Ken Lelen

Ken Lelen
Ken Lelen sings great American ragtime, jazz & swing and performs on vintage acoustic guitars for an authentic, back-in-the day sound.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Gene Autry Round-up Guitar Restored
Honors the Singing Cowboy — plays 1930s hokum & swing
© 2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

c. 1940 Gene Autry Round-up guitar made by Harmony
Company and sold in Sears, Roebuck catalogs at $9.95

This Gene Autry Round-up is one of a limited number of cowboy guitars made between 1939 and 1941 by the Harmony Company of Chicago and sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs of the day.

It cost $9.95 and included two Gene Autry books on writing songs and playing guitar, a collection of cowboy songs and mountain ballads, set of guitar strings, pick and capo. An artificial leather case cost $3.00 more.

Built like a poor man’s J-185, it has a small jumbo body with maple back, sides and neck that are finished in a painted flame-pattern sunburst. It has a spruce top in a dark reddish-brown sunburst, firestripe pickguard and D-shaped neck with 14 frets to the body.

Unlike most Gene Autry guitars from the 1930s and 1940s, this model does not have a mythic cowboy or western scene painted on the lower bout. Instead, the words Gene Autry are stenciled in white paint across the fingerboard in lariat lettering. The slotted headstock is also decorated with a white-paint emblem. It has a stylized buckin’ bronco rider with lasso under the model name — Round-up.

The guitar length is 39¼ inches; the body is 19 inches; lower bout width is 14¾ inches; body depth is 3¾ inches at end block. The scale length is 25¼ inches; sound hole diameter is 3¾ inches; nut width is 1¾ inches; string spacing at the bridge is 2-1/8-inches.

Finally, the top, back and sound hole were edged in white celluloid binding. The dyed pear wood fingerboard has a total of 19 frets and pearl markers at the 3rd 5th,  7th, 10th, 12th and 15th frets.

Date stamp, FON and model number
The interior has a smudged black ink stamp indicating 1940 production and the barest evidence of a long-gone blue and silver Supertone label. In addition, a Harmony factory order number (4728) and Round-up model number (244) in white paint are visible on the back just below the neck block.

Recently acquired for $1,000 at the summer Philadelphia Guitar Show from Allegheny Valley Guitars of North Huntingdon PA, the instrument is in good condition. It has numerous dings, scratches and finish cracks. The body, top, fretboard and headstock have an overall dull finish from 75 years of dust, dirt, smoke and what-have-you.

The original machines — nickel-plated plank tuners with white buttons — were replaced by period tuners. Adequate yet balky, these machines were recently replaced by modern repro tuners that work better.

Long ago a reinforcement bolt was installed through the neck block and into the heel. It has been patched and finished over.

Converted from ladder-braced to x-braced
In March 2015 luthier James Burkett of Dothan AL reset the neck and installed a straight Gibson-style rosewood bridge. This new bridge replaced an oversized bridge that had in turn replaced the original ebonized wood unit.

Burkett also opened the back of the Round-up to remove the the top's original ladder-style bracing and replace it with a traditional X brace. He also installed two scalloped tone bars, maple bridge plate, small braces astride the sound hole and a popsicle brace under the fingerboard tongue.

Finally, the original frets were ground down. Though somewhat drastic, this fret dressing was an attempt to maintain playability, Burkett said, yet avoid a more drastic planing and refret of the entire fingerboard — a measure that could have erased the precious Gene Autry lettering.

New sound from an old Round-up
Like other x-braced spruce and maple jumbos, this guitar has a focused sound and distinct maple fade. It also offers the expected percussive bass, clean-as-a-whistle midrange and crisp treble chime.

It's also a converted guitar and I’ve owned other guitars that were converted from ladder-braced to x-braced. Kay, Gibson and Harmony conversions, no matter, in the end they were no longer fish, no longer fowl. They didn't offer the wide sonic palette of an x-braced guitar and they didn't deliver the woof and zing of a ladder-braced guitar.

In my view, this Gene Autry Round-up doesn't sound like a ladder-braced guitar or an x-braced guitar. Instead, it is graced with an original sound and feel — a well-made, played-in older guitar without hairy aroma or stiff demeanor. Here, I use words to describe sounds, an effort burdened by vanity and limitations.

Nevertheless, this Round-up has been restored to offer musical enjoyment for another 75 years. So performing with this instrument in Vintage Music Concerts will safeguard the legend of America’s singing cowboy — Gene Autry — as it preserves the 1930s hokum and 1940s swing music it was born to play.

Cowboy guitars from Sears
Between 1932 and 1955 Harmony produced three inexpensive guitar models with Gene Autry’s name and western scenery painted on spruce tops, according to cowboy guitar collector Steve Evans, co-author of Cowboy Guitars.

