Early Country Music, from the Top Down
Before the debut broadcast of Country Music, filmmaker Ken Burns’s paean to American exceptionalism, that popular music genre was beloved among its core fanbase (granted that in the twenty-first century country music’s fanbase is dramatically different from what it was when legendary songwriter Harlan Howard referred to the genre as “nothing but three chords and the truth”) and was misunderstood or marginalized among many other people. A carefully orchestrated advance promotion campaign in the months before the film’s September 2019 debut generated a sizeable audience—but not one comprised of people who have loved the genre or who have hated it. Slate reviewer Carl Wilson speculated regarding the target audience for the Burns film: “I’m sure Burns would like country fans to watch, but if he really cared, there would be more 21st-century stars among the talking heads. . . . Committed country skeptics are also unlikely to give it a chance since the film tries to pretend they don’t exist. Primarily, its constituency is Ken Burns fans, who are expected to hop aboard the PBS hayride and find their anti-country prejudices purged gently along the way.” And what distinguishing characteristic do “Ken Burns fans” have in common? In the case of Country Music, it would seem to be a willingness to suspend critical attention and to pretend that this feel-good but badly conceived entertainment is high-minded documentary.
It is not hyperbolic to contend that country music’s reputation—not the music itself, but public understanding of the genre’s history—is lower today than before the Burns film. While no doubt generating interest in the genre, that film and its companion book (authored by the film project’s lead writer Dayton Duncan) exposed millions of people to sentimentalized and often inaccurate or incomplete representations of country music. Scholars of the genre—and there are many—were largely united in displeasure for the film, as with one exception their perspectives were snubbed during the production of Country Music. This fact caught the attention of critic Ken Tucker, who commented on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air:
Some 18 years ago, Burns gave us the history of jazz with the help of on-camera perspective by critics such as Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins. But Burns doesn’t seem to think country music holds up to such scrutiny: How else to explain the presence of only one country music scholar, Bill C. Malone? To be sure, some performers—most notably Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash—are eloquent in their grasp of country music’s complexity. But where is context and commentary from critics and historians like, say, Jewly Hight or Holly Gleason, whose books have done so much to rewrite country history to include essential female voices? In place of scholarship, we are given gush.
The “gush” that the Burns film gives us is the seemingly endless stream of musicians rhapsodizing about their own connections to country music while praising the genre’s established hierarchy of canonized musicians. Having identified the film’s underlying approach, Tucker observed: “In general, Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, present what used to be called the ‘Great Man’ theory of history: The biggest stars and the most obvious ideas are the ones deemed most worthy.”
Tucker’s clear-eyed assessment of Country Music reinforced my own sense of the film project. On September 25, 2014, I met two of the film’s researchers, at their request, in East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia in Johnson City, Tennessee, and then the next day in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, just across the Tennessee state line in Bristol, Virginia. I was being summoned to those archival repositories because the researchers were seeking information and illustrations about the 1927 Bristol Sessions, an event that in recent years had acquired the fanciful but fallacious nickname “the Big Bang of country music” strictly for having generated first recordings by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. In 2005 I had co-edited a book (with Charles K. Wolfe) exploring the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and in 2011 I had produced a complete 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions boxed set for Germany’s Bear Family Records (with Tony Russell). During those two September meetings with the Burns film researchers I provided them with information and perspectives on the 1927 Bristol Sessions and also tried to maneuver the research investigation toward other relevant though lesser-known stories from Appalachia’s rich old-time music heritage.
In terms of research into upper East Tennessee’s music narrative, September 2014 was a pivotal time. The previous year Tony Russell and I had produced a Bear Family boxed set exploring another group of late-1920s recordings from another upper East Tennessee locale (Johnson City). The first compilation of all the 1928 and 1929 sides of old-time music produced by Frank Buckley Walker for Columbia Records, that boxed set had been released in October 2013, and anyone conducting open-ended research into the origins of country music in Fall 2014 would have encountered articles and reviews discussing the newly curated Johnson City Sessions, which prominent observers (like Ed Ward, the self-styled “rock historian” on “Fresh Air”) had characterized as connected to—and quite equal to—the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Certainly, those historical recording sessions in cities just 25 miles apart had in common certain artists and musical styles, and the Johnson City Sessions yielded iconic recordings which influenced country music as well as bluegrass and the urban folk music revival. Yet, such overlooked music-related figures and events—which the late music historian and Bristol Sessions authority Charles K. Wolfe called “the rest of the story”—did not capture the attention of the Burns film researchers, who remained focused on the 1927 Bristol Sessions, an already researched, familiar, and safe narrative. (The researchers should have heeded the warning conveyed in the popular “TED Talk” from 2009 in which Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advised listeners to beware “the danger of a single story.”)
In January 2016 I inadvertently learned the status of the Burns film project. That month I forwarded to the researchers my recently published article entitled “The 1927 Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang, or the Big Brag, of Country Music?” Questioning whether or not Bristol should be considered the “birthplace” of country music (as rather indiscriminately maintained by the media and the tourism industry), my article featured an interview with the unwitting creator of the phrase “the Big Bang of country music,” Nolan Porterfield, who admitted that his phrase, from a 1989 essay, had been appropriated without regard to the context in which he had originally used it. One Burns researcher acknowledged receipt of my article, and in reciprocation sent me a project status form letter written by Duncan, dated January 2016, claiming that the film team had already conducted 96 interviews—and virtually all of them of musicians, “including 36 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.” Duncan’s letter asserted that the film’s script would demonstrate that “this uniquely American art form is chock full of great characters, great stories, great songs, and intriguing twists and turns, all set against the backdrop of the nation’s journey through the Twentieth Century.” That letter also divulged that the Burns film would “end around 1995,” which baffled me then and which would later baffle Tucker, who when reviewing the film noted that “Burns seems to have thrown up his hands before entering the 21st century, allowing him to avoid having to explain ‘bro country’ or the rise of Taylor Swift.”
