Precursors of Rock and Roll

Rock: The Early Years

Music 9, UCI Amy Bauer, Spring 2018


Before the Flood:

The 1950s: Rock’n’Roll Begins, Doo-Wop, & the Rock business

The 1950s: Rockabilly (Elvis and after)

The 1960s: Soul, Girl Groups, Motown, R&B





The 1960s: Psychedelia & Anti-Psychedelia, Birth of Metal


1970 & Beyond: Singer-songwriters, Prog & Glam Rock




The 1960s: Surf & the British Invasion

The 1960s: Folk, Folk-Rock, The LA Scene


Before the Flood: Percursors of Rock’n’Roll

1. Robert Christgau, “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll,” Details, 1992, pp. 1–4

2. Kyle Crichton, “Thar’s Gold in Them Hillbillies,” Collier’s, Vol. 101, No. 18 (April 30,

1938), pp. 5–8

3. Sylvie Simmons, “THE CARTER FAMILY: INTO THE VALLEY,’ MOJO, November

2002, pp. 9–12

4. Fred Dellar, “HANK WILLIAMS,” MOJO, December 1998, pp. 13–20

5. Cliff White , “… Howlin’ for the Wolf,” New Musical Express, 24 January 1976, pp. 21–22

6. Peter Guralnick, “Blues in History: A Quick Sketch,” in Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in

Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll (NY: Hachette, 2012; originally 1976), pp. 23–26

7. Cliff White, “Louis Jordan,” The History of Rock, 1982, pp. 27–30

8. Dave Headlam, “Appropriations of blues and gospel in popular music,” in The Cambridge

Companion to Blues and Gospel Music, ed. by Allan Moore ( Cambridge University Press,

2002), pp. 31–33


Robert Christgau, “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll,” Details, 1992 1227: MOON-JUNE-SPOON MEETS DEATH-METAL Simply by inventing (or—here we go—cribbing from the Moors) not love but l’amour, love as a concept, the troubadours of Provence laid one of the foundations of rock and roll, which whatever its socially significant pretensions has always had a thing for male-and-female. They were neither effete aesthetes—this was a rough world were all men were warriors and rape was one of the commonplaces that the myth of courtly love glossed over—nor the lute-strumming adventurers you dimly imagine. The itinerant singer-songwriters of the Middle Ages were called jongleurs—all-round entertainers whose etymology honors another of their skills, juggling. Jongleurs played marketplaces, fairs, the hostelries that catered to pilgrims and such, and, when they could get in, castles. Troubadours lived in castles—court poets in an era when “lyric” poetry was still sung to musical accompaniment, they were the highbrows of the secular world, upwardly mobile if not nobility themselves. Considered blasphemous by the religiopolitical powers that were, troubadourism was pretty much wiped out in the Albigensian crusade of the 13th century. So as our symbolic rock and roller we’ll select Guilhem Figueira, an embattled hero of the movement’s decline who “was not the man to frequent barons and respectable folk, but he was much at home with ribalds, whores, and tavern-haunters”—or so says his vida, an unauthorized bio that was as accurate as a press release. Is “In the fires of hell, Rome, you’ve chosen to dwell” close enough to Metallica for you? 1623: THE DISCOVERY OF NATURAL RHYTHM “There is without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them, their musicke will seldome be wanting,” claimed Captain Richard Jobson, describing a visit he made to Gambia starting in 1620, the year after a Dutch man-of-war sold North America’s first black slaves to British colonists in Jamestown. Africa’s music had varied and evolved in uncounted strains and permutations for thousands of years, but this first published account in English is a benchmark, for what is rock and roll but African music as understood and controlled by white people? The intensity of African vocal technique, loud and harsh and keening by European standards, was frequently noted in the numerous reports to come, as was, needless to say, the “multitude of drums in various sizes.” Less remarked were the underlying melodic similarities between African song and Scotch-Irish folk music, which would help Brits get into this exotic stuff. Soon Africans who could play an instrument fetched premium prices on the open market. By 1676, the governor of Cape Town owned his own slave orchestra. 1815: SEX AND BEER AND ONE-TWO-THREE The Viennese were dancing fools—during the city’s three-day pre-Lenten Fasching celebration of 1832, when its population was 400,000, 772 balls attracted 200,000 citizens. After all, this was their heritage. Vienna had produced what remains to this day the greatest revolution in the history of social dancing—the waltz. Just like most of the court dances invented since the 15th century, the waltz was bred from peasant stock. But unlike any court dance, it required couples to embrace each other, and once they went that far, a lot of them went further. Already invading France and England by 1790, danced in seized monasteries by sans-culotte revolutionaries, the waltz was a scandal well before the European powers divvied up Napoleon’s empire at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where the Prince de Ligne went down in history by quipping: “Le Congrès ne marche pas—il danse.” But after the Congress it became a full-fledged vogue. Once the assembled dignitaries had brought their good times home, both social dancing and popular music were permanently linked to a frankly carnal vision of courtship. 1843: STRAIGHT OUT DE LAND OB COTTON Musical miscegenation is an old story in America, where shocked reports of white teenagers dancing to black fiddlers go back to the 1690’s. But though black musicians were common enough in a certain class of bar, even the


