“Peg” Moreland: King of the Ditty Singers

For more than a quarter of a century beginning in the very pioneer days of radio, the voice and guitar of the one-legged Texan songster “Peg” Moreland radiated through the airwaves from Dallas across the United States.  The Southwest’s best answer to the Bradley Kincaid-type song-collecting, guitar-toting folksingers from back in the eastern hills, his music was beloved by thousands of listeners, young and old.  Yet decades after his last sign-off, Moreland’s once-venerable reputation has been relegated to little more than a footnote in the annals of country and folk music history, with scholar Bill C. Malone going so far as to opine that his life “may never be properly documented.”  But with a broad and compelling repertoire said to have consisted of thousands of “witty ditties,” all delivered in his clear and pleasant Texas drawl with a snappy guitar backing that matched or exceeded the average folk songster of his day in instrumental skill, surely the “King of the Ditty Singers” is deserving of a renascence.

Peg Moreland, pictured in the 1941 WFAA-KGKO-WBAP Combined Family Album. Image from author’s collection.

Jackson Arnot Moreland was born on a Saturday, October 29, 1892.  Early documents indicate that Arnot—his mother’s maiden name—was originally his first name, but he gave it in the order as above for the duration of his adult life.  His birthplace of Rienzi, Texas, was a tiny community that you’re not likely to find on any map, located roughly halfway between Abbott and Malone in southeastern Hill County, which dried up not long after the turn of the century.  A blond headed, blue eyed boy of Scotch-Canadian descent, he was the fourth of nine children born to farmer Samuel Jackson Moreland and his wife, the former Mary “Mollie” Arnot.  In the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, the entire Moreland family up and moved by covered wagon to the Panhandle Plains, settling in the burgeoning town of Canyon, where Pa Moreland operated a grocery store with his brother William, until the former’s untimely demise on April 8, 1908.  Jackson Moreland graduated from high school in Canyon, and the family grocery business provided him with his first job, though it would be far from his last.

The young Jackson’s appreciation for music blossomed at an early age.  Growing up on the prairie, he was immersed in the rich musical tradition of the cowpunchers and ranchmen, and reveled in its grandeur.  He picked up entire songs for life in his remarkable musical memory, ultimately amassing a mental collection of reportedly more than two-thousand lyrics, including cowboy ballads, traditional songs, minstrel numbers, and modern pop songs of the day.  He would later note emphatically that he was not a songwriter himself, but rather more of an arranger; the extent of his composing was limited to filling in gaps in his memory and editing lyrics to better suit his taste (though, in all likelihood, some of his “arrangements” were likely so extensive that they could nearly qualify as originals).  As a youth he played in the Canyon Municipal Band, doubling on piano and reeds, but quit after the bandleader demanded that he triple on oboe.  Some time later, he took up the guitar to entertain a friend who was convalescing from a college football injury, learning to play the instrument in a distinctive ragtime-influenced style utilizing a celluloid thumb pick to nimbly pick out intricate melodies on the lower four strings, interspersed with strummed chords to keep up rhythm, and often employed a capo to adjust the key of his songs to better accommodate the pitch of his tenor voice.

Prior to the First World War, Moreland served three years in the Texas National Guard, holding the rank of Corporal at the time of his discharge.  He subsequently occupied himself in a number of different professions.  One of these included joining his older brother Albert in working on the railroad, securing employment as a brakeman on the Santa Fe, a career choice which would cost him the better part of his right leg (though in later years he would jokingly attribute the amputation to “shark” or sometimes “two sharks”).  Thereafter he adopted the nickname “Peg” (occasionally styled as “Pegleg”) from the wooden apparatus that replaced the absent appendage.  He later claimed to have worked as a cowboy, but—aside from an honorary membership in the West Texas Veteran Cowboy Association—this was likely more of a publicity move than it was backed by any significant truthfulness.  Back home and not quite able to continue in the strenuous life of a railroad man, Moreland campaigned for the position of justice of the peace in Randall County, winning election in 1921 by singing and playing his guitar for prospective voters.  During his three-and-a-half year tenure, he claimed to have “married hundreds of ’em, and none of ’em ever came back to get it undone.”  He eventually became fed up with the constabulary job, and left his post in 1924 to move with family back eastward to the Big “D” in search of new work, with considerations of pursuing a law career, but preferring one in which he could “make a living without working.”

Soon after getting settled, “Peg” Moreland made his radio debut as a walk-in applicant, at a time when radio in Fort Worth-Dallas had been “on-the-air” for less than five years.  Reports differ as to whether his first broadcasts were made in 1925 over the Dallas Morning News station WFAA—with whom he was most strongly associated—or if they were preceded by an appearance on the neighboring Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s WBAP in the year prior.  Either way, he immediately made a hit with the listeners, who responded with exuberant fan mail.  Unfortunately for both the singer and his fans, the station lost his calling card, and none of the staff could remember his name.  In the mean time, with no more steady radio work available at that time, Moreland had returned to the Santa Fe Railroad to work a short stint as a mail clerk on the Arizona run.  WFAA eventually managed to track him down and bring him back to the air lanes to stay in 1926 or ’27, becoming—by some reports—the first full-time musician on the fledgling station’s staff.  Early in his radio career, he was dubbed a “cowboy bard” and “barnyard tenor,” among other assorted appellations, but the nickname that finally stuck was “King of the Ditty Singers”.

