmy achieved national acclaim as a “banjo pickin’ girl” from Kentucky. She was born Cynthia May Carver in 1903 in Barren County, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. Carver began her radio career playing banjo in a string band with two of her cousins; later she taught a young Grandpa Jones how to play frailing-style banjo.

In 1941 Cousin Emmy caught the ears of millions of listeners when she was hired by radio station KMOX in St. Louis. Her visual presence was captured on celluloid when she appeared in two movies: Swing in the Saddle (1944) and The Second Greatest Sex (1955). In 1947 folklorist Alan Lomax arranged for Carver to sign with Decca Records and also included her music in his anthology of field recordings, Kentucky Mountain Ballads. On this collection she played banjo and sang “Pretty Little Miss Out in the Garden” and “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again.”

With the decline of live radio in the 1950s, Carver relocated to the West Coast. In 1961 she was “rediscovered” by the New Lost City Ramblers, whereupon she introduced younger musicians in the urban folk revival to traditional Appalachian material. In 1968 she participated on the collaborative album The New Lost City Ramblers with Cousin Emmy (Folkways). One of her compositions, the song “Ruby,” was made famous by the Osborne Brothers.

Granted her comedic persona, Cousin Emmy was an accomplished musician who could play numerous instruments, as well as a savvy entrepreneur who held the copy- right to all her recordings. She died April 11, 1980.

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MLA Style

"Cousin Emmy," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 21 Jul 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=63>

APA Style

"Cousin Emmy." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved July 21, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=63

Cousin Emmy Performing at the Newport Folk Festival with New Lost City Ramblers