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June Carter Cash: A Life in Country Music

Today – June 23 – is June Carter Cash’s birthday. At the age of 10, Valerie June Carter stepped in front of the mic for the first time with The Carter Family, and from there her role and legacy in the musical realm only grew stronger.

This image shows a senior class spread from a yearbook. June Carter is seen on the right-hand page in the bottom right of four student photographs. She is wearing a light colored top or dress. At the bottom of the picture is her autograph, which reads: "Luck, June Carter / Valerie June Carter Cash." To the left of the four photographs are the names of the students with their activities listed below their names.
Before she became a full-time performer and country music icon, June was your typical high school senior. This yearbook hinted at her musical career in the clubs and activities she participated in, including girls’ chorus and choir, but also in the later autograph she wrote on her senior portrait photograph after she was famous!

June Carter was born into the “first family of country music,” as one of three daughters of Ezra and Maybelle Carter, and she came into this world just two years after the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions, where The Carter Family recorded for the very first time. June lived the majority of her life in the spotlight – after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1943, she (at the age of 14), along with sisters Helen and Anita, began singing as part of the family’s professional act, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Even though they gained a lot of popularity under that name, Maybelle changed the band’s name to The Carter Family two years after A. P. Carter died in 1960. They released their first album, The Carter Family Album, on Liberty Records soon after. June also got a solo deal while preforming with the Carter Sisters.

The Carter Family Album cover is a reddish-orange color with a leather bound, old photograph album shown in the center. The photograph album is labeled with the record's title "The Carter Family Album" and has an oval picture of Mother Maybelle, June, Anita, and Helen in the center.

The cover of The Carter Family Album has the look of an old family photograph album.

June played many instruments including the harmonica, banjo, guitar, and autoharp. Not only did she have a solo career and a career with her family group, but she also had a career with her third husband, Johnny Cash. Together they won a Grammy in 1967 and 1970, and June also won three Grammys of her own, two of which she won after she passed away in 2003. That same year Country Music Television (CMT) included June on their “40 Greatest Women of Country Music” list.

June’s marriages connected to important musical legacies. Her first marriage was to Carl Smith, one of the most successful male country artists in the 1950s. Before June and Carl got divorced, they had one daughter, Rebecca Carlene, together. Today Carlene Carter is a singer-songwriter who is continuing the county music family legacy – her most recent album Carter Girl, is filled with three generations of Carter Family music. Carlene performed at the grand opening of the museum in 2014 too! You can read Carlene’s tribute to her mother on the blog here.

June married Johnny Cash, the “man in black” himself, in 1968, and they were together until June’s death in May 2003. June and Johnny were introduced to each other backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, though each of them was aware of the other through their music. In the years before they got married, June and Johnny performed and recorded together several times. June co-wrote “Ring of Fire,” which became one of Johnny’s most famous songs and topped the charts for seven weeks. Together Johnny and June had one son, John Carter Cash, who is also continuing the country music legacy of his family as a record producer and singer-songwriter.

Unlike her first and last unions, June’s second marriage – to Edwin “Rip” Nix – was not a marriage of two musical stars. Nix was a football player, racecar driver, and police officer, but their daughter Rosie also became a singer-songwriter. Sadly, she passed away in 2003, the same year as her mother, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

From the beginnings of the original Carter Family with Maybelle, Sara, and A. P. to June’s career as a country music icon to June’s children following in her and their grandmother’s footsteps, the lineage of Carter country musicians has strong roots and branches – a family born into, raised by, and innovating country music.

Julia Underkoffler is a summer intern at the Birthplace of Country Music. She is a rising senior at Shepherd University in West Virginia, majoring in historic preservation and public history and minoring in gender and women’s studies.

The Root of It: Joseph Decosimo on Dick Burnett

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys. 

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with banjo and fiddle extraordinaire Joseph Decosimo. Joseph was raised in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and has had a lifelong passion for the music of the region centered upon banjo and fiddle. Through his illustrious performing and recording career with projects like The Bucking Mules and The Rocky Creek Ramblers, and through his solo work, Joseph celebrates and reimagines the music of the Cumberland Plateau, Central Appalachia, and the broader American South. Currently based in Durham, North Carolina, Decosimo continues to engage with traditional music not only through performance but also through scholarship as a recent PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. By exploring the history of a tune and theme that has permeated old-time traditions for generations, Joseph shared some of the artists that inspire him and his music.

A man standing on a screened in porch with the side of the house and trees/yard showing behind him. He is bearded and wearing glasses,a tan sweater, a baseball cap, and dark pants. He holds in fiddle in one hand and a bow in the other.
Joseph Decosimo with fiddle.

Joseph Decosimo:

Last spring, I found myself visiting a little city park down the hill from my house in Durham. There’s a stand of persimmon trees there, surrounded by a tangle of blackberry bushes that are slowly reclaiming a field. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid much attention to blackberry blossoms, but something about that early pandemic moment led me to attend to the smaller details – smells, sights, sounds – of the natural world. In this corner of the park, these five-petaled blackberry blossoms burst into clouds of linen whites and soft pinks against a backdrop of late spring greens. I hadn’t noticed them before. The blossoms were graceful and delicate. And they were gone almost as quickly as they came.

There’s a musical idea that circulates through Southern fiddle repertoires, taking on the name “Blackberry Blossom” after these delicate and understated flowers that precede the summertime berries with their clash of tartness and sweetness. (My friend Kerry Blech offers a handy primer on the fiddle tune’s recorded life.) The most widely circulating versions, inspired perhaps by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s mid-1930s recording of the tune, takes a turn towards the tart – overlaying a puckeringly sour chord change over the first few beats of the tune’s second part. Over time, most players, perhaps following the lead of the Nashville studio musicians who accompanied fiddler Tommy Jackson, have decided to turn this chord into a minor chord – a rather grand gesture given the subtlety of the namesake blossom. Whatever the case, most folks have decided to resolve the tension of the tune. This variety of “Blackberry Blossom” has come to be the dominant one, spread far and wide by radio and recordings and frequently heard at bluegrass and old-time jams alike.


Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s rousing version of “Blackberry Blossom,” featuring the Delmore Brothers and recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company in 1935.

However, deep within this bramble of musical creativity, another strain of blackberry blossoms can be found. This rare strain is known for its ethereal beauty and tantalizing subtlety. These sprout along the West Virginia and Kentucky line. On an old field recording from the 1930s, Kentuckian Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison offers an origin for the piece, explaining: “This tune was learned from General Garfield by my father during the Civil War. He whistled it all the time on his march up Big Sandy River to Middle Creek.” You can hear Morrison’s version here. Morrison’s fiddling neighbor, the legendary blind fiddler Ed Haley, explored all the territory the tune could muster as he busked around Ashland, Kentucky. In the placement of their fingers on the violin’s fingerboard, both Morrison and Haley located the tune in an unquestionably tart tonal space. At a fiddle contest in Paintsville, Kentucky, Dick Burnett, another blind musician, heard a fiddler named Bob Johnson play the piece. Johnson, in turn, had heard Haley playing it somewhere along the Ohio River. After the contest, Burnett cornered Johnson and had him play the tune over and over until it fell under Burnett’s fingers.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired man seated on a chair outside. He has a large moustache and is holding his fiddle to his shoulder with the bow poised to play.

Pictured is Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison whose father Christian Morrison allegedly learned “Blackberry Blossom” from the whistling of Col. James Garfield (he did not become a general until later) in 1863 during the Civil War activity in Kentucky. Photo and sound clip (linked in paragraph above) courtesy of Kerry Blech via Florida State Fiddlers Association

Burnett stored the tune away in his mind and carried it back to Monticello, Kentucky. In the process, the tart angles and tones of Haley’s version softened into something more ambiguous and delicate – something more gently rolling like the hills around Monticello. By the time Burnett made it down to Atlanta to fiddle the piece for Columbia in April of 1930, his fingers had pushed the notes of the melody into a place of beautiful uncertainty. The twists and turns and more certain tartness of Haley’s setting gave way to something simultaneously sweet, tart, and delightfully ambiguous. Burnett’s rendition conveys a smoky quality that prevents things from being seen or heard with total clarity or certainty.

I realize that this post is supposed to be about a musician whom I’ve found influential, and I’ve burned through a lot of words describing a tune. But it’s hard for me to think about a lot of these older players and not think about a specific tune. And so let me turn my attention fully to Dick Burnett whose rendition of “Blackberry Blossoms” I find so compelling. I’m pretty sure that Dick Burnett isn’t my favorite old fiddler. There’s a good chance that his longtime playing partner Leonard Rutherford might be, but my preferences for these kinds of things change with the weather. I love trying to fiddle his version of “Blackberry Blossoms” – it’s slippery and subtle. I enjoy playing his slippery “Wild Good Chase” – a piece that I learned from mentor Clyde Davenport. As a young man, Davenport learned it from hearing Burnett play it at the courthouse in Monticello. These are fun tunes to play, however, I’m sharing some thoughts on Dick Burnett because he links a network of traditional musicians whose music has inspired and charmed me over the last two decades. I guess Burnett serves as the common thread running through a handful of my favorite artists from the Upper Cumberland region along the Tennessee/Kentucky line.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, clean-cut man seated in a chair in front of a white picket fence. He holds a banjo on his lap, ready to play.
Dick Burnett with banjo.

There’s Retta Spradlin – one of my favorite old singers and banjo players. She sang a powerfully beautiful version with her banjo of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that she learned from Burnett as he was traveling through her rural community. Burnett played an important role in popularizing the song, and his neighbors sang some fine versions that treated his version as a jumping off point. There’s the fiery fiddler John Sharp who spent time playing music with Burnett and his musical partner Rutherford. In Burnett and Rutherford’s repertoire and stylings, we hear traces of the local Black fiddle tradition as performed by their neighbor and aesthetic companion Cuje Bertram. Bertram’s slippery approach to the fiddle and subtle infusions of vibrato into tunes like “Billy in the Lowground” can also be heard in Burnett and Rutherford’s take on the tune. It’s this world of musicians that captivate me.

While I thoroughly enjoy Burnett’s playing, singing, and cutting up, I’m writing about him because I wanted to write about his “Blackberry Blossoms” and because he speaks to ways that music can flow through and create communities. I’m interested in the network of musicians of which he was a part. He links a world of repertoire, artistry, and sound that inspires my own music making. Over the last two years, the repertoire and aesthetics of Burnett’s world has inspired a forthcoming recording project.

Burnett’s music recalls a way of knowing these old pieces and making music that eludes recording technologies and industries. Part of the beauty of his “Blackberry Blossoms” is felt in the way that the tune shifted in his hands. This older stuff resists being fixed in the grooves of a record, on a bit of magnetic tape, or as a digitized abstraction. It eludes formal educational programs and fiddle camps. It’s a reminder of the fact that this is ultimately ear music. It’s music that we pull into ourselves and make something with, music that invites us to trace relationships and discover communities of taste. It’s about repertoire as shared experience and concepts open to exploration. It’s durable stuff.

*To learn more about Joseph Decosimo, visit www.josephdecosimo.com and be sure to check out his latest project “The Aluminum Wonder” featuring rare banjo tunes played in various banjo styles. And be on the lookout for a new solo project featuring collaborations with Alice Gerrard, Cleek Schrey, Joe and Matt O’Connell, and Stephanie Coleman.

1927: From Babe Ruth to Country Music

Today is National Babe Ruth Day!

Did you know that the summer of 1927 saw a whole host of important historic and cultural milestones, including Babe Ruth’s home run record and, of course, the 1927 Bristol Sessions? Author Bill Bryson’s book One Summer: America, 1927 explores that amazing summer in his usual charming and fact-fueled style, and – along with today’s celebration of Babe Ruth – serves as inspiration for this April 27 blog post, which goes down rabbit holes and tangents to explore other 1927 connections!

