The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 6

Was it really the big bang? The invention of the country music industry
By Walt Koken and Pete Peterson
illusration: Phil Blank

A recent article in the Old-Time Herald, “Bristol Recording Sessions Remembered at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame” (Vol.11, No. 2) reflected the uncritical acceptance of the currently popular rewriting of history that has morphed those few days in late July and early August of 1927 into “the Big Bang of country music.” Less than two years ago, however, the Old-Time Herald (Vol. 10, No. 3) ran Jon and Marcia Pankake’s review of the book The Bristol Sessions: Writings about the BBOCM. In their review, the Pankakes set out just a small part of the evidence which counters such a grandiose assumption, space limitations being what they are. And there is so much more to the story.

To start with, if those few days in July and August 1927 had really been the “big bang,” then nothing could have come before it, or certainly nothing important. Inconvenient facts, easily available to historians, such as sales of Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 Victor recording of “The Wreck of the Old 97/The Prisoner’s Song” are ignored. In truth, this record had sold over a million copies before Ralph Peer ever worked for Victor. Moreover, Charlie Poole’s first two recordings in 1926 for Columbia Records sold about 167,000 copies. After sales of Eck Robertson’s 1922 recordings opened the eyes of phonograph executives, bands such as Poole and the Skillet Lickers (who sold over a million 78s) began their recording careers. Recordings of Uncle Dave Macon, Burnett and Rutherford, Fiddling John Carson (need we go on?) all were sold well prior to the alleged “big bang.” 

What did happen at Bristol, as the Pankakes have pointed out, was the invention of the modern country music industry, currently a bloated, multi-tentacled behemoth that depends on copyrights, authorship royalties, publisher’s royalties, and the other sums paid to large businesses. With its “big bang” festivities, what Nashville and Bristol celebrate is the birth of this industry, not the roots of its music. Country music recordings made prior to Bristol 1927 had a big problem: the songs and tunes being recorded were mostly in the public domain. Even if the song was obviously recent, the author may have been uncertain. The dispute over royalties arising from the questions about who had actually written "The Wreck of the Old 97" was not settled until 1940, and involved at least two trips all the way to the Supreme Court. What was needed was a system by which an artist would claim to have written a song or tune, and would share the rights with a "publishing house."  This was what was created at Bristol. A recent UNESCO publication put the size of the recorded music industry in 2000 at $37 billion worldwide, and $14 billion dollars in the US alone. These numbers are just too big for mere mortals to comprehend, now that Carl Sagan has passed on.  Let's focus on a smaller segment: the two billion dollars each year which changes hands through "intellectual property rights"-- copyrights.  Where does it come from? Where does it go? As Deep Throat urged Woodward and Bernstein: “Follow the money.”

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