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Mother’s Day Spotlight: What You Might Not Know about Mother Maybelle

Today – May 10, 2020 – is both Mother’s Day here in the United States, and the anniversary of Mother Maybelle Carter’s birthday (May 10, 1909).

For so many of us, when we think of our mothers, it’s hard to look beyond the maternal. In other words, it’s hard for us to think of them as anything other than our mothers. But everyone’s mother has a life outside that – interests, stories, dreams, regrets, adventures, achievements, and so much more.

And that idea made us think about Maybelle. We all know about the significance and legacy of Maybelle Carter in the history of country, and American, music. That is a huge part of her story – but what about the other parts of her story? Some of you may know all about her, some may only know about her music, and some may not know much at all. And so let’s explore just a few of the lesser known aspects of this great woman!

Mother Maybelle

First, we’ll start with a musical aspect: Why was she called Mother Maybelle?

Of course, Maybelle was a mother herself to Helen, Anita, and June, and after the original Carter Family stopped performing together in 1943, Maybelle and her daughters took to the road as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Maybelle was only in her early 30s at the start of this period – imagine performing on the radio and on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, traveling the country for performances, living out of hotels and eating at diners, all with three young girls in tow!

The Mother Maybelle name might have been part of their band persona, but she kept this moniker for the rest of her career. And everything she did underlined this role – as matriarch and mentor to so many. For instance, she took on some younger musicians as part of her act, musicians like Chet Atkins who played guitar as sideman with Maybelle and her daughters for a time – Maybelle seeing Atkins potential and talent before it was more widely recognized. She also looked after a host of other musicians in the midst of their personal struggles, including Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. And, of course, she influenced many with her extraordinary guitar playing and all-around musical prowess, including Earl Scruggs, and later, acts like the New Lost City Ramblers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who invited her to perform with them because of the legacy she carried with her from the early days of country music. When she appeared on stage with these bands or at the folk festivals of the 1960s, the 20-something audiences looked up at this maternal figure and saw greatness.


As Tift Merritt noted on NPR’s All Things Considered: Maybelle Carter “defined a genre with her musicianship and her grace. More than as the great mother of her craft, her contributions as a caretaker, female and exemplar human deserve our deepest admiration.”

Life in the Fast Lane

Maybelle may be revered as a musical legend, and she may have been a steadying force to her family and her surrogate family of young, and often troubled, musicians, but she had a bit of a wild side herself. When on tour, Maybelle often drove – and she put her foot down hard on the pedal. Apparently, her husband Eck was also known as a speed demon so one imagines that when either of them was behind the wheel, there might have been a lot of backseat driving going on from the girls. And Maybelle wasn’t only a lover of fast cars; she also rode an Indian-model motorcycle!

Sepia-style image showing Eck at the front of the motorcycle with Maybelle seated behind him. Both wear helmets. They seem to be in a field or yard in front of a white house.
Maybelle and Eck on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Found on www.worthpoint.com

Maybelle also looked to Lady Luck as she indulged her love of bingo and cards, and when on tour in places like Las Vegas and Tahoe, she played the slots. She enjoyed horse races and also went down to the dog tracks frequently, looking to pick a winner. Her bets on all of these gambles were low-stakes but that didn’t take away the pleasure she got from playing.

The Everyday Life

With any famous person, it’s sometimes hard to imagine them out of the spotlight and living an “everyday life” – taking part in the day-to-day domestic tasks, having hobbies and interests, not performing but just living. But, of course, they do, and Maybelle was no different. She was quite a mean cook – from tomato gravy to chicken gizzard soup to other homestyle favorites, many of which are recorded in June Carter Cash’s Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook, along with a host of family stories. She also enjoyed hunting and fishing – grandson John Carter Cash has a photograph of her and Eck standing in front of a truck bed covered in fish they’d caught. And she let loose and had a good time bowling and playing pool with family and friends. And while music on the stage may have been Maybelle’s livelihood, making music at home was often just as important.

Hunting and fishing licence with Maybelle's name, address, descriptive details, and signature. It was issued in 1975.

Maybelle’s Tennesee hunting and fishing license, issued in 1975 only a few years before she passed away, was on display in the museum’s very first special exhibit, The Carter Family: Lives and Legacies. Carter/Cash Family Collection, Ms2009-090, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Maybelle’s kindness, generosity, and care for others – so much a part of her musical story – also came into play with her “second” job. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, though Maybelle was still performing at the Grand Ole Opry on the weekends and with other gigs, her daughters began to go their separate ways with families and their own careers (plus the music world was changing), and so Maybelle needed to supplement her income. Therefore, for a while, she worked at a local hospital as a certified practical nurse at night, helping to sit with and care for the elderly.

And so…Happy Mother (Maybelle)’s Day

These are just a few of the things that both define Maybelle Carter as the matriarch of a genre and also take us beyond her life in music to see her as an everyday person too. In Maybelle’s story, we can find inspiration, good memories and stories, and a continuing influence down through the ages. Once again, Tift Merritt sums it up well, defining Mother Maybelle not only in relation to her musical legacy but also in terms that define so many of our own mothers: “A woman of craft rather than of spectacle, Maybelle Carter was more than a great guitar player: She was a perfect bandmate. Deep in the House of Music, down the halls of life-long practice, Maybelle Carter, the unspoken Great Mother of rhythm guitar, blends in with her harmony singing, steps out when asked and breezily holds down the rhythm and the lead on her instrument as if it were no big deal.”

* If you want to know more about Maybelle as a guitarist, check out Greg Reish’s Instrument Interview with her 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Lord of the Mountain

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The book cover shows a young boy with a bag on his back walking through the woods; a young girl waves to him in the distance.
The cover of Ronald Kidd’s Lord of the Mountain.

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Ronald Kidd’s Lord of the Mountain, a middle-grade historical novel. The story follows 13-year-old Nate Owens as he struggles with the restrictions in his family and runs away to pursue his love of music. Set in the area around Bristol, Tennessee, in the 1920s, part of Nate’s journey includes meeting The Carter Family when they are in town to record with Ralph Peer and then later finding respite in their home after a near-tragedy with his little brother. Weaving together historic details from the 1920s and the “big bang of country music,” the trials and tribulations of adolescence, and Nate’s quest to understand his family, all while discovering the power of music, Kidd does a wonderful job of creating an adventure story that also explores the depths of family pain and redemption.

