Jo Anne Stokes: Weeds Above My Grave

Vine Street, Cincinnati, 1968. The neighborhood in which the Jimmie Skinner Music Center was located.

Among record collectors there is a certain type of disc that is often seen as very desirable, yet falls well below the general radar. These discs tend to be scarce, not necessarily rare, and hardly ever appear on compilations. This may be due to the fact that they are usually not easily classifiable by genre, and almost never fit cleanly into typological categories beloved by collectors or dealers. For some purists, they are often seen as guilty pleasures. They are rarely written about. Evidence of their existence tends to travel via a sort of bush telegraph, an oral tradition of the vinyl-obsessed, a communication network still barely examined by anthropologists or sociologists.

In 1968, Cincinnati-based producer and businessman Lou Ukelson founded the Vetco label. At the time, Ukelson was best known as the owner of the Jimmie Skinner Music Center, which he had acquired after the death of founder Lou Epstein. The shop was named after local country star Jimmie Skinner, who had lent his name, but actually had only a very small financial interest in the enterprise. Modeled on Ernest Tubb Records in Nashville, it was one of the few places in southern Ohio at the time that sold small-label, regional country and bluegrass records. Like so many record store owners before and after him, Ukelson found the shop to be the perfect venue from which to promote and distribute his own label. In its first year of existence, Vetco released a handful of 45s and LPs by local country and bluegrass artists, most of them regulars on the local club and festival circuits. In the spring of 1969, however, the label released a 45 by a complete unknown, one that was destined to become something of a minor cult object among collectors.

Jo Anne Stokes’ senior yearbook picture, 1970.

How Jo Anne Stokes—a junior at Oak Hills High School in the leafy, green, western fringes of the city—ended up recording two of her self-penned tunes for Vetco is still a bit of a mystery. Her father, Lincoln J. “Link” Stokes, was a senior FBI agent who later, in 1977, would become Hamilton County’s first Republican sheriff in three decades. As political success usually requires a wide acquaintance with the movers and shakers of the local community, an educated guess would be that somehow the record came about through his connections. 

The resulting single, “Weeds Above My Grave,” is one of the darker small-label folk records to emerge from the era. The idea of the introspective teenager who sits in her room and writes dark poetry or songs is now something of a cliché. Our usual image of this sort of teen, though, would be of an outsider, someone who endures high school rather than embraces it, someone who navigates by her own star. At least on the surface, Stokes seems to defy this image. Her high school yearbook paints her as a serious student, one who “does the right thing” as opposed to rebelling. She was active in the Future Teachers of America, the Girls’ Athletic Association, the school’s Concert Choir, and was a member of the National Honor Society. But art can often reveal the tempests beneath a calm surface, and it is difficult to listen to the lyrics of the A-side of her first single without concluding that there may have been quite a bit of turmoil behind the facade of the high-achieving, straight-A student Jo Anne Stokes.

“Weeds Above My Grave” is a minor keyed, dirge-like, plaintive cry of despair. With lines like “I was pushed around for 18 years / Till I couldn’t take it no more,” it’s difficult to read the tune as anything but a plea for escape from an unhappy situation. The challenges of life as a teenager who bristles against the expectations of family or society are well known. Whether her case was one of an oppressive home life, issues with personal identity, or just a general existential dissatisfaction with reality must remain the subject of speculation for the moment. Towards the end of the song, she sings: “I’ve known the loneliness and misery / Of a life that was lived in vain.” A great part of the song’s charm is that this exercise in past reflection is written from the perspective of someone whose own life is just on the cusp of beginning. While its overall vibe doesn’t quite reach the level of hopelessness often labeled as “loner folk,” its profound depths of teenage angst, along with the subtle hook of the tune itself, create the perfect storm that draws collectors to the disc. 

In 1970, the year she graduated from high school, Stokes released a second disc for the Vetco label. This was also the year she moved to Indianapolis to begin studies at Butler University.  There she pledged to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and served as organizations editor of the Butler yearbook. Her membership in the Student Education Association, as well as her earlier membership in Future Teachers of America, hint that she likely majored in Education. Butler’s 1971 and 1972 yearbooks show Jo Anne as active and engaged in the life of the university. She apparently left Butler after her sophomore year, however, and there the record becomes blurry for two decades. It comes back into focus with her father’s obituary in 1993, which has her living in Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton. A quarter century later she is mentioned as a survivor in her mother’s obituary. This is the last we know of her for certain.

Jo Ann Stokes, 2nd row, 2nd from right. Butler University, 1971.

Interestingly, both of Jo Anne Stokes’ singles were entirely local productions. The composer, artist, label, pressing plant (Queen City Album), distributor, and primary retailer were all located in the greater Cincinnati area. From the moment Jo Anne scribbled the lyrics onto paper in her bedroom, until the first consumer picked up a copy of the disc at the Jimmie Skinner Music Center, all aspects of production were done within the metro area. While this is not uncommon in music industry capitals like Nashville or Los Angeles, it’s almost unheard of in other places, which shows that Cincinnati was a more vital and self-contained music town than is commonly credited.

“Weeds Above My Grave” is a good record, but it’s not a great record. It’s scarce, but it’s not exactly rare. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the genres that inspire 45 collectors to compete in bidding wars that can drive prices into the stratosphere. It’s even a bit of an anachronism, as it sounds stylistically like it could have been released five to seven years earlier than it was. To my knowledge, this article is the first serious examination of this recording or of Jo Anne Stokes as an artist. Even then, we still have only the framework of a story. But I think a big part of what makes this disc intriguing to collectors is the very idea that beneath these skeletal details lies a much richer tale. A young woman’s smoky alto delivery of a haunting, dark—even morbid—self-penned tune, coupled with its release on a small, midwestern label, creates a certain picture within the mind of the collector. Perhaps this almost unconscious assumption that beneath these surface details lies a worthwhile story to be told, is the reason it regularly sells for $100 or more. The idea of an anonymous, “real” person living in flyover country in the late 1960s, a teenager pouring the darkness of her soul into a microphone in some unnamed studio, is intriguing. And it is the mental image that this setting evokes, combined with the bleakness from the grooves of the record itself, that has created something of a minor cult around this disc.

—Stephen Canner

Jo Anne Stokes Discography

Vetco Records 508 (March 1969)
A Weeds Above My Grave
B A Job Well Done

Vetco Records 520 (1970)
A My Sunshine Journey
B There Go All the Children

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