After reading and thinking about Duncan’s letter, I emailed the Burns film team to share some additional observations regarding possible gaps in their planned coverage of early country music. There was another polite if brief response, and it was now clear that my perspective was irrelevant for such an exercise in romanticized, “top down” storytelling. I later realized I was not the only scholar to be concerned. My colleague on the Bristol Sessions and Johnson City Sessions boxed sets as well as a 2016 boxed set exploring the 1929 and 1930 Knoxville Sessions, Tony Russell conveyed to me in a December 2019 email (quoted here with permission) that a few years earlier he had corresponded with the Burns film researchers and had “learned early on about the decision not to include commentary from historians, pundits, etc.—just musicians and producers.” Russell had asked the researchers, “‘So how will that work for the ’20s since no one in either category is still alive?’ They didn’t answer that one.”
The single-story research effort I had witnessed in 2014 was transferred to the script and then to the film, with the 1927 Bristol Sessions and producer Ralph Peer becoming focal points of Episode 1 (“The Rub”), the section of Country Music series tracing the genre’s early years. Inevitably, it falls to scholars to challenge the notion that the 1927 Bristol Sessions marked the birth of country music and that Peer should be positioned as the genre’s central creator. A counter-narrative might mention the fact that genre-influencing recording sessions were conducted in many places beyond Bristol throughout the 1920s and early 1930s—in permanent studios in the North as well as in temporary location studios in cities in southeastern states during the 1920s and 1930s, some of them before the Bristol Sessions and some of them after, and Peer was not at the helm of many of those. Equally significant contributors to the midwifery of country music included other A&R producers working for other companies–Columbia’s Frank Walker, Paramount’s Art Satherley, William Ronald “Bill” Calaway with Gennett and the American Record Corporation, and Richard “Dick” Voynow of Vocalion/Brunswick Records.
Russell, the foremost scholar of early country music and author of the definitive discography of country records through World War II, commented in the aforementioned email that he was dismayed at the portrayal of the Bristol Sessions in the Burns film:
It’s true, of course, that the Bristol story is a dramatically satisfying one. Unfortunately, that fact is entrenching it ever further as the official narrative of early country music history. I hope my forthcoming book may do a tiny bit to wobble that edifice, since I mention Bristol only in the essay on Rodgers, carefully avoid the phrase “big bang,” and discuss numerous recordings made in Johnson City and Knoxville, as well as other Southern locations: Atlanta, Memphis, Ashland, San Antonio, etc. But of course no one will make a TV series out of my book.
Having observed the unintended impact of Porterfield’s “Big Bang of country music” coinage, and having witnessed that phrase being coopted by the media and other entitles—including Bear Family Records for its Bristol Sessions boxed set, for which he and I wrote the liner notes—Russell has long recognized that scholars should have the responsibility and the right to guide the public conversation about country music’s origins.
My own research interest in country music’s origins precludes my discussing in this article the Burns film’s decisions when representing later periods of genre history. As a general assessment of the entire film, one might conclude that, by ignoring scholarship that might have clarified and contextualized every phase of country music’s history, the Burns film is an untrustworthy guide through the many decades of the genre’s evolution. Or, to borrow Tucker’s memorable phrasing: “Burns has traveled down Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway’ with a busted GPS.” The film’s reliance on “stars” to tell country music’s complex story is, ironically, an inevitable result of the producers’ decision to listen perhaps too closely to the one scholar allowed into the Burns fold. Bill C. Malone’s pioneering book Country Music USA, first published in 1969, clearly served as the Burns team’s roadmap through the genre’s changing landscape. That book, according to scholar and arts administrator Bill Ivey, defined country music through emphasizing “star performers and musical styles” while ignoring “the possibility that other forces—industrial, psychological, etc.—may be central to an understanding of country music and even to an understanding of individual performing careers” (Bill Ivey, 289, The Country Reader). Despite that and other limitations (including the stereotyping of the people who make and listen to country music), Malone’s book has been influential, shaping public concepts about the genre. According to Ivey, “It is Country Music USA that established ‘country music’ as the term describing an entire musical tradition (as opposed to, for example, ‘country and western’), and it is Malone’s work which clearly placed bluegrass, western swing, and cowboy music as subsets within that large tradition—relationships that were by no means accepted in the late 1960s” (288). But if country music is truly a catch-all genre that subsumes many distinct musical traditions (such as 1920s-era old-time stringband music) as Malone argued in his book, the script for the Burns film followed Malone’s lead while showing little grasp of the cultural nuances and stylistic subtleties of those traditions.
Burns’ Country Music, then, conformed to the standard history of the genre, though Malone wasn’t the only instigator of that standard history. The country music industry fostered its own narrative of the genre, and Burns was beholden to that industry for providing him with access to resources (people, financial support). Since the 1940s the country music industry has claimed Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, as the genre’s “capital,” and it is hardly surprising that the Burns film aligned itself with the City of Nashville and the State of Tennessee. On January 28, 2019, the Johnson City Press reported that “The state of Tennessee plans to invest $1 million in an upcoming Ken Burns documentary on country music,” which the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development Commissioner suggested was “an excellent deal for the state.” From the arrangement the Burns film would receive official endorsement and emphatic branding, including a March 2019 promotional tour across Tennessee accompanied by state officials and music stars. For its part of the deal, the state would benefit from inevitable tourism; according to that article in the Press, “40 million viewers are expected in the first showing of the series, which will include filming in Bristol, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.” (Many months later, Nielsen’s Live +7 data documented that the initial screening of the film on PBS over 8 days in September 2019 in fact drew 34 million viewers.)