Black-and-white photograph of the author, close-up on his face.
Author Ronald Kidd. Photograph by Helen Burns

Ronald Kidd has worked as a writer for many years, producing entertaining juvenile and young adult fiction, theatrical plays, and most recently, historical novels. Lord of the Mountain is his most recent historical fiction book, published in 2018, but others include Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, On Beale Street – about music, race, and Elvis Presley and set in Memphis in 1954, and Night on Fire – about the Freedom Riders in Alabama in the 1960s. Kidd also edits books and produces audio and video programming.

Make plans to join us for our on-air discussion on Thursday, March 26 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library and at The Museum Store so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of listening in. The librarians or museum staff will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deep and engaging novel.

Our Radio Bristol Book Club pick for April is Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Celebrating A. P. Carter on His Birthday

Today is the anniversary of A.P. Carter’s birth – he was born on December 15, 1891 in Maces Spring, Virginia. A.P. was the driving force behind The Carter Family, and his place in music history is strong and true. Numerous books and articles chronicle the Carters’ musical journey and their legacy and impact – my personal favorites are Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg’s Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone and David Lasky and Frank Young’s graphic novel The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. Their story has also been told through television, radio and film – from Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary series to The Winding Stream by Beth Harrington.

A blog post does not seem sufficient to explore the full life of A.P. Carter, but we wanted to celebrate this special day and so I’ve instead pulled together five interesting details from A. P.’s story.

Lightning Strike

A.P. was full of quirks – from his daydreaming to his wandering ways to the tremor he carried with him his whole life. A.P.’s mother Molly Bays Carter attributed her firstborn son’s shaking to a thunderstorm she encountered one day when she was pregnant with him. She was standing under an apple tree when lightning struck, the energy traveling down to the ground and all around her – as Zwonitzer and Hirshberg report, Molly always said that this lightning strike “shot such a bolt of fright into her swollen belly that the baby inside would be afflicted with that very nervous energy for each and all of his days.” The tremor that affected A.P.’s body also came through in his voice, which carried a bit of a quaver when talking and singing. And the nervous energy seemed to push A.P. to always be on the move, hitting the road for days on end, and keeping his mind busy and turned inward.

Black-and-white photograph of A. P. Carter sitting in a chair outside, looking straight at the camera. Two women can be seen in the background behind him though they are not the subjects of the picture.
A rare moment when A.P. was sitting still. Courtesy of Dale Jett

All in a Day’s Work

While A.P.’s dream was to make money from music – a dream that he, with Sara and Maybelle, fulfilled – that wasn’t the only work he did. As with so many people during the early part of the 20th century, working hard, and doing a multitude of jobs, was a necessity to take care of family. When A.P. met Sara for the very first time, he was a traveling fruit tree salesman. (Incidentally, he was so struck by Sara – and her singing voice – on this first meeting that he bought from her rather than the other way around; he went home with an order for a set of dishes.) He also farmed his land and worked sawmills at various times, and then after his music career came to an end, he set up a grocery store in Maces Spring, though from all accounts he didn’t keep regular hours and his business wasn’t as brisk as he would probably like. However, his store served as a gathering place, and one imagines a place where music was made, perhaps leading him on to his dream of a permanent home for music-making, fulfilled in his daughter Janette’s establishment of the Carter Family Fold after A.P.’s passing.

Frontal view of the A.P. Carter Grocery Store, now The Carter Family Museum. It is a small white building with two peaked eaves at each end.

A.P. Carter’s grocery store, now a museum devoted to The Carter Family. © Southern Foodways Alliance

A Way with Words

A.P.’s penchant for wandering in his search for new (old) songs is well known – a habit referred to as “songcatching.” Along the way, A.P. went back into the hills of Appalachia and into the factories in the urban areas, always on the hunt for a song he hadn’t heard before. He didn’t always go on this search on his own, and his songcatching travels with African American musician Lesley Riddle are also a familiar element of the Carter history. A.P. met Lesley, also known as “Esley,” in Kingsport, Tennessee – initially as a source of good songs to learn. Soon they were traveling together, which must have been challenging as they passed down the roads and into the towns of a segregated South. Often A.P. had to find a separate place for Lesley to stay and eat, either with friends, family, or others who didn’t discriminate based on the color of his skin. Lesley had a head for remembering the tunes and lyrics of the songs they heard, acting like a “human recorder” in some ways, and they spent a lot time going over the songs they brought home and working them up with Sara and Maybelle. Lesley noted that there were times when he’d have to get up and walk away just to have a break from that intense focus. But all that songcatching led the Carters to a wonderfully huge and varied repertoire, including songs A.P. wrote himself, a discography that is one of the most influential in country music history.

A.P.’s Guitar

The museum was fortunate to have a piece of A.P.’s musical career on display a few years ago at our first special exhibit, The Carter Family: Lives and Legacies. On loan from his grandson Dale Jett, A.P.’s 1936 Martin 000-28 style guitar had a story to tell. A.P. bought this guitar in a pawn shop in San Antonio or Del Rio, Texas for $65–$75 dollars. In the 1930s, Martins were being made out of the best materials with the best craftspeople – all handmade rather than by machines, and this guitar’s top was made from spruce found in the Appalachians and considered the best tone wood. While A.P. isn’t really known for his guitar playing and he certainly didn’t play an instrument too often for The Carter Family performances or recordings, he did play this Martin on border radio from time to time, and it can be seen in a promotional Christmas card from this period that featured the musical family. The guitar is still played today by Jett.

