Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol, Part Four
The year 1925 to the phonograph industry is marked by Western Electric's introduction of the electrical recording process – a revolutionary technological change. The year can also be seen in retrospect as including the national acceptance of Dalhart's "Prisoner's Song," the release of The Hill Billies' first record, the launching of Columbia's exclusive Familiar Tunes series, followed by Okeh's Old Time series, and the beginning of Nashville's role in country music. Chicago's WLS National Barn Dance had begun on April 19, 1924, and Nashville's WSM Grand Ole Opry (first called WSM Barn Dance) on November 28, 1925.
One additional event important to hillbilly music was Victor's discovery in mid-1925 of Carl T. Sprague – ranch boy, World War I cavalaryman, Texas A&M athletics coach – with a songbag of traditional cowboy ballads. His "Bad Companions/When the Work's All Done This Fall" (19747) was released before Dalhart's "Floyd Collins." Victor, slow in discovering the lode in mountain music, compensated by opening wide the field of recorded western music. Very conveniently, the buying public identified and related the two in spite of important stylistic and regional differences. A significant step in the blurring of the genres was the addition of sound to western movies in 1928. Westerns, from their origin, had already developed to include historical epics, occupational tales (metal mining, railroading, logging), and melodramas set anywhere and anytime on the frontier beginning with the French and Indian War in the Alleghenies. The line between mountain and cowboy movies was no stronger or higher than a barb wire fence. One of the very early horse operas directed by John Ford in 1918 was actually titled Hill Billy.51
Western films had always required some music, whether Rossini or American folksongs in concert arrangements by such native composers as Lamar Stringfield (North Carolina) and David Guion (Texas). By 1930 the piano and organ gave way to the voice – initially homespun and flavored by campfire smoke and rodeo dust. The first silent star to introduce authentic cowboy pieces to "talkies" was Texas-born Ken Maynard. He had made hi sway to acting via an apprenticeship as a young Army Engineer and a Ringling Brothers Circus rider. He could sing the old songs and he could fiddle. Maynard's 1933 film, The Strawberry Roan, was written around the popular ballad; it was one of the few full length feature movies based on a folksong. In 1935 Gene Autry, soon followed by Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers, inaugurated a cycle of elaborate and colorful musical westerns.52 They, and other Singing Cowboys, now turned from traditional sources to newly composed screen songs that quickly fed back into hillbilly repertories. Autry and his progeny were of equal importance to the phonograph and the movie industries. The film's perforated sound track itself became an artifact tending to fuse mountain and western music – old and new – into a single artistic form and marketable commodity.
The stage complemented the cinema in creating synthetic outdoor songs. When The Ziefield Follies of 1934 presented the national hit "The Last Round-Up," its Boston-born composer, Billy Hill, providentially was named with the inverted noun. His song was instantaneously accepted in New York, Nashville, and Cheyenne. In the decade from Carl Sprague to Billy Hill-Gene Autry, the American cowboy's legendary glow, as well as a Hollywood tailor's version of his dress, moved onto the WLS and WSM barn dance stages. Mountain boys born in Piedmont textile villages, Cumberland coal camps, and Great Smoky lumber towns were costumed in cowboy togs by Nashville. Hillbilly musicians had now acquired a ready-made uniform,53 and, more importantly, a heroic and dramatic mythology. It was to help record-radio-screen fans, as well as persons within show business, compensate for the bleak color in the Poor White portrait.
