It is one of the best known and most iconic origin stories in American music: on April 14,
1935, a young woman was born into poverty in the rural community of Butcher Hollow
along the Kentucky coal face. Married at 13 and a mother of four by 18, she received her
first guitar on her 21st birthday and, overcoming all odds, by the age of 35 Loretta Lynn
charted her first number-one country hit “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’.”
Only now, like two cantankerous elder bluesmen arguing about an event from deep in the
annals of Delta history, someone has stepped forward saying it didn’t happen quite that
A recent story by Associated Press reporter Bruce Schreiner unveils documents
discovered by AP indicating that Lynn was born in 1932 rather than 1935 and, by
extension, suggesting she was married at almost 16 years of age and a mother of four
children by 21. The documents presented by Schreiner include a birth certificate listing
a date of April 14, 1932. The same date is featured on her marriage license, including
affidavits from two witnesses to the document: Lynn’s mother and a non-relative. A 1940
census record for the family also supports the 1932 birth date.
These documents contrast with Lynn’s autobiography and other materials promulgated
by Lynn, which have consistently adhered to a 1935 birth date. Thus far, Lynn, her
management and surviving family have not substantially addressed the new information
— responding in ways that all boil down to “no comment.”
I am always happy to see original research making use of primary sources brought into
music journalism. My career as a music journalist begun with precisely this kind of
paper chasing: tracking down the First World War draft registration card of seminal
blues guitarist/vocalist Blind Lemon Jefferson in the files of the National Archives and
discovering not that his birth date differed from other accounts by as much as a decade
but setting to rest the question of whether Jefferson had been blind from birth (he was).
At the same time, my experience with Blind Lemon Jefferson also gave me awareness
of the perils and pitfalls of using various primary source documents in research. The
materials discovered by AP are significant and deserve serious consideration but also
need to be approached with an informed eye.
Of all the materials uncovered by AP, the 1940 census record is on the shakiest ground.
While very useful, as anyone who used census records for genealogical research knows,
they are not the iron-clad definitive records that popular imagination supposes them to
be. Misspelled names and vague dates are among the more minor issues presented by
dealing with these documents. Census enumerators gather their data on a household from
whoever happened to be home on the day of their visit. Sometimes, these individuals
had faulty or incomplete information on other members of the household. Fortunately,
for Lynn’s 1940 census record the document lists her father, Melvin Webb, as the source
thus minimizing those concerns. As with any census document, however, legitimate
risks exist that enumerators did not clearly or correctly record the information provided.
The birth certificate and marriage license are on far more solid ground as sources. First,
they are legal documents. Secondly, they were attested to by Lynn and/or immediate
family members in the position to be certain of fundamental biographical data. Even here,
however, there are grounds for looking at these documents with an objective eye.
One issue with both these documents is that they were not officially filed until 1965, a
30 or 33 year gap between date of birth (depending on whether one uses the old or new
dates) and an 18 year gap between her marriage and when the documents were filed. To
a digitized world where the instant processing and availability of records is taken as a
given, this may seem strange. The idea of a birth certificate as something produced and
filed before an infant has even left the hospital is, however, a surprisingly recent notion.
Until well into the 20th century (and even longer in poor and rural regions such as the one
from which Lynn comes), birth certificates were often not filed or recorded until years or
decades after an individual’s birth. While it seems unlikely that an individual or his or
her immediate family would forget or incorrectly remember the year of birth, with a three
decade gap – it can not be ruled out completely. The same holds true, albeit to a lesser
extent, for the marriage license.
In any good mystery, one should also not neglect the question of motive. That is as true
for historical research as for criminal investigation. It examining the date of Lynn’s
birth, it is insightful to look at what the motives could be to claim the 1932 date if the
reality is 1935 … and the incentives to claim a 1935 date if the reality was 1932.
In the first case, claiming an 1935 birth date when the reality was 1932, it is helpful
to consider both legal restrictions as well as cultural norms and mores. Schreiner’s
article cites Kentucky law expert R. Eric Hinninger as saying that, at the time of Lynn’s
marriage in 1948, it would have been illegal for a woman under 14 years of age to marry
in that state. At the same time, it merits remembering that Lynn’s wedding took place
less than a decade before public knowledge of Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to his 13 year-
old cousin almost wrecked the musician’s career – suggesting there was already powerful
social and cultural censure against the marriage of women so young. More refined
perspective on that matter would require the professional observations of a sociologist or
historian familiar with early 20th century Kentucky – but the legal obstacles and anecdotal
evidence regarding social/cultural norms suggest that there would be a compelling
incentive to supply an earlier birth year if Lynn was in fact born in 1935.
There is also understandable motive for claiming the 1935 birth year if Lynn was born
in 1932. Great musicians are made as much by their stories as by their music. I know
I am not the only music journalist in the world who selects his subjects based on what
they say as well as what they play. If, at some point in the distant past, Lynn or someone
associated with her decided that transcending marriage at 13 and four children at age 21
to become one of the most iconic musicians in her genre was a more compelling story …
well, she would not be the first great musician to take liberties in tweaking her biography
a bit. The annuals of blues, country and rock are filled with musicians who did everything
from minor polishing of details to inventing tall tales (I think I have yet to meet a blues
musician who did not claim to have played with B.B. King at some point). And, if that is
indeed the case with Lynn, that in no way detracts from the power of her music.
The documents uncovered by the AP deserve serious consideration, but that consideration
needs to come with an appropriate understanding of the historical context, strengths and
weakness of these types of documents. In light of the extensive media attention given to
AP’s revelations, however, the question that really needs to be asked is not is not “Are
they true?” but “How much do they matter?”
The answer, I believe, is that they matter a lot … but only within a limited context. For
historical reasons, as well as for the fans who wish to know everything about the artists
they love, it is important to understand the historical and cultural context from which
these artists come. That means having the most accurate information possible. If the
discrepancy suggested by the AP documents is correct, Lynn should come clean about
that. And I don’t think she needs to be concerned about repercussions.
At the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter whether she was born in 1932 or
1935. Is becoming one of history’s greatest country musicians after being married at
15 and having four children by 21 genuinely less impressive than doing it by ages 13
and 18? No, of course it’s not. And, if for whatever reason, Lynn, her family or her
management decided it was necessary to adjust her age by three years, that does not
change her 16 number one hits and giving the world classics such as “Coal Miner’s
Daughter,” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” and “One’s on the Way.” Either way,
she remains the trailblazer who injected themes of social justice and gender equality into
country music with titles such as “The Pill,” “Dear Uncle Sam,” and “Rated ‘X’.”
Whether 1932 or 1935, Loretta Lynn is still the Coal Miner’s Daughter.
(Jon Black is an Austin basic music journalist who shares the stories of musicians and
their music from country, blues, roots, rock, Cajun, zydeco, and even punk. Follow him
on Twitter @BlackonBlues.)