Left: A.P. Carter's guitar on display in a case at the museum -- behind the guitar is a pink-shaded panel with a quote from Dale Jett about the guitar. Right: Dale Jett, Wayne Henderson playing the A.P. Carter guitar, and a member of staff at the museum, on stage in the Performance Theater.
A.P. Carter’s guitar on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum; Dale Jett and Wayne Henderson play and discuss A.P.’s guitar at a museum program. Left: © Birthplace of Country Music; Right: Courtesy of Tom Netherland


So much of life is down to the vagaries of chance, and A.P.’s story is no different. The Carters’ place in country music – indeed, in American music as a whole and beyond – is significant. But their story still has a “what if” element, and that comes from the Life Magazine photo shoot that happened in the fall of 1941. Focusing on the original Carter Family and their children, the photo shoot took place in Virginia with the intention of a story about the Carters and their music appearing in the magazine later that year. However, the photo spread never appeared as it was pushed off the pages by the bigger news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The photographer Eric Schaal did keep one of the images – a portrait of himself with A.P. – framed in his home, later saying that A.P. “was the most exotic subject he’d ever photographed.” And so the question remains: What would have happened to the Carters, and to A.P., if that spread and their story had been published to the wide and varied audience found in the readership of Life?

Screenshot of Dust-to-Digital's tweet on A.P.'s birthday in 2018, noting the Life photoshoot and with a black-and-white photograph of A.P. from that shoot. He sits holding his guitar in a room with flowered wallpaper.
Portrait of A.P. Carter taken for Life Magazine photo shoot in 1941. From Dust-to-Digital’s Twitter feed

Radio Bristol Book Club: Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

This month’s book focuses on an important figure in the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions: Ralph Peer. Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music came out in 2015, the first biography of this innovative and far-seeing A&R executive and music publisher. Anyone who knows the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions or has visited the Birthplace of Country Music Museum knows about Peer’s impact and influence on early commercial “hillbilly” music. But Peer’s career spanned so much more than that – from Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” to Latin American music to the evolution of the music industry towards R&B, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. Mazor’s book digs deep into Peer’s life and career, presenting a portrait of a complicated and astute man whose work within the realms of regional roots music changed the very landscape of popular music across America and beyond.

A view of the five sawtooth panels in the museum, each focusing on a different element of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. From left to right, we see "Stars of the Sessions," "Producing the Music" (Ralph Peer), "The Western Electric Microphone," "I Was There," and the brief history of the Sessions in Bristol.
This area of the museum’s exhibits focus on major elements of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, including Ralph Peer’s role in those recordings and his impact on the recording industry. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples

Barry Mazor is a longtime music, media, and business journalist. He has been writing about country and roots music for the Wall Street Journal  since 2003 and is the host of the “Roots Now” music and artist interview show on Acme Radio Live out of Nashville, which streams weekly. He is the author of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century and Connie Smith: Just for What I Am, and the former senior editor and columnist for No Depression magazine. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including American Songwriter, the Nashville Scene, the Village Voice, and the Washington Post. Both Meeting Jimmie Rodgers and Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music won Belmont University’s annual “Best Book on Country Music” award.

This month we will be meeting on the third Thursday of the month – one week earlier than normal due to Thanksgiving – so make plans to join us on Thursday, November 21 at 11:00am, and then keep listening around 11:30am to hear a live chat with the author! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is for sale at The Museum Store or available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians or our frontline staff will be happy to help you find the book. 

The book is on display in front of a postcard rack with a Stonemans postcard and beside of a CD display, including CDs of the Bristol Sessions and The Carter Family.
Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, on display in The Museum Store, along with a variety of related items. © Birthplace of Country Music

And plan ahead: Our final Radio Bristol Book Club pick of the year is Serena by Ron Rash (December 19 – also one week earlier than normal due to Christmas). We will be releasing our 2020 book club picks soon!

Ken Burns’ Country Music: It’s FINALLY Here!

We don’t know about you, but we are EXCITED! After several years of prep by the filmmakers – including extensive interviews, research time in archives and libraries, conversations and debates, music performances galore, long road trips and late nights, and editing and production – PBS’s Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns is finally here!

The first 2-hour episode – “The Rub (Beginnings – 1933)” – airs on PBS on Sunday, September 15 at 8pm ET, and its blurb notes: “‘Hillbilly music’ reaches new listeners through phonographs and radio, launching the careers of country music’s first big stars – the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.” For those of you who know us already, you know that the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers recorded for the very first time here in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia at the now famous 1927 Bristol Sessions. And you know that our town celebrates this history and its impact and legacy in so many ways, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and Radio Bristol. (By the way, if you didn’t know this, it’s a cool history so come visit us!)

Left: A view down Bristol's State Street. Center: Several musicians on the Ryman stage in front of a packed audience. Right: Johnny Cash sitting on a cash with several instruments around him.
PBS promotional images from Country Music. Left: Episode 1 (Downtown Bristol, c.1927. Courtesy of Bristol Historical Association ). Center: Episode 5 ( The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, c, 1960. Courtesy of Les Leverett photograph, Grand Ole Opry Archives). Right: Episode 5 (Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960.  Courtesy of Sony Music Archives).

For us, seeing this musical heritage recognized and celebrated by a filmmaker like Ken Burns is pretty amazing. The documentary features Bristol’s story and the many people who were part of that story, exploring their integral role in the development of early commercial county music. Over eight episodes and sixteen and a half hours of viewing, the film traces the path of country music – “a uniquely American art form” – from its influences and origins in ballads, blues, and sacred music through its evolution into different sounds and manifestations and then on to its global popularity today. Viewers will get the chance to see footage and photographs, and hear stories and histories, never before revealed, along with interviews with over 80 artists. This is TV worth watching.

BCM was fortunate to get to spend some time with the Country Music filmmakers and their wider team during the research process and then again in March 2019 as the Country Music kick-off road show hit the highways and byways. Back in 2014, not long after the museum opened, we shared some of our own research into the photographs and media used in the museum with Florentine Films, later giving them access to some of our collection for digital scanning and research purposes. We also had a fun day facilitating filming with a local phonograph collector, spending time with him beforehand to find the perfect machine and then getting to watch the filming in action a couple of months later!

Left: Bob Bledsoe sitting on a couch with four members of the BCM team, each holding a wax cylinder. Several phonographs can be seen in the background. Right: A phonograph with a red morning glory horn is central in the picture with film crew around it working lights and image.
Left: Bob Bledsoe with his phonographs and the BCM team on the day we scoped out which phonograph would get to be in a Ken Burns’ documentary. Right: The film crew at work on getting the right digital footage of the phonograph. © Birthplace of Country Music

And then, on Sunday, March 24, 2019, Burns – along with his Emmy Award-winning creative team including producers Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey – arrived in Bristol on a large tour bus to kick off the promotion for Country Music. They were also joined by Old Crow Medicine Show’s frontman Ketch Secor, whose love of the history of country music made him a frequent collaborator with the team. This event at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum was the start of their 30-city promotional road show tour. You can hear more about that event in our blog post here.