freemen among them remained strictly local celebrities. Traveling white performers, on the other hand, found that to “imitate” blacks on stage guaranteed yucks. By 1832, when Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice went nationwide with “Jim Crow,” a song-and-dance routine he claimed to have stolen from a crippled black stablehand, burnt cork was a staple of American showbiz. But it was not until 1843 that four musicians dubbing themselves the Virginia Minstrels formalized blackface into a full evening’s diversion—minstrelsy. Playing banjo, tambourine, “bones” (castanets), and fiddle—the specialty of leader and chief composer Dan Emmett, whose “Dixie” was later appropriated as the unofficial Confederate national anthem—the Virginia Minstrels and their hordes of imitators probably sounded something like the earliest recorded “hillbilly” music of the 1920’s, only longer on sentimental ballads and parlor polish. Rendered more genteel by the addition of small pit bands and more businesslike by a burgeoning songwriting industry, the minstrel show was America’s dominant popular entertainment for most of the 19th century. Though eventually a few actual African-Americans got into the act, it remains a pungent reminder that black people and what white people make of them are two very different things. 1849: FROM JIM CROW TO TIN PAN ALLEY Stephen Collins Foster became the toast of his middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood by performing “Jim Crow” and “Zip Coon” in amateur theatricals in 1835, when he was nine. The extent of his exposure to African-American culture is debatable, but minstrelsy he knew. A typical quasibohemian dreamer, he wasn’t rebellious enough to turn minstrel himself. But as his tunes began to bring in some money, he saw a way out of his bookkeeping job. In 1849 he persuaded Firth, Pond & Co., a major New York music firm whose interests went far beyond minstrelsy, to pay him royalties at a time when songs were invariably sold outright for sums that didn’t support the performers, conductors, music teachers, and dilettantes who wrote them. Thus he became America’s first fulltime professional songwriter, and also the first master of its polyglot musical heritage—Irish ballads and Italian opera as well as African tinge. Foster was never altogether comfortable with his so-called “Ethiopian songs” (“Swanee River,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home”), and after he moved to New York in 1853 he concentrated on parlor ballads—since they were more artistic, he figured they’d have a longer shelf life. But only “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” and “Old Dog Tray” were major successes, and before long the spendthrift songsmith was reduced to writing songs for hire like a common hack. As a nonperforming composer, Foster presaged the Tin Pan Alley rock and roll overthrew. He also presaged almost everything else in American pop. He died a Bowery alcoholic at 37. 1890: DAWN OF THE INDIES The phonograph that Thomas Edison invented in 1877 was conceived as a dictaphone and didn’t work very well. Only after others developed the floating stylus and covered the cylinder Edison recorded on with wax instead of tinfoil did he merchandise his machine, with his chief target the U.S. Congress, where he believed it would soon render secretaries obsolete. Fortunately, the fate of the phonograph was in the hands of Edison’s thirty regional franchisees, all of whom would have lost their shirts pursuing what Edison pumped as “the legitimate side of their business.” And somewhere out there somebody came up with a money-making bastard—a coin-in-the-slot protojukebox into which rubes, children, and men about town would insert a nickel to hear tunes by Foster and John Philip Sousa. So before there was really a record business, freelance entrepreneurs with their ears in the air had given the record business a shot in the arm, which is also the story of rock and roll. And let us not forget another independent, rival inventor-entrepreneur Emile Berliner, who in 1887 patented a gramophone that recorded on discs instead of cylinders, an idea whose time soon came. Berliner always knew he was in the home entertainment business, and record collectors owe him their gratitude. Just exactly how would you store 500 long-playing cylinders in a studio apartment? 1913: SEX AND CHAMPAGNE AND FOUR-FOUR ANIMALS Vernon Castle was an English comedian with an engineering degree, Irene Foote the daughter of a physician and the granddaughter of P.T. Barnum’s press agent. They married in 1911 and in 1912 lucked into a job dancing at a


