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Mildred's Place: 1938

Mildred's Place: 1938

October 1938 at the Alamo. "Mildred Irwin, saloon singer at North Platte, Nebraska. She entertained for 20 years in Omaha before coming to North Platte." Medium-format safety negative by John Vachon. View full size.

Letter from John Vachon to his wife, Penny:

October 29, 1938

        Last night I had an adventure. Of the 1st water. To have it I had to get kind of stiff. And I did, dear. Pretty plastered. But it was all in the line of duty, eminently legitimate and justifiable. About eight o'clock I went into a corner saloon. It was a saloon in the grand tradition. I drank only beer, but great gobs of it. At the piano was a big huge large fat blonde woman of 45 to 50 yrs. With beautiful smeary red makeup on her puss, and huge mammy type bosoms. And her voice, O that you could hear her voice. She has Sophie Tucker in the wastebasket   . . .


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Mildred is mentioned here

"It was John Vachon, however, who met the most audacious array of non-conformists, and he quickly fell under their spell. He eagerly photographed one old man who lived in the town dump and who "displayed a magnificent sense of humor." Somewhere near Big Hole, Montana, Vachon made friends with a sheep rancher, who took him deep into the range country, cooked him a meal in the open, and gave him his first horseback ride. (This fellow was hardly the defeated victim that Nathan Ache's sheep herder had been.) Although Vachon felt the rancher was an 'individualistic type which has probably outlived its usefulness,' Vachon still thought this character was the salt of the earth and an irresistible subject. But it was in North Platte, Nebraska, that Vachon found his greatest infatuation. At a local bar he discovered Mildred Irwin, "a big fat blond woman of 45 or so, with a beautiful red smary paint job." She had been an Omaha prostitute for nearly twenty years and had then retired to North Platte to play honky-tonk piano in the bar and sing "like Sophie Tucker--only very nasty songs." Completely smitten with this woman, Vachon took picture after picture of her, and "made 3 trips back to the hotel for more flash bulbs." By the late 1930s and early 1940s, documentary photographers were increasingly on the lookout for the likes of Mildred Irwin and searched less and less for subjects like Lange's "Migrant Mother". As conditions slowly improved and the crisis receded, it seemed less important to promote social legislation or confront the "realities" of the decade, and documentary photographers gradually turned to savoring the eccentricities of the people they met."

from Hope Among Us Yet: Social Criticism and Social Solace in Depression America
By David P. Peeler
University of Georgia Press, pp 105-106

Mildred Irwin

I live in North Platte and do alot of local historical research. I've seen all the pictures of Mildred that John took through the Library of Congress website. My question is what happened to Mildred after she left North Platte? I can't seem to find any references to her anywhere.
Just curious.

Pat Ast

Mildred is the spitting image of Pat Ast.

Mildred (Not)

I missed the disclaimer. I bet Mildred wouldn't be happy with that. Too bad there are no actual recordings of her playing.

Not a vintage recording

Did anyone read the disclaimer towards the bottom of the page Mattie linked to? It says it's a studio re-creation of Mildred's playing...doesn't say when it was re-created...could've been a year ago.

Audio Clip

Actually, if you read the fine print on that site, it basically says that audio file has nothing really to do with Mildred except being inspired by her. It's a modern recording intended to sound old---and to my ears it sounds much like a midi file, which they didn't even have in the '30s. Kind of a questionable tribute to the lady, really...

Did you see the disclaimer?

Here's the disclaimer on that site:

DISCLAIMER The music on this compact disk is a studio re-creation. It is not an actual recording. We do not wish to mislead anyone into believing that Mildred Irwin -- a real entertainer who played the piano at the Alamo Bar, a real bar in North Platte, Nebraska -- actually played the music you hear on this disk. She did not. As described in Charles M. Von Rosa's notes included in the booklet inside, this music was re-created using the limited information available. Like the bulk of the music heard on the radio these days, this music is fake. However, as our purpose is to honor a long neglected fabulous entertainer, here it is. We sincerely hope you enjoy this recording as much as we enjoyed putting it together. - Croscrane™

Piano tuner needed

I listened to the clip on the web site posted by Mattie. Either that piano was badly in need of tuning or Mildred Irwin preferred to use some bizarre non-Western scale.

Mildred's Audio Clip

That's the music I hear in my head when I think of "honky-tonk." That was great!!

First Water

The phrase "Of the first water" comes from gemology.

John on Mildred

Mr. Vachon may have had photog skills, but he's not too bad with a pen, either. Pretty colorful descriptions. The phrase...1st water...which I've heard only occasionally, seems used in the same sense as 'of the first order'. But 1st water also makes me think that it refers to bath water which in earlier times was a shared commodity. Handed down, so to speak. And first water would be, obviously, the first and best. We kids had to share bath water a lot back in the 50's, that part I do know.

I'll definitely have a listen to the link. Now to figure out what he meant by Sophie Tucker in the wastebasket.

[He means Mildred is the better singer. She puts Sophie to shame. - Dave]

Mildred Irwin

Apparently she was a popular entertainer in her day. You can buy her CD (or just listen to her bang out "Little Rock" on the piano) here:


The boys at the bar look like they're rethinking the idea of moving to North Platte!

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