Top left: Ken Burns and Ketch Secor talking into mics during the Q&A at the museum; Top right: Secor, Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Julie Dunfey pointing to the PBS logo on their road show bus; Bottom left: Burns being interviewed by media in the museum's exhibits; Bottom right: Burns in the museum's exhibits with the head curator.
During his time at the museum, Burns and his team took a private tour of the exhibits, led by Head Curator Rene Rodgers, which was followed by a reception in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. Local and national journalists got the chance to speak directly with the filmmakers, who later provided a real treat for the event attendees: a short screening with a clip from the film and an in-depth Q&A session. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

What’s great about a Ken Burns project is that not only is all of the research and in-depth stories and interviews presented via the film itself, but there will also be a host of ways to explore the subject even more deeply – from a book to the soundtrack (as a 2-disc CD and a 5-disc DC box set) to vinyl LPs to DVDs and Blu-Rays of the full show. The DVD and Blu-Ray extras include a preview program, a behind-the-scenes look at how the film was made, and material gleaned from hours of interviews. All of these items will be on sale and available at The Museum Store!

A shot of The Museum Store entrance with promotional displays related to Ken Burns' Country Music.
The Country Music display at The Museum Store. © Birthplace of Country Music

Everything to do with Country Music has been a thrill for us – from being able to help the Florentine Films team in a small way to getting to be the first leg on the promotional road show to seeing Bristol’s important musical history honored and celebrated in the resulting documentary. It has also been wonderful to see Burns talking about Bristol as a place that people should come visit as part of their pilgrimage to truly explore the history of country music – we hope to see you here soon! But most of all, we are so grateful to see the overwhelming passion, engaged interest, and profound understanding that Burns and his team have shown when they talk about country music. This is music and history that we love, and we are proud to see it represented in such a deeply respectful way.

* The first four episodes of Country Music will begin airing on Sunday, September 15 and run through Wednesday, September 18, and then episodes 5–8 will air the following week on Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25 at 8:00–10:00 p.m. ET.

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan at the Bristol sign in March 2019. Courtesy of Tennessee Department of Tourist Development; photographer: Ed Rode

Radio Bristol Book Club: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Originally inspired by Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature, a recent special exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, readers from the museum and the Bristol Public Library came together from March to June to explore books featured in the exhibit.

Four members of Radio Bristol Book Club gathered round the mic in the radio studio, each holding their copy of Sounder.
The very first Radio Bristol Book Club in March 2018, when the group read Sounder by William Armstrong. © Birthplace of Country Music

But we just loved this program so much that we decided to make it a permanent Radio Bristol show! And so each month we will be live on-air discussing books related to the museum’s content, regional music heritage and music history further afield, and Appalachian culture and stories. We invite you to read along and then listen in on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11—11:30am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

For our first book within this new focus, we chose a book about some of the main players in the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. We will be discussing this book on July 25 at 11am live on Radio Bristol.

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? serves as both history and biography. It shares the story of the Carter Family as musical pioneers, tracing their journey from the hills and mountains of Virginia to the 1927 Bristol Sessions to national recognition via border radio and a large catalog of influential and iconic recordings. The book explores their musical impact, along with the various routes A. P., Sara, and Maybelle took after they were no longer performing together and their continuing legacy. Not only does Zwonitzer and Hirshberg’s meticulously researched but eminently readable book give readers a deep understanding and appreciation of the Carters’ as a potent musical force, but the book also shines a light on the early commercial country music industry.

The cover of Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone has an old publicity photograph of the Carters -- A. P. standing, Sara with her autoharp, and Maybelle with her guitar. On the bottom left of the cover a vintage record label-style graphic bears the title and subtitle of the book.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music was published in 2002. It was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle awards for biography/autobiography, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and an American Library Association’s Booklist Editor’s Choice.

Mark Zwonitzer is a writer, director, and producer, who has worked on numerous documentaries including American Experience, Freedom Riders, The Supreme Court, and The Irish in America. In 2016 he published his second book, The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism. Charles Hirshberg is a journalist and sportswriter, with articles appearing in numerous publications such as Time, Sports Illustrated, Life, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. In 2004, he also wrote a history of television sports journalism, ESPN 25. Reflecting some interesting scientific connections in his family – his mother is astrophysicist Joan Feynman and his uncle is physicist Richard Feynman – Hirschberg was once editor of Popular Science magazine.

We cannot wait to bring this story of The Carter Family to Radio Bristol Book Club! We hope that you can read Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? too and then join us at 11am on Thursday, July 25 as we discuss the book on air. You can tune in locally at 100.1 FM or listen via the website or app. Many of the Radio Bristol Book Club books will be available at the Bristol Public Library or The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum so stop by to borrow or buy a copy. The BPL librarians or the museum’s frontline staff will be happy to help you find the book.

You can listen to archived book club discussions from previous shows here.

Yodeling and Wounded Animals

I was booked to play and sing at an outdoor music festival in Indiana shortly after I learned to yodel. This was probably around 1983. I recall wandering around under the trees in a sparsely populated section of the festival grounds, practicing my yodeling prior to a performance on the stage. After a while I became aware that I was being watched by a young woman. She eventually spoke.

“What is that you are doing?” she asked. “You sound like a wounded animal.”

While “wounded animal” was not the effect I was going for, I was glad for some female attention. We smiled and had a conversation about yodeling.

Any conversation about yodeling – at least any conversation with me about yodeling – will inevitably get around to Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers was a tubercular railroad worker who began a career as an entertainer in the late 1920s. No, Rodgers did not invent the yodel – that distinction probably goes to some wounded animal – but he went a long way toward defining and popularizing it.

He made his first recordings in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 4, 1927, and he brought his yodel with him. His recording of “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” – a sweet, traditional lullaby that had been recorded and performed many times previously – was infused with a stunningly high and clear yodel that launched his career and, by extension, launched the early country music recording industry. Bristol is now known as the Birthplace of Country Music largely as a result. His first “official” yodel song – his “Blue Yodel No. 1” – was released 91 years ago today on February 3, 1928.

