This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
May Kennedy McCord spoke during her time, but the words she said, sang and wrote live into ours.
Known as the Queen of the Hillbillies, McCord spent years of her life helping share and preserve regional history and culture.
Much of this work was done under the name “Hillbilly Heartbeats,” a space through which she shared thoughts — some hers and some sent to her by Ozarkers in the hills.
Through ink and paper, those pieces appeared in the Springfield newspaper and in other publications. Years were also spent on the radio, both in Springfield and St. Louis, where her voice visited folks throughout the region and beyond as she became known as a familiar figure, even earning her the title of Missouri Mother of the Year in 1950.
Her words, however, were made of more than letters. They were used to help encourage, inform and connect people spread across a region — and celebrate their uniqueness, and that of the area in which they lived.
“I’m of his tribe and his clan and I love every bone in his body,” wrote McCord in a 1933 newspaper column. “And if I or any other contributor of mine ever misrepresent the Hillbilly, may the blackness of the desert hide us, the sand fleas devour us and our bones bleach until judgment day.”
Beyond those key moments of interaction with her fellow Ozarkers, McCord’s life was fully intertwined with the Ozarks. She spoke at events about her beloved region, and as a balladeer she sang and shared songs passed down through generations.
“She continued to write, and began to sing, accompanying herself with a guitar. In short order, she became the best-known, best-loved hillbilly of us all,” proclaimed the News and Leader, and reprinted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, upon her death in 1979.
“From the 1930s into the 1960s, inside the Ozarks, the name May Kennedy McCord was more recognizable than the name of anyone else who wrote and talked about regional culture — including Vance Randolph and Otto Ernest Rayburn,” says Dr. Brooks Blevins, Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University.
That, however, was not always the case. And today, more than 40 years after her death, her story largely went by the way it came: Quiet, and tucked into years of Ozarks history.
But perhaps now there will be a bit of a louder breeze whispering her words because of “Queen of the Hillbillies,” a new book that shares collections of her work in one place.
“At the time, she was probably much better known than the people whose names are remembered now,” says Patti McCord McDonald, McCord’s granddaughter, who worked with Dr. Kristene Sutliff to publish the new book. “Because she was on the radio, wrote in newspapers, and went on speaking engagements, which really they didn’t do. I think that was why I felt her work needed to be retained. I thought: Publish or perish. If you put that book on the shelf … with those people, she would be remembered.”
McCord was an Ozarker from the beginning. In 1880 she was born in Carthage but moved to Stone County’s county seat of Galena as a young child. The family relocated there because it was said the land would be helpful for her father’s health.
Although McCord ended up spending time in other places, the initial move was helpful for the rest of the region, too: It was where she began to grow in her interest and awareness of local history and culture. A key component of that work was her study of ballads.
“My mother played the guitar before me,” she told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in 1964, “and I picked it up from her.”
Her skills were evident at an early age: The Post-Dispatch article noted that May, as a small girl, learned folk songs from locals. When she was just 15, McCord sang at a reunion of Civil War veterans at Wilson’s Creek, long before it became recognized as a national battlefield. That skill and expertise grew greatly over her lifetime.
“Mrs. McCord collected the ballads and wrote them down, both words and music,” continued the Post-Dispatch story. “There is no doubt that many of the songs would have been lost had she not preserved them. Today more than 100 of her ballad recordings have been filed in the Library of Congress.”
But before the Library of Congress and notoriety in newspapers, May Kennedy lived a more typical life — except for the fact that she moved to St. Louis for a couple of years as a young adult. Then, in 1903, she eloped with Charles McCord while home on Christmas vacation. To their union three children were born.
The McCords later moved to St. Louis for work, where they lived for several years before returning home to Stone County.
McCord loved Galena: Her husband was a salesman and often gone, and her home was located just off the square, giving her lots of time and space to be social with the community.
That reality took a huge shift in 1918, when the family made another move for Charles McCord’s job. This time, it was to Springfield, where she made her home for the rest of her life, and from where she became a published author for the first time. In the early 1920s, a small poem she wrote was printed in Midget Magazine. That gave her the confidence to submit a fictional story called “Buryin’ in the Ozarks” to Sample Case, a magazine to which her husband subscribed, the next year.
