As Old Time Blues’ parade of long-forgotten Texas recording artists marches ever forward (and backward), we turn our attention to a popular singer who was neither a Texan nor recorded in Texas, but nonetheless made an inextricable contribution to the musical heritage of the state. Much of the research regarding the Sunflower Girl comes courtesy of Fort Worth’s own illustrious and mononymous Dismuke (of the eponymous Radio Dismuke).
Though she was billed as the “Sunflower Girl from Kansas”, Bessie Coldiron was born Bessie Ellen Warrington in Oklahoma on June 4, 1902. Her father died before she was ten years old, and she grew up in Kansas City with her mother, two brothers, and two sisters. There, on March 3, 1923, she married Ray Orville Coldiron, a carpenter from Nebraska. Though residents of Kansas, the Coldirons paid a visit to Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of 1925, during which her singing was noticed by “Hired Hand” Harold Hough (who may have been a relative of hers), announcer at WBAP. He liked what he heard and invited her to try-out for a spot on the radio, singing songs and accompanying herself on the piano. Her musical proclivities proved popular with listeners, and thus she began a five month engagement with the Fort Worth radio station as the “Sunflower Girl of WBAP”. Afterwards, she embarked on a tour of the Majestic-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in the spring and summer of ’26. Following its conclusion, Bessie returned to Texas and WBAP, but not before she went to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender recording studio in New York City for her first record date. There she cut four sides on September 16, 1926, and four more one week later, of which all but two were released on the Vocalion label. She would record again the following June, this time for Columbia in Chicago, cutting four sides in two consecutive days. All of them were issued this time around, rounding out her scant recording career at five records. But she continued to enjoy popularity on the radio, appearing sporadically on WBAP and her sister station KGKO until at least the beginning of the 1940s. It would seem that Coldiron had departed from the station by 1941, as she does not appear in the WBAP-KGKO-WFAA “Family Album” published that year. In 1930, she was reported as living with her husband in St. Louis, but Bessie and Ray were divorced by 1940, by which time he had already taken a third wife. Bessie Coldiron died on February 28, 1990, in Hayward, California. Her ex-husband, incidentally, died in Fort Worth in 1988.
Vocalion 15461 was recorded on September 16, 1926 in New York City. These sides, from Coldiron’s first session, were originally “test” recordings, but were mastered and released. Bessie Coldiron accompanies herself on piano on both sides.
First, Bessie sings the utterly wholesome George Olsen creation, “She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl”.
On the flip-side, she sings a charming rendition of “What’s the Use of Crying?”. I have a set of lyrics to this song written out by my great-grandmother in the front of a textbook from when she was a school girl in Bryan, Texas; perhaps she’d heard it sung by the Sunflower Girl.