A wounded animal, a lullaby, and a sick railroad worker. Who knew that such an unlikely combination of elements would lead to an internationally respected and financially fruitful style of entertainment!

Jimmie Rodgers was so popular and influential that he is commonly known as the “Father of Country Music.” He, along with Hank Williams, became the first two performers to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame when that institution was formed in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1961. After his death from consumption, or TB, in 1933, his musical style lived on for many years. An entire generation of singers – men and women – did their best “Jimmie” to please a seemingly insatiable public appetite for Rodgers’ Blue Yodel. Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Jimmie Davis, Gene Autry, Bill Carlisle, Bill Monroe, and Lefty Frizzell were just a few of his many followers.

Once that trend faded in the late 1930s, fortunes were made embellishing and elaborating on the Rodgers yodel. Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers were among the first and most successful artists to take Rodgers’ simple and plaintive “yodel-ay-hee-tee” and turn it into a syncopated, multisyllabic Rubik’s Cube of vocalization. The imagination and vocal agility required to master this newer style of country yodeling made stars out of many singers. Elton Britt, Patsy Montana, Hal Lone Pine, Montana Slim (Wilf Carter), the Girls of the Golden West, and Slim Whitman were just a few of these.

Two sisters from rural Minnesota, Carolyn and Lorraine DeZurik, developed a unique yodeling style in the late 1930s that drew its inspiration from the animal sounds they grew up with on their family’s farm. Calling themselves the Cackle Sisters, they honed their complex and near-perfect duet yodeling along with hen cackles and other animal sounds to form a memorable, if somewhat whimsical, musical statement that must be heard to be believed.

The world changed forever after World War II, and the popularity of yodeling seemed to be a casualty of that war. Sure, yodeling lingered through the late 1940s, but it took on the mantle of nostalgia. This changed in 1949 when Hank Williams scored a huge hit with an old Tin Pan Alley song called “Lovesick Blues.” That song introduced the world to a man who was arguably the greatest country music singer and songwriter of all time. And he introduced the world to a new approach to the yodel. Rather than treating the yodel as a stand-alone passage of music separate from the rest of the song, Hank Williams incorporated the yodel into the song lyrics. “I got a feeling called the blu-OO-ues, since my baby said good-bye,” etc. The effect was electrifying!


That was 70 years ago. Today, country music yodeling is again viewed as a vestige of a bygone era, even as we wait patiently for the next wave of yodel-mania. There are certainly some fine yodelers out there – the Riders in the Sky, Wiley and the Wild West, Wanda Jackson, and a young singer from North Dakota and a recent graduate of East Tennessee State University named Kristi Galdade, also known as “The Yodeling Songbird of North Dakota.”

And I do my part. A song I wrote in 1984 called “A Little Yodel Goes a Long Way” remains my unofficial theme song. Even if it makes me sound like a wounded animal!


West Virginians and the Birth of Country Music

West Virginia marks its admission to the Union on June 20, and with this anniversary, it is common practice to celebrate all the contributions West Virginians have made in history through the decades. There are many contributions for us to be proud of, but the ones that are closest to my heart are those made by a few men from Bluefield and Mercer County that became part of the history of the birth of country music.

In 1927 Ralph Peer, a talent scout and recording engineer for Victor Talking Machine Company, searched the south, including Appalachia, for new talent. After setting up a makeshift recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, he spent two weeks with various singers and musicians that came out of the mountains for a chance to record. Today when people think of the Bristol Sessions they often think first of Ernest Stoneman, The Carter Family – known as the First Family of Country Music – and Jimmie Rogers – referred to as the Father of Country Music – but all the musicians who recorded there still influence music today.

West Virginia was part of that important history – the state was represented at those recordings by Blind Alfred Reed and the West Virginia Coon Hunters.

Alfred Reed was born blind in 1880 in Floyd County, Virginia, the son of Riley and Charlotte Akers Reed. According to census records, they originally hailed from the Alum Ridge/Indian Valley area of Floyd County, Virginia. Their family, like others, migrated to Bluefield, West Virginia, in search of work. Bluefield was central to the coal boom, especially since it was a railroad hub, and it brought many workers to the coal fields from other areas. In 1927, the year of the Bristol Sessions, Reed and his wife Nettie and several of their children were living in Bluefield on Lilly Road. They are listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory with Reed’s occupation noted as music teacher. He made his living playing music long before the Bristol Sessions.

Photograph of Fred Pendleton holding a fiddle and Blind Alfred Reed holding a fiddle, standing in front of a sign advertising Reed's performance.
Songwriter, singer, and fiddler Blind Alfred Reed. The man to the left is Fred Pendleton, a member of the West Virginia Coon Hunters. Courtesy of Goldenseal Magazine

There has been a lot of speculation about the many ways that all that musical talent came to Bristol in 1927. Were they brought there by advertising, handbills, or word of mouth? Newspaper and obituary accounts recount that Ralph Peer attended a convention around this time – presumably a fiddlers’ convention – and heard Blind Alfred Reed’s rendition of “The Wreck of the Virginian.” It makes sense that Peer, as a talent scout, would go to where music was being played in the summer of 1927 and invite musicians too. I would argue that invitation could have been one of the methods to bring musicians to Bristol because of the type of music he seemed to be looking for and the type of music he ended up recording.  And so Peer, after hearing Reed, might have invited him to Bristol.

The song “The Wreck of the Virginian” would have personal appeal for Reed. Several of his family worked for the railroads. For instance, his brothers Monroe and Matthew Reed worked for the B&O Railroad. His son Collins D. Reed is listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory as living with him and working as a machinist for the Virginian Railway Co. His other son Arville Reed, who played guitar on three of the songs at Bristol, is also listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory as living with him and as working as a brakeman on the B&O Railroad. Arville’s name is misspelled as Orville in several records.

Blind Alfred Reed recorded four songs for Peer: “The Wreck of the Virginian,” “I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking in the Way with Jesus.” Reed continued recording until 1929, the year when his most famous side was released: “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” a song that has been modified and sung in modern times by musical artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Ry Cooder.