“To her enormous surprise, the magazine promptly bought the story, sent her a check for $30, and asked for more,” printed the Leader and Press in 1950.
Her work began to grow, and by 1930, she was writing a column called “Hillbilly Heartbeats” for Otto Ernest Rayburn’s “Ozark Life” guide. She apparently didn’t write the name of the column herself, as a 1944 Springfield Daily News submission notes it was the brainchild of Rayburn and Ted Richmond, the latter a journalist and founder of the Wilderness Library in Arkansas, who worked as associate editor of the guide.
But even if she didn’t create the name, she did own it.
This was a time that seemed full of building energy — and momentum — around the Ozarks and McCord’s role in telling its story.
McCord was Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg’s guide when he visited the Ozarks in 1931. That same year, at a meeting of the Ozark Writers Guild in Claremore, Okla., her royal title was bestowed:
“The office of ‘Queen of the Hill Billies’ was especially created at his year’s spring convention, and Mrs. McCord elected to fill it,” the Springfield Leader printed.
Although the role of vice-president — which she also was named at the convention — was limited in term-length, it seems her title of Queen lasted similarly to others around the world. It was for life.
McCord’s work continued to grow. In 1934, she was asked to chair the Ozarks section of the newly formed National Folk Festival, which was held in St. Louis. A Springfield Chamber meeting has gone down in history tied to that festival, given a strong difference of opinion in promotion of rural Ozarkers, and preserved in the Daily News:
“J.T. Woodruff, president of the Chamber of Commerce, declared he was very much in favor of the folklore festival but that some of the more cautious members of his organization were ‘afraid you folklore people will go to St. Louis with a lot of rough stuff.’
“‘Harold Bell Wright knew very little about the Ozarks,’ declared Mr. Woodruff, ‘and Vance Randolph got in with the wrong type and considered them typical.
“Following his talk, Mrs. May Kennedy McCord, regional director for the festival, who was presiding, arose to assert. ‘Folks, I just adore Mr. Woodruff but I consider Vance Randolph the greatest living authority on the Ozarks.’ Intervention by Mrs. Harvey H. Webb prevented an incipient debate on ‘What is Authentic in Ozarks Literature?’”
Looking back, the answer was in McCord’s work.
By the time of the impromptu debate, McCord had ascended to a place in one of the two major regional communications platforms of the time: Springfield Newspapers, Inc., for which she began writing a weekly Sunday column under the same name. Back then, the reach of the newspapers was significant, as was radio giant KWTO, which wove into the hills and hollers and reached the region in a new way.
McCord’s first Springfield newspaper column appeared in October 1932, and was heralded by the Sunday News and Leader.
A few pages into the paper, McCord doesn’t give a formal introduction but instead shares her spirit and hope – both for the column, and what she and readers may create together. Here is part of what she wrote:
“This is a new column, and it is going to be yours as well as mine. Tell me what you know about this hillbilly. We never tire of hearing about him. He is getting a lot of front page stuff nowadays and takes his seat in the front row among the notables present. All sorts of inspired ink is being spilled about him.
“I love the hills. The song of the hills has all my life been my song of love. I love the adventure t’other side of the mountain. I am the shiftless, restless critter with the itching wanderlust. I want to find the foot of the rainbow beyond the ravine of the blue-green haze, and smell the holy incense of burning cedar. The hills make nomads of us.
“Come on, hillbillies, let’s get together. Let’s rave about it all. Write some poetry and some essays and some love letters to the hills! Let’s don’t talk about our hotels and garages and banks and politics and the cosmic situation – let’s go out into the flaming autumn and run the whole gamut of human emotions!”
Those thoughts were only the first of many that would appear in the paper between 1932 and 1943. Readers’ thoughts and words were often part of the columns, which appeared weekly on Sundays and later expanded to multiple times a week in various iterations of the Springfield papers.
Her own words, however, were not only found in the newspaper – or on paper at all. Various publications sought her work, including the Saturday Evening Post, whose editor sent her a letter in 1935 asking her to send them an article for consideration when she had time.