Offered through the Sears, Roebuck catalog, these musical instruments were not toys, as in later years. They were built with solid wood tops and bodies and priced just under $10. They sold like hot cakes to young fans of radio personality and movie star Gene Autry.

1932 Sears catalog listing for the first Gene Autry Roundup guitar

         Roundup  —  The earliest iteration was a 12¾-inch wide flat-top with mahogany body, spruce top and 12-fret mahogany neck. Made from fall of 1932 to fall of 1933, the first Roundup (different spelling than 1939 – 1941 model) was a decent instrument that sold for $9.75 (without case). According to the catalog copy, the spruce top was graced with a “striking western ranch scene” and “a reproduction of Gene Autry’s signature."

In 1934 the Roundup was produced with a larger (13-in. wide) birch body and lower price of $8.25. A year later the body grew to 14 inches to accommodate a longer-scale neck with 14 frets clear of the body.

                                                                                                                       PHOTO: James Burkett
Color variations on four mid-1930s Gene Autry Roundup 
guitars. All have solid spruce tops, b
ody length is 39 inches and the body width is similar to Martin 00 or Gibson LG-2, according to luthier James Burkett, who is restoring them. Scale length is 25¼ inches, same as 1940 Gene Autry Round-up guitar described in article.

In 1939 Harmony introduced its grand concert-sized version of the Gene Autry Round-up (different spelling than 1932 - 1933 model) guitar. It featured a maple back and sides, maple neck and selected spruce top. Named after "the famous cowboy of radio and pictures." It was the largest catalog guitar to bear Autry’s name, yet it cost a modest $9.95.

1939 Sears catalog listing for Gene Autry Round-up grand concert guitar

          Old Santa Fe  —  A 14-fret archtop with figured maple body, spruce top with lustrous sunburst finish and steel-reinforced neck. Produced from fall of 1935 to spring of 1936, it was discreetly decorated with just a Gene Autry signature in the lower bass bout beneath the f hole and the image of a white church steeple in the peghead.

          Melody Ranch  —  Except for the darkest days of WWII, these low-cost flat-tops were produced from fall of 1941 to spring of 1955. The peghead displayed a stenciled sign post design and the words Melody Ranch.

Except for the Old Santa Fe and 1939-1941 Round-up models, Harmony’s Autry guitars were graced with stenciled images. They all depicted a cowboy riding a galloping horse on the lower treble bout, a wagon pulled by oxen on the lower bass bout and mountain scene above the bridge.

Sales were good but competition was stiff. From 1930 to 1960 cowboy guitars with stencil-etched western motifs and the signature of celluloid cowboys and radio personalities were sold by several catalog firms. These included Spiegel and Montgomery Ward in the U.S. and T. Eaton Company in Canada.

Sears and Autry promoted each other
The Harmony-made Round-up guitars drew lavish attention to Gene Autry movies, music, guitar playing, even his horse. Seeing a chance to promote their own radio shows and oater movies, other singing cowboys — Wilf Carter, Lone Ranger, Carson J. Robison, Roy Rogers and others — sought endorsement deals from instrument makers that would make, promote and sell their cowboy guitars.

Soon enough, the guitar firms realized they could sell low-cost, high-volume guitars with generic western motifs — sans the endorsement deals. This meant many cowboy guitars were also graced with artful renderings of chuck wagons, bronco wranglers, singing cowboys, homes on the range, stampeding varmints, buckin' broncos, wagon trains, ad nauseam.

What's more, manufacturers made cowboy instruments in cheaper and coarser materials, including plastic and fiberboard. They also began to plaster western motifs on clothing, toys, lighting and other objects and pitch these wares to younger and younger buckaroos.

These last few measures represented the epitome of creative marketing in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Today, we’d call it line extension or merchandizing madness.

Indeed, to some it is no different than the sale of cheap imported goods (tee shirts, hoodies, perfume, leather bracelets, sneakers, scarfs, gloves, stationery, iPhone hardcases, posters, etc.) emblazoned with some airhead arena rocker's name.

                                     © 2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved



          James Burkett, luthier, Dothan AL                             jtb @
          Ed Hyp, guitar dealer, North Huntingdon PA             alleghenyvalleyguitars @

Public Cowboy No. 1 — The Life and Times of Gene Autry — by Holly George-Warren, Oxford University Press, © 2007.

Singing Cowboys — by Douglas B. Green, Gibbs Smith, Publr., © 2006.

Singing in the Saddle — The History of the Singing Cowboy — by Douglas B. Green, CMF Vanderbuilt Univ. Press, © 2002.

Cowboy Guitars — By Steve Evans and Ron Middlebrook, Centerstream Publg., © 2002.