But first, what does Bryson’s book cover? Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis on May 20—21 is one of the topics, along with Calvin Coolidge’s presidency and his decision not to run for a second full term in 1928 and the Great Mississippi Flood, which had its beginnings in 1926 and ended up covering 27,000 square miles in water and displacing thousands of people from their homes and land. Bryson also tackles the controversial trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists accused of armed robbery and murder; the introduction of Ford’s new Model A car; and the release of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. And then, of course, Bryson shares the story of the New York Yankees’ achievements on the baseball diamond in the summer of 1927 – with 110 wins and 44 losses, a sweeping victory in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run of the season on September 30, setting a record that wouldn’t be broken for 34 years.

Left: Black-and-white image of Babe Ruth -- a large man -- standing in a baseball stance with the bat on his shoulder. The baseball stadium is in the background.
Top right: The small silver Spirit of St. Louis is suspended from the ceiling of the museum. It's name is written on the airplane's nose.
Bottom right: A red old-fashioned looking car.

Babe Ruth photographed in his batting stance (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress); the Spirit of St. Louis on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; and a Ford Model A car (Wikimedia Commons).

So what about country music? Well, of course, the summer of 1927 also saw the Bristol Sessions being recorded between July 25 and August 5. With performers like Ernest Stoneman – an experienced and prolific musician in the burgeoning hillbilly music industry – and hugely impactful newcomers like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, along with a host of other interesting artists and recordings, the 1927 Bristol Sessions became known as “the big bang of country music.” Sadly, the Sessions did not make it into Bryson’s book – maybe they’ll make an appearance in a later edition, fingers crossed! – though the Library of Congress has recognized them as among the 50 most significant sound recordings of all time.

Large metal historic marker with the Tennessee symbol of three stars on a blue background with red border at the top. The words briefly describe the Bristol Sessions. A brick building can be seen in the background.

This historic marker about the 1927 Bristol Sessions is located next to the Birthplace of Country Music’s offices at 416 State Street, the former site of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building where the 1927 Bristol Sessions were recorded. © Bristol Herald Courier

But are there other country music stories to be found in 1927? Interestingly, we can connect Charles Lindberg to country music through two 1927 recordings by Vernon Dalhart: “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the USA)” and “Lucky Lindy!” Both of these records sold well, and a couple of other hillbilly performers also had big hits in 1927 – Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers with “John Henry (Steel-Drivin’ Man)” and Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers with “White House Blues.”

Three record labels:
Left, red label for Champion Records detailing the title and performer's name.
Center, black Columbia label detailing the title and performer's name.
Right, black Columbia label detailing the title and performer's name.

Record labels for Vernon Dalhart’s “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” Gid Tanner’s “John Henry (Steel-Drivin’ Man),” and Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues.”

There were also several country and bluegrass stars born in 1927:

  • Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (February 25)
  • Carl Smith (March 15), known as “Mister Country” and once married to June Carter
  • Charlie Louvin (July 27), part of the Louvin Brothers and a member of the Grand Ole Opry
  • Nudie-suited performer and TV personality Porter Wagoner (August 12), who introduced Dolly Parton to the world in 1967 via The Porter Wagoner Show
  • Jimmy C. Newman (August 29), country music performer and Cajun singer-songwriter
  • Songwriter Harlan Howard (September 8)
  • Leon Rausch (October 2), known as “the voice” of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
  • Patti Page (November 8), crossover pop and country artist
  • Bob Ferguson (December 30), a musician and producer who was instrumental in establishing Nashville as country music’s center

For a few more musical connections to 1927, first take a look at the pages from a 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog. While these catalogs were produced yearly and so this isn’t unique to 1927, it is a great insight into what kinds of instruments you could buy from Sears Roebuck and what the 1927 prices were! And then there were two milestones in American radio history that are tied to 1927. The U.S. Federal Radio Commission (later known as the FCC) began to regulate radio frequencies on February 23, 1927. And on September 18 of that year, the country saw the debut of CBS, which went on air with 47 radio stations, later becoming a powerhouse in the new technology of television.

Three images of Sears Roebuck 1927 catalog:
Left, the catalog cover shwoing a man and woman poring over the catalog together, with a dog or cat at their feet. A woman in a big hat is in the corner of the cover, and the words The Roaring Twenties are seen at the bottom.
Center: A page filled with different banjos with descriptions and prices.
Right: A page filled with different guitars with descriptions and prices.

This facsimile of the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog is in the museum’s collections and on display in our permanent exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music

These are just a few of the stories and historical or cultural moments from 1927 – there are many, many more beyond my primary focus here on music connections. And so to finish this post off, why don’t you go down your own rabbit hole? The Smithsonian, always a great source of information on any and all topics, can get you started with a trove of treasures that all connect to the year 1927, some discussed above, some more obscure, but all interesting. You can check out these objects and images here.

Melodious Murals: Public Art as an Expression of a Community’s Musical Identity

Murals are one of the oldest known forms of human artistic expression. What people decided to paint on the walls of their domestic and community spaces can tell us a lot about the time and society in which they lived. For example, in the first known cave painting made in Indonesia 45,500 years ago, humans depicted animals and other humans they interacted with every day. During the Renaissance, murals of great religious scenes were painted on the walls and ceilings of churches, underlining the political, cultural, and financial power of the church during the 16th century. And, within the 20th century, we have seen a dramatic rise in murals being made for arts-sake, to make a political statement, or to highlight local color and culture.

So, let’s take a look at some murals that are special for all of the aforementioned reasons and because they tell a story you’re probably interested in if you’ve found your way to this blog: the story of country music.

