Without a doubt, the most recognizable face to Sacred Harp singers today is that of a little girl leading a song, one arm raised and holding in the other a large rectangular songbook. The sepia-toned photograph was chosen by Matt and Erica Hinton for the cover of their documentary Awake My Soul, the Story of the Sacred Harp. Singers across the country quickly fell in love with the little girl and wanted to know what had become of her.
While a companion soundtrack was being completed, bass player Murry Hammond said it should be easy to find her. The Hintons had already been searching for three years and knew only that her name was Lorraine Miles and that the photo from the archives of hymnology historian George Pullen Jackson was taken in 1930 at a Sacred Harp singing convention in Mineral Wells, Texas. Following a hunch, Hammond began his own search, and within a few days, he told them a librarian in Mineral Wells had confirmed that Lorraine Miles McFarland was a current resident of the city. He even had her contact information. Hinton immediately phoned McFarland and surprised her with news that her face was on CDs, DVDs, and T-shirts all across the country.
Lorraine McFarland is petite, lively, and very attractive, with a ready smile and quiet sense of humor. She lives with her older daughter and son-in-law in the home that Lorraine and her late husband bought in 1976 when he retired from the military and they returned to her hometown. She’d been a six-year-old schoolgirl at the 1930 Sacred Harp convention in Mineral Wells, where W. T. Coston of Dallas sponsored a children’s singing contest. Lorraine led a song, “The Last Words of Copernicus” (p. 112 in The Sacred Harp), and won a valuable gold piece. She proudly presented the prize to her father, who was struggling to support his family of eight children. They ate “pret-ty good” for about two weeks, she says with a smile.
In a laminated newspaper photo of a large group of well-dressed people on the steps of the Mineral Wells Convention Hall, she pointed to two small girls dressed in white on the front row. “There I am right there, peeking around my sister Nettie. That’s the day I won the gold piece.”
Mr. Coston was so pleased with the children’s singing that he invited all of them to spend a weekend at the Coston home in Dallas, which Lorraine described as “more like a grand hotel, not just a house.” At the time, the Miles’ home lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The most memorable feature of the Coston home was a huge bathroom with tile floors. It was summertime; she and Nettie lay down and pressed their faces to the delightfully cool floor.
Lorraine and Nettie’s mother, Lula Hearn Miles, had come to Texas with her parents shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. The Hearn family had sung Sacred Harp music in Alabama and brought the music to Texas with them. Lorraine’s mother encouraged all of her children to learn shape note music, often singing at home, and arranged for them to attend a singing school taught in Mineral Wells by the well-known shape note singing master, “Uncle” Tom Denson.
The family sang together for fun, like her mother’s family had done, and frequently put on their own “shows.” One Christmas, the family was exuberantly singing together when someone began pounding on the front door. They were living in a duplex, and they suddenly realized they were disturbing the neighbors. They prepared to apologize on opening the door, but instead, the neighbor demanded, “What station are you listening to?! We can’t find it on our radio!”
In the Miles’ home, the radio was always tuned to a station with music, and someone was always singing along. That’s how Lorraine learned to yodel. Her oldest brother Fred thought she was “pret-ty good,” she laughs. He came to school one day to mysteriously get her out of class. When they’d left the building, he told her he was taking her to Fort Worth for an audition at radio station KFJZ. She was put into a booth and handed a microphone. She sang a yodeling song and giggled at the end, which must have added to her charm, for she was offered a job on the popular radio show, “Hayride.” However, the family had no automobile of their own, and with no way to get to Fort Worth on a regular basis, she soon had to quit.
But Fred was a good promoter, and soon Lorraine was singing with a band called the “Washboard Swingsters” on a show broadcast locally in Mineral Wells. Western swing music was wildly popular, and “Little Lorraine, the yodeling schoolgirl,” was an instant sensation on the show’s daily broadcast at noon, which was prime time. An elderly Fort Worth woman recalls listening to the show every day as she washed lunch dishes.
Lorraine sometimes performed with the Washboard Swingsters in Fort Worth—notably, for an engagement during the Stock Show at the Silver Spur, which was “the” night club in the city. One night, Lorraine lost her voice as she began to sing. She tried again, but nothing came out. Amon G. Carter, owner and publisher of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was sitting front and center with a table of guests. Suddenly, a woman at Carter’s table arose, took Lorraine’s arm and said, “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll fill in for you.” The woman was Ann Miller. While the fifteen-year-old Lorraine recuperated, the Hollywood star Ann Miller sang and danced, thrilling the live audience as she continued to do for decades on film and on Broadway.
The Washboard Swingsters were also a hit, and Lorraine’s voice returned. Radio station WBAP in Fort Worth, which aired such stars as W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys, hired the Swingsters and Little Lorraine to broadcast directly from the Crazy Water Hotel, right there at home.
Water from local wells tasted terrible but became renowned for miraculous healing powers when a mentally disturbed woman, called the “crazy lady,” regained emotional stability after habitually sipping water from one of the wells, thereafter called the Crazy Well. Large hotels had been built for thousands of visitors who came to baths and spas in Mineral Wells during the 1920s, but after the stock market crash in 1929, people could no longer afford to travel. Owners of the Crazy Water Hotel, Carr and Hal Collins, who had first hired Lorraine, decided to take the water to the people—not by expensive bottling and shipping but by packaging the crystalline residue after the water had been boiled. When reconstituted, a single $1.50 box of crystals would make five gallons of Crazy Water. The Swingsters and Little Lorraine had become immensely popular, and the Mineral Wells Chamber of Commerce hired the “Crazy Gang” to tour all over Texas with a road show promoting the town and “Crazy Water Crystals.”