                        Gene Autry’s cowboy guitars

    Steve Evans and 1932 Round-Up     

    1930s Gene Autry Round-up            

    1930s Gene Autry parlor guitar        

    1944 Gene Autry Melody Ranch        

    1952 Melody Ranch Guitar               

                        Gene Autry’s cowboy songs

    "Back In The Saddle Again"             

    "You Are My Sunshine"                    

    "The Last Round-Up"                       

© 2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

2016  Concert  Schedule

Date         Community   or   Venue   —   Location             Concert Theme
Jan   19     Lincoln Cultural Assn, Philadelphia PA        When Love Was Nifty
Feb   11     Calvary Homes, Lancaster PA                     Legendary Love Songs
Feb   11     Pine Run, Doylestown PA                            Torch Song Embers
Mar   26     Maplewood, West Yarmouth MA                  Radio Ramblers
Mar   27     Residence @ Otter Creek, Middlebury VT   Broadway Mementos
Apr     7     Lions Gate, Voorhees NJ                             Sunny Side of Street
Apr   20      Greenwood Mens Club, Worcester MA        Sunny Side of Street
Apr   28      Shannondell—Ashcroft, Audubon PA          Broadway Mementos
May    3      The Oaks, Orangeburg SC                          Legendary Love Songs
May    5      Springmoor, Raleigh NC                            Radio Ramblers
May  22      Chandler Center for the Arts                    When Love Was Nifty
                       2 pm, 71-73 Main Street
                       Randolph VT 05060
                       802-728-9878   —
Jun   13      Calvary Homes, Lancaster PA                     Big Band Idols
Jun   17      Lake Prince Woods, Suffolk VA                  She Did It Her Way
Jun   20      Cypress Club, Raleigh NC                           He Did It His Way
Jun   22      Bermuda Village, Advance NC                    He Did It His Way
Aug    7      Oak Crest Village, Parkville MD                   Radio Ramblers
Aug   18     Wilmington Memorial Library                    Big Band Idols
                       2:30 pm, 175 Middlesex Avenue
                       Wilmington MA 01887
                       978-658-2967   —
Aug   19      Havenwood Heritage Hgts, Concord NH    Sunny Side of Street
Sep   24      Mansfield Public Library                           He Did It His Way
                       2:00 pm, 255 Hope Street
                       Mansfield MA 02048
                       508-261-7380   —
Sep   25      Residence @ Otter Creek, Middlebury VT    Big Band Idols
Sep   26      Carpenter-Carse Library                           In The Mood
                       "Better With Age" Concert
                       7:00 pm, 66 Ballards Corner
                       Hinesburg VT 05461
                       802-482-2878   —
Oct    12      Calvary Homes, Lancaster PA                     Broadway Mementos
Oct    19      Heath Village, Hackettstown NJ                  She Did It Her Way
Oct    24      Shannondell—Bradford, Audubon PA         She Did It Her Way
Oct    27      Springhill, Erie PA                                     Sunny Side of Street
Nov     1      The Arbors, Manchester CT                        Torch Song Embers
Nov   10      Springmoor, Raleigh NC                             Torch Song Embers
Nov   11      The Oaks, Orangeburg SC — Vet's Day       Radio Ramblers
Nov   14      Cypress Club, Raleigh NC                           Torch Song Embers
Nov   30      Meadowood, Lansdale PA                           Radio Ramblers

©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Taken for a Heartlands Hayride 
WDVR Radio's live on-air Saturday night program
   © 2016 Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Rich Evans, emcee of Heartlands Hayrideand Ken Lelen with 1921
Martin 000-28K guitar at the April 17, 2004 show. I played this guitar
and sang Jimmy Cox's 1923 tune"Nobody Knows You When You're
Down and Out," popularized by singer Bessie Smith, who released a
recording of the song just before the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
We recently found photographs made in 2003 and 2004 taken at several Heartlands Hayride programs, a twice-monthly radio show broadcast Saturday nights in a rural outpost of west-central NJ. The photos were made by people who had attended earlier shows, made multiple copies for their friends and the performers, and later handed them out as mementos.

The photos capture an intimate view of a live on-air radio program held before an audience of about 90 people seated on wooden pews in the former Brethren Church, a late 19th Century wood building located on a country lane four miles east of the Delaware River. They also show some of the vintage acoustic guitars I displayed, described to audiences and played at the time.

Ken Lelen and 1920 Galiano at the Hayride
on April 17, 2004. I sang "April Showers," a
1921 tune introduced by Al Jolson.
Now in its 16th year, the Heartlands Hayride show is a two-hour program that mimics the fast-paced format of the Grand Ole Opry, a long-running show that first aired in 1925 on WSM Radio in Nashville. Unlike the Opry, which reaches a national audience, the Hayride features unpaid, local and nonprofessional performers who offer folk, bluegrass, country and western, gospel music and comedic skits for a miniscule audience based in Hunterdon County NJ.