This aerial view shows the side of a building painted with a wall-sized mural. Two music notes bookend the central painting that bears these words at the top "Bristol, Tenn-VA / Birthplace of Country Music." The central painting show several people or groups of people in a graphic/realistic style, from left to right: Ralph Peer (in a grey suit and with grey hair), The Carter Family (A.P. Carter wearing a greenosh suit stands beside of Sara in a pink dress and holding an autoharp with Maybelle sat in front of them in a blue dress and playing her guitar), Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (he is wearing a brownish suit and white cowboy hat and holds his guitar, she is standing behind him in a green dress with a bonnet-style hat on and playing the fiddle), and Jimmie Rodgers (dressed as a railway worker with engineer's cap, blue jacket, and red bow tie, he has his guitar and is holding two thumbs up). In the center is a Victor record and a microphone with 1927 on it.

Courtesy of Eddy Gray, Tri Cities Captured Photography

We’ll start with a mural that is a Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia must-see: Bristol’s Country Music Mural. The mural is located at 810 State Street, a public square that is used for the weekly farmers’ market, community events, and to host one of the stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The mural is 30 feet by 100 feet, taking up the entire side of a building, and features the big players and iconic images from the 1927 Bristol Recording Sessions: Ralph Peer, The Carter Family – A. P., Sara, and Maybelle, a Victor record and microphone, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, and Jimmie Rodgers. First painted in 1986 by local artist, musician, and radio DJ Tim White, the mural was recently refurbished to great effect during the summer of 2020.

A long rectangular mural with a cityscape shown behind the people in front. Different musicians and singers are shown throughout the foreground in a folk-art type style -- some are playing instruments, others are singing.

Source: Knoxville Public Arts

Next stop on our virtual tour of murals with a country music connection is the Knoxville Music History Mural. The mural is located at 116 East Jackson in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it was designed by Knoxville artist Walt Fieldsa in collaboration with local art teacher Tifanni Conner and her students at Laurel High School. The mural was then painted by local artists, including Fieldsa, Randall Starnes, and Ken Britton. The painting depicts several Tennessee musicians, including operatic singer Grace Moore, composer and pianist Richard Trythall, founder of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Bertha Walburn Clark, guitarist Willie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers, jazz pianist Donald Brown, rock singer Tina Turner, and bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin.

All portraits are head and shoulders. The left-hand image shows Jim Lauderdale with two different graphic floral backgrounds behind him. He is white man wearing a black jacket and a white collared shirt, and his white shoulder length hair is swept back from his forehead. The Top right image shows Bob Marley (a Black man with dreadlocks wearing a sleeveless black shirt with colored trim), Minnie Pearl (a white woman in a blue country-style dress and wearing a straw floral hat with the price tag hanging off one side), Amy Winehouse (a white woman wearing a black short-sleeve shirt and her black hair is pulled back into a bouffant-style with the length hanging down and sideswept bangs), and James Brown (a Black man wearing a cream-colored suit). The bottom right image shows Patsy Cline (a white woman with brown hair pulled back from her face and wearing a black jacket and polka-dot collared shirt) and Stevie Ray Vaughn (a white man wearing a white cowboy hat with red band, a blue sleeveless tee, and holding a red electric guitar).

Courtesy of Theron Corse, Nashville Public Art blog

We come next to the Nashville Fences of Fame located on several fences surrounding Columbine Park in Berry Hill. The project of painting these fences of the musical greats began in 2016 by artist Scott Guion and was commissioned by The House of Blues. A wide array of musicians from incredibly different genres are painted throughout the area – for instance, one fence alone depicts Jim Lauderdale, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Greg Allman, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and Otis Redding.

An image of a large cream-colored wall with a cariacature-style portrait of Blind Alfred Reed to the right on the wall. His dark hair is in a pompadour style, his ear is unusually big, and he holds his fiddle to his chin. He wears a greyish blue suit; the words "Blind Alfred Reed" are written to the left of the portrait.

Photograph © Denise Smith

In 2014, artist Jeff Pierson painted a wonderful mural depicting the 1927 Bristol Sessions artist Blind Alfred Reed on a brick wall on Mercer Street in Princeton, West Virginia. Pierson was commissioned by Princeton’s Community Improvement Committee to paint a series of important folks from Princeton on various walls around town. While researching Princeton local legends, he came across information about Blind Alfred Reed and was taken aback to learn his interesting story. When he proposed making Reed the subject of one of the murals, the committee didn’t even know who Reed was – but they were soon convinced of his importance and in due course his likeness could be found on one of the city’s walls as public art! Due to the demolition of the building, the mural is being moved to a new site in the town.

Next up is the San Antonio Gateway Mural, locally known as La Musica de San Anto. Located on the west side of San Antonio, the mural was painted in 2008 by local artist David Blancas after it was commissioned by San Anto Cultural Arts to bring awareness to the musical heritage of San Antonio. The mural features members of the country band “The Texas Tornados” and Tejano (a style of music derived from Mexican-Spanish vocal traditions and Czech and German dance music) musicians such as Lydia Mendoza, amongst others. A contemporary of Mother Maybelle Carter, Mendoza also played on the border radio station XERA. (Check out this fascinating article about the similarities between Mother Maybelle and Lydia Mendoza from NPR.)

An image of a wall mural in a graphic style showing two African-American musicians. The man (Sleepy John Estes) is singing and playing a guitar) and the woman (Tina Turner) is singing and has a big hairstyle. Words from their songs and about Brownsville radiate from their images to the right.

Image sourced from a review on TripAdvisor

Another great mural can be found at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, Tennessee, which also includes the Tina Turner Museum. In 2014 a mural of Brownsville natives Tina Turner and Sleepy John Estes was painted on the side of the museum by Union University art students. And while Sleepy John Estes is a well-regarded blues artist that influenced musicians like The Beatles, and Tina Turner is more well-known as “The Queen of Rock-n-Roll,” I would argue this is a bona fide country music mural because Tina Turner made her musical debut as a solo artist with a country album in 1974! If you haven’t listened to Tina Turns the Country On!, I highly recommend turning the record on now!

Last but not least on our grand country music mural tour is a painting of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2021 headliner Tanya Tucker. You can find the mural in Spirit Square in the “Country Music Capital of Canada”: Merritt, British Columbia. The wall-sized portrait of the singer was painted by local artist Michelle Loughery and members of the Merritt Youth Mural Project, a program designed to work with local young artists and “youth at risk.” Tucker was even there for the unveiling of the mural in 2006!