In the formative years of folksong recordings the industry received an unsolicited gift in the campaign for its new product. We have no consumer polls to tell us how sophisticated were the purchasers of hillbilly records, but we do know that both Broadway and book and magazine publishers were simultaneously selling their own views of southern mountain tradition. Frederick Koch's University of North Carolina student actors and writers – The Carolina Playmakers – had stimulated interest in regional folk drama in the early 1920s. A number of New York plays in 1923-25 took up such themes: Sun Up, The Shame Woman, Hell-Bent Fer Heaven, Ruint, This Fine-Pretty World.54 In March, 1926, Rose Wilder Lane published a popular novel, Hill Billy, with an Ozark setting, in which she used play-party songs that she had heard in the region.55 Her title was common in the Ozarks; did she select it because of the prevalent interest in mountain music or was her choice coincidental? We do not know; we know only that the new combination hillbilly music caught on against a backdrop of urban as well as rural drama, circuit vaudeville as well as medicine tent show, middle-brow fiction as well as cracker barrel tale sessions.56
The parallel between the music industry's reaching out to Carson and his peers and concomitant discoveries by writers is striking. In March 1925, Century Magazine first printed Stephen Vincent Benet's delightful literary ballad, "The Mountain Whippoorwill: How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddler's Prize." The poem's narrator is an orphan child who pictures his parents as fiddle and bird; he wins the Essex County Fiddlers' Show. Benet had heard old time music at Highlands, Macon County, North Carolina, where he summered between 1911-1915 while his father was stationed at the Augusta Arsenal. The ballad was written in New York early in 1925 almost simultaneously with the release of the first disc by The Hill Billies. It is highly unlikely that the poet ever met fiddler Tony Alderman, but he epitomized Tony in his work. Although Benet got the tune of the boxwood fiddle as well as the tone of hill dialect into "The Mountain Whippoorwill," nowhere did he label the fiddlers' music as hillbilly; the term was reserved to name the hero.57
Today no chronicle is available that reports whether a country dweller in a remote general store, or someone in a big city music shop, perhaps influenced by drama, poetry, or fiction, first asked for a record of hillbilly music; nor do we know what radio fan first sent a letter to a station requesting a hillbilly song, but we do know that by 1926 Vernon Dalhart was as much in the public domain as Babe Ruth, Rudolph Valentino, and Will Rogers. There existed a need for a nationally known tag for "The Prisoner's Song" that was as catchy as jazz or pop.58 Hillbilly filled the need. Words rush in to fill vacuums. Something of the exact process can now be reconstructed.
It is possible that hillbilly and music were linked in speech before 1923; we have no such evidence today. We can use the Talking Machine World to trace the word's extension to music in print after December, 1924, when the journal first listed Macon's "Hill Billie Blues" (Vocalion 14904) in its Advance Record Bulletin. By the following April the word moved from song title to name of a string-band in the first released story on The Hill Billies. In November it was applied within the trade to a general category of records when an Edison cylinder sales director commented to a World reporter on the relationship of farm prosperity and the firm's extensive mail order business. The Edison official found that rural demand "is largely for Blues, Coon songs, and Hilly-Billy numbers…." finally in December, 1925, a feature writer in a long article was impelled to comment on "the popularity of hill-billy songs."59 He was correct in assuming that record dealers, song publishers, and public buyers of music could identify his category.
During 1926 the association could be found in print beyond trade journal pages. In January a Columbus, Ohio, newsman caught a Washington WRC broadcast of The Hill Billies. He responded to their skill and humor with a perceptive review that revealed his own knowledge of folk music and his awareness of the negative overtone of their name. He wrote: "These Hill Billies, as they wish to be called, came from the mountain regions of our southern states with a collection of old-time melodies, some of which have never been written down but have been passed on from fiddler to fiddler through the generations… It was far and away the best program of its kind we have ever listened to…."60 He had not heard them before but he liked their music and accepted the string-band's title. His response was personal. The next step was a generalized response that linked music and title.
At year's end Variety (December 29, 1926) presented its annual show business roundup. What was fresh; what did music editor Abel Green use for industry front page news? He wrote:
This particular branch of pop-song music is worthy of treatment on its own, being peculiar unto itself. The "hillbilly" is a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate white whose creed and allegiance are to the Bible, the chautauqua, and the phonograph. The talking machine's relation to the show business interests most. The mountaineer is of "poor white trash" genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all unto themselves. Illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons, the sing-song, nasal-twanging vocalizing of a Vernon Dalhart or a Carson Robison on the disks, reciting the banal lyrics of a "Prisoner's Song" or "The Death of Floyd Collins" (biggest hillbilly song-hit to date), intrigues their interest.
