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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.”

Once Upon a Time: Remembering and Sharing Family Stories

“Do you remember when…?”

“Let me tell you about your grandmother’s apple butter…”

“Uncle Roger, I want to hear the story about the time you thought you’d swallowed a water dog!”

November is Family Stories Month, and even though we are still in the middle of a pandemic right now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t share family stories with each other – whether it be in smaller, more socially distanced gatherings; through Zoom or WhatsApp or FaceTime; by writing them down in journals and scrapbooks; or whatever method takes our fancy!

Recording and telling stories – especially family stories – is a big part of southern and Appalachian culture and tradition. From fictional folk tales to the recording of your clan’s names in the family Bible, from the poetry and the storytelling of the region’s music to the family anecdotes we share around the table – all of these are ways for us to pass on our history, big and small, and to remember the good and the hard times.

My family is full of story tellers (my Uncle Roger DID think he swallowed a water dog once, and it is my favorite story to hear, over and over again – for those who don’t know, water dog is another name for a hellbender salamander). On my mother’s side of the family, meals and gatherings are filled with tall tales, stories, remembrances, exaggerations, all told in a southern fashion – in other words, slow and often rambling into other tangential realms. On my father’s side of the family, a cousin’s interest in genealogy has led to family trees and records way beyond the stories we’ve told to each other about more recent ancestors and descendants.


A hellbender is a type of giant aquatic salamander – also known as water dog, snot otter, and mud devil, amongst others. How my uncle was convinced that he had swallowed a water dog – in all probability an impossibility – involved my mother and her sister and their desire to make their younger brother sweat. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photographer: Brian Gratwicke

Family stories – and other historical and personal recollections – told through oral histories is one way that museums and other cultural institutions “collect” data and content for exhibits, research, archives, and programs – and for future generations. Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum we have incorporated oral histories and family stories into our exhibits and programming in multiple ways:

  • Upstairs in our permanent exhibits, a display titled “I Was There” shares excerpts from interviews with Ralph Peer, Ernest Stoneman, Maybelle Carter, Georgia Warren, and Clarice Shelor, giving first-person accounts of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
  • In 2015 we held a “Tennessee Ernie Ford History Harvest,” an event where we invited members of the public to come to the museum to share any photographs or paper items, objects, and stories related to Ford, his life in Bristol, and his career. We scanned the images, newspaper articles, and other documents; photographed the objects; and spent several hours recording stories and memories of Ford, still a Bristol hero to so many. Not only did this give the public a chance to explore local history more deeply, but the resulting materials are now part of the museum’s archive and can be used for future educational and programming purposes. We hope to hold other “history harvests” in the future – for instance a hoped-for partnership with Black in Appalachia to record stories of African American musicians in this region.
  • At the museum’s symposium on the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions in 2017, we recorded oral histories by many of the descendants of the 1927 Bristol Sessions artists to learn more about the musicians who played and recorded here, to give context to the wider history, and to explore the impact that moment had on them, their families, and beyond. We have also interviewed different family members for blog posts, such as our post on Hattie Stoneman.

Recent educational work has focused on creating learning activity sheets, including one related to Real Folk, a special exhibit at the museum earlier this year. This activity sheet encourages children to find master artists or artisans in their family by talking to their parents, grandparents, and other relatives about special talents or skills they have or activities they enjoy doing, another route to learning more about your family.

Left: Focus in one "I Was There" panel shows the quote "I Was There" in a speech bubble at the top, three photographs interspersed with text, and a TV screen with the oral history video running.
Center: Two blondish/white-haired women sit on a bench laughing and talking with an man with glasses, short white beard, and overalls.
Right: The activity sheet has the title "Interview a Master Artist" at the top, with descriptive text and a list of interview questions below the title.

Left: The exhibit panel “I Was There” includes text, images, and a short video recording the memories of the 1927 Bristol Sessions by Ralph Peer and several musicians. Center: Roni and Donna Stoneman, daughters of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, share memories and stories with a member of the public at the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Right: The “Interview a Master Artist” activity sheet provides some prompt questions for discovering your family’s hidden talents. All images © Birthplace of Country Music

There are lots of articles and guides out there to help you tell and record your own family stories. Here are just a few that can help get you started:

And if you want some inspiration, check out StoryCorps whose mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Over the years, they have recorded the stories of more than half a million people – from family stories to moments of history, from the small things to the big things in lives lived.