We don’t know the reason why Reed quit recording in 1929 – there is only speculation on that front – but we do know that he still played music locally and became a lay preacher for the Methodist church. He and his family moved around Mercer County, and for a time, he was a street musician in Princeton until the city created an ordinance against busking in 1937. Today there is a mural in his memory on Main Street in Princeton and so he has become a permanent fixture on the street he was once forbidden to play on. Blind Alfred Reed died in 1956 and is buried in Elgood, West Virginia; in 2007 he was inducted into the first class of the West Virginia Hall of Fame.

Large building with a caricature-like portrait of Blind Alfred Reed playing his fiddle on one side.
Blind Alfred Reed Mural on Mercer Street in Princeton, West Virginia, painted by Charleston artist Jeff Pierson. The artist made Reed’s ears bigger because he was a musician and his ears would have been his “tools.” Photograph © Denise Smith

Most members of the West Virginia Coon Hunters also hailed from Bluefield and the surrounding area, many migrating there for the same reasons as Reed’s family. The band recorded two songs on August 5, the last day of the 1927 Bristol Sessions: “Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy” and “Greasy String.”

Full group of West Virginia Coon Hunters band: Belcher, Meadows, and Brown are holding guitars; Vest is holding a mandolin; Stewart, Mooney, and Stephens are holding banjos; and Boyles and Pendleton are holding fiddles.
The West Virginia Coon Hunters, standing left to right: Fred Belcher, Clyde S. Meadows, Jim Brown, and Vernal Vest; seated left to right: Dutch Stewart, Wesley “Bane” Boyles, Regal Mooney, Fred Pendleton, and Joe Stephens. From the Birthplace of Country Music Museum Collection, gift of Denise Smith

There are several pictures of the West Virginia Coon Hunters from this time. One is the large group photo of nine musicians seen above, but several simply show four of the men and the full group didn’t play on the songs recorded at the Bristol Sessions. The record has Clyde S. Meadows and my grandfather Wesley “Bane” Boyles included on its label – they are also in the pictures of the smaller group and the large group. However, the record has Clyde’s name as C. A. Meadows (and on the session sheet it is mis-written as W. A. Meadows), while on one side of the record, W. B. Boyles was misspelled to W. B. Bayles.

Four members of the West Virginia Coon Hunters: two standing with guitars, and two sitting, one with fiddle and one with banjo.
The smaller group of the West Virginia Coon Hunters: Wesley “Bane” Boyles on fiddle, Joe Stephens on banjo, Fred Belcher on guitar, and Clyde Meadows on guitar. Image courtesy of Denise Smith, given to her by John Lilly at Goldenseal Magazine

I’ve tried to track down the personal histories of where each of the members of the band was living in 1927. Several of the band members had migrated to West Virginia, and all of them seemed to be living in and around Mercer County – many were found in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory or had connections to Bluefield. Most continued to play and influence music here in this region for generations.

Wesley “Bane” Boyles, my grandfather, was born in Bland County; in 1927 he was living in Bluefield at 501 Rogers Street with his parents and brothers. He was a moonshiner by occupation so unsurprisingly there was no occupation listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory! To read more of his story, check out my own blog.

In 1927 Clyde Meadows is listed as living at 717 Hardy Street in Bluefield. His occupation was noted as engine cleaner for the Norfolk & Western Railway. More of his story can be found in the Spring 2003 issue of Goldenseal Magazine in an article by John Lilly entitled “The West Virginia Coon Hunters: On the Trail of a Lost String Band.”

Vernal Leonidas Vest was a mandolin and ukulele player. He was a true son of West Virginia, born in Summers County to Salunda Jackson and Emma Robbins Vest. In 1927 he was living in Oakvale, West Virginia, and the 1930 census has his occupation listed as a fireman on the railroad. His brother Robert Vest lived in Bluefield in 1927 and worked for the Virginian Railway. In 1930 and 1931 Vernal also recorded with fiddler Fred Pendleton’s West Virginia Melody Boys.

Fred Pendleton was born George Fredrick Pendleton to George Woodruff and Matilda Blankenship Pendleton in 1904 in Princeton, West Virginia; in the records he is listed as George Frederick or Fred G. Pendleton. In 1920 Pendleton was living with his parents on a farm in Oakvale, West Virginia, and by 1930, he was living in Princeton and also working for the railroad as a repairman on steam trains.

Pendleton is one of the most locally famous musicians after the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and he and Clyde Meadows continued to have recording careers as the West Virginia Coon Hunters for a while after they recorded in Bristol. Indeed, Peer asked them to return to Bristol to record again in 1928. Pendleton also recorded with Blind Alfred Reed and his son Arville for Victor later in 1927, as a group called the West Virginia Night Owls.

Pendleton can be found in newspaper articles and ads playing numerous events in West Virginia and beyond – everything from a reunion to a political rally, though my favorite is the Calico Frolic. In over 50 West Virginia news articles, his bands are listed playing events under many different names such as the Fred Pendleton Orchestra, Fred Pendleton’s Lilly Mountaineers, Fred Pendleton’s Swingsters, Fred Pendleton’s Hillbilly Band, etc. As long as his name was first, whoever joined him seemed to form a new band, at least for the event. He also was elected as a commissioner of Mercer County in the 1950s. He passed away in Princeton, West Virginia, in 1972.

Two newspaper articles / ads -- the one to the left is just text, while the one on the right includes the image of a woman in a bathing suit.
The ad on the left is for the “Calico Frolic,” found in the Beckley Post-Herald & Register, May 6, 1956, page 23 – Fred Pendleton’s and His Swingsters played this event. The ad to the right notes that Fred Pendleton’s Orchestra will be providing music for square and combination dancing at the 4th of July festivities.

Regal Mooney was born Ovid Riggle Mooney in Tazewell County, Virginia, to Charles and Barbara Cruey Mooney. His father worked for the N&W Railway freight station in Williamson, West Virginia. In 1927 his father had passed and he was living with his mother and his wife Lake Palmer Mooney on Hale Street in Bluefield. His occupation at this time was listed as coil maker. I don’t have much information about his musical career, but he died in Columbus, Ohio, in 1973.