fashionable Paris cabaret. By this time, the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, and other barroom-cum- barnyard terpsichore had made inroads in high society, and though the Castles’ versions of these “nigger dances,” to borrow a phrase Irene was tossing about several years later, were “considerably toned down,” they created a sensation. Soon they were back in New York making up steps, first and most prominently the Castle walk, in collaboration with black composer Ford Dabney and black composer-conductor James Reese Europe. It was the waltz all over again—Western civilization going dance-mad from the top. Though slightly less stringent standards of decorum soon replaced the discarded six-inch distance between partners, a barrier had been breached. Song publishers were convinced that hits had to have a good beat, and though many a tearjerker broke the rule, the parlor ballad was finally on its way out. 1925: THIS IS LOU-ISS, DOLLY Well before abolition, the French-Spanish port city of New Orleans spawned a unique music colored by the African dances of Congo Square, and eventually the city’s nonstop party generated the greatest musician of the 20th century. But like Muddy Waters and his Delta progeny two decades later, he didn’t make his mark until after he took the train up to Chicago. Louis Armstrong invented the improvised solo. His gravelly, sardonic vocal excursions cut singing loose from cornball beauty and bullshit text; his high-handed fun with pop trash prefigured postmodernist recontextualization. And though he’s more closely associated with the subcategories “jazz” and “pop,” rock would be unimaginable without solos or gravel or high-handed popwise fun. The year I’ve chosen is when he started recording as a leader, but you might want to check out the Lonnie Johnson guitar solo on 1927’s “I’m Not Rough”— sounds for all the world like r&b fixing to cross over. You could also give a listen to “Saints.” Or “Hello Dolly.” 1938: LES PAUL TAKES LUNCH As long ago as 2000 B.C., when Babylonian lute players were depicted as shepherds rather than priests, the guitar was conceived as a people’s instrument. Its 17th-century vogue was associated with dance music, its 19th-century vogue with romantic melody. In America, where guitars were often homemade—a cigar box, a board, and some baling wire would do—the first electric model was developed in the ’20s by country guitarist Lloyd Loar, who couldn’t sell it. By 1931 Rickenbacker was manufacturing an electrified Hawaiian version, followed quickly by a so- called “Spanish” guitar, which introduced the electromagnetic pickup. T-Bone Walker is generally credited with introducing such a guitar to blues. The first known recording is “Good Morning Blues,” cut in 1938 by Count Basie sideman Eddie Durham, and it was Durham fan Charlie Christian who turned the electric guitar into a phenomenon after he joined Benny Goodman in 1939. But all of these retained the lute’s acoustic resonator—its hollow body. Lifelong tinkerer Les Paul had another idea. Sometime around 1938 he fitted a railroad tie with steel strings and a pickup: “You could go out to eat and come back and the note would still be sounding. It didn’t sound like a banjo or a mandolin, but like a guitar, an electric guitar. That was the sound I was after.” It took another decade for Leo Fender to start manufacturing such an item, and soon the solid-body electric came to dominate pop, bestowing on a single barely trained player the aural power of a symphony orchestra. Les Paul went on to invent multitrack recording. 1940: ENTER THE BARBARIANS ASCAP—the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers—was Tin Pan Alley’s guild, collecting license fees from all manner of musical venues and promoters. It constructed favorable deals for the most powerful Broadway and Hollywood firms, treating more folkish genres with something closely akin to contempt. And though initially it resisted radio, by 1939 it earned two-thirds of its income there and was sure it could up its rates. After all, where else were broadcasters going to get the music they’d created an addiction to? But radio elected to stand and fight, chartering BMI—Broadcast Music, Inc.—to license all the songwriters ASCAP shortchanged. At first BMI concentrated on rearranging uncopyrighted songs, Stephen Foster’s among them, but by the end of 1940 it had corraled the catalogues of disgruntled Tin Pan Alley oldtimer Edward B. Marks and ace talent scout Ralph Peer. Peer was credited with coining the terms “race” and “hillbilly” music for what we now call blues and country, and