State officials no doubt assumed that the national broadcast of the Burns film—with Tennessee positioned as the birthplace (Bristol), cradle (Knoxville), teenage stomping ground (Memphis), and adult home (Nashville) of country music—would inspire many tourist visits to the places discussed in the film. Accordingly, in late 2019 the State initiated the Ken Burns’ Country Music Passport as part of the Tennessee Music Pathways statewide tourism initiative. Prospective visitors were encouraged to obtain “passports” (online, at interstate welcome centers, or at destination sites) and to have them stamped at the 22 official country music-related sites across Tennessee. This tourism program promised visitors that upon acquiring a sufficient number of passport stamps, they could win a souvenir (for 5 stamps a custom Hatch Show print, for 15 a Ken Burns Country Music companion book, and for all 22 a “branded Tennessee Music Pathways Guitar”). It remains to be seen if this tourism campaign successfully converts enthusiasm for a film into a surge of tourists. It should be noted, though, that the 22 music-related “Passport” sites were referenced in the Burns film. Hence, the officially mandated narrative of Tennessee’s role in the evolution of country music is being authorized by a Nashville-based state government-initiated tourism agenda and by a celebrity filmmaker and his team who, in Tucker’s observation, betray cynicism toward the genre in that they “[don’t] seem to think country music holds up to such scrutiny.” As evidence of imbalanced representation of country music history, more than half of the 22 sites in the “Burns Passport” program are located in or near Nashville, while the section of the state most impactful in the early twentieth century emergence of country music—upper East Tennessee—is granted just one site (the Birthplace of Country Music Museum). It is, alas, easy to imagine tourists rushing to or from Bristol to have their passports stamped at that museum before driving off to other Ken Burns-approved sites in other sections of the state, unknowingly bypassing other nearby music-related sites of significance. Meriting a visit, for instance, are two locales in downtown Johnson City overlooked in the Burns film and thus omitted from the “Burns Passport” list (these sites are also not included in the larger-tent Tennessee Music Pathways initiative): the historical marker for the Johnson City Sessions and the site of the office and studio for the pioneering bluegrass music label Rich-R-Tone Records. And sites in other upper East Tennessee communities would contribute to the grand narrative of country music if only more people could hear those stories.
Tennessee’s alliance with Burns on a major celebration of country music begs the question—and I ask it as someone with a stake in the answer, being a resident of that state and a scholar of that genre: whose interpretation of country music history should we regard as most authoritative, most worthy of our collective attention and financial support? The State of Tennessee and the Ken Burns team have had their opportunity to advance a narrative exploring that history, and that narrative was sanctioned by the top-down power of culture brokers. Now it is time for corrections and counter-narratives from scholars, community historians, and regional musicians and their families—people whose only obligation, motivated solely by their personal connection to the music and to the culture that produced the music, is to tell the truth, their truth.
Early Country Music, from the Bottom Up
Just as various creeks contributed their humble allotments of water to form the Cumberland—the river that majestically reflects the Nashville skyline—various traditional and popular musics flowed together in the early twentieth century to become country music. The industry that emerged in Nashville by the 1940s to capitalize on that genre has not consistently (or, many would say, sufficiently) credited the full range of formative influences that spawned the genre. Those beholden to that industry (including Ken Burns) have generally identified the 1927 Bristol Sessions as the main aha! moment for country music, while the many manifestations of musical discovery that preceded that event have been marginalized. Having spent years researching and telling the story of the Bristol Sessions, I recognize and regret that the event—or, more precisely, the present-day preoccupation with it—has distracted the public’s attention from country music’s actual emergence as a discreet genre during the early-to-mid-1920s (if not earlier). In the several years before the Bristol Sessions, working-class musicians from across the southeastern U.S. (but also from the Midwest, the West, and beyond) began integrating repertoire and performance styles from various cultural sources, and those musicians embraced new recording technologies, which allowed them to expand their audiences and extend their ability to make a living through music-making. Accordingly, in the first half of the 1920s many musicians sought out established studios in order to record their music. After many such recordings sold respectably when released commercially on discs, A&R producers from a range of labels ventured on expeditions to locate and record more music that blended tradition and modernity, finding it in locations near where the musicians who made that music lived.
It was at one such location—in Bristol during July-August 1927—that Ralph Peer captured the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. But by 1927 the genre had already evolved into a commercially viable and artistically vigorous genre, having already spawned hundreds of compelling recordings. The fact that so many recordings before the Bristol Sessions have been forgotten has less to do with quality of performance and more to do with inferiority of presentation. Through 1925 or 1926 (depending on the record company), musicians recorded through the acoustic horn microphone, yielding discs that, however commercially successful and masterfully performed, bore unavoidably inferior soundscapes. Some earlier recordings were truly groundbreaking and no less worthy of our attention today than anything recorded at Bristol. If not for the styles, themes, and repertoire represented on those acoustic recordings, country music would never have evolved into what it became. Yet, since more dynamic sound-capture was possible after the introduction of the electronic carbon microphone during the mid-1920s, the recordings made at the 1927 Bristol Sessions were far superior sonically to those made only a couple of years earlier. Electronic microphones allowed for the documentation of more complex sound textures and for the preservation of a broader range of performances than possible with acoustic microphones.
That said, recordings from the first half of the 1920s memorably express the cultural blending—rural and urban, white and black, simple and sophisticated, South and North, East and West—that gave rise to the genre retroactively identified as country music. The twenty recordings subsequently discussed in this article coincided with the post-World War I rise of Modernism—the belief that a more realized society might be achieved through technological, scientific, economic, and artistic advancement. Americans, despite their nation’s seemingly entrenched racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender divisions, embraced modernity, and, as one manifestation of it, many people—regardless of where they lived—relished the prospect of owning physical copies of discs that permanently showcased performances of the music they knew and loved.
