By: J. Ross Archer
May Jean Hancock was born to a mountain woman and a West Virginia coal miner. Her father was killed in a mining accident when May was a baby, leaving May and her mother without a source of income. Mrs. Hancock became sickly and unable to find day jobs; the only income the family now has is the pittance May earns sharing her voice with area churches. May is not going to meet her goal of a singing career under these circumstances. Despite May’s determination to find a way out of Newton Holler and to earn a living with her remarkable singing voice, she continues to encounter one obstacle after another. And now that her father is gone, May realizes this poverty-stricken life is not likely to change—ever.
But at the persistent urging of a local schoolteacher, May decides to go to Memphis and try to get an audition in the upcoming talent competition. She is surprised at her boldness in making such a possibly life-changing decision. Her meager savings from church singing is enough for a bus ticket, but not enough to buy food during a stay in Memphis. The desire to audition for Show Us Your Talent (SUYT) is firm; the audition takes precedence over anything else—her mind is made up.
When May tells her mother of her plans, she expects to meet resistance, but her mother is instead supportive. “Child, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I want you to do what is necessary to get there. Don’t you fret over me.”
Arriving in Memphis with no place to stay, May finds a cheap motel room located three miles from the audition site, the best available in her price range, but she will have to walk to the venue. After paying for the motel room, she has seven dollars, not much left for food, she thinks, but she is running on adrenalin anyway. The next morning, May awakes at 4:00 am to have time to get to the audition site; that’s not a problem for her because she is used to walking that far to school.
May has never seen a building as large as the venue auditorium, nor has she seen so many people in one place. They are noisy, and in a vast line waiting to get in, she surmised. It takes May most of the day to register and get her contestant number sticker, but soon, a young man wearing a staff t-shirt approaches her. He explained who he is and where he is taking her. May nervously follows him through countless doors to a room he tells her is next to the stage. In just minutes, another staffer approaches her, hands her a microphone, and askes if she is ready to go on stage. She notices the young man gave her a condescending look and did not wait for her answer, but she was used to getting those looks at her worn clothes and straggly hair. In about five minutes, the staffer instructs May to make her stage entrance.
With some trepidation, may strolled onto the stage and walked towards the spot marked with an X; she is trembling with fear. It doesn’t take May long to realize she is standing before not only four judges, but 4,000 people in the audience. Her slender knees and legs almost fail her; her breath comes in short jerks. Her heart is running away. She stopped twice while trying to reach the X; after all, May has never been out of Farley County, West Virginia.
Once at the X spot, more disappointment is waiting. All four judges snickered, laughed, and made smirky faces while pointing at her; the audience hooted, pointed at her, and laughed. Getting this kind of attention, she didn’t think she was going to be able to sing, no matter how much she wanted it. While all the commotion is going on, an unexpected calm fall over May, and she feels relaxed and indifferent to the insults. Her years of determination to reach her goal of singing fame were paying off. No one is going to stop her now; she is invincible. May thought it an odd time to realize she has not eaten a meal in almost two days.
The judge on the right asks in a sarcastic voice: “What is your name, and where are you from?”
“My name is May Jean Hancock, Mister, and I’m from Newton Holler, West Virginia.”
“Why are all of you laughing at my answer?”
“Are you kidding me? No one could come from a place with that name,” said one judge chuckling.
“Is that an opera dress you’re wearing, honey?” one of the judges asked.
May said nothing in response. Her conviction to excel became even more substantial. She was unflappable now.
“Okay, so what are you going to sing for us tonight?”
“I’m going to sing Amazing Grace, Mister.”
“You can’t start without accompaniment, you did bring a tape, did you not?”
“No, Mister, I don’t need no tape.” More eyes roll among the judges.
“Suit yourself. The stage is yours.”
It wasn’t until the third bar of the song that the audience settled down; then, mouths dropped open, there was total silence in the auditorium, and the judges sat motionlessly and intently listening. The sound that came from May’s voice was strong, hauntingly beautiful, and entirely captivating—operatic in quality, and unique. When the song was finished, there was dead silence in the house—not a word. After a full minute of silence, the place erupted into energetic applause, whistling, and yelling. Everyone in the audience was standing. The judges sat motionless with looks of disbelief on their faces. After many minutes of the celebration of May’s singing, the judges began their critique of her performance.
Judge Number One said: “Young lady, I must begin my critique with an apology on behalf of we judges for the reception you received from all of us. Now, as for your performance, I have never, ever heard a voice of that quality. I’m really at a loss for words to compliment you adequately. Will you forgive our inexcusable rudeness? I think I speak for all four judges when I say that was the best vocal performance we have heard so far. You are going far, young lady.”
“Sure, Mister, the Bible says to forgive. That’s okay with me.”
Judge Two says: “May Jean, you just knocked my socks off. I can only echo what my friend said, your voice is unforgettable and is, as far as I’m concerned, the voice of this century.”
Judge Three said: “Please forgive me, Miss Hancock, for my rudeness, I hope it does not demean my remarks. Pause. You are the star of tomorrow, young lady, and I predict you will be a superstar within a year. Don’t you dare stop singing—ever.”
Judge Four, wiping tears from her eyes, and trying to compose herself, looks intently at May for several seconds before speaking. “May, can I come up on the stage and give you a hug?”
“Why, yes, Madame, it’s okay with me.”
Heels and all, upon the stage, Judge Three climbs. May doesn’t completely understand what’s transpiring—no one has ever hugged her. A warmth she’s never experienced in her 17 years flows over her body. The hug lasts a long time; soon, Judge Three is joined by the other judges, and they all hug. There has never been another audition quite like May Hancock’s in the history of SUYT.
During her bus ride back to Newton Holler, May tries to sort through the activities in Memphis; her three-day visit was a whirlwind of new experiences, but the reaction of the audience and judges to her voice she remembers and understands. She would no longer sing for pittances in country churches.
Back in Newton Holler, there is little fanfare from the 50 residents when May returns. The people were jealous of May because none of the other residents had ever gotten a break in life, as did May Jean. She has won the Show Us Your Talent’s worldwide competition.
In less than two weeks after May’s return to Newton Holler, a man May had never seen before knocked on their front door. He was a stranger, and in Newton Holler, strangers were not welcome; May answered the door cautiously. The man introduced himself as Mark Mulvaney, removed his hat, and sat his briefcase down beside his right leg.
May thought him out of place for Newton Holler. No telling why this man was poking around their home. On the other hand, she noticed he was well dressed, even if he looked old enough to be a grandpa. Guess I’ll find out, thought May.
“Sure is hot,” said the man while wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Might I ask, Miss, if this is the Hancock place? “And might you be Miss May Jean Hancock?”
“Yes, sir, that’s right.”
Mrs. Hancock joins May and Mr. Mulvaney on the porch. May introduces her mother, and Mr. Mulvaney suggests they all have a seat. Ma, you and I can sit in the swing; Mr. Mulvaney, you take the rockin’ chair rite there. The three of them exchange a few pleasantries, then, Mr. Mulvaney clears his throat and pulls a document from his briefcase.
“Well, Miss Hancock, I’m here to change your life forever. He pauses a few seconds. ‘I have here a contract for your signature; it says in return for your exclusive service to Capitol Records for five years, they, in return, are offering you $300,000 now, and 20% of the royalties from your future records. Will you please sign right here, Miss Hancock, here’s a pen?”
Mrs. Hancock speaks up before May has a chance to answer the man. “You bet she will, Mister. Sign it, May Jean!” And she did. The rest is history. She was always known as the Girl from Newton Holler.