was the first to record both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. His Peer International not only controlled many country and blues copyrights, but had invested heavily in Latin American music, as had Marks. So when on January 1, 1941 the broadcasters let their ASCAP contract expire, radio was positioned to boost a bunch of hicks, greasers, and Negroes, many of whom couldn’t even read music—and who were about to destroy the pop power brokers’ monopoly forever. 1941: AFTERNOON OF THE INDIES Like Edison’s phonograph, radio was first conceived as a business tool—a talking telegraph. But even in the early ham days, when would-be broadcasters would first distribute crystal sets to their neighbors, some had more poetic ideas—a San Jose buff was airing live and recorded music as early as 1909. By 1926, when there were already Tin Pan Alley songsmiths who limited their melodies to the five notes early receivers could handle, David Sarnoff, who’d first proposed a “radio music box” in 1916, had assembled the NBC network. Much of the networks’ allure, however, lay in the access they afforded to swank (and costly) metropolitan entertainment as it happened—stars live in your living room, big bands playing big hotels. Only in 1941, when the federal government—which back in 1922 had allotted the choicest frequencies to operators who promised not to broadcast records—moved to break the power of the networks, was the stage set for the small local stations whose need for cheap programming would soon transform disc jockeys into tastemaking local celebrities. And in those days, local celebrities played local music— including all the insurgent folk-pop BMI had had the luck or vision to exploit. 1947: FIX IT IN THE MIX Bing Crosby was no Armstrong or Sinatra, but again and again he had the right idea at the right time. Linking up John McCormack and Al Jolson with the informal phrasing of the jazz artists he idolized was the least of it—his real genius was a lazy man’s instinct for the gadget. Singers “crooned” throughout the ’20s, and megaphone-toting Rudy Vallee was the first pop heartthrob. But it was Crosby who mastered vocal amplification by developing a style appropriate to the microphones that defined radio and recording studios—who learned to create an illusion of conversational intimacy by pretending that the mike just happened to be there when he lifted his baritone in song. Soon the floodgates were opened to a host of singers who hadn’t gone through the painful rituals whereby a few lucky, hard-working individuals train their freakishly exceptional “beautiful” voices to carry in a concert hall. And eventually the Groaner hit upon an even more democratic technological angle. Frustrated by the sound quality of his half-improvised radio shows, which had to be patched together from 78-rpm master discs so they could be scheduled through four time zones, he became the first entertainer—unless Adolf Hitler counts—to exploit the fidelity and editability of the magnetic tape an enterprising Army officer had purloined from the Nazis. Musical “authenticity” would never be the same. Crosby also had a radical attitude toward the invention that made rock and roll a billion-dollar business: he used to cut an LP in nine hours. He scored well over 300 hits even though he didn’t give a paid concert between 1933 and 1976. But the rock and roll that couldn’t have happened without him did him in—after 1955, his pop play was limited primarily to “White Christmas.”