The rest of the band led to scanty information. Jim Brown worked for the Foley Printing Company and was also the music teacher at the Bland Methodist Episcopal Church in Bluefield. Joe Stephens – possibly Joseph H. Stevens – was a truck driver for Holt Brothers living at 305 Roanoke Street, a couple of blocks away from Fred Belcher at 113 ½ Roanoke Street, according to the 1927 Bluefield City Directory. And finally the most elusive band member: Dutch Stewart. I could find no one by that specific name though many Stewarts are listed in Bluefield and Mercer County during this timeframe.

Each of these men lived every day and ordinary lives, with music being an important part of those lives – and no matter their station in life, for a brief period of time, they came together in Bristol, Tennessee -Virginia and represented West Virginia at the “big bang” of country music.

Happy Birthday to Ernest Phipps!

There’s an old church joke about when Jesus returned to heaven after his time on earth. All the angels gather around to celebrate Jesus’s success overcoming death, and someone asks, “So now what’s the plan? How are we going to tell the world the good news?” Gabriel offers to blow his trumpet. Michael suggests a multitude of heavenly hosts. Jesus looks at the angels and says, “I’ve got it covered. I told these twelve guys, and they’re going to tell some people, and then those people will tell some people…”

As ridiculous as this sounded to the angels, this method of sharing the gospel tells us something about the music and ministry of Ernest Phipps of Gray, Kentucky, who was born on May 4, 1900. Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet recorded six sides on Tuesday, July 26, the second day of Ralph Peer’s 1927 Bristol Sessions. Their recording of “Don’t You Grieve After Me” was issued with the earliest Bristol Sessions serial number and released in the first batch of Bristol sides in September 1927.

The music Phipps and His Holiness Quartet made in 1927 sounds like spirited old-time music. Phipps sings lead accompanied by a high harmony; a guitar or two and fiddle back the singing, and the fiddle plays the melody on instrumental breaks. Charles Wolfe conjectured that Ancil McVay played guitar and Roland Johnson played fiddle and that perhaps Alfred Karnes, another preacher from the Corbin area who recorded his own gospel sides that week, played the driving guitar bass runs. The singing and playing are raw and real, someone stomps on the one and three, and the distinguishing element of these songs, particularly “Do, Lord, Remember Me” and “Old Ship of Zion,” is a galloping, deep-in-the-beat feel.

Reproduction Victor label of Ernest Phipps and the Holiness Quartet's "Do Lord Remember Me" showing the Victor Nipper logo and the name of the song and singers.
Reproduction Victor label of Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet’s “Do, Lord, Remember Me.” Photograph © Birthplace of Country Music

Phipps worked his whole life in the coal business, as a miner, a truck driver, and later as co-owner of a small operation. He also preached and sang in the Holiness churches around Corbin, Kentucky from the 1920s until his death in 1963, minus a few years he was in the army during World War II. Much of what we know of his life comes from his youngest sister, Lillian McDaniel, and his stepsons W. R. and J. Randall Mays. Their memories do not fill in the whole picture of Phipps’s life, but they tell us enough to know that his ministry was his major focus, and that his music was likely a component of his ministry. He often visited churches to preach, and would also sing, but no one remembers his visiting churches to sing and not preach.

The picture to the left show Ernest Phipps in front of a bridge at the side of the lake; he is holding a fishing pole. The picture to the right shows Ernest Phipps, wife Minnie, and an unknown women perched on top of a "stack" of rocks above a river plain.
Ernest Phipps loved fishing and is pictured here at Cherokee Lake sometime around 1953. In the picture on the right, he is seen with his first wife Minnie and a friend posing on a rock outcrop; a historic site marker nearby references the Civil War’s Battle of Wauhatchie. Left: Courtesy of Rev. J. Randall Mays and Rev. W. R. Mays, stepsons of Rev. Ernest Phipps; Right: Donated to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum by Teresa Phipps Patierno in the memory of her grandfather, Ernest Phipps, a coal miner and Holiness preacher from Kentucky, a simple man who loved his Lord.

The idea that Phipps’s recorded music constitutes an early form of mass media evangelism may involve projecting motives from our time onto his, but nothing in Phipps’s story suggests that he sought a career in music; however, much evidence exists that Phipps sought to share his faith. When he returned to Bristol in October 1928, he brought eight members of his congregation – three female vocalists and five instrumentalists – who recorded six songs that “give us some sense of the power and drive of a real Holiness service,” in the words of Charles Wolfe. The group vocals shift moment to moment between harmony and unison singing and overpower the instrumentation on most songs. The string band groove of Phipps’s 1927 sides is replaced here with a less precise but no less energetic backing shuffle. During refrains, a chorus of handclaps on the one, two, three, and four beats propels these songs into a frenetic pace. These sides sound more like field recordings of a church service than commercial records, but Ernest Phipps and Ralph Peer were onto something: “If the Light Has Gone Out of Your Soul” backed with “Bright Tomorrow” sold almost 12,000 copies.

Here’s “Went Up In The Clouds Of Heaven,” one of the songs recorded by Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers at the 1928 Bristol Sessions:


Phipps’s recordings, especially from the 1928 sessions, have sent folk music scholars and fans in a number of interesting directions. Charles Wolfe remarked that Phipps’s recordings preserve “rare examples of the exuberant, ragged, hand-clapping Holiness music” of 1920s Appalachia, particularly Eastern Kentucky. Harry Smith included “Shine on Me” from the 1928 Sessions in his Anthology of American Folk Music alongside the most important American folk musicians of the first half of the 20th century. My work on Phipps suggests that his recordings pioneer a Southern Gospel music antithetical to the harmony singing of the Stamps Quartet, who also recorded at the 1928 Bristol Sessions.

Simple photograph of The Anthology of American Folk Music CD set.
The cover of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

Because of the spirit it preserves and represents, Phipps’s music has lived a remarkable life of its own. The life of Ernest Phipps suggests that his brief recording career served a purpose: to share the gospel with as many people as he could.

Brandon Story teaches English at King University in Bristol, Tennessee. His chapter “Gospel According to Bristol: The Life, Music and Ministry of Ernest Phipps” appears in Charles Wolfe and Ted Olson’s The Bristol Sessions: Writing About the Big Bang of Country Music.

