February 2018 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Pick 5: Black Fiddle Traditions in Early Commercial Country Music

For our new “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!

For our first “Pick 5,” I thought it would be interesting to look at the some of the black fiddle traditions found in early country music. Many African American artists that recorded during the 1920s and 1930s came from a stringband background, a style predating the blues, and many of these artists were influential in shaping some of the modern sounds of early commercial country music. I find the merging of the fiddle traditions of the 19th century and the more contemporary sounds found in the blues (which were often guitar-based but sometimes also incorporated fiddle) particularly inspiring. I chose five songs that highlight this cross-pollination of musical style and culture, songs where the sounds of stringbands, blues and jazz came together to create something altogether different. This is by no means intended to cover the scope of black fiddle traditions – instead these are only a few of the many recordings I find to be particularly cool. The artistry found on these records is pretty awe-inspiring to say the least. Have a listen!

“Forty Drops,” Andrew and Jim Baxter, 1928, Atlanta, GA

Forty drops of what? Forty drops of Rye! Maybe that accounts for the greasy slippery fiddle heard on this record…but I doubt it. This is country fiddling at its finest. Or is it blues fiddling? I’d say it’s both. The Baxter’s records were sold as a race records yet they could have just as easily sold as hillbilly records.

“That’s It,” Mississippi Sheiks, 1930, San Antonio, TX

A very fitting title to this hot fiddle number. Interestingly, this record was issued on OKeh’s country label and was marketed to a white audience. The Sheiks entire catalog is incredible and worth checking out if you haven’t done so yet.

“Sweet to Mama,” State Street Boys, 1935, Chicago, IL

Big Bill Broonzy on the fiddle?! Yep, not only could he tear it up on the guitar but he learned to fiddle at an early age and was pretty well versed as this song illustrates. This song has the same melody and some of the same verses as another hillbilly classic, “Blues in the Bottle,” as recorded by Prince Albert Hunt in 1927 in San Antonio. I got to listen to an incredibly clean copy of the State Street Boys record at a recent visit to collector Joe Bussard’s house, and it was a completely different listening experience to say the least. It was as if the band was playing in the room just for us.

“Rosalie,” Son Sims Four, 1942, Clarksdale, MS

This one, a straight-ahead blues song, features a young Muddy Waters, who played with Henry “Son” Sims before making his way up north. Not only is this an incredible document of early Waters, but it shows the great musical depth from which he came. Sims commercially recorded with Charley Patton for Paramount in the late 1920s as well.

“Knox County Stomp,” Tennessee Chocolate Drops, 1930, Knoxville TN

The virtuosity and unique character of Howard Armstrong – aka Louie Bluie – shines right through on “Knox County Stomp.” This record highlights the tenacity, energy, and passion of a true innovator willing to walk out on to the edge of a musical cliff. Wait for the pizzicato plucking midway through and you’ll see what I mean. Exciting to say the least! Louie Bluie and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops are a perfect example of a band that wasn’t defined by the genres and subgenres we now associate with American music.

So that’s my “Pick 5” – five songs exemplifying a small range of the talent and virtuosity found in early black fiddle traditions. I hope these songs – and the brief view into their background – piqued your interest and maybe introduced you to some new sounds!

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Being a Vendor at Bristol Rhythm

When I go to music festivals, it’s not just about the music.

I also always look for something special to bring home with me to remind me of the trip. Generally, I’m on the look-out for a piece of unique jewelry, artwork, or an article of clothing that I don’t think I’ll find anywhere else. Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion prides itself on bringing in vendors that offer one-of-a-kind items, so the only disappointments I have are the purchases I didn’t make – like not taking the time to eat Island Noodles or forgetting to pick up a jar or two of local honey.

One of my biggest retail regrets EVER? Not taking home a killer, handpainted silver jacket – embellished with the image of David Bowie from Aladdin Sane across the back. It wasn’t my size, but it was amazing and I really, really wanted it. I walked past it a few times and then it was gone, sold to some young kid who was likely only just discovering The Starman’s genius. Still, I do like thinking of this Southern Appalachian middle schooler with “Rebel, Rebel” swagger wearing that jacket – Bowie is surely smiling down in full appreciation, so all is as it should be.