Granted that Bristol was dubbed (by a former mayor of that city) “the Birthplace of Country Music” for hosting the 1927 Bristol Sessions, these twenty early-to-mid 1920s recordings made in various cities—primarily New York City and Atlanta—document the actual emergence of the unnamed genre. And for a genre later characterized by its “star” system, country music early on incorporated stylistic and repertorial influences contributed by anonymous traditional practitioners. Early country music likewise borrowed from such commercial sources as minstrelsy, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley, while also absorbing elements from elite music (the legendary venue in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, was so-named in a backhanded acknowledgement of that fact). Country music is more complex than Ken Burns reckoned, and today, thanks to the work of many scholars its history is not a mystery.
Fifty years ago, however, the genre was culturally marginalized because it had not been studied. Malone when writing Country Music USA had to work in a kind of void, having little scholarship from which to draw. Today, the genre receives attention on the radio and in the media, of course, but also in the classroom, and a trail of illuminating scholarship has followed in Malone’s wake. The problem is, country music’s popular front only rarely—and then only selectively—consults the perspectives of scholars when telling the genre’s story.
Having begun with a critique of a film that purported to tell the story of country music but that took the well-lit highway and avoided the overlooked but essential side-road and off-road areas, this essay concludes with a plea for people to listen—to the perspectives of scholars who have dedicated their lives to telling the story of country music deeply, fully, and objectively, if out of the public eye; and to the actual recordings that inspired the creation of country music. What follows are 20 important recordings from 20 pioneering musical acts—these contributed immeasurably to creating country music, and, as we enter country music’s second century, should not be neglected.
20 Early Country Records, 1921-1926
No definitive agreement has been reached among scholars regarding what was—or what should be considered as—the first country music recording. Genre histories generally either begin with Eck Robertson’s 1922 recordings in New York City or those by Fiddlin’ John Carson from Atlanta in 1923—or, bypassing 4 or 5 years of crowded recording history, some narratives posit that the genre was born in Bristol in 1927. Tony Russell, in his country music discography, identifies the oldest recording in country music history as this 1921 recording, from the debut release by the Vaughan Quartet. One of several groups working for James D. Vaughan’s Southern gospel publishing company (based in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee), this vocal ensemble toured the South interpreting arrangements from Vaughan hymnbooks, and beginning in 1921 the Vaughan Quartet recorded for the Vaughan company’s own label (the group would later record for Victor Records). Originally recorded by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers in 1909 as “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” the Vaughan Quartet offered a respectful interpretation of a nineteenth century spiritual. Vocally not as risk-taking as the orchestrated 1923 version by the African American vocal group Wiseman Sextette, the Vaughan’s version nonetheless supports latter-day observations that genre-divisions were arbitrary and that music bridged the gulf between groups divided by legally mandated social divisions.
In 1922, champion fiddler and former Confederate soldier Henry Gilliland (1845-1924) was visiting an Old Confederate Soldiers’ Reunion in Richmond, Virginia, accompanied by a much younger fiddler Alexander Campbell “Eck” Robertson (1887-1975). Perhaps on a whim, the two men decided to travel to New York City in hopes of making records of their music. Gilliland, a Missourian who had settled in southern Oklahoma, and Robertson, an Arkansan reared in the Texas panhandle who worked as a piano tuner, arrived in the Victor Records studio, but the producer was skeptical regarding the commercial potential for the traditional repertoire brought by the two musicians. There was relatively little precedent at Victor or at any rival label for recording Southern white vernacular music, but the producer granted the two fiddlers an audition. As he recalled in a 1960s interview, Robertson launched into a solo rendition of “Sallie Gooden,” and his interpretive flair on that fiddle tune prompted the producer to say, “By Ned, that’s fine! … Come back in the morning at nine o’clock and we’ll make a test record.” That next morning, Robertson recorded a number of fiddle duets with Gilliland, including “Arkansaw Traveler” and this recording, “Turkey in the Straw.” Robertson returned to the studio the next day (July 1, 1922) without Gilliland and recorded several fiddle tunes, including his classic performance of “Sallie Gooden.” Although Victor’s publicity department characterized Robertson as exhibiting “the very best style of the travelling cowboy fiddler,” these 1922 fiddle recordings did not sell well when released in 1923: “Sallie Gooden” in April 1923—a few months before the release of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s first recordings—and “Turkey in the Straw” in November 1923.
#3: “Arkansaw Traveler,” by William B. Houchens
William Bright (“Bill”) Houchens (1884-1949), from Sharpsburg, Illinois, played several instruments, including fiddle, banjo, piano, and zither. Particularly adept at fiddle, he made 17 recordings on the instrument (14 of which were released) for Gennett during the period 1922-1924, and never recorded again. On Houchens’s first release was his sprightly instrumental interpretation (featuring Saloma Dunlap on piano accompaniment), of the nineteenth century comedy routine “Arkansaw Traveler.” Recorded September 18, 1922, less than three months after that same tune was recorded by Henry Gilliland and Eck Robertson in New York City for Victor, Houchen’s version was released several months earlier (in December 1922, simultaneously released in the U.S. and Canada), challenging the notion of the primacy of the Gilliland-Robertson recordings to the rise of “hillbilly” music. A touchstone in the American fiddle repertoire since at least the mid-nineteenth century, “Arkansaw Traveler” probably circulated in plantation culture and certainly was a central repertoire piece on the minstrel stage Often performed in conjunction with the stereotyping comedic dialog typically pitting the “hick” or “rube” against the “city slicker,” the tune was recorded before Robertson and Houchens. Fiddler Don Richardson (1878-1953), a native of Clinton, North Carolina, recorded his own instrumental piano-accompanied rendition of the tune for Columbia Records in May 1916, and some aficionados of early recordings have speculated that Richardson’s disc, released in February 1917), could in fact be considered the first-ever recording of country music. Even earlier were cylinder recordings of the tune listed in a 1901 Columbia catalog and in a 1902 Edison catalog, both versions performed by Len Spencer (Edison rereleased that recording as “Return of the Arkansas Traveler” in 1910), though those renditions bore the clear stylistic mark of the vaudeville routine.