There are also tons of websites and books that will help you with some prompts to get the ball rolling on learning more about your family. Why don’t you try out a few of these questions at your next socially distanced family gathering?

  • What is your favorite story about your grandmother/father?
  • Where did you go to school, and what was your favorite subject?
  • Did you ever play a musical instrument? Which one?
  • Tell me about the places you have traveled.
  • What was the best concert you attended?
  • Did you play a sport in high school or college?
  • What is YOUR favorite family story?
  • Do you remember how you felt or what it was like when the Berlin Wall fell/Barack Obama became President/the Challenger space shuttle blew up – and, one day, when the COVID pandemic hit?

Finally, one last thing to remember: Family can be what you make of it – in other words, family stories can be those told by your relatives, but they can also be those told by the family you have created with your friends. All of these are part of your personal history and remembering them over the years will always bring you – and those you share them with – pleasure.

So start the conversation. Ask a few questions. Pull out some photographs to prompt the memories. Become the record-keeper and storyteller – for your family and friends!

The Power of Music: Suffrage Songs

Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, it finally gave American women the right to vote and be represented.

Congress ratified this amendment on June 4, 1919, but it still needed to be affirmed by 3/4 of the states in order to become law. Suffragettes and their supporters had been working for this day since 1832, and the very first amendment for women’s right to vote was introduced in 1878, taking 42 years to reach ratification. The road was long and hard with women fighting through words, negotiation and diplomacy, and acts of civil disobedience to gain the right to vote. American democracy has been a beacon to many outside our shores, but it makes one pause to think that women only gained this basic right 100 years ago.

A line of women crowd in front of a building. They are wearing early 20th century clotes, and one of the women looks out from the line and directly at the camera.
Women line up to vote for the first time in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, after passage of the 19th amendment. Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Association

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is fortunate to have two poster exhibits that explore this complex history, the people who fought to be recognized, and the acts that brought them to victory on August 18, 1920. The first – Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence – comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibit traces the story of women’s suffrage, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation while also examining the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. The second – To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote, created by the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives – digs deep into the history of the woman’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the years that followed. Both of these exhibits will be on display by September 1 and are definitely worth a visit over the next few months!

Right: The introductory panel for Votes for Women bears text and images on the subject, including a woman dressed in classical garb in front of a government building and a portrait of Ida B. Wells. Center: The graphic poster reads "Votes for Women" and "Equality is the sacred law of humanity" and bears the image of a woman's head with wings at her hair and a sculpture of a double-headed axe behind her. Left. The introductory poster for To Make Our Voices Heard has portraits of several suffrage leaders, text, and a picture of suffragettes marching.
Right and left: The introductory panels to the Votes for Women and To Make Our Voices Heard exhibits. Center: Graphic poster from the suffrage movement. Equality Is the Sacred Law of Humanity, c. 1903–1915; Lithograph by Egbert C. Jacobson Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

As a music museum, there is one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact, and so I wanted to explore some of the songs that helped fuel the suffrage movement. Artists have long used songs to throw light on the world around them – for instance, Hazel Dickens and other musicians who highlighted the tribulations and dangers of Appalachian coal mining communities or the anthems, often with their origins in African American spirituals and traditional hymns, that powered Civil Rights activists in the struggle. Music is a way for people to express their contemporary burdens and their dreams for a better future.