View into the Status Graphics booth showing customers looking at t-shirts, graphics, and decals.
The Bowie masterpiece and other amazing handpainted jackets in the Status Graphics booth at Bristol Rhythm 2017. © Birthplace of Country Music

Of the food vendors, my favorite treat is King of Pops. I met one of the owners, Nick Carse, at the Southeast Festivals & Events Conference many years ago and begged him to bring their pops to Bristol. Family-owned and based in Atlanta, King of Pops has an amazing business model and mission, and they make the tastiest gourmet popsicles EVER with flavors you won’t find anywhere else like Thai Iced Tea, Pineapple Habanero, and Chocolate Sea Salt. No joke, I literally chased them out to the parking lot at the end of the festival one year so I could stock up!

One of the King of Pops vendors holding a pop at the refrigerated cart.
King of Pops: the perfect frozen treat. © Birthplace of Country Music

But it never fails. Every year around August or early September, I get an email or DM from someone who wants to be a vendor at Bristol Rhythm. Guys. Seriously, that’s just too late. In fact, if you want to be a food or craft vendor at the festival, the deadline for applications is March 31, 2018!

Here are the top things you need to know in order to be the ultimate Bristol Rhythm vendor:

1. Be unique. Stand out. Offer something no one else has. Be the “Aladdin Sane David Bowie silver jacket” of vendors.

2. Craft vendors fall into two categories: commercial and handmade items. We lean toward handmade, artisan items that can’t be found in the region.

3. We are not your typical festival – our music stages and vendors are spread throughout Bristol’s historic downtown rather than being located in a large field. Because of this, we want our local businesses to have the chance to shine too so we don’t place vendors in front of their storefronts without getting permission. And we do our best to choose vendors who do not compete with our local businesses.

The Fouled Anchor's VW bus booth with the vendor standing out front with his wares displayed around him.
The Fouled Anchor was new at Bristol Rhythm 2017 – they offer really cool men’s products in this vintage VW bus. © Birthplace of Country Music

4. Bristol Rhythm is working hard to be greener each year through its Green Team, and we ask our vendors to help us look after Mother Earth too by using recyclable and compostable containers and cutlery. We also don’t permit Styrofoam, and we offer ways to responsibly dispose of waste water and cooking oil.

5. Our downtown is on the state line and so our festival is literally in two states. Some vendors request placement in either Tennessee or Virginia due to tax purposes. We work closely with them to try and accommodate.

6. We highly recommend vendors place an ad in the festival guide. It’s a great way to get festivalgoers to make your booth part of their festival game plan.

A view inside the ARTeries booth, filled with colorful and unique items. The vendor stands in the middle of the booth.
ARTeries offered a unique shopping experience in their custom trailer with signage that said, “Every woman wants a dress no one else has.” © Birthplace of Country Music

7. We try to rotate vendors as much as possible so as to keep the Bristol Rhythm experience fresh, but we tend to keep vendors who are popular.

8. Food and craft vendors are spread out as evenly as possible so that there are food and beverage options close to every stage. That means that even while you are serving hungry festivalgoers, you’ll probably get the chance to hear some great music yourself!

9. Vendors can be easily located on our festival mobile app through geo-tracking.

10. If you become a Bristol Rhythm vendor, get ready for a long weekend full of hard work. But remember that we are here to help you make that work go as smoothly as possible so that you and our festivalgoers have a fantastic time!

Hopefully all of these facts and tips will prove a help to those interested in becoming part of the Bristol Rhythm family – and so if you want to be a craft/food vendor at Bristol Rhythm 2018, click here. Applicants will be notified by May 18, 2018 whether or not they were selected.

Vendor at For the Love of Suds booth, surrounded by lotions, soaps, and many other bath and body products.
I’m a sucker for smelly-good bath and skin products like these from For the Love of Suds. © Birthplace of Country Music

African American History in a Country Music Museum? Exhibits and Programs Explore the Connections

Each year February is highlighted as Black History Month. This call to recognize the central role of African Americans in our history was first put forward by Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson in 1926. As a blog post on the National Museum of American History website notes: “When mainstream history either largely ignored or debased the Black presence in the American narrative, Dr. Woodson labored to inject a fair portrayal of African Americans into the national record.”

