1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions Archives - Page 2 of 3 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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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.

Remembering Georgia Warren

The 1927 Bristol Sessions story is one of developing technology, star singers, and business acumen. It’s also a very personal story for the descendants of those artists who answered Ralph Peer’s call for musicians and recorded in that makeshift studio in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company here in Bristol.

One of those Bristol Sessions artists – Georgia Warren – holds a particularly special place in our story as she was here with us at the museum’s Grand Opening in August 2014, the last surviving musician from those historic recordings. When she came to Bristol in 1927, she was only 12 years old, the daughter of George Massengill, who was the leader of a congregational choir from Bluff City, Tennessee. Known as the Tennessee Mountaineers, they recorded two songs at the Bristol Sessions: “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Standing on the Promises.”

Left pic: Georgia Warren at museum interactive wearing headphones with daughter Nancy and museum director Jessica Turner; center pic: Georgia Warren's signing of Green Board, reading: Last living member of Sessions, Georgia Warren, 98 yrs old; right pic: Georgia Warren cutting Grand Opening ribbon in front of museum with Roni Stoneman behind her.
Georgia Warren, seen here with daughter Nancy Taylor, got a sneak peek of the museum before it opened – here she is listening to the clip of the Tennessee Mountaineers at the 1927 Bristol Sessions (left). Georgia also came to the museum’s Grand Opening on August 1, 2014, signing our Green Board in the permanent exhibits (center) and cutting the Grand Opening ribbon with Roni Stoneman, daughter of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (right). © Birthplace of Country Music

Georgia Warren passed away on March 6, 2016 at the age of 100. And so today, the anniversary of that date, we want to remember her and her part in our story. Because we actually knew Georgia, and know her family, we have had the chance to learn about the things she loved, about her life, about what singing in that dark studio all those years ago meant to her. And we’ve had the chance to learn what Georgia’s place in this history means to her family too.

Some things we learned were surprising – for instance, Georgia played basketball in high school and won MVP in 1934 when her high school team won the local championships. She kept her love for basketball in later life as a huge fan of the Lady Vols and Pat Summitt, often saying that Pat should have been the men’s coach at University of Tennessee too. (Something probably quite a few Pat Summitt fans have said in the past!)

Black and white photo of girls' basketball team -- 9 players and 1 coach
Georgia as a senior (first on the left) with her winning high school basketball team. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Taylor

Others – like her green thumb – made more sense, knowing that Georgia grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. After marrying her husband Paul and living in California for a while, they moved back to Tennessee to build a farm on a parcel of land – with Georgia right there in the thick of it driving the tractor, baling hay, planting tobacco, helping with the animals, and growing vegetables. Her daughter Nancy Taylor remembers sitting under a tree in the yard of their house, breaking beans with her mother, and how her mother did a lot of canning of fruit and vegetables, stocking their pantry with row upon row of Mason jars filled with food. Georgia was also a keen flower gardener, filling her yard with a bounty of beautiful flowers and especially loving the first crocuses as they bloomed each year.

Left pic: B&W photograph of Paul and Georgia Warren; right pic: Paul and Georgia Warren standing in a flower bed.
Georgia with husband Paul (left) and enjoying the flowers at a garden visit (right). Photographs courtesy of Nancy Taylor

Even though Georgia’s appearance on the two Tennessee Mountaineers sides from the Bristol Sessions was her one and only professional performance, music and singing was still a big part of her life. For many years, she continued to sing (alto) in the First Christian Church in Bluff City, Tennessee, along with her parents and her husband (tenor), while Nancy’s sister played piano and organ. Georgia’s father George Massengill was one of the originators of this church, though before it was made of brick and mortar the congregation often gathered on Massengill’s front porch to sing, and Nancy remembers her grandfather saying that people would yell out song requests down the holler because they could hear them from afar. The family also used to sing together just for fun – as Nancy tells us, “We’d have a big time singing different songs,” from Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” to singing along with the record from the Sessions.

A connection to the music she sang in 1927 stayed strong through the years, and when Georgia was ailing toward the end of her life, the hospice minister would sing “Shall We Gather at the River” with her at home – apparently she knew it by heart, never missing a note or a word of the song. And at her funeral a couple of years ago, the Tennessee Mountaineer’s 1927 rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River” was played in the funeral home chapel with everyone singing together to honor Georgia.

Nancy tells us that Georgia felt enormous pride from the part she played in the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, and that the recognition of this history was important to her. She didn’t want to have a fuss made over her, but she enjoyed telling people about climbing the dark stairs to the put-together studio, seeing Peer and the engineers, and being a bit scared by the whole set up, staying close to her father but still singing strong and true. And the best part – seeing Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded the previous day, and thinking he was quite handsome!

