Carolina Cotton (1925–1997)
aka: Helen Hagstrom
Helen Hagstrom is best known for her country and western swing music and yodeling, as well as her appearances in numerous television specials, radio programs, and films under the name of Carolina Cotton. Nicknamed “The Yodeling Blonde Bombshell,” Hagstrom was an entertainer and teacher throughout her life.
Helen Hagstrom was born on October 20, 1925, in Cash (Craighead County), where her parents, Fred and Helen Hagstrom, and maternal grandparents had a farm, growing many crops, including cotton and peanuts. During the Great Depression, Hagstrom’s father moved his wife and two daughters to San Francisco, California. Hagstrom began performing in traveling stage shows with the O’Neille Sisters Kiddie Revue. Then, after regularly visiting KYA Radio to watch Dude Martin’s Roundup Gang perform, she volunteered to replace the yodeler who left the band. It was then that she got her nickname “Carolina.” The surname “Cotton” came later thanks to fans and a radio disc jockey named Cottonseed Clark.
In 1944, Hagstrom traveled to Hollywood to pick up costumes, and, though she had been told to wait in her hotel, she instead explored the city. During this outing, she bumped into songwriter Johnny Martin, who invited her to attend a Hollywood party. Soon after, he offered her a part in a film called Sing Neighbor Sing, and Hagstrom realized she had to choose between an entertainment career in the Bay Area or in Hollywood. She chose to move to Hollywood, where she joined the Spade Cooley Orchestra.
In 1945, Hagstrom married Deuce Spriggins, a member of the orchestra; the couple divorced in 1946. Hagstrom kept recording and performing. One of her most famous songs, “3 Miles South of Cash (in Arkansas),” was inspired by her upbringing in Arkansas. Throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s, Hagstrom appeared in many films, including a low-budget film called I’m from Arkansas (1944), which takes place in the fictional town of Pitchfork, Arkansas. In 1952, she appeared in two films with Gene Autry, Blue Canadian Rockies and Apache Country, which featured one of her most famous songs, “I Love to Yodel.” These two films would be her last.
In the early and mid-1950s, Hagstrom began focusing much of her attention on performing for the military troops around Europe, Africa, and Asia. She also created short radio programs to entertain the troops. In 1956, Hagstrom married musician Bill Ates. The couple had a son and daughter but divorced a few years later.
Inspired by meeting many children around the world during her travels, Hagstrom decided to become a teacher. Though she was busy with her family, teaching, and even working part time at a department store, she still performed, especially at western film festivals, even in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Her song “3 Miles South of Cash (in Arkansas)” was a standard during these appearances.
Hagstrom retired from Mount Vernon Elementary School in Bakersfield, California, in 1997, and died on June 10, 1997, after battling ovarian cancer for three years.
For additional information:
Blevins, Brooks. Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.
“Carolina Cotton.” Western Music Association Hall of Fame. http://www.westernmusic.com/performers/hof-cotton.html (accessed February 26, 2013).
Carolina Cotton: The Official Site. http://www.carolinacotton.org/ (accessed February 26, 2013).
Lamsen, Chris, dir. Soundies: A Musical History. DVD. Liberation Entertainment, 2007.
Wel, Stephanie Vander. Hillbilly Maidens, Okies, and Cowgirls: Women’s Country Music, 1930–1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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In 1951, I was one year old, working to keep my dad awake while he delivered freight down through the South and on out west, when we were invited to attend a picnic/recording session with Bob Wills and his band, and Carolina Cotton was featured. I had to have my diaper changed and Cotton volunteered to do this for me, and even sent someone out to get donuts when I requested some. What a wonderful lady she was. I feel so happy to have met her. Before I was two years old, I had visited all 48 states (including Arkansas!), plus Alaska and Hawaii.
I’m Carolina’s daughter, who runs the CarolinaCotton.org site. Mom would’ve gotten a kick out of the fact that she is in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Incidentally, she had her name legally changed to “Carolina Cotton” years ago. (It was indeed Dude Martin who started calling her “Carolina” once she joined his band. Although her last name “Cotton” was reportedly from Cottonseed Clark, Mom told me that her manager, Bobbie Bennett, held a contest to give her a last name; “Cotton” supposedly came from the winner. This was also mentioned in a 1950 interview with Carolina and Bobbie.) She also used “Carolina Cotton” when she became a school teacher. She was at Mt. Vernon Elementary for over twenty years, here in Bakersfield, California. Her former students have fond memories of “Ms. Cotton.”