At first glance, you might not think that the history of early country music intersects a great deal with African American history. However, the intersections exist and are significant, and we’ve explored some of these in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – for example, in the development of genre, with musicians who had impact on early commercial country music, and of course, through the African origins of the banjo, an instrument now indelibly linked to country and bluegrass music. And there has been a continuing presence of African Americans in country music beyond the early commercial years, for instance with artists like Charlie Pride and the celebration of black stringband music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music by Diane Pecknold explores these connections more deeply.

Prior to the recording music industry, musical categories such as blues or rock or country did not really exist. However, the recording and marketing of music created a need to target audiences in order to make money, and so record executives began advertising music and musicians based on what they assumed different audiences would like, leading to the development of a variety of genres.

Detail from Decca record sleeve listing several genre types such as Hill Billy, Race, Sepia, Mexican, Irish, and Scotch, along with their price.
This Decca record sleeve in the museum collections includes a list of various genres and the price of records within each series. © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean

One of these genres was known as “race records,” commercial recordings that were aimed specifically at African American audiences. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” produced by OKeh Records in 1920, was one of the first recordings in this new genre. Selling around 8,000 copies per week over several months, the popularity of “Crazy Blues” proved to record executives that there was a market and an audience for “race records.” Companies began developing catalogues aimed at these audiences, and they often hired black talent scouts and agents to find musicians to record. Much of these early recordings were focused on blues artists.

Despite the seeming segregation of audiences – with black audiences targeted through “race records” and “hillbilly records” marketed to white audiences – the lines between genres were often crossed with musicians, styles, and songs from each influencing the other. And, of course, just because a record was marketed to a particular audience doesn’t mean that other audiences didn’t listen to and buy that record.

Photograph of "genre" panel in the museum exhibits with listing of different genres, descriptive text, and several images illustrating artists from these genres.
The museum panel on genre explores some of the different types of music that have been marketed to different audiences, including “hillbilly records” and “race records.” © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Haley Hensley

The Bristol Sessions involved few African American musicians. Each of the two Bristol recording sessions held by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company – the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions – featured only one such act. At the 1927 Sessions, El Watson recorded two instrumental harmonica pieces, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” The fairly arbitrary categorization of genre is reflected in the marketing of Watson’s recordings – Victor released Watson’s two sides in the label’s “race records” series, while two similar blues-inspired harmonica pieces by white musician Henry Whitter were marketed as “hillbilly records” and promoted predominantly to white audiences. There is little information about El Watson to be found in the historical record, but we do know that Peer was very much impressed by Watson’s sound and musical skills, inviting him to record four more songs with Victor in New York: “Fox Chase,” “Sweet Bunch of Daisies,” “Bay Rum Blues,” and “One Sock Blues.” It’s also likely that he recorded with Columbia Records in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928. With both of these later recordings, Watson played the traditional instrument of the bones, and it is likely that he played the bones on some 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings too.

Left: Two sets of historic bones; center, a set of manufactured bones; right, a photograph of a group of customers in a record shop holding manufactured bones.
In 2015 musician Dom Flemons, cofounder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and known as “The American Songster,” donated to the museum two sets of bones (ca. 1927), a set of manufactured bones patented by Joe Birl, “The Rhythm Bone King,” and a photograph of a group of customers in a music shop with their sets of rhythm bones. © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Dom Flemons

The duo of Tarter & Gay recorded the next year at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. As with Watson’s recordings, the two numbers recorded by these talented musicians – “Brownie Blues” and “Unknown Blues” – were also issued in Victor’s “race records” series. Before they recorded in Bristol, Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay had performed live for white and black audiences at dances, and the style reflected on their Bristol Sessions recordings touches upon ragtime and stringband music, amongst others.