Lorraine was unaware of the wide breadth of the broadcast span until a sister in Odessa wrote the family that she had heard Lorraine on a Del Rio radio station broadcasting from Mexico. The show was actually broadcast on the NBC network to the entire nation from the lobby of the Crazy Water Hotel. The United States and Canada had formed an agreement that assigned and regulated radio frequencies, with 50,000 watts as the highest broadcasting power. However, Mexico was not part of the agreement, and stations could broadcast from Mexico with as much as 500,000 watts. Until the practice was stopped, some U.S. stations installed transmission equipment across the border in Mexico, and transcription disks were transported from studios—such as that in the Crazy Water Hotel—to the station’s office in Del Rio, Texas.
After the broadcast one day, Lorraine was told to bring her parents with her the next day: two talent scouts from Hollywood wanted to talk with them. The scouts said they had heard and seen Lorraine perform and thought she could have a successful career in the motion picture industry. They offered her a year of training in California, with auditions and management advice—all expenses paid. All they wanted in return was the right to be her agent.
Lorraine did not want to go. As a high school senior, she could not bear missing out on any more teenage fun. She tried to get her father’s attention, mouthing, “No, no!” Finally, he began to speak. He thanked the men for their generous offer, then he said, “But I don’t think this is the right thing for Lorraine right now.”
Lorraine’s dancing and skating skills were also noticed. Her sister Nettie invited Lorraine to go with her to a dance at the U.S.O. Club; a sergeant wanted to meet her. The now seventeen-year-old Lorraine was offended that she would be interested in meeting an old man. But the dance sounded exciting; she had heard from her friends that there were young soldiers still in their teens at the U.S.O. She was on the dance floor when Nettie approached her from behind and said, “Lorraine, I’d like you to meet Sgt. A.J. McFarland.” There, in full dress uniform, was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Their eyes met, taking her breath away.
“Mac” McFarland later admitted that he’d seen her skating and devised a way to meet her. He was from Oklahoma and was only nineteen years old (although his “military” age was twenty-one). They were married a month later, a short while before her eighteenth birthday, and Mac—or rather, the military—took her off to see the world.
But she had not been forgotten in Mineral Wells. Lorraine soon received a phone call from Hal Collins, president of the Crazy Water, telling her that he was going to run for governor of the State of Texas. The current governor, the former radio star, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, had decided not to run for re-election but would instead run for the U.S. Senate. (O’Daniel’s political race for governor was loosely parodied—though fictionally set in Mississippi—in the film, O Brother, Where art Thou? The real-life campaign in Texas was the only political race that O’Daniel’s opponent Lyndon B. Johnson ever lost.)
Collins told Lorraine that he and O’Daniel were planning a joint campaign tour across the state, and they wanted her to join them. The rest of the Crazy Gang was already on board. The offer was $127 plus expenses for the two-week tour. Mac was making $68 per month in the military. He said, “Go.”
They traveled by bus and automobile, while a truck with a bed served as the stage. Pat, Mike, and Molly O’Daniel, the governor’s grown children, not much older than Lorraine, traveled with them. When pressed for details of the tour’s campaign promises, she admitted that she didn’t actually listen to the speeches. An article in the June 2, 1941 issue of Time magazine reported that at campaign rallies, Collins gave a mattress to the largest family present. As the campaign’s headliner, Governor “Pappy” O’Daniel, who’d first gained fame as announcer and manager of the Light Crust Doughboys, sometimes carried a broom, promising to sweep out corruption.
Lorraine did eventually see a big part of the world with Mac. After the war was over, she joined him when he was stationed in bombed-out Nuremburg, Germany, where she attended the Nuremburg trials nearly every day. Returning to Nuremburg a few years later, she found it transformed into a sparkling, thoroughly modern city. Lorraine and Mac traveled to other distant countries—France, Italy, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Thailand—through their fifty-one years of marriage.
While she was visiting her parents in Mineral Wells after her younger daughter was born, Lorraine’s father held the new baby on his lap and watched contentedly as her older child played nearby. As Lorraine talked of her life and her family, he said on seeing her happiness, he was glad they had turned down the offer from the Hollywood talent scouts. The subject had never been discussed after the decision was made, but he must have occasionally pondered “what-ifs.”
Lorraine and her family had sung Sacred Harp music until the singings ceased in Mineral Wells. Eventually, the old Convention Hall where W. T. Coston awarded gold pieces was demolished. A few months after the interview with Matt Hinton, Lorraine attended the East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Henderson, Texas, her first Sacred Harp singing in more than seventy-five years. She led “The Last Words of Copernicus” with Mike Hinton—no relation to Matt, but the grandson of her early singing school instructor, “Uncle” Tom Denson. There she stood, with one arm raised and holding in the other a long, rectangular songbook. “Fa-La-Sol,” she sang. Voices found a pitch, and then filled the room with pulsing sound. It all came back to her; she didn’t miss a beat.