“Peg” Moreland, pictured in a 1930 Victor Records catalog. Author’s collection.

Moreland’s pleasant voice and skillful guitar picking proved favorites of listeners across Texas and the greater Southwest.  Counted among his legion of fans were Waco youngster Hank Thompson and Dallas teenager Eddie Dean Glosup, the latter of whom was inspired by Moreland’s broadcasts around 1925 to pick up an old Stella guitar and learn to sing cowboy ballads; Dean would later drop the “Glosup” from his name to become a singing cowboy considered by the likes of Autry and Rogers to be the very best.  His folk stylings too influenced future Dallas radio colleague Joe Attlesey, who would later change his surname to gain fame as one half of the Shelton Brothers.  In spite of his quip about making a living without working, Moreland’s radio career certainly seemed to have kept him busier than ever before.  As a popular radio entertainer, he was in high demand for personal appearances at county fairs and local doings all around the Southwest (from which he received the majority of his income) and his travels brought him farther and wider than that.

In the year of 1928, Moreland made a journey north to Chicago, Illinois, where he spent a short stretch on the illustrious WLS National Barn Dance, calling himself “Tex” while out of state lines.  There, he taught Bradley Kincaid the cowboy ballad “When the Work’s All Done this Fall” and no doubt he gave the Kentucky Mountain Boy a run for his money on the air.  Moreland, in his own words, “never liked Chicago or maybe [he’d] have made it bigger and got filthy rich. NBC was just branching out. But you put on a white shirt in Chicago and you walk two blocks and you’ve got a black shirt.”

But before he turned tail back to Texas, “Peg” Moreland made his grand entrance into the world of phonograph records with his debut for the Victor Talking Machine Company on Tuesday, July 3, 1928.  In a session at their recording laboratory at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, he waxed five of his “witty ditties,” followed by three more the following Thursday.  On the seventh of that September, his first record was released, coupling the sentimental songs “The Prisoner at the Bar” and “Over the Hills to the Poorhouse” (Victor 21548), and proved to be something of a success.  On the following January twenty-ninth, the more jocular “Stay In the Wagon Yard”—which, like an untold many of his songs, he had learned as a young man back in Canyon—paired with “The Old Step Stone” (Victor V-40008) was released, and turned out to be not only Peg’s biggest hit, but one of the best-sellers in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” series of records (numbered V-40000 and up and devoted to folk and regional music) alongside the likes of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, boasting total sales of 23,808 copies.

The (“A” side) label of “Peg” Moreland’s first released record. Author’s collection.

One year and one month after his first session, Moreland found himself behind the recording microphone for a second time, and this time the Victor people came to him.  When Victor brought their mobile recording equipment down to (most likely) the Jefferson Hotel in his own hometown of Dallas on Monday, August 12, 1929, Moreland cut only three sides: the cowboy song “Make Me a Cowboy Again” (Victor V-40272), the humorous “I’m Saving Up Coupons” (popular known in years to come as “The Coupon Song”), and a particularly adroit rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” under the title “You’re Gonna Miss Me, Hon!”  (both Victor V-40137). Though modestly popular, none of these discs matched the commercial success of his first two records upon their release.

Moreland subsequently narrowed the gap between his next record dates, venturing to Atlanta, Georgia, for a session on Wednesday, the twentieth of the following November.  Of the four sides waxed that day were a unique arrangement of “When I Had but Fifty Cents” (Victor V-40209) and an early recording of the cowboy ballad “Cowboy Jack” (Victor 23593), the latter an enduring favorite in the decade that followed in recordings by artists such as the Carter Family.  After another six months had passed, Moreland traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in May of 1930 for two brief sessions at the Memphis Auditorium on Friday and Saturday the sixteenth and seventeenth, which yielded only two recordings each.  One of those four sides was a faithful rendition of the popular 1901 minstrel song “I Got Mine” (Victor 23510), a perennial favorite in the South that was also recorded by artists as diverse as Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Memphis blues legend Frank Stokes.

The record company must have considered Moreland a viable talent, for—in spite of inclinations to “sit on” many recordings, especially by regional artists—they released every side he cut, many on split releases shared with songs by such popular artists as Harry “Mac” McClintock or “Ukulele Ace” Johnny Marvin on the opposite side.  His records were widely hailed in newspapers across the Southwest, and earned the songster fifty dollars per side.  Nevertheless, perhaps as a result of the onset of the Great Depression and its curtailing of Victor’s field trips, Moreland never again recorded commercially, leaving a legacy of only nineteen songs from his vast repertoire, some of which represent the earliest known recordings of popular traditional songs.  His musical career however, had only just begun.