Race records panel in museum, with descriptive text and three images: Lesley Riddle, a Victor race records catalog cover, and Stephen Tarter with his cousin
This panel in the museum explores “race records” – an image of one of the Victor marketing pieces for their “race records” series can be seen here. The photograph to the upper left is of Lesley Riddle; the other photograph had been previously identified as Steven Tarter and Harry Gay, but new information tells us that it might be Tarter with his cousin Carson Anderson. There are no known photographs of El Watson. © Birthplace of Country Music

And then, of course, there’s Lesley Riddle, a hugely influential musician who worked closely with A. P. Carter in his search for songs and music worth playing and turning into hits. And don’t forget: Riddle has also been credited with teaching Maybelle Carter a specific style of guitar picking, and her mastery of this style is now well known and revered as the Carter scratch. His significance to the history of early commercial country music cannot be overstated – you can read all about his impact and influence in our blog post here.

While Black History Month may be a starting point for talking about African American history in early country music, it is not the stopping point. This is why we have worked to share relevant content within the museum’s permanent exhibits and also to continue the conversation through special exhibits and public programming outside of this one month of the year – from the special exhibit We are the Music Makers: Preserving the Soul of American Music in 2016, the Smithsonian poster exhibit A Place for All People, and the forthcoming special exhibit For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (November 2018) to the live simulcast of the opening ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a roundtable discussion about the history of the local African American community, and engaging performances by a host of artists.

Two photographs of the Music Maker exhibit in the museum's Special Exhibits Gallery; the one to the right shows visitors enjoying the exhibit.
Museum visitors to the We Are the Music Makers exhibit really connected with Music Maker Relief Foundation founder Tim Duffy’s images and stories of southern old-time and blues artists. During the exhibit, the museum also hosted a performance by NEA National Heritage Fellow John Dee Holeman, a Music Maker Piedmont blues guitarist, and we got the chance to interview Dom Flemons about his work with the foundation and why its mission is so important. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Three shots showing different parts of A Place for All People, a poster exhibit from the Smithsonian.
The A Place for All People poster exhibit – a survey of the African American community’s powerful, deep and lasting contributions to the American story – marked the historic opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. This poster exhibit is now a permanent part of our collection, and we rehung 10 of the posters this January to mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. © Birthplace of Country Music
Photographs of Amythyst Kiah and Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton performing in the museum's Performance Theater.
We held several events as part of our “Lift Every Voice” series, based around a global initiative highlighting organizations co-celebrating the Grand Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. These included a powerful performance by Southern gothic, alt-country blues singer/songwriter Amythyst Kiah, a fan favorite in Bristol, and an academic lecture by Dr. Cece Conway on the African roots of the banjo followed by a concert by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a multi-instrumentalist who not only shared some amazing music with us but also had everyone in the audience enthralled by his wonderful storytelling and his deep knowledge of the history of his craft. © Birthplace of Country Music

Today there are criticisms aimed at setting aside a month or a week or a day of the year to commemorate important historical subjects – for instance, the question of whether setting aside a designated time to explore those histories means that they aren’t fully integrated into the study and understanding of American history. While in some ways the name of our museum – the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – might seem to narrow our focus, through exhibits, programming, and even collections we have tried to bring together the histories and voices of a variety of musicians and communities in order to underline just how much American music has been built and created from the intersection of different styles, different stories, different artists, and different backgrounds.

 

Fall in Love with Farm and Fun Time

With today being Valentine’s Day, it’s also a great time to fall in love with Farm and Fun Time! Our February 8 show swept our captivated audience off their feet with that special blend of music, stories, and celebration that Farm and Fun Time has become known for with all those who attend or experience it online.

Getting into the lovey dovey spirit of Valentine’s Day, our Farm and Fun Time host band Bill and the Belles kicked things off with a set of love songs. Following these romantic ditties was Amy Campbell who presented the evening’s “Heirloom Recipe” segment. Sharing the stories of people who preserve the region’s foodways as the producer of Tennessee Farm Table, Amy is no stranger to the culinary traditions of Appalachia and the American South. Amy told the story of Kilt Greens, a recipe that was often prepared out of hard times and necessity by pouring grease over any type of greens. Amy learned the recipe from watching her grandmother prepare the dish, and she shared how when eating this simple earthy dish, it transports her to another place and time to her family’s Mississippi roots. To commemorate this recipe, Bill and the Belles sang a song about the seemingly violent but oh so tasty act of killing greens.