Georgia Warren sits central, surrounded by her daughter Nancy and several other family members. Behind them is the Grand Opening Birthplace of Country Music Museum logo.
Georgia with her family at the museum’s Grand Opening on August 1, 2014. © Birthplace of Country Music

Nancy notes that the songs the Tennessee Mountaineers sang at the Sessions were old standards, not really sung much anymore but the kind of music she and her mother were raised on. And Georgia’s story underlines one of the fundamental truths about the Sessions recordings: many of the songs recorded were everyday sacred family songs, songs sung in church and at home, and most of the artists were working people who went back to their everyday lives after the recordings. And that’s part of what makes them special.

When asked what her mother’s place in the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions means to her, Nancy said, “Even though she’s gone, I don’t want them to forget her.” There’s no fear of that here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – Georgia’s story is our story and the personal connection makes our appreciation of this history richer.

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.


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.

Instrument Interview: Maybelle Carter’s Guitar

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk to one of Maybelle Carter’s guitars:

 What model are you, and when were you made?

I’m a 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar, made at the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Lloyd Loar, the famous engineer who redesigned a lot of Gibson’s product line in the early 1920s, introduced my model in 1922 as the top-of-the-line guitar. Unlike most earlier guitars, I have a carved arched top and violin-style F-holes instead of the round sound hole in the middle. You might say I’m like a guitar that thinks it’s some kind of oversized violin. But at least Maybelle didn’t try to play me with a bow!

Well, speaking of Maybelle Carter, when did you become her instrument? Did she play you at the famous Bristol Sessions when The Carter Family made its first recordings?

Well, no, Maybelle didn’t have me yet when she did those recordings in Bristol in 1927. That was actually a year before I was built in Kalamazoo. On those first six sides that Maybelle recorded with Sara and A. P., she was playing a cheap Stella flat-top guitar. That would have been a good enough instrument for most early country musicians, but Maybelle was no ordinary player. She deserved something bigger, louder, with a more authoritative voice. So after their records started selling well and Ralph Peer invited them to come to New Jersey to make new recordings with better equipment, Maybelle and her husband Eck (A. P.’s brother) went out and bought her the best guitar they could find. I cost $275, which was an awful lot of money in 1928.

A picture of The Carter Family -- Maybelle holding her guitar, A. P., and Sarah holding her guitar
A publicity still of The Carter Family – Maybelle holds her Gibson L-5 guitar. From the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

What did Maybelle do to bring out your true and distinctive voice? What made her such a great player?

The biggest thing, I guess, is that she played me with such command and authority. She was the driving force of the band’s instrumentation, since Sara just played some lighter second guitar or autoharp, and A. P. hardly ever played any instrument on record. Sometimes Maybelle was the whole band! So she took some of the existing folk guitar styles and made them strong, polished, and professional. She made the guitar into a solo instrument in the country band, playing melody between vocal refrains and also providing a driving rhythm.

Really? How on earth did she do that?

Mostly it was her powerful right hand. It still makes me shudder to think about how clear and purposeful she was when she played. She commanded the sound out of me. Her most famous method was a thumb-lead style, which some people call the “Carter scratch.” I never did quite understand that, since it wasn’t really scratchy sounding at all. She wore a thumbpick on her right hand and used that to play bass notes and all those wonderful melodies on the bass strings of the guitar, and meanwhile she had a metal fingerpick on her index finger and used that to strum those great, driving chords on the upper strings. A real one-woman band!

How did that style suit you, as an instrument?

It suited me perfectly. Because I have an arched top and F-holes, my bass strings have more punchiness and less sustain than flat-top guitars. With all the activity of Maybelle’s right thumb and forefinger going on simultaneously, it was much better that my notes were shot out like cannon balls without any ringing sustain to muddy it up. In her hands, I was a melodic rhythm machine.

That idea of using your thumb and one finger reminds me of the clawhammer banjo style. Is it similar?

Hey, I’m a guitar! You’re going to make me talk about banjos? I’m just kidding. You know, Maybelle did play banjo in that clawhammer style, so that may have given her some notion of using her thumb. But really the styles are very different, because in thumb-lead guitar, the thumb is the one playing the melody. The motion of the right hand is totally different, too.

Did she always play using that thumb-lead style? Or did she use any other styles?

No, although it was her main style and the one that influenced younger players the most. Maybelle also developed into a really fine flatpicker, using the kind of pick that most guitar players favor nowadays and which used to be called a “straight pick.” With a flatpick she was able to play more on my treble strings, a predecessor to the way later bluegrass guitarists play their lead solos. She really liked to do this on blues songs like the “Coal Miner’s Blues,” but she also used this approach on songs like “You Are My Flower.” Boy, she made me sound amazing on that one. As for other styles, she didn’t do much of what people call fingerpicking, since that wasn’t a strong enough sound for her. And Maybelle did play slide guitar, but she didn’t use me for that.