Several fiddlers have recorded this tune, a standard in the American traditional fiddle repertoire. And one non-commercial recording of the tune—eastern Kentuckian W. H. Stepp’s 1937 field recording—is legendary, having influenced Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” (from Rodeo) and the theme song for the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” ad, and having been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. But this version, a March 1924 commercial recording by Tallapoosa, Georgia-native fiddler Ahaz Augustus (A. A.) Gray, is the earliest recorded version. Proceeding through the tune’s dramatic melody slowly, with evocative droning, this version is no less powerful than Stepp’s. A seven-time Georgia state fiddle champion, Gray performed “Bonaparte’s Retreat” at the 1920 Georgia Old Time Fiddler’s Contest and placed third. He obviously loved the tune and revisited it at his only session as a solo musician, recording “Bonaparte’s Retreat” for the A-side of the only disc released from that session (in August 1924 on OKeh). Gray was clearly a versatile musician. The flipside featured his fiddled rendition of operetta composer Franz Lehár’s “Merry Widow Waltz.” And in 1930 Gray participated in a series of string ensemble recordings led by musician John Dilleshaw that showcased Gray in both fiddling and singing roles. A tune with the descriptive title of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” would seem to reflect origins in wartime. Specifically the tune might well have emerged toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), perhaps at or shortly after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. One narrative suggests that the tune was created by a Scottish piper serving in the British Army at Waterloo who created the piece to express jubilation over the victory over Napoleon’s troops; another explanation posits that Irish musicians crafted “Bonaparte’s Retreat”—possibly reworking the Irish tune “The Eagle’s Whistle”—as a mournful lament at the defeat of France, since the Irish people had long allied themselves with the French against the English. Granted its murky, undocumented origins in traditional culture, the tune was soon widely dispersed across the British Isles, and by the American Civil War, soldiers at encampments were known to pass the time by listening to musicians playing medleys of tunes, and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”—with its implied theme of victory over the enemy—was a favorite.
On June 14, 1923, OKeh A&R producer Ralph Peer—based in New York City but visiting Atlanta to conduct location recording sessions in an abandoned building on Nassau Street—reluctantly recorded two numbers by fiddler John William Carson (1868-1949), a native of Fannin County, Georgia, who was repeat winner of local old-time fiddle festivals. Peer was reluctant because he apparently thought that “Fiddlin’ John” sounded “pluperfect awful” (though Peer might have been referring to the quality of sound possible in that makeshift studio rather than Carson’s performance). Peer also believed that there was little customer interest in purchasing discs featuring traditional Anglo-American music. Local furniture store owner Polk Brockman offered to underwrite the endeavor and to provide a venue for selling any resulting commercial discs. Hence, Peer recorded Carson performing “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” (a nineteenth century parlor song composed by prolific Kentucky-born songwriter Will S. Hays) and “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow” (a traditional fiddle tune). Peer was wrong, as Carson’s disc quickly sold out locally; Carson was invited to record more material for OKeh, which helped inaugurate a boom in sales of old-time music records. “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow” was the sort of traditional fiddle tune that Carson had been playing at north Georgia fiddle contests for years, and his skilled renderings of this tune’s various animal voicings wowed crowds—and contest judges. When he finally recorded this tune at age 55, Carson was the elder stateman of Georgia fiddlers, having won numerous fiddling championships, including the state fiddling championship at the annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention in 1914 and 1923. Carson’s breakthrough recording increased his local celebrity but also inspired the competition, as several younger fiddlers—Gid Tanner, Clayton McMichen, Lowe Stokes—emerged in Carson’s wake. And at the 1924 Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, Stokes was declared that year’s statewide champion fiddler. Stokes’ displacing of Carson was chronicled that year in an article published in the periodical The Literary Digest, which reached the attention of Stephen Vincent Benet, who recast the drama of that generational changing of the guards in “The Mountain Whippoorwill; or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers Prize.” That 1925 narrative poem has generated its own legend, having been performed and recorded by several artists (including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen) and having inspired the 1979 #1 pop hit by the Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Carson was undaunted by his very public loss to Stokes, however, as he recaptured the title as Georgia’s fiddling champion in 1927.