Kyle Crichton, “Thar’s Gold in Them Hillbillies,” Collier’s, Vol. 101, No. 18 (April 30, 1938), pp. 24-5. The young man with the Adam’s apple seemed out of place in a New York elevator. Very definitely he was not a New Yorker and in addition he was not welcome in the crowded car because he carried under his arm a case that looked like a rough box for a horse. “Will y’all pahdon me?” he said plaintively. “Ah’m havin* some trouble with this here git-tar.” He carried the trouble with him when he got off at the eleventh floor and was presently in a room before a microphone having an audition for phonograph records. He said, with some hesitation, that he would do imitations of Jimmie Rodgers and started in a thin wailing voice to do Blue Yodel, No. 1, which has for its theme: “T for Texas, T for Tennessee and T for Thelma.” It seemed that Thelma had made a bum out of somebody and was to receive a bullet from a .44 through her middle”just for to see her jump and fall.” This was the rare thing of a New York audition for hillbilly songs and race records. The general practice is to take a recording outfit into the territory where such songs grow and out of this endeavor have come such classics as The Wreck of Old 97, Floyd Collins in the Cave, Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, The Old Hen Cackles, and The Rooster’s Goin’ ta Crow, Crazy Blues, Jimmie Rodgers and his Blue Yodels (Nos. 1 to 12), That Thing Called Love, Just Because, Deep Elam Blues, The Prisoner’s Song, Comin* Round the Mountain, Hand Me Down My Walkin’ Cane, Casey Jones, Twenty-one Years, and hundreds of others. South of a point that might roughly be regarded as St. Albans, West Virginia, the grapevine system of news distribution still beats anything known to modern science. A hint from New York that David Kapp of Decca or Eli Oberstein of Victor is headed South will find the tidings flying over mountains and the result will be that when the city slickers arrive they will be unable to get into their hotels for the presence of mouth-organ virtuosos, yodelers, blues singers and specialty bands equipped with instruments made of tissue paper on combs, washboards, assorted saws and rutabaga gourds. If there needs to be another picture at this point, the camera can leap agilely to such distant parts of South Africa and Australia where the native bushmen are busily humming a little number written by Jimmy Davis of Shreveport, Louisiana, and entitled Nobody’s Darling But Mine. In short, no matter what the citizens of the United States think about their native songs, the world ranks the hillbilly ballads among the folk-tune wonders of the universe. It started back in 1921 when Ralph S. Peer was with Okeh records. Sophie Tucker had agreed to do You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down but it was found at the last moment that another contract prevented her from working for Okeh. In this crisis Perry Bradford, who was a colored song plugger for W. C. Handy (St. Louis Blues, Memphis Blues, etc.), informed Mr. Peer that he could furnish a girl who was as good as Sophie. She turned out to be Mamie Smith, a colored girl who was working as cleaning woman in a theater. She made the Good Man song, and for the other side of the record did That Thing Called Love. Mamie had a loud raucous voice and there was great difficulty with recordings in that day of poor equipment, but the Okeh people knew they had something when the record sold 75,000 copies the first month. Mamie was forthwith yanked back into the studio and this time she brought with her a horrendous five-piece band known as Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. They made Crazy Blues and It’s Right Here for You. “The most awful record ever made,” reports Mr. Peer, “and it sold over a million copies.” A Market Nobody Thought Of Bert Williams, the colored comedian, had been making records for Columbia for many years but the companies never imagined that the Negroes themselves might be a market for Negro records. In fact,, the companies carefully


hid the fact that colored singers were being used. About this time, dealers in New York began to report a curious trend in the business. It seemed that Negro Pullman porters on trains going South invariably left New York with as many as twenty-five records under their arms. Since the records cost one dollar each, the business was big stuff and Mr. Peer went South to investigate. He found (a) that the Negroes were buying records of their own people in great quantities and (b) that the Negroes of Richmond, Virginia, invariably referred to themselves as The Race. “We had records by all foreign groups,” says Mr. Peer. “German records, Swedish records, Polish records, but we were afraid to advertise Negro records. So I listed them in the catalogue as ‘race’ records and they are still known as that.” About this time the vogue of Mamie Smith at Okeh was swamped by the arrival of the great Bessie Smith on Columbia records. Bessie Smith had now become almost a legendary figure and her records have lately been reissued in a new form and are considered classics in blues singing by experts. Her most famous was Gold Coast Blues, which originally sold into the millions. It may be remarked that at the present day a sale of 100,000 records is held to be sensational in any field. With Bessie Smith being so successful, Okeh was under the necessity of digging up a new sensation, and Mr. Peer took a portable recording outfit to Atlanta and began looking around. For some reason Atlanta is the worst town in the South for Negro talent (then and now), and Mr. Peer was soon stumped. At the suggestion of a local dealer, who guaranteed to sell enough records to cover the cost, he did a few recordings by Fiddler John Carson, a white mountaineer who arrived for the recordings in overalls. Old John had been a ballyhoo man with a circus, had a repertory of hillbilly songs that never ended, and he could sing a bit with his fiddling. He made Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, and The Old Hen Cackles and The Rooster’s Goin’ ta Crow. “It was so bad that we didn’t even put a serial number on the records, thinking that when the local dealer got his supply, that would be the end of it,” says Mr. Peer. “We sent him 1,000 records, which he received on a Thursday. That night he called New York on the phone and ordered 5,000 more sent by express and 10,000 by freight. When the national sale got to 500,000, we were so ashamed we had Fiddler John come up to New York and do a re- recording of the numbers.” The matter of the name arose again in this connection. It was obviously impossible to list them under the designation of each section (mountaineer, “Georgia Cracker,” etc.) and Mr. Peer, who had come from Kansas City and was well acquainted with the Ozarks, named them hillbilly records. The result is that the word has come to have a general application, and mountaineers of all sections are now known as hillbillies. The greatest success of all time was made by The Prisoner’s Song, which was introduced almost as an after thought by Vernon Dalhart, who had done The Wreck of Old 97 and was desperate for something for the other side of the record. It eventually sold 2,500,000 records for the Victor company. It cost the company seven cents to make the record (all expenses included) and the wholesale price they received was thirty-seven cents a record. The Singing Brakeman The greatest of all romances in the hillbilly business centers about Jimmie Rodgers, the little railroad brakeman who fought desperately against poverty and the ravages of tuberculosis until Mr. Peer discovered him in Bristol, Tennessee, and started him on a career that was fabulous even in the phonograph industry. It is estimated that the Blue Yodel records sold over 5,000,000 copies. Jimmie Rodgers is now dead and his records do not have the fame with collectors that has come to those of Bessie Smith, but he has left a mark on all hillbilly music. When David Kapp goes out to Dallas now for Decca to record hillbilly and race records, he will do as many as 325 selections in fifteen days. The big stars now are Jimmie Davis, clerk of the Criminal Court in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Gene Autry, the singing cowboy of the movies. Another favorite group is the Carter Family of Maces Springs,