On May 10, 1930—less than one week before departing for Memphis for his final recording session—Moreland participated in a ceremonial program inaugurating WFAA’s new 50,000 watt transmitter, following a speech given by Texas governor Dan Moody.  The event was documented with a Fox Movietone newsreel, producing the only known film footage of Peg Moreland, singing a short snippet of the 1907 popular song “Common Sense” (sometimes known as “Jim Greene”) in a rare glimpse of the congenial manner that endeared him to so many listeners.  Around 1932, he ventured south of the border, down Mexico way, to appear on the new “border blaster” station XEPN just across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.  After returning stateside, he became the star member of the “Gladiola Gloom Chasers” on the Texas Quality Network (encompassing WFAA, WBAP, WOAI in San Antonio, and KPRC in Houston), sponsored by the Fant Milling Company of Sherman, Texas, no doubt in their attempt to cash in on the successful model set forth by W. Lee O’Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys.  Making appearances at grocery stores around the state with the group (keeping true to the family trade), he was famous for singing “Ain’t We Crazy”, a song that he never recorded, but of which a recording by Harry McClintock was paired with his 1928 take of “He Never Came Back” (Victor V-40101, also known as “When We Meet On That Beautiful Shore”).  His popularity reached such heights that he was immortalized in the form of a “Gladdy-Peg” cut-out doll on the backs of Gladiola flour sacks.  By 1934, when North Texas had been on-the-air for only a little more than a decade, he was already heralded as one of the “oldest radio entertainer[s] in point of service in the southwest.”

Peg Moreland, right, on the the WFAA Early Birds program in the 1940s, with Jimmie Jeffries, Norvell Slater, and Karl Lambertz; pictured in the Early Birds 25th Anniversary Album. Author’s collection.

Following his successful stretch as a Gloom Chaser, Moreland was a regular cast member of the popular WFAA Early Birds morning program from 1935 to 1946, and later in the 1940s on into the 1950s, he appeared on their Saturday Night Shindig program on Saturday nights (also associated with Gladiola flour).  Throughout those decades, Moreland made dozens of personal appearances with the rest of those shows’ casts at doings as big as the Texas State Fair, as well as on tour in small towns all around the state.  One such tour saw Peg and fellow WFAA entertainers—namely the Cass County Kids and Flying X Cowboys—accompany a throng of prominent Dallas business men on their annual “Dallas Business Tour” of “goodwill” parades across Texas, arranged by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce in several springtimes spanning the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Moreland also took his ditties back on the campaign trail at least twice—though not for his own campaign this time around—entertaining at rallies both for Republican congressional candidate Charles D. Turner’s unsuccessful 1944 run against Hatton Sumners and for Democrat Texas attorney general Grover Sellers’s likewise unsuccessful bid in the 1946 gubernatorial primary (which he lost to Beauford H. Jester).  In addition to his duties as a performer, Moreland was sometimes consulted by WFAA’s music librarian, Arthur C. Kuehn, to fill in blanks in the station’s music archives from his vast mental collection, described by Kuehn as “the most remarkable he [had] ever seen.”  Moreland told Rural Radio magazine in a 1938 interview  that his only hobby was “resting,” and if his activities in the surrounding years are any indication, it was a worthwhile endeavor.

After his time on the Shindig had concluded in the 1950s, Moreland—by that time in his sixties—evidently semi-retired from his busy performing schedule of years past, but by no means did he hang up his guitar for good.  He continued to make sporadic radio appearances for WFAA reunions and anniversaries well into the 1960s, and remained associated with the station for the rest of his life.  He even appeared on television on WFAA-TV’s Julie Benell Show in 1964 as part of one such celebration.  As a resurgence of interest in folk music developed in the late 1950s and onward, Moreland was largely ignored by the revivalists, though a few musicologists and historians did have the foresight to interview him for posterity, including ragtime historian Fred Hoeptner (to whom a debt of gratitude is owed for the making of this essay) and Dallas Morning News columnist Larry Grove.

The cast of the Purina Early Birds on WFAA, Dallas; featuring Peg Moreland. Image from author’s collection.

Unsurprisingly, the details of Moreland’s private life are more obscure than those of his professional career, but some details may nonetheless be gleaned.  Moreland never married, and in Dallas lived in an apartment house at 5922 Victor Street owned by his mother Mollie and brother Albert, until their deaths in the Decembers of 1943 and 1948, respectively.  Later in life, he took up residence in several Dallas hotels.  In the middle of the 1950s, Moreland was living in room 425 of the New Oxford Hotel at 2004 Elm Street, and by the early 1970s he had moved to the Lawrence Hotel at 302 South Houston Street.  It was there that he died from a coronary occlusion on January 11, 1973, at the age of eighty.  His remains were interred at his family’s plot in Plainview Cemetery in the panhandle city of the same name.  On his death certificate, his occupation was still listed as “entertainer” at WFAA, a position he maintained for nearly half a century.  He was survived by his older sister Artie Wilkerson of San Angelo, who died in 1976, and younger brother Charles, who died in Austin in 1988.  Moreland’s amiable personality and charming ditties still linger on in the fond childhood memories of old-timers across the Great Southwest to this very day.


Listen to select recordings by “Peg” Moreland below…

 

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