Cover of The Carter Family songbook Album of Smoky Mountain Ballads -- picture of the Carters on the front showing Maybelle and Sara with guitars and A. P. without an instrument
This Carter Family songbook was published by Ralph Peer via his Southern Music Publishing Company in the late 1930s. Again, Maybelle is pictured with her Gibson L-5. Image reproduced with permission from peermusic; songbook in the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

What happened to you after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1944?

Maybelle continued playing me with the Carter Sisters, who were really her daughters, and in all of her music-making up to the time she died in 1978. She hung on to me until the end, even when money was tight and she could have sold me. We had a special bond, and I never sounded the same when somebody else tried me out – not even Chet Atkins. Maybelle played me on her solo records in the 1960s and 1970s, when she went on tour with the New Lost City Ramblers, and when she did “Keep on the Sunny Side” on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? album.

What about “Wildwood Flower” from the Circle album?

No! Even though that was probably her most famous guitar song, with the Dirt Band she wanted to play it on autoharp just because she’d never recorded it that way.

Maybelle's Gibson L-5 guitar
A formal portrait of Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 guitar. Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum

Finally, what are you up to today?

Today I’m proudly on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville, alongside Sara’s autoharp, Bill Monroe’s mandolin, Earl Scruggs’s banjo, and Barbara Mandrell’s pedal steel. Back in 2004 I was almost sold off by my owner who had loaned me to the museum, but Maybelle’s family really wanted me to remain. I’m so glad they figured out a way to buy and keep me there in such illustrious company. I just wish I could get played more these days, but then again it’s OK. Nobody will ever play me the way Maybelle did.

Guest blogger Gregory Reish is the Director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. He is a scholar, teacher, and performing musician with expertise in a wide range of American vernacular styles.


Hattie Stoneman: Raising Her Children in Music

The enormous influence of women in country music is evident in every era, most certainly in the early days of country music. Sometimes women’s contributions are overshadowed in the historical record, and the story of the Stoneman family is no different. Without the support and encouragement of Hattie Stoneman, her husband may have never recorded in 1924 and never been instrumental in shaping the dynamic of hillbilly recordings forever afterward. The incredible Hattie Stoneman made an impact on early country music – and she did this all while bearing 23 children, facing sadness and grief due to several miscarriages, stillbirths, and children passing, and finding ways to keep her family going through hardship and poverty.

For most people, the first person they likely think about when they hear the word Stoneman is Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, leader of a host of musicians made up of family and friends, who recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and then patriarch to his family group who later performed and recorded together, played on the radio, and even had their own musical TV show. But there were two parts to this successful musical equation, and the other one was “Mom”: Hattie Stoneman, wife to “Pop” and mother to their children, all but two of whom played music themselves. As Roni, one of Hattie’s daughters, said: “The first thing you heard was music; you were raised in it. I probably heard her playing music when I was in her body. You’re just a part of music after that.”

Today is Hattie Stoneman’s birthday – she was born on September 28, 1900 in Pipers Gap, Virginia. Hattie came to music through her own family: her mother was descended from pioneer fiddler Green Leonard, and her father Bill Frost was one of the finest fiddle players in Virginia at the time. Frost often played at “frolics,” local gatherings of music and dancing (sometimes participants kept a bit of alcohol in the springhouse water to keep cold, adding to the frolicking). He showed Hattie how to play the fiddle and the banjo, and she became a fine musician herself, often accompanying her father on the banjo. Frost also passed on his love of jokes and humor to Hattie, and her children remember her making them laugh even when they were in deep trouble.

Pop met Hattie when he was just a boy, and she was just a baby – as Pop said, “I heard her give her first cry when she was born.” Their first meeting is related in the story about Pop’s father Elisha Stoneman, a preacher, coming to the Frost house to pray with the family during a difficult birth. He brought along little Ernest, and once the baby was born, Elisha brought her out to where Ernest was waiting for him, putting the baby in his arms and telling him to pray for her to have a long life. Little did he know at the time that it would be a long life together.

Several years later, they met again at a memorial service in a church cemetery – when he saw her again this time, he decided right then and there that he was going to marry that “golden-haired girl.” Music was a central part of their lives – and later their family – and family legend tells us that not only did Pop love Hattie, but he also loved the musical talent she had gained from her father. After a long courtship – and after Pop won out over several suitors – they wed on November 10, 1918.

Hattie on her wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

After their marriage, Hattie often played fiddle in performances with Pop and other musicians. And in 1927 and 1928, she was with him for the Bristol Sessions recordings. At both sessions, she played fiddle and sang on several sides with Pop’s Dixie Mountaineers and The Stoneman Family, along with several sides by Uncle Eck Dunford. Hattie was also featured specifically on the 1927 recording of “What Will I Do, For My Money’s All Gone” (again with Dunford). And “The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter,” recorded at the 1928 Bristol Sessions by The Stoneman Family, was featured on the influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith.