Virginia, who sing and play and make marvelous didos with such instruments as the guitar and autoharp, which is really a zither with keys. The best colored singer since Bessie Smith is said to be Georgia White, and it is in this field that some of the most remarkable records are made. There are colored numbers so strictly African and special that nobody but a Negro could understand them or appreciate them. When Sleepy John Estes does his own Negro compositions, the words are like something out of a voodoo chant and the manner of delivery is such that they make no sense whatever to the untrained mind. The recordings by Petie Wheatstraw come in the same class, and when Kokomo Arnold does the “se-bastapool” on his guitar, effects are made that seem unearthly. Unless the artist is also the writer of his own material and hence shares in the royalty for composers, the rewards of recording are not great, being on an average of $25 a “side.” The payment is outright and there is no bookkeeping. Among the novelty records are those made by the Calypso people in the West Indies, the Cajuns of Louisiana, and Corny Allen Greer and his band. The loyalty of the hillbilly audience to its heros can be seen in the titles of the songs. When Jimmie Davis wrote Nobody’s Darling But Mine, he immediately made a sequel entitled An Answer to Nobody’s Darling. That was followed by A Woman’s Answer to Nobody’s Darling. Bob and Joe Shelton, who also come from Shreveport, wrote Just Because in collaboration with Leon Chappalear. When it became a success, they followed immediately with An Answer to Just Because and followed that with Just Because III. It is quite possible that the thing could go on forever. Students are convinced that Bessie Smith and particularly the players who accompanied Bessie Smith on her records had a great part in stimulating the disease known as swing music, which has now gripped the nation. Bessie had such men doing her accompaniments as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Joe Smith, Fred Longshaw, Charlie Green and the late James P. Johnson, one of the most spectacular of the hot pianists. Musicians are the keenest people in the world at admiring new talent and just as Benny Goodman will sit goggle-eyed and listening to the “hotteties” of Count Basie, the colored demon of Kansas City, so did the orchestra leaders of ten years ago go insane over the berserk playing of Bessie Smith’s boys. From the interest came the change in orchestra music that is now so pronounced in the work of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Gray, Jimmy Dorsey and others. The traditional folk songs of the Southern mountaineers and the spirituals have not been included in this discussion because they occupy a special position in the art of song. In the strictest sense the mountaineer ballads are old English folk songs, some of them even traceable to old Gregorian chants; and as such they are not strictly American products. New York was recently visited by the Rev. John William Dawson, pastor of the Dry Fork Primitive Baptist Church of Morehead, Kentucky, who sang Lord, Spare Me for Another Year and The Wayfaring Stranger. The words seemed to have grown out of local legends of the mountains but the tunes stemmed back to the earliest days of American history when the first settlers crossed from the old country. Most strictly in the American tradition are the songs of Aunt Molly Jackson of Harlan County, Kentucky, who has told the story of the labor struggles of that section. Her songs are richly evocative and thrilling, carrying the troubadour quality of old. Fans Are Delighted But it’s when Sleepy John Estes on his guitar and Hammie Nix on his mouth organ get wound up that the newfound fans start yammering with delight. There are isolated groups in all sections of the world prepared to fight to the death to prove that Maxine Sullivan, from the Onyx, is a greater artist than Lily Pons. Miss Sullivan became the storm center of radio controversy as the first person to swing Loch Lomond and other ballads. There are strange individuals who wouldn’t give a Georgia White and Rhubarb Red (guitar) record for anything made by Caruso. The cult of the hillbillies may be a passing fancy but it is significant that Ambrose, the swankiest orchestra con


ductor in London, has made an arrangement of Nobody’s Darling But Mine. When the St. Louis Blues is made into a Metropolitan Opera, the truth will finally be evident. In the meanwhile, the world will need to be content with the nasal-voice boys and girls of the hinterlands who have most curious things to say about love and My Gal Sal. There seems to be an awful lot of double-crossing done by the ladies in the “mountings,” and they invariably pay for it. This makes art.