#6: “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97” by Henry Whitter This classic disaster ballad would later be associated with Vernon Dalhart (Marion Try Slaughter), whose 1924 crooned version entitled “The Wreck of the Old 97” would become the first million-selling record in country music history. But Henry Whitter’s was the first version, recorded December 12, 1923 in New York City. The September 27, 1903, event depicted in the ballad occurred near Whitter’s hometown of Fries, Virginia, and Whitter (1892-1941) is sometimes credited for composing the ballad, but in all probability he arranged it, borrowing from a set of lyrics by Fred Jackson Lewey and Charles W. Noell and a melody borrowed from Henry Clay Work’s popular 1865 composition “The Ship that Never Returned.” The accident depicted in the ballad involved the Southern Railway mail train engineered by Joseph A. (“Steve”) Broady. On a scheduled run from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina, and hauling four cars carrying the mail, the locomotive had fallen behind schedule, and Broady was pushing the train faster than normal. After a three-mile downhill grade and approaching the curved Stillhouse Trestle just outside Danville, Virginia, Broady tried to slow the train, but the brakes failed. Broady then locked the wheels and the train derailed, plunging off the bridge and killing eleven of the people on-board. Dalhart’s “Wreck of the Old 97” was greeted by a copyright-related lawsuit. That hit rendition had incorporated Whitter’s revised, shortened version of the ballad. Yet, in 1924, David Graves George, an amateur musician who lived near the site of the accident, claimed to have been the composer, and in 1933 a court declared George the ballad’s composer and the rightful recipient of past royalties. RCA Victor (the company that released Dalhart’s record) appealed three times, and the third time the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the lower courts and granted ownership of the ballad to RCA Victor. Among the more popular American ballads, “The Wreck of the Old 97” has been recorded by artists ranging from Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Flatt and Scruggs, and Lonnie Donegan, to Hank Williams III.
“Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” is often associated with—and credited to—Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded it in 1932, but Rodgers’ version was clearly modeled on Riley Puckett’s original version, recorded March 8, 1924 in New York City. Derived from two traditional songs, the British/Irish song “Rocking the Cradle” and the Canadian song “Hush-A-Bye, Baby,” this first recorded version of “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” was a groundbreaking record, marking the first released recording by 1920s-era country star Riley Puckett, the first country hit for Columbia Records, and, perhaps most significantly, the first country recording to feature yodeling. Blind singer and guitar virtuoso Puckett (1894-1946), from Paulding County, Georgia, would record as a duo with fiddler Gid Tanner in 1924, and from 1926-1934 Puckett was a member of Tanner’s popular Georgia-based string band the Skillet Lickers. Because the song was characterized by yodeling, “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” tended to fade from the country music repertoire with the decline of yodeling as a stylistic trademark of that genre, but not before the song was covered by the Maddox Bros. and Rose (in 1951)—though on that release the song was credited to Jimmie Rodgers.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), a native of Marshall County, North Carolina, recorded “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” twice for commercial discs—acoustically in 1924 and electronically in 1928. The 1928 recording would become iconic after its inclusion in the epochal 1952 LP from Folkways Records, Anthology of American Folk Music. But Lunsford’s overlooked 1924 version—recorded for OKeh Records on March 15, 1924, in Atlanta—is in some ways the superior performance, featuring similarly hypnotic banjo playing but stronger vocals. In addition to recording extensively in both commercial location sessions and documentary field sessions, Lunsford became a fixture of the western North Carolina music scene through founding the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival in 1928; collecting ballads, songs, and tunes from others near his home; and writing songs, including the popular “Good Old Mountain Dew.” Lunsford related that he learned “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” in 1901 from Fred Moody, of Haywood County, North Carolina; the reference to “down in the bend” likely refers to Haywood County’s “Big Bend” section of the Pigeon River.
The first women to record Anglo American vernacular music during the early years of commercial country music were Samantha Bumgarner (1878-1960) and Eva Davis (dates unknown). Both could play fiddle and banjo and both were from the Great Smoky Mountains region of western North Carolina, Bumgarner from the town of Dillsboro, and Davis from Proctor, a now-abandoned community located in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In April 1924 the two women traveled to New York City to record several duets on April 22 for the Columbia label, and each recorded one solo piece (Bumgarner “Big Eyed Rabbit” and Davis “Wild Bill Jones”). “Cindy in the Meadows” was a duet featuring Bumgarner singing and playing fiddle, with Davis playing 5-string banjo. This song was a variation of the popular Appalachian frolic/play-party song “Cindy,” which in turn was probably derived from the 1848 minstrel composition “The Gal Down South,” credited to L. V. H. Crosby, with possible origins in the African American folk song “Massa Had A Yaller Gal.”
Probably derived from African American tradition with origins in an old minstrel tune, “Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy” is generally associated with early country star David Harrison Macon (1870 –1952), who recorded it on July 8, 1924, in New York City for the Vocalion label; Macon related that he learned the song from an older black performer. Born near McMinnville, Tennessee, Macon spent his teenage years in Nashville, learning to play the banjo from a circus comedian. Popularly known as Uncle Dave Macon, and acquiring the sobriquet “The Dixie Dewdrop,” Macon was the consummate showman, combining masterful banjo technique, charismatic vocals, a diverse repertoire of original and traditional songs, and a comedic sensibility. He had honed his skills as a performer on vaudeville stages before becoming the central figure of the Grand Ole Opry during its early years. Several songs featuring the line “I’m going to keep my skillet greasy,” collected during the first two decades of the twentieth century, were precursors to Macon’s song.
In August 1924, fiddler James Cowan Powers and his children Charlie (banjo), Orpha (mandolin), Carrie (guitar), and Ada (ukulele) became the first family string band in country music to make commercial records—four discs were released from a two-day recording session for Victor Records in New York City. Their recording of “Old Joe Clark,” captured on August 18, 1924, and featuring smooth vocals from “city-billy” Carson Robison, was a best-selling country record in 1924. Although “Old Joe Clark” probably originated in the nineteenth century, no printed documentation of the song is known before 1900. The namesake of the song was a real-life character known as Joseph Clark. Born in Clay County, Kentucky, in 1839, Clark was a farmer of 700 acres and then the operator of a small store and a part-time moonshiner. But he was primarily remembered as a rake, and his bad reputation was immortalized in this song, which became a regional and then a national favorite. Clark was murdered by an angry neighbor in 1886. The song named after this character—with its distinctive Mixolydian mode melody—acquired an estimated 90 verses, probably suggesting its origination as a play-party song. Today the song is a staple in old-time and bluegrass music circles.
