In 2013 Bear Family Records released their impressive four-CD set with hard-bound book The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: Can You Sing or Play Old Time Music?,reviewed in the OTH (Vol. 14 No. 5). Because the price didn’t fit the pocketbook of many of us in the old-time community, sales of this wonderful collection were quite low. I thought hard and long about it, decided I already had a lot of the best material, and passed on purchasing it. This new CD from Bear Family shows me a portion of what I missed when I didn’t buy the full set.
The Johnson City sessions for Columbia Records, unlike the Victor recordings in Bristol in 1927 and 1928, brought no huge hit records and launched the careers of no major stars. Those Victor recordings produced by Ralph Peer gave us the first releases of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the latter being arguably the most important performer in the evolution of country music toward the singer-centered approach to the music that continues today. Frank Walker, Columbia’s record producer at the Johnson City sessions, seemed to choose music less with commercial appeal in mind, but more capture some of the interesting and otherwise overlooked performers and songs.
Some classic, one might even call them quintessential, sides are among the recordings Walker made in Johnson City, such as several that later were numbered among the choices Harry Smith selected for the iconic Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952.The Bentley Boys “Down on Penny’s Farm,” Bill and Belle Reed’s “Old Lady and the Devil,” and Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird,” the latter possibly as influential on the old-time music played since the Anthology as any 78 record. Others on this set have become staples in our contemporary old-time repertoire: “Tell It to Me,” “Three Men Went A-Hunting,” “Johnson City Blues,” and “Green Valley Waltz.” And there are many others that should be.
As stated above, no genuine hits came out of this batch of country records, the biggest-selling being Earl Shirkey and Roy Harper’s (Harper was actually Roy Harvey) “When the Roses Bloom For the Bootlegger.” This disc sold more than 70,000 copies, a relatively big hit in the day. Most of the others, with only a few exceptions, sold fewer than 5,000 copies. Frank Walker may have been less interested in the sales aspect of the record business than Victor’s Ralph Peer, but these products of his two trips to Johnson City are every bit as essential as those from the Bristol Sessions. Though Bristol has been called the “Birthplace of Country Music,” that’s perhaps for putting the music on a more commercial and evolutionary path. The Johnson City sessions, like those in Knoxville, Asheville, Atlanta, and so on, give us an exciting window into the 1920s, and even pre-1920s, sounds of traditional music, with the focus on some forgotten music and mostly little-known performers.
If, like me, you didn’t feel like you could spring for the four-CD box set, you should try this single-CD release. Not necessarily all the best of the Johnson City sessions, but a fine variety of topnotch music that is bound to interest, entertain, and surprise you. Bear Family has done their usual superb remastering job, so that I felt like Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland were right in the room, “Just Pickin’” for me.