Three photos -- one of Carl, Bill and the Belles bass player; one of Bill and the two Belles singing and playing; and one of Amy Campbell at the mic during her "Heirloom Recipe"
Bill and the Belles sang of broken hearts and love found, while Amy Campbell makes mouths water with her story of kilt greens. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first featured musical guests were two of southwest Virginia’s most celebrated old-time musicians, Martha Spencer and Larry Sigmon. Franklin County’s Larry Sigmon is known across the region for his rollicking banjo style, making him beloved by dancers everywhere. Radio Bristol’s own Martha Spencer from Whitetop, Virginia, has performed traditional music for audiences across the globe. After meeting a few years back, the two teamed up to revive Larry’s acclaimed band Unique Sounds of the Mountains, and at February’s Farm and Fun Time, they brought the house down! From The Carter Family’s “The Storms Are on the Ocean” to Jimmy Martin’s classic “Freeborn Man,” this dynamic duo showcased the diverse sounds of traditional music, all in their own distinct style. In addition to the always-entertaining music, Martha even showed off her flatfooting skills, giving the audience a taste of this traditional dance style.

Two photos: Left, Martha and Larry singing together; Right, Martha flatfooting on the stage while Larry plays banjo.
Larry Sigmon and Martha Spencer brought energy and good traditional tunes to the Farm and Fun Time stage. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

And we learned something new on Farm and Fun Time this month: Not all farms grow crops or raise cows and chickens! For our “ASD Farm Report” segment, Radio Bristol visited a nearby “fish farm” at the Erwin National Fish Hatchery in Erwin, Tennessee. Established in 1894, Erwin National Fish Hatchery is one of the oldest hatcheries in the country and provides over 14 million eggs annually for federal, state, and tribal hatcheries across the nation. Here is a video from our trip:

The final musical guest of the evening was folksinger Willie Watson. A founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, Watson is no stranger to roots music lovers everywhere, and it was a pleasure to have him here at the Birthplace of Country Music. Weaving together the past and present through song, Watson showed our Farm and Fun Time audience the power of traditional American song. Though Watson draws heavily from the catalogue of traditional music, performing songs ranging from Gary Davis’s “Samson and Delilah” to Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special,” he thoroughly makes the music his own. Through stylish showmanship and storytelling, Watson captivated his audience in a way that can only occur when a powerful musician performs in an intimate venue such as the museum’s Performance Theater. This was a performance we won’t soon forget.

Two photographs: Left, Willie Watson in front of the Farm and Fun Time crowd; Right, a close-up shot of Willie playing the guitar and singing.
Willie Watson mesmerized the crowd with every song he performed at February’s Farm and Fun Time. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

If you missed this show, fear not – you can always come next month! Tickets are on sale for our March 8 show featuring Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings and Bumper Jacksons and our April 12 show featuring David Davis and the Warrior River Boys and Ralph Stanley II & The Clinch Mountain Boys. We hope to see you at Farm and Fun Time soon!

And remember: Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol is able to bring Farm and Fun Time to not only those in the audience or tuned in to WBCM-LP, but to viewers far and wide via Facebook Live. Be sure to like WBCM – Radio Bristol on Facebook to tune in every month!

Music in the Blood: Norman Edmonds and Jimmy Edmonds

On February 9, 1889, Norman Edmonds was born in Wythe County, Virginia. Edmonds recorded four songs at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, playing fiddle alongside J. P. Nester’s singing and banjo on “Train on the Island,” “Black-Eyed Susie,” John, My Lover,” and “Georgia.” Their version of “Train on the Island” was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music in 1952.