The women of the suffrage movement also lifted themselves up with song, highlighting the rights they were fighting for and inspiring them in that fight. The lyrics to these songs were often set to popular tunes or traditional hymns, thus making them easier to sing and remember. For instance, “Human Equality,” written in the 1870s by William Lloyd Garrison, was sung to the tune of another popular song used in support of labor reform and abolition. While not about women’s right to vote, the poem”Rights of Woman,” written by “A Lady” in 1795, declared women free and was later set to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee.” “Daughters of Freedom” was published in 1871 and was composed by Edward Christie with lyrics by George Cooper, while a song by Frank Boylen from 1881 asked “Shall Women Vote?” America being the melting pot that it is, some songs also came from immigrant sources, such as “Damen Rechte (Suffragettes),” a popular Yiddish song that not only called for women’s right to vote but also extolled other freedoms and equality in society at large. Some songs were also written specifically for suffrage marches and meant to be played by brass bands, such as “Fall in Line.” Around 1880, D. Estabrook wrote “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” which on first glance seems to be anti-women’s rights with various men declaring that women should stay in their traditional roles and not expect equal rights. However, the last verse turns this notion on its head with the assertion:

I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”
The answer came sincere —
“Her rights are just the same as mine,
Let woman choose her sphere.

Left: The sheet music cover has bold script with the title of the song, and notes that it is for solo quartet and records the names of the composer and lyricist. Center: A female suffragette band marches down a wide city street. Left: The cover of the Songs of the Suffragettes album is bright pink and has an illustration of a suffrage meeting, with several people around a large table and an audience ranged behind them.
Right: Cover of the sheet music to “Daughters of Freed! The Ballot Be Yours.” Library of Congress. Music Division, Microfilm M 3500 M2.3.U6A44
Center: National American Woman Suffrage Association parade held in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. LC-B2- 2505-7, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress
Left: Unfortunately, very few suffragette songs were recorded at the time of their usage, but you can hear many of these rousing songs on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight.

Where there was a fight for women’s rights, however, came societal and political push back – also expressed through music. Songs that mocked the suffragettes’ struggle and emphasized women’s “proper” place abounded, such as “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette,” “The Anti-Suffrage Rose,” “Mind the Baby, I Must Vote Today,” and “Your Mother’s Gone Away to Join the Army” both published in the early 1910s. Various songs also questioned the other changes women were embracing, often deemed as “unladylike.” This was especially true as women pushed for less restrictive clothes like the “Bloomer costume,” which was attacked in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” Women riding bicycles were also seen as a sign of these times; indeed, Susan B. Anthony viewed bicycles as doing “more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.” “Eliza Jane,” a song from 1895, brought all these horrors together – less restrictive clothing, bicycles, and the desire to vote!

Was there any connection between suffrage and the songs of early country music? I don’t know of any hillbilly songs that embrace the suffrage movement in song, but there are certainly a few songs that reflect the changes that were happening on this front and give hints to women moving beyond their stereotypical roles. For instance, The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and sung only by Sara and Maybelle, contrasts the freedom of the singleton with the restrictions a married woman bears taking care of husband, babies, and home. And as with the anti-suffrage songs, there were also reactions from hillbilly musicians to the ways women’s roles were changing. Blind Alfred Reed, another 1927 Bristol Sessions singer, later recorded “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?,” which declared that “every time you bob it, you’re breaking God’s command,” and “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” which bemoaned the early days of Eve in the Garden of Eden and all the ways women were trying to be like men in contemporary society. More disapproval of women’s ways can be found in Ira and Eugene Yates recording “Powder and Paint” from the Johnson City Sessions in 1929.

Finally, it’s worth noting a couple of great songs that teach the history of the suffrage movement and celebrate its achievement. The first is from a much-loved slice of my childhood, Schoolhouse Rock“Sufferin’ till Suffrage,” sung by the wonderful Etta James. And then, of course, there is Dolly Parton (it’s ALWAYS Dolly…). In 2018, she contributed to 27: The Most Perfect Album, “a collection of songs about the Constitutional amendments that have shaped our democracy, and yet are often at the center of fierce political debate.” Dolly’s song about the 19th amendment starts with a brief spoken introduction to the suffrage story, and soon transitions into a rousing song about the fight for the vote.

Off the Record: The Hobo’s Convention

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our “Off the Record” posts, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record or artist they love. Today we hear from Brody Hunt, host of Land of the Sky, as he tells us some tales about hoboes and their songs.