Stoneman’s configuration of musicians was known by different names, including The Stoneman Family, the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, and Ernest V. Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers. Hattie is seen here in the back row with her fiddle. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Stonemans saw musical success before and immediately after the Bristol Sessions, but the Depression was on the horizon, and they would soon feel the hardship that came to so many during that period. Before the stock market crash of 1929, Ernest and Hattie were living well in Galax, Virginia – they had bought some land in 1927, and he built them a fine home with modern conveniences. Hattie was very much a southern belle, taking care over her appearance and keeping a neat and tidy house. However, by the early 1930s, hard times were firmly upon them – they were facing the illness of their young daughter Nita (she would die soon after at the age of six) and the loss of their house, and Ernest was having to travel far and wide to look for work, leaving Hattie home alone to cope with her family’s needs.

When they lost their house, Hattie moved with their children into her parents’ three-room house for a while, but soon Ernest sent for them to come to Alexandria, Virginia, where he had found work. However, things continued to be hard, with Pop losing his job and Hattie and the children moving back to southwest Virginia for a while. This routine marked much of this period – Ernest finding work, the family moving into a host of different houses, many of which were falling apart and cold, and Hattie sometimes taking the children home to Galax for periods of time. At least back in rural southwest Virginia they could grow some food in the garden, and the vegetables and fruits were often canned up and used to fill the hungry mouths of her children when they were back in northern Virginia and Maryland with Pop.

Indeed, daughter Roni tells stories about how her mother fought hard to keep her family going during the Depression. Once, on a cold winter night when they were living up near Washington, DC, Hattie went out to the local railyard to look for stray coal to fuel their fire at home. Back then, railroad cops – known as railroad bulls – patrolled the tracks and railyards to keep “hobos” out, and a couple of them came across Hattie in her search for coal. Even though it was late at night and she was a woman on her own, she stood up to them, telling them that they could kill her and bury her in the ground if they wanted, but she was taking some coal to bring warmth to her children. The men admired her gumption and saw her real need, and they helped her gather up the coal she needed.

Son Oscar James (known as Jimmy) was born when the family lived up north, one of only a few of the Stoneman children born in a hospital rather than at home. When the nurse brought the baby into Hattie’s room soon after the birth, Hattie exclaimed that “he wasn’t her baby; he didn’t have the Stoneman nose.” The nurse, of course, assumed hysteria, but around the same time a laundry worker in the basement of the hospital heard a baby crying and found Hattie’s baby in a pile of clothes! Jimmy was named after Oscar Anderson, the captain who commanded the fire station across the street from where the Stonemans lived. Even though it was hard to move past her Appalachian independence and pride, Hattie had accepted his help when the family was really struggling — Anderson and his men were kind and helped them out over the years, bringing them food and Christmas presents when they saw the need. As Roni says: “Mommy showed us how to take the hard times and how to be strong in the sad times. She kept us all together.”

Despite all the hardships they faced during the Depression, and how this affected Pop’s musical aspirations, the family still found pleasure in music, and Hattie still played her banjo and her fiddle occasionally with Pop. Later, when things got better and the family developed a music career as The Stoneman Family on radio and television, and in live performances and recordings, she often took a back seat to Pop and her children.

However, in 1947, she stepped back in the spotlight for a talent contest at Constitution Hall. Roni relates how her older brothers didn’t want to play with their father and the rest of the family because they viewed his music as “old-fashioned,” and so they entered the contest on their own. When Pop told Hattie that her sons thought he was outdated and wouldn’t play with him, she pulled out her fiddle and said she’d play with him and that they’d “take that prize from those boys.” She was mad as a hornet and so she fiddled hard and strong, and they won the contest, giving them six months of local TV time, which ultimately led to a host of other opportunities. This story mirrors the tale told of Hattie pushing Pop to go record for the first time back in 1924 and really underlines how influential Hattie was in the Stonemans’ musical success.

Hattie fiddling with the family band. Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

There are many more stories of Hattie as mother and performer, and her surviving children, Roni and Donna, look back on those early hard times as rich in love and family, and they view the later musical success as being as much about their mother as their father. And so today, on Hattie’s birthday, let’s celebrate her talent and the contributions to the success of this wonderful musical family made by “The Girl from Galax.”*

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. A huge thank you to Roni Stoneman for sharing stories of her mother with me, and to Tom Connor for his help facilitating the interview and images for this blog post. 

*”The Girl from Galax,” an instrumental piece written by daughter Donna Stoneman, is a tribute to her mother.