This post highlights just a few of the music heritage murals out there, but it’s a great introduction to this highly visible and community-driven public art. Murals are a fascinating look into our history and culture, and you can learn more about the history of murals with this article from The Community Rejuvenation Project in the Bay Area. And, I wanted to give an honorable mention to some local mural trails: The Mountain City Music Mile and The Appalachian Mural Trail.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: The Road Home

Poster from an early Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival. The illustration shows the Bristol Train Station in the background with a musician with a guitar on their back walking down the tracks.

The spirit of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion touches many of us on a deeply personal level. Since it began in 2001, it’s become a part of who we are as a community and a place where we can gather with our tribe to celebrate our music culture, life, and each other. We are so grateful for all of you who have made it a tradition to gather here each year with your friends and family with so much love in your hearts. Getting the festival to where we are today hasn’t been easy, but it has been a joy; a journey shared by everyone who has helped us evolve into what we are today.

In 2020 we had asked our friends at Loch & Key Productions to help us create a short docuseries about the origins of the festival for our 20th anniversary that September. We released the videos, but then the pandemic hit. We were forced to cancel our beloved festival, and the videos didn’t get the love they deserved. So now we are re-releasing them with faith that vaccines will extinguish COVID-19, at the very least to a manageable degree.

In episode one, the first of three videos (a fourth has not yet been released), we spoke with former Bristol, Tennessee Mayor David Shumaker, the “Father of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion,” and former Bristol, Tennessee Community Relations Director Terrie Talbert about the origins of Bristol Rhythm and how we came together as a small group of people with big dreams for Bristol and our historic downtown – which was, at the time, very much in need of a comeback.

In episode two of our docuseries, a few artists who have performed at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and continue to be champions for us and our region – including Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale, Dom Flemons, and Amythyst Kiah – speak about Bristol’s authentic music roots.

The third episode in the series gets to the heart of what makes Bristol Rhythm special, and why it will continue to be a place where artists and fans come to pay homage to the our region’s rich music heritage.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is like coming home, plain and simple. We hope you will take that journey September 10–12, 2021 and join us for our 20th anniversary – and bring friends, family, coworkers, and anyone who loves good music! We’ll be back with a fourth episode of our docuseries very soon!

To App-uh-latch-uh or To App-uh-lay-shuh…That is the Question

Yes, both are correct, but here is why I urge you to still say “App-uh-latch-uh.”

It’s something that has caused perhaps nearly as many arguments as politics. No one has (hopefully) ever gotten into an argument about whether or not they ordered a “car-mel” or “care-ah-mel” latte, but disagreements about Appalachia can become very heated very easily. Appalachia has several different pronunciations across the United States, but the two most common (and contentious) are “App-uh-latch-uh” and “App-uh-lay-shuh.” The former has traditionally been linked with the south, while the latter is more associated with the north.

The photograph show a display mannequin showcasing a grey t-shirt, red scarf, and musician brooch. The t-shirt has the word [app-uh-latch-uh] on it.

Soon after the museum opened, we sold t-shirts that spelled out the “correct” pronunciation of Appalachia – it generated debate from our visitors and also 435 shares on the related social media post! © Birthplace of Country Music

So, who is right? To quote writer John Green: “The truth resists simplicity.” Both ways are correct, but which way you choose to say it can say more about you than you may realize.

Much like its pronunciation, the etymology of the word “Appalachia” is also debated. Before the Europeans arrived in North America, the Appalachian Mountains and their geographical components had a multitude of names. The Cherokee or Tsalagi called the Smoky Mountains Shaconage. Algonquin-speaking peoples called the White Mountains in New Hampshire Wobanadenok. To the Powhatan of eastern Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains were known as Quirank. The first people to live in the region were all independent nations with different languages and cultures. It wasn’t until later that the entire mountain range was grouped as a single region.

The consensus is that the current name derives from “Apalachee” (App-uh-latch-ee), the Spanish romanization of the name of a Native American people that lived in the Florida Panhandle, though exactly upon which expedition the Spanish encountered these Indigenous people is debated. Either way, variations of the name – such as “Apalachen” – began appearing on Spanish maps of the area in the 1560s. By the 1700s, the name was used to refer to the southern section of the mountain range, and the name “Appalachia” was eventually used for the entire mountain range by the end of the 19th century.

A vintage map focused on the Carolinas and Georgia, with Virginia  showing at the top of the map. Various regions, rivers, and other topographical features are marked, including the Appalachian Mountains chain, which are marked as Apalachean Mountains.

A map from the mid-1700s with “Country of the Apalaches” and “Apalachean Mountains” labeled. Found on http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/appalachians.html, source: David Rumsey, Historical Map Collection, Carolina and Georgia (by Emanuel Bowen and John Gibson, 1758)

Southern Appalachia and Northern Appalachia may share a general geographical continuity, but could not be more different regarding culture, accents, and media portrayal. Popular media often makes a mess of the south, frequently portraying it as feral, uneducated, and backward. The way we speak appears to be particularly hard for Hollywood to nail down. Take, for example, Brad Pitt’s questionable “Smoky Mountain” accent in the 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Southerners with a keen ear would have no trouble differentiating the tight Appalachian accent of someone like Dolly Parton from the hazy drawl of popular characters like Scarlet O’Hara. However, both of these accents can be heard in the beloved 1989 film Steel Magnolias – from Parton herself (Tennessee) and Julia Roberts (Georgia) respectively. To complicate matters even further, the film takes place in Louisiana, a linguistically and culturally distinct geographical area.

There are people living in Northern Appalachia – and beyond – who say “App-uh-lay-shuh.” Those people are not wrong, even though that is not how I say it. Just like there is no single southern accent, there is no single Appalachian identity. The fact that I grew up in East Tennessee is the main reason I say “App-uh-latch-uh.” Southern Appalachia is very much its own beast with its own culture, stereotypes, and – yes – dialect. The way we speak is as much a part of our way of life as the food we eat, the stories we tell, and the music we make. Just like sharing music can bridge the gap between people of two different cultures and heritage, so can something as simple as saying the name of our home the way we say it.