Follow the Ballad: From Scotland’s “Lord Gregory” to The Carter Family’s “The Storms Are on the Ocean”

Just 30 minutes south of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where our bookstore Tales of the Lonesome Pine is located, you will find Hiltons, Virginia, and the Carter Family Fold, home of the famous musical family that started with A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, and included Maybelle’s daughter June Carter. June went on to marry Johnny Cash, whose ancestors immigrated to America from the village of Strathmiglo in Scotland. Just down the road an hour or so is Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, known as the “birthplace of country music” due to its place in early commercial country music history. A wee bit north is the hometown of Ralph Stanley, who among other accomplishments famously sang “Oh Death” in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. Just to the west in Kentucky is where the wonderful ballad singer Jean Ritchie grew up.

As you can see, it’s an area rich in musical heritage – and one that can be connected to the Old World through song. For instance, one of the most fascinating musical links between Scotland and Appalachia is through the Scottish ballad “Lord Gregory” and its American versions. No less than 30 of the 82 variants listed in the Roud Folk Song Index records are from our adopted state of Virginia. Chief among these is a song recorded by The Carter Family back in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, called “The Storms Are on the Ocean”– despite the fact that this part of Appalachia is a few hundred miles inland.

Image of "The Storms are on the Ocean" sheet music.
“The Storms Are on the Ocean,” sung by The Carter Family at the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, was published by Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Publishing Company in the Carter Family songbook Album of Smoky Mountain Ballads. Copyright 1927 by United Publishing Co., copyright assigned 1941 to Peer International Corporation; courtesy of peermusic

Here are the opening lyrics of “The Storms Are on the Ocean”:

I’m going away to leave you dear,
I’m going away for a while,
But I’ll return to you my dear,
Though I go 10,000 miles.

Who’s gonna shoe my pretty little foot,
And who’s gonna glove my hand,
And who’s gonna kiss my red rosy cheek,
Till you return again.

The “Storms” version was long established in the family tradition of the Carters, who also claim ancestry from the British Isles, and the first verse, with its reference to 10,000 miles, might also call to mind Robert Burns’ poem “A Red, Red Rose” Different renditions of the second verse can also be found in many of the earlier versions of this song across the years.

The ballad “Lord Gregory,” also known as “The Lass of Loch Royal,” is listed as number 76 in Francis James Child’s famous collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Child also details a number of mainly Scottish variants. In one the lady sails with her baby from Capoquin to her beloved’s castle, only to be told by his duplicitous mother that he’s away. Sailing back to her home, she is drowned, but not before lamenting over who will shoe her foot, glove her hand, etc.

When Bertrand Harris Bronson produced his collection The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, he included several “Lord Gregory” variants more reminiscent of “The Storms are on the Ocean.” Like most American descendants of Scottish ballads, the story got stripped down to become shorter and simpler, while the tunes were jollied up in tempo and rhythm.

Cover of David Herd's book, showing
Photograph of David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c, currently on display in the museum’s special exhibit about Cecil Sharp.

We were delighted to be able to lend a number of books to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum for their new special exhibit The Appalachian Photographs of Cecil Sharp, 1916 to 1918, focused on the ballad collecting done in Appalachia by Englishman Cecil Sharp at the beginning of the 20th century. The books trace the journey of “Lord Gregory” (under various titles) from Scotsman David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c from the late 1700s to Bronson’s record of the tunes from the 1950s, along with the afore-mentioned and famous Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Sharp’s English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians, and a book about the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection from Aberdeenshire in Scotland. We hope you’ll check out the exhibit to explore the journey of the “Lord Gregory” variants across these different books!

Cecil Sharp book, open to "The True Lover's Farewell" pages
Cecil Sharp’s English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians is also on display in the Cecil Sharp special exhibit. It records the variants of “Lord Gregory” under the song title of “The True Lover’s Farewell. The version seen here under F was sung by Mrs. Laura Virginia Donald, one of the women featured in Sharp’s photographs in the exhibit.

The recording of “Lord Gregory” by Maddy Prior on the Silly Sisters album is magnificent, based on an earlier recording by Ewan MacColl. As for “The Storms are on the Ocean,” while many singers have followed in their footsteps, nothing compares to the original by The Carter Family. You can hear both these versions below:

Nor does anything surpass a visit to the Carter Family Fold, a favorite pilgrimage spot for visitors to Appalachia from across the water. For those unfamiliar, the Carter Family Fold runs Saturday night music and dance events, and we’ve enjoyed many a weekend there, listening to the old-time music and watching the amazing local dancers flat foot – from a woman who often dances with her (willing) dog to an elderly couple tearing up the floor with their moves!

The Carter Family Fold and The Carter Family’s song “The Storms Are on the Ocean” – and the history shared by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and exhibits like The Appalachian Photographs of Cecil Sharp – illustrate just a few of the many connections between Appalachia and the British Isles. If the subject interests you, start with Child’s book. A world of discovery awaits!

Jack Beck and Wendy Welch singing together on stage
Jack Beck and Wendy Welch performing at the Swannanoa Gathering a few years ago. The photograph was taken by the resident photographer R. L. Geyer, who gave permission for its use here.

Thank you to our guest bloggers Jack Beck and Wendy Welch, who wrote this blog post touching upon the journey of the “Lord Gregory” ballad, the perfect post to accompany our new special exhibit!

Jack was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, and lived most of his life there. A founding member of Heritage, one of the seminal traditional Scottish bands of the 1970s and 1980s, he was also the musical partner of Barbara Dickson. Awarded an honorary lifetime membership in the Traditional Music and Song Association for his services to Scottish traditional music, he spent five years as external examiner in Scots Traditional song at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow. Jack has lived for the last twelve years in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with his wife Wendy Welch, in the heart of Appalachia and old-time mountain music. Wendy is the author of four books, the most recent Fall or Fly detailing effects of the opioid crisis on foster care. She has a PhD in Folklore, is book editor for the Journal of Appalachian Studies, and was founding director of a storytelling non-profit in Scotland. Together they run a bookstore – Tales of the Lonesome Pine – the subject of Wendy’s memoir The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap from St. Martin’s Press.