“The ever-unpretentious May wrote her grocery list on the back of the note, which was found in her personal files,” mentions the new book about her work, and continued:
“By the mid 1930s, May was speaking and singing her ballads across the country, from the Los Angeles Breakfast Club on Warner Brothers’ radio to the English-Speaking Union in New York City. She was invited to speak at many universities, historical societies, festivals and local gatherings in between — but not neglecting fish fries, town picnics, and basket dinners with her people in the Ozarks.”
During that decade, McCord also worked with a field agent for the federal Resettlement Administration — a New Deal program of the 1930s — to preserve Ozarks stories and songs for the future, her granddaughter says. Equipment was set up in her home, and with McCord’s help, local performers were recorded. Today, recordings she assisted with are still available in the Library of Congress.
As McCord’s role continued to grow, it led to a change in 1942. After a decade, she ended Hillbilly Heartbeats in the Springfield newspapers — and began a daily radio show for KWK in St. Louis.
“Very quickly and with almost no adieu, I am leaving you,” she penned in in her final newspaper column. “But don’t imagine for one moment that it has not lain on my heart for over two months (that’s about how long I have known it) and in the dark hours of the night I have thought of my farewell to Hillbilly Heartbeats. But I would not tell you because I did not know what I might do exactly, about the ten-year-old column … the long years of happiness with you.”
She continued in the column, sharing about her new career move in St. Louis and how it would change her life, but not her dedication to the region. It was also a sore point in that, locally, people wouldn’t likely be able to hear her program during daylight hours, which is when it would air.
“You know it is almost impossible to hear anyone from St. Louis in the daytime,” she wrote in the final column. “The manager of KWK (my station) told me they knew why – it had been figured out by radio people, but it is a long story he said and he would tell me when we had more time. They hate it as badly perhaps as anyone else.”
She also said that she had been willing to continue her newspaper column, but that the editor felt it would be too much for her to handle.
“I am weeping at leaving my paper – I don’t know whether the paper is weeping,” she wrote. “I doubt it. My editor thinks my hands will be too full to carry on a column just now when I am getting started in a new life. I am willing to tackle anything, but maybe he is wiser than I. No doubt he is.”
McCord began making the trek to St. Louis weekly in July: A train trip took her to St. Louis on Sundays, and she would return on Fridays. However, the effort – for which it was “much worth my while,” she said – did not last long.
A little more than a year later, tragedy befell McCord when her husband suddenly died in October 1943, which was announced in a story on the front page of the Springfield Daily News. His demise was followed by the death of her brother the next year.
In light of the devastating blows, McCord took some time off and never returned to her St. Louis show. The final broadcast on KWK was Nov. 27, 1944.
Apparently she had enjoyed her time in St. Louis, because when she resumed her work in Springfield, it was through a radio show on local radio giant KWTO in 1945. The move completing her rise to the second communications giant in the Ozarks, and the paper in which she initially grew her legacy carried an ad of her newest venture in September 1945.
Another moment of significance arrived in 1950, when McCord was unanimously chosen as Missouri’s Mother of the Year out of 30 nominees by the Golden Rule Foundation.
“One radio executive wrote the award committee that Mrs. McCord ‘could have been a great radio personality in the Midwest,’ but that she preferred to be mother and grandmother. He recalled, too, that during the war, mothers besieged her daily for comfort and that she gave unstintingly of her sympathy, though their heart-breaking stories kept her in constant emotional turmoil.”
It’s not immediately clear when her KWTO show ended, but it at least went through the early 1960s.
For much of that decade, she was still active, giving presentations and meeting her fans. There are 125 hits for May Kennedy McCord’s name in Springfield newspapers from 1960 to 1970, a great many – at least in the early part of the decade – telling of her presence at civic and social events as an Ozarks authority.
One event of particular note came in 1961, when she sang at today’s Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield for the 100th anniversary of the battle. It was 65 years after she first sang there as a teenager for a group of Civil War veterans.