In other words: When in Southern Appalachia, do as the Southern Appalachians do.


Writer Sharyn McCrumb opines on the ways to pronounce “Appalachia.”

Safer Travels to Bristol, Above and Below!

Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music & Beyond

In our previous blog post, Walk the Line in Bristol, TN-VA, we offered an itinerary of must-sees if you’re looking for a safe weekend getaway to the birthplace of country music. In that article we hit a lot of highlights, but there is definitely more to see in Bristol and the surrounding area! Read on to discover what else there is to see when visiting:

A young girl with long braids stands up in her seat to take in the view of a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway is a bucket list event the whole family will enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol Motor Speedway

NASCAR drivers and fans alike will tell you that there is nothing so thrilling as a race on the high banks at Bristol Motor Speedway. Known as “The Last Great Colosseum,” BMS has been a main attraction in Bristol since its very first race in 1961 – and there isn’t a bad seat in the house! BMS has taken enhanced safety measures for fans, drivers, crew, vendors, employees, and other guests to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Check out their policies by clicking here.

A black Corvette competes in Bristol Motor Speedway's Thunder Valley Street Fights event.
Street Fights at Bristol Motor Speedway’s Thunder Valley.
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol hosts races in several NASCAR touring series, including two major NASCAR Cup Series. Legendary drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, and many more have all earned victories at the track, and – whether you are a sports fan or not – we highly recommend adding a night race at Bristol to your bucket list. If you have a camper, there are campgrounds all around the track where you can tailgate and celebrate or commiserate with fellow fans. The track hosts amazing vendors and special events all around the facility throughout race weekend to keep the family entertained. Between NASCAR events, BMS’s Thunder Valley dragway hosts NHRA Drag Racing, dirt track racing, and street fight racing events that are high-octane adventures all their own!

A stunning view of the Underground River inside Bristol Caverns.
The breathtaking Underground River inside Bristol Caverns.
Photo courtesy of Bristol Caverns

Bristol Caverns

If you think Bristol is amazing on the surface, just wait until you explore what’s underneath at Bristol Caverns! Formed by the ancient Underground River 200 to 400 million years ago, Bristol Caverns is one of the oldest and most beautiful attractions in Northeast Tennessee.

A lit and gated pathway inside Bristol Caverns.
A lit walkway inside Bristol Caverns highlights the beauty underground.


Legend has it that Native Americans used the caverns as an escape route during clashes with settlers. Cameras are welcome, and you’ll definitely want to glimpse back upon the wonderous and dramatic sights found inside all three levels of the colorful chambers that wind 180 feet below to the cavern floor. Bristol Caverns is opened year-round, seven days a week (except certain holidays). Call ahead to book a tour and inquire about health and safety rules for social distancing in the wake of COVID-19: 423-878-2011.

Beyond Bristol
To make the most of your experience, we highly recommend taking time to visit a few other sites in the region:

  • Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium
    Just down the road in Kingsport, Tennessee, Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium offers a plethora of nature- and science-focused adventures including hiking trails, a state-of-the-art Planetarium Theater, and animal habitats including wolves, bobcats, raptors, and reptiles.
  • Barter Theatre
    Barter Theatre opened in Abingdon, Virginia, in 1933 and is the longest-running professional Equity theatre in the United States. Also the State Theater of Virginia, the Barter got its name because theatergoers were able to pay for tickets to shows in vegetables, dairy products, and livestock. Known as a launching pad for the careers of many iconic actors and actresses and its award-winning productions, the Barter is making use of the outdoor Moonlite Drive-In to host shows during the pandemic.
  • Hands On! Discovery Center and Gray Fossil Site
    The Hands On! Discovery Center at Gray Fossil Site is an all-ages science center full of fun and interactive exhibits including a musical Tesla coil, giant building blocks, a three-story Paleo Tower, and an art studio. Guests are invited to engineer a rocket, create a masterpiece, and get up close and personal with an active fossil dig site dating back 5 million years. The facility is open with modified COVID-19 safety precautions and an adjusted schedule for your safety.

Want to know more about exploring Bristol, Northeast Tennessee, and Southwest Virginia? Visit our partner websites and plan your trip!

Discover Bristol 
Believe in Bristol 
Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association
Visit Southwest Virginia 

Instrument Interview: The Kazoo

“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 mark National Kazoo Day by talking to the kazoo!

I thought kazoos were just silly party favors, but you’re an actual musical instrument?

Well, I do have a reputation as a birthday party favor, probably to the extreme annoyance of many parents! But I am so much more than that. Kazoos are membranophones, where the tonal qualities of the instrument are produced as the player hums. I am also related to mirlitons, which are vibrating membrane instruments.

A metal kazoo on a display stand within a glass case with an interpretive label in front of it with a brief text about the kazoo.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a George D. Smith metal kazoo in our instrument gallery. It is on display courtesy of Kazoobie Kazoos, a plastic kazoo manufacturer in Beaufort, South Carolina. © Birthplace of Country Music

Where do you come from?

My ancestors go back to early mirlitons from Africa. They were made from cow horns or gourds, and their membranes were from spider egg silk. It must have been a tricky business to make them! These African horn-mirlitons were used for ceremonial purposes as a way to distort or mask the human voice.

Kazoo-like instruments are also known in ancient Mexico, though these looked more like recorders and the membrane was made from slivers of corn husk.

A lot of people think of the kazoo as an American instrument. How did you come about here in the States?

Different types of kazoo-like instruments, based on the African mirlitons and common in folk music, could be found in North America in the 1800s. But the kazoo as we know it is attributed to an African-American man named Alabama Vest who came up with the idea of this small instrument and then worked with Thaddeus von Glegg, a German clock manufacturer, to make his concept into reality in the 1840s.