Photograph of museum case displaying an old fiddle and a photograph of Norman Edmonds, holding his fiddle.
The photograph of Norman Edmonds in the museum’s permanent exhibits shows him in later life with his fiddle. The photograph was shared with us by Mark Sanderford. ©Birthplace of Country Music

Only two sides from the Sessions recordings were released (“Train on the Island” and “Black-Eyed Susie”), but Ralph Peer was impressed with their sound, a wonderful throwback to earlier stringbands that were made up of just fiddle and banjo together. Peer invited them up to New York City – all expenses paid – to record further; however, Nester refused to leave his Blue Ridge Mountains home and so a continuation of their partnership “on record” didn’t happen.

Edmonds, who played the fiddle in the “old-time” way, where he held it against his chest rather than underneath his chin, may not have gotten another chance to record in the 1920s and 1930s, but his fame as a fiddler saw him become a local star in his later years. He performed at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention (amongst others), played on several LPs made in Galax and also one for independent label Davis Unlimited, and had his very own radio show called The Old Timers.

As with so many traditional musicians, whose music and instruments were passed down through the generations, Edmonds learned his playing from his father, who learned it from his father. And today, Edmonds’ grandson Jimmy Edmonds of Galax, Virginia, has also come to music and instrument building the old-fashioned way: through his family. He is a 5th-generation Edmonds fiddle player – he started playing at four years old, picking up other instruments along the way – and his father was a luthier who passed on his skills, tools, and craftsmanship to his son. Jimmy started off helping his father repair instruments and working on finishes, moving on to making his first fiddle under the encouragement of luthiers Wayne Henderson and Gerald Anderson. A busted Wayne Henderson guitar while he worked at the Myrtle Beach Opry led to guitar building.

Left-hand pic shows Jimmy Edmonds standing in his wood storage room and various types of wood on the shelves. The right-hand picture shows several guitar bodies, unfinished, waiting to be fully constructed.
Jimmy Edmonds is seen to the left in the wood storage room at his workshop. This room is filled with a variety of woods used in the different instruments Jimmy builds, from Brazilian rosewood and mahogany to Carpathian spruce and Koa. To the right, several guitar bodies are waiting to be fully constructed. © Birthplace of Country Music

The legacy of this mountain music, and the craft that makes it possible, is wonderfully on display through Jimmy’s work. A visit to Jimmy’s workshop gives you a real insight into the traditions that come together when luthiers make their instruments – the choices of wood, the techniques used, the influences from past luthiers and the innovations of present-day ones, the decorative touches that hold meaning and beauty. And it gives you the chance to see the huge amount of work, love, and care that goes into crafting each and every instrument, and why those who are lucky enough to own an instrument by Edmonds are pretty passionate about them! This video from a February 2013 Fretboard Journal article serves as a great introduction to Jimmy’s work:

Jimmy mostly makes guitars – he is almost to his 300th guitar – but he also makes fiddles, mandolins, Dobros, and dulcimers, and he helps with the fretwork, pearl inlay, and the finish on his workshop partner Kevin Fore’s banjos.  He does not copy any set style or type of guitar, but he is a big fan of 1930s and 1940s Martin guitars and therefore many of his builds reflect those iconic instruments. He has crafted some of his own innovations and decorative touches in the guitars he builds. Henderson views Jimmy’s finish work as some of the best out there – he uses varnish rather than lacquer – and he often does the finish work on Henderson’s guitars.

Close up of a Jimmy Edmonds guitar in its framing, reading to be worked on.
Jimmy’s decorative flourishes are pretty special; for instance, his rosette decorations – the circular bands around the sound hole – are a delicate mix of light and dark woods and tortoise. His guitars for country musician Zack Brown bear a particularly beautiful Martin-style herringbone pattern. © Birthplace of Country Music

The passing down of tradition amongst families and from luthier to apprentice is what keeps this craft and this music alive. And so today, we celebrate that passing on from grandfather to grandson, and from father to son, as an appropriate way to mark the anniversary of Norman Edmonds’ birth!

Jimmy Edmonds is featured in our current special exhibit The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge. The exhibit is open through March 4, 2018. He is also a member of the Virginia Luthiers, alongside other luthier band members Wayne Henderson, Gerald Anderson, and Spencer Strickland.