“Sunday night Mrs. McCord was one of the entertainers in the program given at the battlefield, and among the ballads she sang was ‘I’m a Poor Rebel Soldier,’” noted the paper. “A member of the audience, Clayborn Thomas, who has lived all his life within a mile of the battlefield, told Mrs. McCord he heard her give the oration at the reunion.”
By the end of the decade, McCord’s health began to decline. One of her final public appearances came in 1966, the Daily News noted, when she “stopped the show” at the famed annual Arkansas Folk Festival in Mountain View, which back then was just its fourth year.
The next year, she experienced a heart attack, which received ongoing coverage in the local newspaper. She moved to a nursing home, where she lived until she died in 1979 at age 98.
Upon her death, papers heralded her work and impact. One editorial was in the News and Leader:
“We called her ‘Queen of the Hillbillies.’ Not out of disrespect. Quite to the contrary, we called her the Queen of the Hillbillies because of affection that bordered on the downright worshipful, at times.
“She belonged to all of us in the Ozarks.”
While McCord was still known to many in that era, much of her work had already passed into history at the time of her death. Radio shows disappeared as words left her lips, and without newspaper archives searchable in the way they are today, it was difficult to read her words without a lot of effort. McCord talked about doing a book, one article noted, but other things took precedence instead, it seems.
Until now — and the creation of “Queen of the Hillbillies,” the aforementioned book with more than 300 pages of her words broken down by topic.
The idea for the book came about a number of years ago, says granddaughter McDonald, and began with a collection of her papers that had been passed through several members of the family.
“I went down and went through a bunch of the boxes and just put a big box together,” says McDonald. “So then one day, I just saw that box in the garage. And I’m thinking, ‘You know, I ought to go through it.’ Well, it was a treasure trove. They were old newspapers. They were letters from Carl Sandburg, from Vance Randolph. Books that were inscribed to May from Vance. And I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy. You can’t just leave this stuff here.’”
That collection led to a conversation with Sutliff, who now is retired but back then was a professor of English and director of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University. Sutliff didn’t know McCord personally, but she recalled her father listening to her on the radio.
“We talked about what a shame it is that May never published – well, she published, but bits and pieces. She had articles and radio scripts and things. But nobody ever organized all that, even though others encouraged her to do so,” says Sutliff, noting that other Ozarks historians’ work is still known today because they did publish books of their work.
“So we just said, ‘Somebody ought to do that,’” recalls Sutliff of the conversation with McDonald. “And then we kind of looked at each other, we were in my office, and said, ‘Maybe we’re that somebody.’”
The duo spent years collecting work, which was found through a treasure hunt.
“Her writings are scattered all over the place,” says McDonald. “You know, they’re in journals. They’re in the real squibs from speeches that she gave that were in newspaper articles. Her own columns – and of course, at that time, they weren’t on newspapers.com. So I had to go to the Springfield library and look at the microfilm.”
Years, too, were spent paring her millions of words down time and again to meet length requirements for the University of Arkansas Press, which agreed to publish the book as part of its Chronicles of the Ozarks series.
“I had never read anything she wrote before Kris Sutliff showed me the manuscript for this book,” says the aforementioned Dr. Blevins, who also serves as editor of the Chronicles series. “That’s why this book is important. It reintroduces people to a regional celebrity whose fame had almost faded away in the decades since her death. But it’s not just another Ozarks book. May had her own distinctive style, which included lots of input and participation from her readers, who were also her fans. I knew so little about her that most things in the book were a revelation. For me, it was fun to get to know someone ‘new’ who just happened to be one of the most influential figures in the shaping of regional popular perception in the heyday of public interest in the Ozarks.”
Now and forever, McCord’s work will remain available to the public in a central way that wasn’t before possible – but perhaps she would have wanted, despite her unpretentious style, because it helped preserve the Ozarks as she knew and loved it.
“As for me – I really prefer the newspaper world because there is a printed, undying record. A record you can keep. Something very majestic, very strangely real goes into the printed word. No radio in the world will ever overcome or outdo it,” she wrote in her last Springfield newspaper column in 1942.
Eighty years ago since they were printed, words like those — and so many others — now live again.