How the kazoo went from Alabama Vest to mass production follows a couple of possible routes. The Historical Folk Toys site notes that a traveling salesman named Emil Sorg was charmed by Vest and von Glegg’s instrument, and so took the concept to create his own kazoos in New York, partnering with die-maker Michael McIntyre and starting production in 1912. McIntyre knew that to succeed, mass production was necessary and so he soon went into business with Harry Richardson, a large metal factory owner. By 1914 they were mass producing kazoos as the instrument’s popularity, and sales, skyrocketed. In 1916 their company became known as The Original American Kazoo Company, and McIntyre was awarded a patent on their kazoo in 1923. In 1994 The Original American Kazoo Company was producing 1.5 million kazoos per year! The company stayed in business until 2003, and the factory site now houses a kazoo museum.

However, the Vest-Sorg-McIntyre-Richardson kazoos were not the only ones being developed in America over this period. Another instrument – a “toy trumpet” that worked in a manner similar to the kazoo – was patented by Simon Seller in 1879. And the first instrument patented under the name “kazoo” was one created by Warren Herbert Frost – his patent was issued in 1883. However, the first metal kazoo was patented by George D. Smith in 1902.

What do you look like?

My basic shape is a tube where one end is larger and slightly flattened and the other is in the shape of a circle; both of my ends are open and uncovered. On top, I have another circular hole – known as the membrane hole – and a wax membrane can be found in the small chamber below this hole. I’ve been called “the Down South Submarine” because my shape resembles these underwater vessels.

Over the years, however, I have taken on many other shapes and forms, including being made directly in the shape of a submarine. Another example, a circa 1930 paper kazoo, was shaped like a 1920s-era microphone. Many kazoos have also been made in the shape of saxophones – Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library notes that “a good player could easily imitate a saxophone and create a debate: ‘kazoo or saxophone’”!

A variety of colorful plastic kazoos -- from common kazoo shapes to a pink saxophone shape to submarine/military ship shapes, to a trombone shape.

A collection of differently shaped kazoos. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

How are you played?

To play me, you should hum into the flattened opening. This makes the membrane vibrate, creating a sound that can be changed by the pitch, loudness, and nature of your humming. You can also alter the sound I make by covering the membrane hole, either in part or completely. Check out this video for a tutorial.

Many people make the mistake of blowing into me and then thinking I am broken as no sound comes out, but this will not work for creating kazoo music!

Are there any famous kazoo players or performances?

There are! Unsurpisingly you can hear the kazoo’s comic effect on Frank Zappa’s first album, Freak Out! Comb-and-paper kazoos appeared on the Beatles’ song “Lovely Rita” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and Sir Paul McCartney played the kazoo on the 1975 Ringo Starr single “Sweet 16.” World Wrestling Federation duo Edge and Christian often brought their kazoos into the ring, driving their foes to distraction with their playing and often winning the bout as a result. Jimi Hendrix used a comb-and-paper kazoo on his 1968 recording of “Crosstown Traffic.” Kazoos – to imitate the sound of electric razors in an executive washroom – were also used in the song “I Believe in You” in the Broadway comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Some performers made a career of their kazoo playing, such as Barbara Stewart who even performed at Carnegie Hall! And some composers have written their own kazoo music – for example, Mark Bucci composed his “Kazoo Concerto,” which premiered at a Leonard Bernstein Young Peoples’ Concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1960.

I’ve named just a few, but if you look for them you can find all sorts of famous kazoo performers or performances!

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I sure was! Kazoos were commonly used in jug bands and comedy songs, and that is where you will find me on the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. Ernest Stoneman joined together with different configurations of friends and family to record several songs for Ralph Peer in 1927. One of those configurations was made up of Stoneman, Bolen Frost, George Stoneman, Iver Edwards, Kahle Brewer, and Uncle Eck Dunford to form the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers singing “Old Time Corn Shuckin,’ Parts 1 and 2.” As the song progresses, Stoneman invites each musician to introduce himself, play a little bit, and then take a sip from the passing jug!

Even though you are a light-hearted – and fun to play – instrument, do you get used for serious purposes too?

Yes, indeed, I am sometime used in speech therapy to help strengthen oral and speech skills – for instance, kazoos can help children in the production and awareness of speech. We can also be used to help speech recovery for people who have suffered a brain injury, and to help in speech production and awareness for the deaf or hard of hearing. Kazoo use can even play a role in increasing respiration and oxygenation.

Left: Three popsicle kazoos decorated with stickers and colored markers. Right: Four toilet paper roll kazoos, painted to look like different fruits.
Fun and colorful make-at-home kazoos.

How do I make my own kazoo?

There are a few ways to make your own kazoo. You can make one using popsicle sticks, a straw, and rubber bands as seen here; using a toilet paper tube and wax paper as seen here; or the classic comb-and-paper version as seen here. Get crafting!

Anything else you want to share with us?

Special thanks to Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library for his help with kazoo facts and photos! The Library has hosted special events around National Kazoo Day for the past few years. Starting off from a challenge to use “serious library tools to investigate a light, playful topic,” the Library’s “kazoo salute” has included exhibits, live kazoo performances, and the commissioning of original kazoo music.

Finally, the kazoo is known as “the most democratic of all instruments” because ANYONE who can hum can play it! So give me a try!

Left: A man wearing a dark suit and glasses stands behind a tabletop glass case filled with kazoos. Right: A piece of kazoo music with two kazoos superimposed on top.

Scott Paulson with a UC San Diego Library kazoo display; “Fanfare for as Many Kazoos as Possible,” an original composition by Linda Kernohan. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

Radio Bristol Book Club – I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams

Welcome to another year of Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month, readers from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Bristol Public Library come together 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!

Our book for January is I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen. This book is the perfect accompaniment to our current special exhibit Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972—1981, featuring the photography of Henry Horenstein and a variety of related artifacts, including a Hank Williams guitar. In his tragically short time on Earth, Hank Williams created one of the defining bodies of American music – including “Your Cheating Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “Jambalaya.” He sold millions of records and was hugely influential on country music and beyond. However, while he made a success of his career in so many ways, his life was also characterized by personal demons and sadly an early death at the age of 29. Estcott’s definitive biography vividly details the singer’s life and career – from its highs to its lows – while unveiling much that was previously unknown or hidden about this iconic country star.