Sylvie Simmons, “THE CARTER FAMILY: INTO THE VALLEY,’ MOJO, November 2002 FIRST KILL YOUR HOG. SKIN IT, singe off the hairs and leave the hide to soften. Tug it over a round frame, whittle out a neck, “and there’s your banjo”, says Roni Stoneman. “The five-string banjo is the only American instrument. The black people brought the four-string banjo, but the five- stringer and the clawhammer style came from the mountains.” Roni, elderly Southern belle and professional banjo player, is one of the 15 of Ernest ‘Pops’ Stoneman’s 23 children who made it to adulthood. “A lot of people made their own instruments. There wasn’t much money around, but there was plenty of music in these here mountains, way before 1927. You just played for each other, for the frolics when the chores were done on Saturday night.” The Appalachians, they say, are the world’s oldest mountains, and Clinch Mountain the oldest peak. On one side of the river running along the bottom lies Poor Valley – its land, presumably, less fertile than Rich Valley on the other side. Right now, in the sweltering, humid Virginia summer, it’s lush and verdant, its hills perfectly green and rolling like a Teletubbies set, with the odd wooden shack decomposing here and there. The tiny, rickety log cabin in Poor Valley where A.P. Carter and his seven siblings were born and raised is still standing – just. Soon it will be moved and restored alongside the Carter museum a mile up the road they’ve renamed the A.P. Carter Highway. It was a dirt road back in 1927 when A.P. packed his wife Sara – together with his brother’s 18-year-old, eight-months- pregnant wife Maybelle, Sara’s baby, an eight-year-old daughter to babysit, Sara’s autoharp and Maybelle’s Stella guitar – into a borrowed car and made the day-long, 26-mile drive to Bristol for what Maybelle’s future son-in-law Johnny Cash would describe as “the single most important event in the history of country music”. In the summer of ’27, Ralph Peer, a 35-year-old record executive and ‘race’ music specialist from New York spent 12 days in a disused hat warehouse on State Street in Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border. There he recorded 76 sides by 19 different acts, including minister Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Quartet and Blind Alfred Reed, and bands with names like the West Virginia Coon Hunters and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers. Plus Ernest Stoneman, who had recorded ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’ for Peer three years earlier, and “which was selling like hot-cakes”, says Roni’s big sister Patsy. It was Stoneman’s idea to come to the mountains on a talent search, since the mountains sure weren’t going to come to New York. But it was two acts recorded during the second week that made the Bristol Sessions legendary. A yodelling, tuberculoid railwayman from Meridian, Mississippi named Jimmie Rodgers, and a trio from the mountains, The Carter Family. There had been country records by many other names – “mountain music”, “old-time music”, “rural monologue with violin specialty”; Peer was the first to use the “hillbilly” tag – before Bristol’s ‘big band’. In 1923 Peer had recorded what’s accepted as the first country record, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s ‘Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane’. He thought it “pluperfect awful”, hating the shoddy sound of the primitive acoustic recording. And there had been others since – Stoneman; Dock Boggs; Uncle Dave Macon; Vernon Dalhart’s million-selling ‘Wreck Of The Old ’97’. But by advertising for musicians locally and taking the “recording laboratory” to them – something made possible by the very recent invention of electric recording – Peer had not only given the country music business a kick-start, he’d also snared ‘The Father Of Country Music’ (Rodgers) and ‘Country’s First Family’ (Carters) – the country equivalent of Father, Mother, Son and Holy Ghost. All country music since can be traced back to the Carters’ sober, stoic songs about church, family and hardship or Rodgers’ insouciant numbers about rambling, law-breaking and women; the Carters’ vision of the simple, rural home or Rodgers’ America of wide-open spaces and glittering rails; Rodgers’ yodel and his appropriation/adaptation of the blues and the Carters’ harmonies and appropriation/adaptation of traditional ballads and hymns (and black spirituals and blues; it would take a team of musicologists working around the clock to untangle the complex black-and-white, church-and-secular roots. Both took these borrowed and invented musical elements and shaped them into a sound distinctly their own, creating songs (‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, ‘Wildwood Flower’, ‘Lovesick Blues’) that became country standards.