Long considered a Carter Family classic—with the alternate title “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”—ever since that group recorded it during the 1927 Bristol Sessions, this song was movingly recorded by several acts during the mid-1920s. While Henry Whitter recorded it first (in New York for OKeh Records, on December 10, 1923), Ernest Thompson (1892–1961), a blind musician based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was responsible for perhaps the most memorable early version, recorded in September 1924. Honing his musical skills while a student at the State School for the Blind, Thompson would become adept at playing many different instruments. Building a large repertoire of songs, he performed on the street, at dances, and at music competitions, before being discovered by Columbia Records talent scout William Parks. Summoned to New York City in April 1924 to make records, Thompson travelled with Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis, and when in the studio there he recorded about 18 numbers. Thompson’s skill as a song interpreter ensured that this song and other popular material of the era—Kerry Mills’ “Red Wing” as another example—would become country standards. For his first marathon two-day recording session, Thompson was paid $100 plus expenses, and he was promised a return engagement. At that follow-up session, held in New York City between September 9-12, 1924, Thompson on September 9 recorded this version of “Weeping Willow Tree” and a dozen other songs. It is difficult to know when this now-ubiquitous song was composed—the earliest printed version of this song, according to Guthrie Meade, was in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 book American Songbag—but “Willow” owes its origins to such earlier songs as the 1909 “Under the Willow Tree” (Belden) and two Stephen Foster songs: “Under the Willow” (1860) and “Bury Me in the Morning, Mother” (1863). The 1884 song “Beneath the Willow Tree” might have contributed lyrical content to the eventual country music classic. As for the symbolic meaning of weeping willows, the weeping willow in the song might refer not to an actual tree but rather to the popular willow motif (of Germanic origin and signifying mourning for earthly life) applied in the 19thcentury to gravestones.
Granted being released in an era before published record sales charts, former light opera singer Vernon Dalhart’s recordings of “The Prisoner’s Song”—he waxed an acoustic version on August 13, 1924 in New York City for Victor Records and later made an electronic version—found enthusiastic buyers in every corner of America and became a cross-over hit. Statistics regarding the number of copies sold differ widely. Documents generated at the time by Victor accountants put sales of “The Prisoner’s Song,” composed by Guy Massey, at 1.3 million copies, but later estimates suggested a higher production run (perhaps several million). The popularity of this record translated into a million copies sold of the musical arrangement on sheet music. The song’s popularity lingered for two generations, receiving cover versions from artists ranging from Eddy Arnold, Patti Page, Kay Starr, Hank Snow, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, and Loudon Wainwright III. Among all the artists who recorded during country music’s initial boom period, Dalhart was not only a commercial force, but also a charismatic stylist who plied his formal musical training to craft sophisticated recordings that appealed to a broad audience. Born Marion Try Slaughter in Texas, Dalhart (1883-1948) was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981, and “The Prisoner’s Song” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
The band that inspired the term “hillbilly music,” the most commonly used early name (among several that circulated in the 1920s) for the genre in which its recordings were marketed, the Hill Billies were probably the most polished among the early string bands. Comprised of Albert Green “Al” Hopkins (piano, vocals), Joe Hopkins (guitar), John Rector (banjo), and Alonzo Elvis “Tony” Alderman (fiddle), the Hill Billies recorded “Sally Ann”—a popular fiddle tune in the group’s home territory (the North Carolina-Virginia border)—for OKeh Records on January 15, 1925, in New York City. Six months later Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded his own version, accompanied by his daughter Rosa Lee. The earliest documentation of that tune was in 1918 as part of the song “Sally Anne,” which Burnsville, North Carolina, singer Dellie Hughes sang for English folklorist Cecil Sharp. The melody of the fiddle tune “Sally Ann” is related to the tune “Great Big Taters in Sandy Land.”
#15: “Boll Weevil Blues,” by Gid Tanner
When this recording was released, the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) was what ecologists would label an “invasive species.” That insect originated in central Mexico yet migrated into the U.S. in the 1890s, soon feasting on cotton across the South. Because no natural predator existed to control its spread, the insect by the 1920s had decimated that crop and was crippling the South’s economy, which was heavily dependent upon cotton. Southerners from various backgrounds were united in their reaction—people were aghast at the insect’s impact and amazed at its persistence. Many songs emerged in reaction to the boll weevil phenomenon. Urban blues singer Ma Rainey recorded the first song about the insect, in 1923 (country bluesman Charley Patton had allegedly composed another boll weevil blues piece years before, but did not record it until the late 1920s). Not long afterward came the first country music boll weevil recording, made by Walton County, Georgia-native James Gideon “Gid” Tanner on March 7, 1924 in New York City for Columbia Records. Tanner’s version, accompanied on guitar by Riley Puckett, was the first recording by this powerful fiddler-singer. As a bandleader, Tanner (1885-1960) had a penchant for forging artistically successful collaborations, including duos with Puckett and banjoist Land Norris as well as with the popular string band the Skillet Lickers. The boll weevil remained viable as a thematic element for songs, inspiring powerful recordings by such diverse artists as Lead Belly, Fats Domino, Eddy Cochran, Connie Francis, Pete Seeger, and Jimmy Page, as well as the 1961 #2 pop hit “The Boll Weevil Song” by Brook Benton. The weevil infestation continued to suppress the cotton industry until the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s initiated the successful Boll Weevil Eradication Program.
Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers (featuring Poole on vocals and banjo, Posey Rorer on fiddle, and Norman Woodlieff on guitar) recorded this wistful song at the start of Poole’s short career, during an electronically recorded session for Columbia Records held on July 27, 1925 in New York City. The song was paired with Poole’s best-known recording “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” on a disc that sold over 100,000 copies; the group received $75 for their participation in the session. Other musicians fell for this song’s plaintive tale of hard times in rural America. In October 1925 George Reneau recorded his version of “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister,” soon followed in August 1926 by Ernest Stoneman, who recorded the song twice in quick succession. Poole (1892-1931), born and reared in the North Carolina piedmont, worked in textile mills, but his passion was music. Poole and a changing configuration of bandmates were one of the more popular old-time ensembles of the era, releasing many more singular interpretations of old-time music through 1930. Poole died from alcoholism the next year, but his legend and his records continued to influence and inspire new generations of folk, old-time, bluegrass, and rock musicians.
Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman (1893-1968) recorded this ballad—based on the notorious 1912 ship disaster in the north Atlantic—in OKeh’s New York City studio during January 1925, and the recording, featured on Stoneman’s debut release, became one of the best-selling records of the day, prompting interpretations from Vernon Dalhart (June 1925) and George Reneau (October 1925). Noting Stoneman’s impact in the emerging “hillbilly music” market, Ralph Peer invited the musician back to OKeh’s New York studio in May 1925; later that summer Stoneman travelled to Asheville, North Carolina, to participate in Peer’s/OKeh’s location recording sessions at the George Vanderbilt Hotel. With his soulful voice, prowess on several instruments, and a broad repertoire, Stoneman was the consummate professional, and his OKeh releases soon attracted attention from other record labels. Stoneman became the ultimate free lancer, and in June 1926 he recorded the ballad again (as “The Sinking of the Titanic”) for the Edison label. Many decades later “The Titanic” was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Peer, after leaving OKeh to become chief A&R producer for Victor Records, continued to work with Stoneman, and in July 1927 Stoneman served both as recording artist and talent consultant for Peer’s location sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. Stoneman’s solo recording career ended during the Depression, but his influence continued in his postwar family band and in the music of the many folk revivalist performers. Stoneman’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 was viewed by many observers as not only appropriate but long overdue.
This topical song references the notorious murder, in an Atlanta factory during April 1913, of 13-year-old pencil factory worker Mary Phagan. While the defense at the criminal court trial as well as latter-day historians implicate that factory’s janitor Jim Conley as the murderer, factory boss Leo Max Frank was charged with the crime. Frank, who was Jewish, received a death sentence, and subsequent legal appeals, which went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, failed. When Georgia Governor John M. Slaton, citing new evidence, commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison, a lynch mob intercepted Frank and hanged him in Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia. One Georgian who followed the trial as it unfolded was millworker and musician Fiddlin’ John Carson, who composed this song at the time and performed it in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood during the lengthy textile strike in 1914-1915. On May 27, 1925, the song was revived by Vernon Dalhart as the B-side to his huge hit “The Death of Floyd Collins.” On June 24, 1925, Carson’s daughter Rosa Lee Carson (1909-1992), who soon would record under the name Moonshine Kate, covered her father’s song as her first release for OKeh, making her among the earliest solo female recording acts in country music history (preceded only by Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis, who each recorded solo in 1924). Curiously, Fiddlin’ John Carson never recorded this, his own composition. In 1986, recognizing the probable presence of anti-Semitism in the treatment of Frank, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles officially pardoned Frank.
This was the second recorded version of a gospel standard composed in 1914 by Baptist preacher James Moore—the Jenkins Family recorded the first version for OKeh Records in March 1926. But Smith’s Sacred Singers had the big hit with “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” after their version—recorded April 23, 1926 in Atlanta—was released in October 1926, selling an estimated 277,000 copies for Columbia Records and generating a public craving for more gospel records. Other major labels followed suit, and less than a year later Victor Records’ Ralph Peer pursued gospel material in earnest during the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions. But Smith’s Sacred Singers, a Braselton, Georgia-based gospel group led by Methodist teacher J. Frank Smith, went unrivaled as a gospel recording act, generating dozens of gospel sides for Columbia. After leaving that label in 1930, Smith’s Sacred Singers commenced recording again for Bluebird Records from 1934-35. Boasting some of the most polished vocals during that era, Smith’s Sacred Singers proved that gospel recordings could balance heartful emotional reverence with stylistically crafted vocal performances. The group’s success presaged the rise in popularity of the Southern Gospel genre.
At the dawn of commercial recording, American vernacular music was a gumbo comprised of many different ingredients—various ethnic music traditions—coexisting in their uniqueness but also blending together. Despite the record industry’s efforts to construct a separate market for black audiences (“race music”) than for whites (“hillbilly music”), considerable cultural cross-pollination occurred between the two groups, a circumstance evident in their respective music traditions. Since colonial times blacks had reinvigorated music genres associated with whites, while some whites (such as Joel Walker Sweeney) had imitated black music styles and themes on the minstrel stage and other whites (including the Original Dixieland Jass Band) had emulated such black genres as jazz and blues. Many white musicians plied their own interpretations of the blues, with OKeh Records artist Frank Hutchison most stylistically faithful to the form. While working alongside black coal miners in Logan County, West Virginia, Hutchison (1897-1945) learned to play slide guitar and harmonica and to sing the blues with a sense of the nuances and inflections involved. Hutchison recorded “Worried Blues” twice for OKeh— in New York City on September 28, 1926, and in St. Louis on April 29, 1927. Released discs from Hutchison’s brief (three-year) recording career significantly influenced subsequent musicians associated with the urban folk music revival, including Bob Dylan and Doc Watson (whose 1965 recorded rendition of Hutchison’s “Worried Blues” was entitled “Weary Blues”).