Not only was Green the first writer, to my knowledge, to combine hillbilly and music in print, but he went to the heart of show business's exploitation of the new product. In later years he was to reconsider and modify his early view of the Southern mountaineer and his songlore,61 opening Variety's pages to sympathetic treatment of the idiom, but his 1926 front page feature brings into focus cultural and esthetic problems that are still current. Green in 1926 had heard the term hillbilly records from music business colleagues – publishers, bookers, talent scouts – Tommy Rockwell, Bel Selvin, Jack Mills, Louis Bernstein, Ralph Peer, "Korky" O'Keefe. Even though the executives used it freely in speech, they were cautious in applying it in advertising media. While their copy writers continued to coin euphemisms – Songs From Dixie, Old Southern Tunes, Old Time Singin' – the public continued to use the common label. It was not until 1929 that Sears, Roebuck actually entered hillbilly as a tag for records in its catalog, followed by Montgomery Ward in 1930. A 1933 Okeh brochure finally identified its own 45000 series as Hill Billy, and after 1935 the adventurous Decca company issued several Hill Billy Records catalogs with sub-heads: Old Time Singing, String Bands, Sacred, Fiddlin', Old Time Dance.
None of the other companies fell into line. As the music itself responded to change under the very impact of records and radio, the industry began a search for an ameliorative term to replace the stereotype. (That section of the industry that was quickest to loosen the hybrid's link with tradition eventually coined country-western, a combination beyond the scope of this paper.) The attitude of the music business towards hillbilly jelled soon after general acceptance of the term. In 1930, Bradley Kincaid, a fine Kentucky folksinger and early record and radio interpreter of traditional material, wrote to his own audience:
There is a practice among recording companies, and those who are inclined to speak slightingly of the mountain songs, to call them Hilly Billy songs. When they say Hilly Billy songs they generally mean bum songs and jail songs….[These] are not characteristic of mountain songs, and I hope…you will come to distinguish between those fine old folk songs of the mountains, and the so-called Hilly Billy songs.
Five years later John Lair, WLS impressario and himself a performer with the Cumberland Ridge Runners, stated, "Hill billies in radio? They ain't no such thing. Mountaineers and folk from the hill country, maybe, but no hill billies. ‘Tin Pan Alley' hung this name on certain types of music and entertainers." By World War II, George D. Hay, "The Solemn Old Judge" who announced Grand Ole Opry's broadcasts, wrote, "We never use the word [hillbilly] because it was coined in derision. Furthermore, there is no such animal. Country people have a definite dignity of their own and a native shrewdness which enables them to hold their own in any company. Intolerance has no place in our organization and is not allowed."62
His championing of country people is noble and has been echoed by everyone who has profited from selling country music to the folk, as well as by academicians grimly intent on rescuing "true folk music" from engulfing waves of "hillbilly-ism."63 It is left to Jean Thomas, Kentucky's "Traipsin' Woman," to marshal all the clichés of the defense in one pronunciamento. In her fictional biography of blind fiddler J.W. Day (renamed Jilson Setters), she portrays him upon return from a London concert before the English King and Queen. At home the learned Judge rebukes the crude Sheriff for having previously rejected the fiddler's old fogey songs. Mrs. Thomas ends her morality play scene with these words: "It would not be expected of all who hear Jilson's music to discriminate between his Elizabethan tunes and a hill-billy parody that so shamefully ridicules mountain minstrelsy."64
But why was such a shameful and demeaning term linked to folksong in the first place? Ralph Peer saw it was a funny word; Tony Alderman as a fighting word. Both were right. It contained sufficient semantic elasticity to parallel the music industry's ambivalence, the scholar's distrust, and the public's acceptance of the new product. Only the individual consumer placing his quarters and half-dollars on record store counters seemed to ignore problems posed here in etymology and cultural history. High Society and the Academy frequently joined in their downgrading of Folk Art. The heroes and heroines – Henry Lee, Silly Bill, Floyd Collins, Fair Ellen, Sally Gooden, Omie Wise – all seemed much too uncouth when released on discs. Similarly, previous song variants circulated via broadsides, stall ballads, and pocket songsters had also been stigmatized.
It is unfair to the amorphous record buying public of the mid-1920's that so enthusiastically took the new hillbilly music to its heart to say precisely why it accepted a pejorative title for something it liked. Perhaps the folk sensed the larger community's antipathy to the discs that both commented on and documented traditional values. Out of the long process of American urbanization-industrialization there has evolved a joint pattern of rejection as well as sentimentalization of rural mores. We flee the eroded land with its rotting cabin; at the same time we cover it in rose vines of memory. This national dualism created the need for a hand of laughter and ridicule to unite under one rubric the songs and culture of the yeoman and the varmint, the pioneer and the poor white.
So long as we both exploit and revive hillbilly music, so long as we feel tension between rural and urban society, we are likely to continue to need Ralph Peer's and Al Hopkins' jest.65