“I Heard ‘Wreck on the Highway,’ but Dorsey Didn’t Get Paid”

The history of old-time and hillbilly music, especially as it became popular in the years after the Bristol Sessions, is often marked by copyright questions: from murky provenance to songs written by one person and copyrighted by another, and everything in between. Many songwriters, especially those who were uneducated or illiterate, didn’t know how to copyright their songs or were woefully underpaid for their creations.

One such story centers on Dorsey Dixon, a North Carolina millworker who wrote and originally recorded the song later popularized by Roy Acuff as “Wreck on the Highway.” A pious, humble man who left school at 12 to work in a textile mill with his father and older siblings, Dixon “believed that his special mission in life was to spread the gospel through music,” as Patrick Huber tells us in his fascinating and award-winning book Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South. (For those who want to learn more, Linthead Stomp is usually available in The Museum Store and features a full chapter about the Dixon Brothers.)

B&W photograph of Dixon Brothers holding their instruments
This promotional shot of the Dixon Brothers was taken for a catalog or a magazine. Dixon Brothers image in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Although he had a clever and quirky sense of humor, which was showcased in his song “Intoxicated Rat,” most of Dixon’s songs, usually featuring his brother Howard too, are religious in nature or end with a moral. Many are also event songs – topical songs that focused on recent, often newsworthy, tragedies such as train wrecks or the sinking of the Titanic. Event songs were very commercially popular for hillbilly music. “The Wreck of the Virginian” and “The Newmarket Wreck” were two of these that were recorded at the Bristol Sessions, and “The Wreck of the Old 97” is probably the most enduring song of this genre.

Dorsey Dixon wrote numerous event songs, and he wrote his most successful one after witnessing a car crash outside East Rockingham, North Carolina, in 1937. The focus of “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray” was not the crash itself, but rather, as Huber relates, “the curious onlookers who only gawk at the twisted wreckage and bloody bodies instead of beseeching God to receive these souls.” Recorded in early 1938, the song resurfaced in 1942 when Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff recorded the song as “Wreck on the Highway” and it became a national sensation.

Photograph of a young Roy Acuff
A promo shot of Roy Acuff, also taken for a catalog or magazine. Roy Acuff image in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Acuff said that he had purchased the lyrics from someone in Knoxville and that Fred Rose, his music publishing partner, had written the music. In reality, the copyright was at the time jointly owned by Dorsey Dixon and Wade Mainer, a banjo player who had earlier convinced Dixon to register the copyright for the song in both their names, possibly for marketing reasons since Mainer was at that time a full-fledged radio star and his name would generate sales. It took four years but in 1946, under threat of a lawsuit, Dixon finally settled with Rose to begin receiving the royalties he deserved from the song. He spent $250 of the settlement to buy out Mainer’s share.

Dixon didn’t seem to hold onto any hard feelings towards those who had basically pirated his song; as Huber notes, Dixon even later wrote: “I’m certain the Lord worked through Acuff and Rose in my favor.” And like many artists of his day, he knew there was value in his musical output but didn’t fully understand how to take advantage of that value nor how to protect himself and his songs from others within the realms of copyright.

Dixon played very little in the 1940s and 1950s as he got older, but he experienced a brief renaissance in the folk revival of the mid-1960s. He played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and in 1965 released his final album Babies in the Mill: Carolina Traditional, Industrial, Sacred Songs. It picked up a theme common in some of his earlier songs like “Weave Room Blues” and “Spinning Room Blues,” that of life in the North and South Carolina textile mills. He died three years later.

Dorsey Dixon holding his guitar
Dorsey Dixon in 1962, likely taken by American folklorist Archie Green. Dorsey Dixon image in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dorsey Dixon didn’t become a national sensation. His songs though are a fascinating window into both the daily life of a working-class textile laborer and into the very soul of a devout Free Will Baptist who believed his songwriting would fulfill the “great purpose” for which he believed he was put on earth.

Guest blogger Joseph Vess lives in Meadowview, Virginia, where he listens to lots of old-time music and occasionally plays the guitar. He urges you to give the Dixon Brothers their due by enjoying the complete Dixon Brothers recordings, along with a 164-page book by Patrick Huber and extensive liner notes, available from Bear Family Records