News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 6, 2013

The musical women of Vigo County

Kimberly Smith
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — We all have our own conceptions of what used to be. For me, such things as all-female musical groups include such sensations as the Supremes from the 1960s or maybe the Go-Go’s from the 1980s; I hope that does not date me. All-female musical groups seemed to be more prevalent as pop music took center stage beginning in the 1950s, and not really before.

The current exhibit at the Vigo County Historical Museum changed my perception. A portion of the exhibit “And the Band Played…: Vigo County’s Music Scene Through the 1960s” displays two all-female local groups that entertained Vigo County and the surrounding areas, the Hoosier Ensemble and the Kehoe Sisters.

As early as the 1920s, the Hoosier Ensemble, comprised of a pianist, two violinists, a cellist and a vocalist, performed for parties and events. They played classical pieces as well as popular tunes of the time. Written and printed artifacts in the museum’s collection show that the group actively advertised themselves. Indeed, their popularity is evident from handwritten thank-you letters of pleased clients who were the recipients of their music.

The Kehoe sisters were a dance band of the 1940s. They were frequent musical entertainers at the Trianon, a popular dance hall of the time. With a saxophonist, vocalist, drums, pianist and stand-up bass, it is no wonder they were often described as the “Rhythm Queens.” They, too, would advertise themselves, but mostly on playbills of the local dance halls announcing their upcoming gig. One interesting bit of information: the Congressional Hall of Records lists the Kehoe Sisters as the first unionized female band. To me, that sounds like they were serious musicians and serious about their talent.

In a time when most women played instruments as a hobby, these two examples are part of a greater story — part of a history that enabled women to think more seriously about their talents and pursue their dreams. Indeed, the centerpiece of the current exhibit, the Zantrel’s drum kit, is an example of how women contributed to the emerging local rock scene in the 1960s. Women were part of all eras of Terre Haute musical history, from early vocalists to later instrumentalists, with some like the Hoosier Ensemble and the Kehoe Sisters combining talents.

Visitors to the Vigo County Museum can explore the current exhibit and other ways in which women have contributed to the local cultural scene.

Historical Treasure

• The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through