Bob Dylan is a huge Rodgers fan, but the day he met Johnny Cash the first thing he asked was, “Have you met A.P. Carter?” Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter was born in 1891 on the Methodist side of the mountain. The Methodists didn’t hold too much with singing, “except in the church”, says his daughter Janette, and certainly not with “frolicking” (still don’t; an old banjo player performing at the Carter Fold’s 75th anniversary show ordered dancers to sit down during a lively spiritual). “They called the fiddle the ‘devil’s box’,” says Roni Stoneman. A.P. could play fiddle but refused to do it on record. He was taciturn, imaginative, taken to wandering, and his hands and voice shook since childhood with the palsy – his mother blamed a lightning storm when she was pregnant. It was a fine voice, though; he sang bass in the church and at his uncle’s singing school. Always restless (his jobs included carpenter, farmer, foundryman, sawmill operator and storekeeper) he’d come back home from working the railroad to be a fruit-tree salesman. Heading over Clinch Mountain, on foot, with his catalogue, to Copper Creek – a day’s walk – he heard a 16-year-old girl singing in a bold, distinctive voice a ballad called ‘Engine 143’, about a local engine driver who burned to death. He fell in love. Sara Dougherty’s nickname was Jake; she carried herself with the self-possession of a man. Musician/musicologist Mike Seeger, who met her, talks of her “regal” bearing. “She was a proud lady,” says her son Joe, now in his seventies, “and carried herself like one, but she could shoot a gun and smoked these old Wings cigarettes.” Sara’s mother died when Sara was three, and she was sent to an aunt and uncle in Rich Valley, on the Baptist side of the mountain – the dancing side. “She danced real good,” says Joe’s elder sister Janette Carter. Sara also played banjo, autoharp and guitar, and liked the way A.P sang. Nevertheless, she made him make the day-long walk over the mountain – two ridges, a river, six creeks – for a year before agreeing to marry him in 1915. They moved to a two- room cabin with an earth floor, and worked together cutting timber for the paper mills, sometimes performing together at ‘conventions’, where people from the county got together and sang, usually spirituals. Sara’s voice was said to have moved people so much they’d press money into her hands. Sara’s young cousin Maybelle would come by and play – she too played autoharp and banjo, until at 13 her brothers bought her a guitar from a mail-order catalogue. She developed the rhythmic style they call the “Carter scratch”, picking out the melody on the bass string with the thumb and brushing the chords on the high strings. In 1926, aged 16, she eloped to Bristol with A.P.’s younger brother. Eck had well-paid work as a mail clerk on the railroad, and was the first person in the valley to own a car. When A.P pleaded to borrow it – and Eck’s wife – to try out as recording artists, he was less than enthusiastic. Joe: “Daddy had to agree to hoe the weeds out of Eck’s corn patch for him for two days afore he’d agree,” A.P. had seen an ad in the Bristol newspaper: “The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records.” Peer was paying $50 a side for whatever he recorded. Sara – who’d had experience with talent-scouts; A.P brought one home from one of his frequent trips and he’d turned them down because only ‘race’ records had female lead singers – pooh-poohed the idea: “Ain’t nobody gonna pay us that much money to hear us sing.” Then a few days later a story appeared with the even more tempting information that Stoneman’s records had earned him a then-enormous $3,500 the previous year. The journey through the foothills, over rocky roads and fording the River, was an ordeal in the stifling heat. The thin tyres frequently burst; the puncture-patches melted. They stayed at A.P.’s sister’s, whose husband also planned to audition, and the next day, in their Sunday best, joined the crowd outside the warehouse. Peer’s first impressions of the Carters weren’t good. “The women are country women from way back there – calico clothes on. The children look like hillbillies.” And baby Joe was screaming to be fed. But when he heard them perform, he invited them straight back to record – upstairs, where the walls were buffered with quilts, a microphone hung from the ceiling, and a scaffold with a complex system of pulleys and weights powered the turntable, rural electricity being highly unreliable. The Carters went home $300 richer. By October, 11 of the Bristol groups had records out on the ‘New Orthoponic Victor Southern Series’, but not the Carters. Peer too had reservations about female leads, and was somewhat perturbed by A.P.’s way of leaving a song