Left: Book cover of I Saw the Light showing Hank Williams, wearing a dark suit and white cowboy hat, coming down some house steps and holding a guitar case. Right: Movie poster for I Saw the Light showing Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, wearing a blue suit and white cowboy hat and standing in front of the Grand Ole Opry mic with his guitar.

The cover for Colin Escott’s I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams. The book was later made into a film with Tom Hiddleston playing the title role.

Born in England, Colin Escott has written numerous music-related books, including Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music, and The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon (some of which we might be reading as future Radio Bristol Book Club picks!). His CD box set, The Complete Hank Williams, won two Grammy Awards in 1999 for “Best Historical Album” and “Best Recording Package—Boxed.” In 2010, Escott received a Tony nomination for Million Dollar Quartet, a Broadway musical about the one-night jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis in December 1956.

Black-and-white photograph of Colin Escott, an older white man wearing a dark shirt/jacket and in front of what appears to be a neon sign.
Portrait of author Colin Escott.

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, January 28 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful biography of a troubled and iconic musician.

Looking ahead: We have picked all of the books for 2021 – and are looking forward to a wide range of titles and topics from Dolly Parton’s songwriting and Affrilachian folktales to a Carter Family graphic novel and an illustrated fiction book about Appalachian economic and social challenges. You can find the full list of our 2021 reads here – so be sure to check it out, read along with us, and then tune in to our discussion on-air! And if you have any questions about the books you’d like us to address on-air, email us at info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org with the subject line “Radio Bristol Book Club.” Happy reading!

Thomas Edison: From “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to Recorded Music

On December 24, 1877, inventor Thomas Edison filed for a patent for his “talking machine” or cylinder phonograph. This technology was transformative, successfully reproducing recorded sound and thus setting the stage for our experience of listening to the music we love whenever and wherever we want to!

To celebrate this important date in sound history, it is worth briefly exploring the story of Edison’s early work in recorded sound. Other inventors had already made inroads with different technologies that facilitated communication and transmitted sound – for instance, Samuel Morse with the telegraph in 1844, and Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone in 1876. However, the recording and playback of sound had not been achieved before Edison’s work, the result of several months of diligent labor on the concept of the phonograph. He marked his success with the recording and playback of his own recitation of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and his remembrance of this occasion can be heard below. Later Edison noted: “I was never so taken aback in my life – I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”

Two months after filing, the patent for Edison’s phonograph was issued on February 19, 1878. At first, Edison thought that his machine would be primarily useful in the business world as a correspondence and dictation device. Along with that function, however, he envisioned various other uses, including the connection to playing music:

  • Phonographic books for blind people
  • A device for teaching elocution
  • The reproduction of music
  • A “family record” machine to record memories, sayings, last words of dying relatives, etc.
  • Music boxes and toys
  • “Talking” clocks that could keep you on schedule
  • To preserve languages and their pronunciation
  • An educational resource to preserved teachers’ lessons and explanations for later referral
  • To record telephone conversations
Left: A baby doll with porcelain head (bald), metal body with speaker area at top of torso, and articulated wooden limbs. Right: A 19th-century drawing of a man standing in front of a large cabinet Edison phonograph with what look like earphones plugged into the machine.
Left: In 1890, Edison’s company began producing “talking” doll toys that contained small wax cylinder playback machines. Frankly, this is the stuff of nightmares… Right: In late 1889, “coin-in-the-slot” phonographs were introduced in San Francisco, giving people the chance to listen to songs at 5 cents each. The first of these used an Edison phonograph as its base machine. Photograph taken at the National Museum of American History; artist’s rendering of a coin-slot phonograph from radiomuseum.org

The general way these early cylinder phonographs worked was that a person would talk (or sing) into the large end of an acoustic recording horn, which fit into a machine housing a diaphragm and stylus. The sound wave vibrations caused a carriage arm to move across a metal cylinder wrapped in tinfoil (later these became wax cylinders) upon which the stylus inscribed a continuous vertical groove – thus recording the sound being made, which could then later be played back and listened to with delight!

Edison bowed out of the phonograph field for almost 10 years as he concentrated on creating and mass-producing the electric light bulb – creating light out of the darkness in wealthy homes and many cities. But when he returned to the technology of recorded sound, he was continually innovating and producing new models and types of phonographs, and one of his subsidiaries – Columbia Phonograph Company – had also been producing cylinder recordings of popular music of the day. As with most technology, competitors arose and new versions and innovations were developed throughout this time, including the graphophone of Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter and Emile Berliner’s disc gramophone, and the switch from acoustic horn to electric microphone recording. And with them, and over the following years, came more and more musical recordings by different companies and within a variety of genres – from what is widely considered the first “satisfactory” musical recording (of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso) in 1902 to the later early “hillbilly” tunes of the 1920s that we know and love.

A black-and-white photograph of a large room filled with different musical instruments, including two pianos, a small drum, and what looks to be a small organ, along with several phonograph machines.

Edison’s phonograph experimental laboratory in Orange, New Jersey, in 1892. Image from the Library of Congress

This blog post shares only one small part of Edison’s story – and an even smaller part of the story of recorded sound. If you want a much fuller history of Edison’s work and impact, there is much to be found on the internet – including a great article from the Library of Congress. Interestingly, research has also uncovered several older instances of recorded sound – that of the French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott, whose invention, the phonautograph or phono-autograph, produced a sound recording almost 20 years before Edison’s phonograph, including a snipped of the song “Claire de Lune.” Check out this NPR transcript of an interview with Patrick Feaster, one of the researchers, as he describes the discovery, noting: “It’s the earliest recognizable recording of the human voice, the earliest recording of a vocal musical performance, the oldest recognizable snippet of sound in any recognizable language. So, it’s a lot of firsts.”