Regulars are household names
Rich Evans, a stalwart bluegrass DJ, has emceed the show since its start by WDVR Radio in 2000. A 5,000-watt FM station founded in 1990 by radio engineer Frank Napurano, WDVR is based in the rural (pop. 5,010) village of Sergeantsville (pronounced "serge-ents-ville").

During the time I played the Hayride, regular performers included singer Chris Val, guitarist Danny Newman, country and bluegrass singer Beth Coleman, multi-instrumentalist and luthier Mike Terris, the country-bumpkin comedy duo Chuck Pierman and Joe Adda (1922 - 2013), and Len Rambo of Califon NJ, the last performing member of the Burd Boys Country Music Band. Because of their appearance on the Hayride, some of these performers have become household names within a 20-mile radius of the radio station.

Sadly, Hayride performers included as well some dull and self-conscious family acts, housewives with cowboy hats and guitars, an execrable husband-and-wife gospel duo, and a Hank Williams impersonator.

Producers with numerous contacts
When I played the Hayride, regular and guest performers were assembled by singer Beth Coleman with an assist from Evans. Both of them had numerous contacts among local and regional performers in several musical genres.

A musician's performance was by invitation. A call to perform was driven by who Coleman and Evans knew as well as by a need to balance program content. In addition, the show's pacing and time format, which included 35 to 37 three-minute segments, determined how many songs each musician performed.

Joe Adda, Ringoes NJ dairy farmer, harmonica virtuoso and
comedian, and Ken Lelen. On the May 8, 2004 show, I sang
Hoagy Carmichael's 1930 "Georgia On My Mind" while Joe
accompanied me on his harmonica.
Beth Coleman knew someone who knew someone who knew me. Out of the blue one day she called to ask if I wanted to perform on a live radio show.

"Of course I do," I said, adding that I played old guitars and sang pop hits from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

"I don't do no rock 'n' roll, not much bluegrass and even less country."

"You'll do," she said.

So, in between traveling for my tours, I played the Hayride show more than a dozen times for some truly appreciative audiences. I sang great American ragtime, jazz and swing and I played fine vintage acoustic guitars.

China shop bull reprograms show
Then, one night in late 2004 a woman identified only as Ginny showed up about midway in the show. She began changing the order and duration of the on-air performers. She barked orders at Evans and Coleman from off-stage. And, like a bull in a china shop, she questioned the seating arrangements for performers, since there is no Green Room at the Hayride.

Ken Lelen and 1941 Gibson J-35 at the Hayride on June 14, 2003.
I played this guitar and sang a tune, "Old Corrals and Sagebrush,"
written in 2002 by Canadian folk singer Ian Tyson.

Few musicians knew what was happening, who this person was, or the reason for the mid-show program changes. Still, in her unique and personable way, Ginny recast the programming for the Hayride that night.

We eventually learned that Ginny was the wife of station owner Frank Napurano, hosted several WDVR talk shows and had spent 32 years in the personnel department of a giant drug firm in Princeton. Though WDVR's announcers and staff called the station a community-based nonprofit during fundraising cycles, the Napuranos kept a tight grip on their property.

Indeed, at a follow-up meeting for Hayride performers at the station's business office, Ginny identified herself as WVDR's operations manager. She then threw Beth off the show and took on the role of Hayride producer, albeit with a heavy reliance on Rich Evans.

Like a baby tossed out with the bath water, I lost my foothold on playing for a live on-air radio show. Fortunately, 2005 was a particularly productive year for my business, Vintage Music Concerts. I played 140 dates in a dozen tours on the East Coast. In May I was the subject of a flattering profile in the New York Times. And by mid-summer 2005 I started performing and recording vintage music concerts in a jazz and swing trio — with bass, fiddle and vintage guitars.

Straight-ahead country church
Coleman returned to the Hayride as a performer for a short time in 2006. By then, the show's programming had taken a tight turn toward straight-ahead bluegrass and country, which Hayride personnel define as Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and other 1950s rural music players.

Indeed, today the Hayride's six-man back-up band tends to homogenize each performer's sound with an identical mid-century twang. A tiny cast of regular performers still dominates Saturday night productions. And touring musicians, unwittingly chasing free promos from an FM station that can only offer meager coverage, round out the programs.

Frank and Ginny Napurano are now deceased. The Hayride continues to bill itself as a "radio barn dance country music variety show." Rich Evans is now producer, director and emcee.

The live on-air radio show is still held in the "little country church by the side of the road," though the station's owners bought the site for $225,000 in 2010. In a piece of twisted irony appreciated by local musicians, they renamed the 1898 property for Ginny.

So, if you have an urge for local music next Saturday, the Hayride's hosts will charge you $12 to hear country or bluegrass on one of their hardwood benches. They'll also sell you homemade sweets and refreshments if you venture upstairs to the vestibule.

But don't worry. Parking is still free.

                                            © 2016 Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved