Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol, Part Three
Until this point I have developed a unilinear narrative from Carson's June, 1923, Okeh session through the incorporation of The Original Hill Billies. In reality this development did not flow on an even or straight plane. It is not likely that one group alone could have had such an important neologistic influence unless other conditions were propitious in the record industry. My personal research had focused on the crucial Okeh label. Other students have explored the many companies that climbed onto the hillbilly music bandwagon. Here only a sketchy outline of a few persons and events is listed to provide the backdrop against which The Hill Billies' name got away from its band.37
It was early in 1924 when Ralph Peer and Polk Brockman first sensed the dimension of the old time tunes boom, and many of their rival company colleagues were as quick as they were in their response to the new idiom. (The recording industry is notorious for the speed with which it covers hits – quick pressings by different artists of best sellers.) The talent was there in Atlanta waiting to be discovered. Columbia executives found Riley Puckett, a blind street-singer and guitarist with a sweet tenor voice. He had brought his songbag to the city from Alpharetta, Georgia. Also from rural Georgia was Gid Tanner, a Dacula cotton farmer and fiddler.38 Late in February they made Atlanta test pressings and on March 7-8, 1924, they were in Columbia's New York studio repeating the earlier Okeh pattern. Puckett sang and picked his way through "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" with fiddle accompaniment by Tanner. For the coupling, "Rock All Our Babies to Sleep," he yodeled a bit, thus introducing a technique that was destined to longevity in country music. Their disc (107-D) was released on May 20 in Columbia's popular series, and the Georgians were soon followed north by two ladies from Sylva, North Carolina, Samantha Bumgarner, banjo, and Eva Davis, fiddle. "Big-Eyed Rabbit/Wild Bill Jones" (129-D) was their vocal-instrumental debut.39 Next came a blind minstrel, Ernest Thompson, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who could play twenty-five instruments. Just as Puckett had used Carson's "Log Cabin" for a first record, Thompson covered Whitter's "The Wreck of the Southern Old 97," linking it with "Are You from Dixie" (Columbia 130-D).
The specific identity of the sales and recording executives who so quickly established Columbia's eminence in the hillbilly field is not yet determined. Probably, the credit was shared by W.S. Fuhri, a phonograph industry pioneer and Okeh's general sales manager in 1923 prior to becoming a Columbia vice president in 1924, and Frank Walker, a talent scout with particular skill in recording race artists. By November, 1924, Columbia printed a booklet, Familiar Tunes on Fiddle, Guitar, Banjo, Harmonica, and Accordion, designed to list the records of Tanner, Puckett, Thompson, and others "whose names are best known where the square dance has not been supplanted by the fox-trot."40 This publication became the first exclusive compilation of traditional folk material gathered by the then very young hillbilly record industry. By January, 1925, the firm had enough folk material to begin a Columbia 15000-D series, Familiar Tunes – Old and New, paralleling its own 14000-D race offerings. At this time Okeh was still releasing country material on pop labels. Hence, Columbia was the first company to see the possibilities in an exclusive white folk series. By October, 1925, Okeh followed suite with a similar 45000 Old Time Tunes category, and, eventually, nearly every American record company established some type of hillbilly series.
The second firm to emulate Okeh in 1924 was Vocalion, finding three traditional and colorful Tennessee performers for starters. Blind George Reneau, still in his twenties, had come down from the hills to play his guitar-harmonica combination on the streets of Knoxville. Discovered by a local Sterchi Brothers record distributor in May, he was sent to Cliff Hess, Vocalion's New York A&R man, to cover Whitter's initial disc. Reneau's version of "The Wreck on the Southern 97/Lonesome Road Blues" (14809) was the firm's opening bid for the new market. During July it was released in the Red Records pop series and soon led to a Special Records for Southern States listing in public announcements. Next came "Uncle Am" Stuart, a 73-year-old safe and vault salesman, champion fiddler, and raconteur from Morristown, Tennessee.41 In the first week of June he was in Manhattan recording "Cumberland Gap/Grey Eagle" (14839). While in the Aeolian Hall studio, he favored New York's WJZ radio audience with a program – perhaps the first Tennessee mountain music to be broadcast in the metropolis.
The third and most influential Vocalion pioneer was "Uncle" Dave Macon (The Dixie Dew Drop): banjoist, entertainer extraordinaire, shaper of the developing commercial country music tradition.42 His first offering was "I'm Going Away to Leave You, Love/Chewing Gum" (14847). Macon's seventh released disc, "All I've Got's Gone/Hill Billie Blues" (14904), was recorded in July, 1924, and issued at the year's end, a few months before The Hill Billies record was on the market. To my knowledge, Macon's blues, which opens "I am a billy and I live in the hills," is the first in a long series of songs using the catchy word hillbilly in a title. Also, it is the first record label to bear the term. The song is actually Macon's reconstruction of a W.C. Handy recomposed folksong usually called "Hesitation Blues" – the name Macon used when he sang it in personal appearances and on the air.43 Today we lack knowledge as to why or when he altered or renamed the old song. Was "Hill Billie Blues" part of his early theatrical repertoire or was it put together for recording purposes? Nor is there evidence of any special role for this particular disc in extending the term. Seemingly, Macon never asserted any semantic priority as did both Peer and Hopkins for their January, 1925, meeting.
During 1924 three competitors – Okeh, Columbia, Vocalion – had entrenched themselves in the hillbilly arena, and, finally, the largest and richest unit of the American record industry, Victor, decided to enter the field. Its own personnel could not have escaped notice of competitive sales by the new country artists in the area roughly bounded by Roanoke, Atlanta, and Knoxville. Because the three firms who had discovered Carson, Whitter, Tanner, Puckett, Reneau, and Macon were New York-based and geared to national distribution, it was inevitable that the new discs would sell themselves simply by being in the catalogs. Nevertheless, in May, 1924, Columbia began to advertise such records with full pages in the monthly Talking Machine World, a handsomely designed and well edited dealers trade journal. Of the initial Tanner-Puckett disc Columbia stated: "No Southerner can hear them and go away without them. And it will take a pretty hard-shelled Yankee to leave them." In June the firm's copy writer exclaimed that "The fiddle and guitar craze is sweeping northward," and Okeh, not to be outdone, announced that "the craze for this ‘Hill Country Music' has spread to thousands of communities north, east, west, as well as in the south and the fame of these artists is ever increasing." By September Okeh had to remind the trade again via a full page, two-color ad that Fiddlin' John Carson's records "were the very first of their kind ever offered."44
During November, 1924, Victor made its own discreet announcement to the trade:
The old-time fiddler has come into his own again with the music loving public and this fact is reflected in the demand for records of the music of the old fiddlers. The Victor Talking Machine Company has taken cognizance of public interest to issue an attractive four-page folder dealer distribution with a cover design showing the fiddler presiding over the old-time barn dance, and a caption of "Olde Time Fiddlin' Tunes." In the folder are listed four records by Fiddlin' Powers and family, three records by A.C. (Eck) Robertson, and two Southern mountaineer songs on a record by Vernon Dalhart with fiddle accompaniment. The back of the folder is used to call attention to a negro spiritual record by ex-Governor Taylor of Tennessee and his Old Limber Quartet, and two novelty records.45
Victor's press release writer could not have known that Dalhart's record was destined to nationalize hillbilly music; nor could the writer have sensed any irony in his item's juxtoposition of Robertson's and Dalhart's names. On June 30, 1922 – a year before Peer's Atlanta expedition – Victor had recorded in its New York studio a pair of traditional fiddlers, Henry C. Gilliland from Oklahoma and A.C. Robertson from Texas, playing a solo, "Sally Gooden" (Robertson), and a duet, "Arkansaw Traveler."46 The southerners had journeyed to New York to break into records following a trip to the 1922 United Confederate Veterans' Reunion at Richmond, Virginia. Victor did not release the pair's beautiful, archaic tunes (18956) until April, 1923 – well before Okeh's similar discs were on the market. Robertson was fully as traditional as Carson, Tanner, or Stuart; however, the Texan's piece led to no trend, let alone movement, within this major company. Whether Victor was unable or unwilling to exploit folk music in 1922 we do not know. However, by the fall of 1924, apparently induced by one of its own very popular artists, Victor made a cautious entry into the hillbilly area.
Vernon Dalhart, born Marion Try Slaughter in the bayou region of east Texas, had come to New York in 1912 as a light opera tenor and had succeeded on the stage.47 By 1916 he turned to a new recording career, favoring the sentimental and popular pieces of the day including much pseudo-Negro "plantation" material. An apocryphal story tells us that Thomas Edison himself launched Dalhart's recording career because of a favorable response to "Can't Yo Heah Me Callin' Caroline?" But the Texas tenor had heard enough traditional folksong – Anglo and Negro – in his boyhood to be able to leave both Victor Herbert and Stephen Foster behind in favor of his down-home folk style.
We do not know now whether Dalhart was prompted by someone in the record industry to turn to the new field of country music or whether he followed his own instincts, but for the Edison firm during the summer of 1924 he covered Whitter's railroad ballad accompanied by his own mouth-harp and Frank Ferara's Hawaiian guitar. "The Wreck on the Southern Old 97" (Edison Diamond Disc 51316) was backed with an Ernest Hare black-face song. It was issued in August, and in a month the ballad was dubbed for release on Edison Blue Amberol Cylinder 4898. Neither disc nor cylinder made a special stir, but their good sales did help Dalhart persuade his Victor executives, one of whom was Nat Shilkret, to let him record the ballad for them. Dalhart now coupled "The Wreck of the Old 97" with his cousin Guy Massey's piece, "The Prisoner's Song" (19427). It was released on October 3, 1924, entered in Victor's Olde Time folder, and went on to make history by selling more than seven million copies and precipitating complex legal battles. The fascinating story of these two songs and this particular record has been commented on in writing that ranges from erudite Supreme Court decision to popular fiction by Harry K. McClintock (Haywire Mac). Here we need pause only to note that Dalhart's nasal "Wreck" and banal "Prisoner's Song" nationalized old time music. Victor 19427 quickly reached a coast-to-coast market where records by Carson, Tanner, Macon, and the Hopkinses had had chiefly local or regional appeal.
A previous Victor disc, "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'" (19171), by a Chicago radio artist, Wendell Hall, had been the company's best seller late in 1923 and early in 1924.48 Although Hall's song, self-accompanied on the ukulele, was based on a country dance tune and was widely covered by other artists and labels it had no direct influence on the new genre. The public accepted "Rain No Mo'" as a pop item and "Prisoner's Song" as a hillbilly piece. Why the difference? Dalhart's songs followed a trail blazed by traditional folksingers; Hall's piece was a novelty. Also, Victor was willing to exploit Dalhart as a country singer. In their 1920-23 catalogs they had described him as a Century Theater light opera tenor. After the release of 19427 this publicity was deleted, as were his operatic and standard discs. In fact the company made a conscious search for southern mountain material for him.
When in February, 1925, Floyd Collins died in a Kentucky sand cave, the public was galvanized. His dramatic rescue attempt was covered by nationwide press and radio; his death struggle was excruciatingly slow; many symbolic elements were sensed in his story. Polk Brockman, still searching for good sales material, asked (by telegram from Florida) his own Okeh recording artist in Atlanta, the Reverend Andrew Jenkins – blind newsboy, evangelist, poet, and musician – to write a Collins song. Until this time each pioneer hillbilly performer had come into the studios with his own stock of traditional ballads. But now "Blind Andy" composed a new one on demand for a music industry executive. Jenkins' daughter, Irene Spain, recalls the scene on her front porch after the receipt of the assignment. The news story was known to both of them from press and radio. As her father composed, accompanying himself on the guitar, Irene took down the words. Within four hours she scored the music and sent text and tune on to Brockman.49 She now recalls, wistfully, that if she had known it was destined to be a million seller, and an American folksong as well, she would have added a few grace notes to color its melodic simplicity.
Brockman gave "The Death of Floyd Collins" to Fiddlin' John Carson for recording on April 14-26 days after Collins was found dead I his cave – but Carson's Okeh version did not take hold. In time, it caught the ear of Dalhart, who recorded it for Victor on September 9, 1925, in New York. It was coupled with another fresh topical item, "The Wreck of the Shenandoah" (19779), composed by Carson J. Robison under the pseudonym Maggie Andrews (his mother's maiden name), and announced in the November supplement. However, in December the dirigible piece was dropped (at the request of Commander Lansdowne's widow) in favor of another Jenkins song, "The Dream of a Miner's Child" – itself a recomposition of an earlier English parlour ballad – and the new pair (19821) was Dalhart's second national hit. "The Wreck" he had gained from tradition; "Floyd Collins" he gave to tradition. The public made no such distinction. Instead, it began to link his dolorous contemporary pieces with older ballads, as well as the string-band social music and southern rural humor available on discs. The industry was most acute in helping its consumers relate the new topical pieces to old ballad themes and styles. Victor's supplement writer for November described the "Shenandoah/Collins" disc in these terms:
Popular songs of recent American tragedies. They belong with the old fashioned penny-ballad, hobo-song, or "come-all ye." The curious will note that they are even in the traditional "ballad" metre, the "common metre" of hymnodists. They are not productions of, or for, the cabaret or the vaudeville stage, but for the roundhouse, the watertank, the caboose, or the village fire-station. Both have splendid simple tunes, in which the guitar accompanies the voice, the violin occasionally adding pathos. These songs are more than things for passing amusement; they are chronicles of the time, by unlettered and never self-conscious chroniclers.50