One of the public’s most enduring fascinations with the American hobo tramp is their fabled system of mysterious and secretive signs or codes. The concept of carved or chalked hobo hieroglyphics left by a Knight of the Road for his fellow Brethren of Bumdom, warning of a lousy calaboose (that is, a local jail) or showing where to find a kind woman for a handout, just won’t fade. Newspapers of the classic hobo era printed countless articles about hobo signs, seemingly a surefire way to sell a sheet. Tramps themselves were at times interviewed and enticed to divulge these secret signs for publication, doubtless in trade for a solid feed or a pint of gin. In one instance, the local town clowns themselves even made use of hobo signs in an attempt to detour a convention of ‘boes around their city.

Newspaper article reporting the story of how Cincinnati cops painted hobo signs around town in order to give hobos the impression that it wasn't a good place to stop.

A 1912 article in the St. Louis Star and Times records how the Cincinnati police painted hobo signs as a way to deter hoboes from coming into the city.

But are there solid facts that confirm the widespread use of hobo signs? The Historic Graffiti Society has recently published their remarkably well researched Hobo Signs Zine, and an excerpt of their conclusion reads:            

In our opinion, hobo signs were not the secret language of hoboes. While they definitely found a place in popular culture, mainly thanks to newspapers throughout the decades, there is little to no concrete evidence to prove their existence. It is possible that a very simple set of signs (good, bad, safe, dangerous) were used by a small minority of the traveling population, but nothing that ever took hold or was widespread. The real language of the hoboes was, and is still to this day, word of mouth. Information including what towns were hostile and where a hobo could find work traveled up and down the railroad lines without the need for signs and symbols… In our travels we have documented over 1,000 individual pieces of hobo graffiti. These marks generally contain the hobo’s moniker (assumed name), the date the mark was made, and the direction of travel. For how many instances of hobo moniker marks we’ve found and documented, we have never come across a single hobo sign. Perhaps the Oregon Daily Journal said it best in 1907, stating that the only secret sign is “Help Wanted” and that “It is so baffling that the average tramp never tries to fathom its depth.”

Newspaper cartoon showing various hobos encountering good times and positive experiences in Pittsburgh, even with the police. The headline reads "Hobo Accepts Pittsburgh as 'Good Stopping Place.'"

Newspaper cartoon from the Pittsburg Press, 1927.

While the myth of hobo signs will undoubtedly persist as long at the hobo retains even the smallest nook in the American psyche, the use of nom-de-rails by those who work and inhabit the rails also endures. Freight cars today are often covered in spray paint graffiti, but a closer look will quickly reveal the grease-paint monikers of railroad workers and train riders alike. Even if they don’t mark a substantial number of rail cars or other trackside canvases, nearly everyone who spends more than a year or two bumming on the rails eventually ends up with a moniker, often with a distinctive character or symbol. In the summer of 1921, Portland, Oregon was the scene of a hobo convention resulting in a moniker song that has left a small impression on hobo balladry. Titled “The Hobo Convention at Portland,” the song is included in George Milburn’s 1930 volume of tramp prose, The Hobo’s Hornbook. His introduction to the piece is seen below, followed by the printed lyrics.

Text reads: The Hobo Convention at Portland
This, very likely, is the most recent hobo convention song. The gathering described took place in the summer of 1921, and came off successfully without any assistance from the Portland, Oregon, Chamber of Commerce. A delegate named George Liebst has been credited with the present song, but it follows closely earlier convention anthems, and its purpose, that of introducing monikas, is the same.
You have heard of big conventions, 
And there’s some that can’t be beat,
But get this straight, there’s none so great 
As when the hoboes meet.
 
To Portland, Oregon, that year 
They came from near and far; 
On tops and blinds where cinders whined 
And hanging to the drawbar.
 
Three hundred came from New York State, 
Some came from Eagle Pass; 
That afternoon, the third of June, 
They gathered there en masse.
 
From Lone Star State came Texas Slim 
And Jack the Katydid. 
With Lonesome Lou from Kal-mazoo 
Came San Diego Kid.
 
And Denver Dan and Boston Red 
Blew in with Hellfire Jack, 
Andy Lang from longshore gang, 
Big Mack from Mackinac.
 
I saw some ‘boes I never met; 
A ‘bo called New York Spike, 
Con the Sneak from Battle Creek 
And Mississippi Ike
 
Old Joisey Bill, dressed like a dude, 
Shook hands with Frisco Fred, 
And Half-breed Joe from Mexico 
Shot craps with Eastport Ed.
 
St. Looie Jim and Pittsburg Paul 
Fixed up a jungle stew 
While Slip’ry Slim and Bashful Tim 
Creaked gumps for our menu.
 
Then Jockey Kid spilled out a song 
Along with Desp’rate Sam; 
And Paul the Shark from Terror’s Park 
Clog-danced with Alabam.
 
We gathered ‘round the jungle fire, 
The night was passing fast; 
We’d all done time for every crime, 
And talk was of the past.
 
All night we flopped around the fire 
Until the morning sun; 
Then from the town the cops came down,
We beat it on the run.
 
We scattered to the railroad yards 
And left the bulls behind; 
Some hit the freights for other states 
And many rode the blind.
 
Well, here I am in Denver town, 
A hungry, tired-out ‘bo; 
The flier’s due, when she pulls through, 
I’ll grab her and I’ll blow.
 
That’s her—she’s whistling for the block— 
I’ll make her on the fly’; 
It’s number nine—Santa Fe line. 
I’m off again—Goodbye! 

The Oregon Daily Journal announced in a headline “Railway Police Declare War on Brakebeam Rider” the following September. It seems doubtful this was a result of the Portland convention. The cinder dicks, or railway police, were and will always be unsuccessful with their goal of the “Elimination of Every Weary Willie.”

Two songs titled “The Hobo’s Convention” were recorded onto 78rpm discs in the 1930s. One with lyrics nearly identical to those in Milburn’s book was recorded by Goebel Reeves for C. P. MacGregor in Hollywood, California, in either 1938 or 1939. This disc, with hand-stamped catalog number and handwritten artist and song credits, was not meant for commercial consumer release, but intended for radio broadcasts. Reeves, or “The Texas Drifter” as he was sometimes known, was indeed a Texan from the burg of Sherman. By the time he cut the MacGregor disc, Reeves had already been traveling the country since 1929 as a hillbilly radio entertainer and recording artist. Wounded in action in World War I, Reeves took up tramp life upon his return to the States and may well have learned the song on the road, or even been at the Portland Convention himself. At any rate, it is a pleasure to have a hard-boiled ex-hobo on record singing the piece. You may listen to his record here: https://soundcloud.com/brody-hunt-138211625/goebel-reeves-hobos-convention.

Left: Close up of record label for C. P. MacGregor with The Hobo's Convention, The Texas Drifter handwritten on it. Right: Portrait of Goebel Reeves -- he has his back turned and is looking over his shoulder at the camera. He wears a dark jacket, black hat, and holds a guitar.

Record label for “The Hobo’s Convention” by Goebel Reeves, known as the Texas Drifter, and a photographic portrait of the musician. Record label image from the author’s collection; portrait from the collection of Tony Russell

An earlier recording of “The Hobo’s Convention” is more elusive, but there is a version that was waxed in 1932 by Boyden Carpenter, known as “The Hillbilly Kid,” who was raised around Cherry Lane, North Carolina. It was possibly similar to the above, or at least some form of moniker song. Although it’s unclear if he ever flipped a freight, Carpenter certainly had an adventurous spirit and a strong taste of beating his way across the country as he attempted to start a career in radio during the onset of the Great Depression.

In Carpenter’s own words he describes leaving the mountains bound for the broadcast powerhouses of Chicago:

Well, Folks, it was back in 1930 that I decided to leave Alleghany County and get on the radio. Most of the programs coming in on the old battery set down at John Miles’ store was comin’ from Chicago, so that’s where I headed for. Now I didn’t have but a few dollars, but I’d been savin’ my nickles and dimes, in case I’d need a little money on my trip, but I didn’t have enough money for a ticket to Chicago. I got my ma to fix me up a few pones of bread, a rasher of meat, and some Irish potatoes, and I struck out for the big city on foot. I never will forget the way the fellers laughed at me as I passed down there at Miles’ store. They all said “There he goes, he ain’t got no sense, why they’ll have him in the asylum before he gits out of Alleghany County. That boy will never amount to a hill of beans out runnin’ around over the country, why he’d better stay around here and work on a farm.” Why I just paid no ‘tention to them fellers and kept on my way. Now, it wasn’t long before my rations that I left home with played out, so I had to find little odd chores, such as cutting wood and things like that for a meal here and there. You know I didn’t want to beg for a handout, and be a regular bum, I wanted to make my way… Yeah on that trip to Chicago I slept in straw stacks, hay lofts, depots and a little of everywhere. Well, rides was mighty scarce on that trip, and I don’t blame them folks for passin’ me by so much ‘cause I wasn’t such a good lookin’ prospect fer company. So, as much as I had to walk, it tuk me right at thirty days to get to Chicago.

Photograph showing man in check shirt with dark pants, one foot up on a chair and holding a guitar. He has a harmonica around his neck. Written on the photograph is "Hillbilly Kid / 705.AM 1340, / WAIR

Promotional photograph of Boyden Carpenter, also known as “The Hillbilly Kid.”  From the collection of Marshall Wyatt

After three days of finding no interest in “what I had brought with me from Allegheny County,” Carpenter started walking back home. On this return trip, he eventually landed his first radio job on WCKY in Covington, Kentucky. In his “drifting days,” he would go on to work the airwaves of WHAS, Louisville; WKRC, Cincinnati; WFBM, Indianapolis; WJJD, Chicago; WIOD, Miami; WDBO, Orlando; WJAX, Jacksonville; WMBR, Jacksonville; and WFBC Greenville. He then broadcast for Crazy Water Crystals on WGST and WSB, Atlanta; WMAZ, Macon; WBT, Charlotte; and WPTF, Raleigh, before moving on to WAIR, Winston-Salem.

Boyden Carpenter twice recorded for Gennett Records at their Richmond, Indiana studios. On the first trip, he accompanied the blind North Carolina street singer Ernest Thompson on the hitchhiking journey up north, and both men recorded on January 22, 1930. (This date is seemingly at odds with Carpenter’s account of first leaving home on the bum alone in 1930. More realistically, his first trip out of the mountains was actually in 1929.) The two sides that Carpenter waxed were rejected, but he returned to Richmond and recorded two more sides, including “The Hobo’s Convention,” on September 13, 1932. By this time Gennett was in a state of economic collapse, with individual record sales at times below 100 copies. The coupling of “The Hobo’s Convention” with “The Old Grey Goose Is Dead” was given a catalog number on Champion, a Gennett stencil label. Shipping figures are not available for Champion 16519, and no copies of the 78 are known to exist.

* Special thanks to the Historic Graffiti Society, Jonathan Ward, and the research of John Edwards, Charles Wolfe, Tony Russell, Bob Carlin, and Marshall Wyatt, all integral to the content of this “Off the Record” post. The Historic Graffiti Society’s Hobo Signs Zine may be found here.

Real Folk: A Few of My Favorite Things

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program. While the COVID-19 situation meant that for three months no one was able to visit the exhibit – except virtually – we have now reopened, and the exhibit is waiting to be enjoyed through its closing date in August!

This is one of my favorite special exhibits that we’ve had on display at the museum – the images by photographers Pat Jarrett and Morgan Miller are stunning, the stories of the master artists and apprentices told by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman are fascinating, and the range of crafts, trades, and traditions astounding.

Here are just a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from Real Folk:

A Virginia Town’s Salty Past

Saltville – found in the Southern Appalachians – is named for its unusually high number of salt marshes, or as locals call them, salt licks. Not only is the salt source extensive here, but the salt from Saltville is also especially salty – around 10 times saltier than ocean water! Saltville’s natural salt deposits have influenced the history of the region from the late Pleistocene period, when they attracted Ice Age mammals and Paleoamericans to the area, to early European traders to the Civil War when nearly two-thirds of the South’s salt was produced in Saltville and two bloody battles were fought here.


Jim Bordwine’s family has lived in and around Saltville since the 1770s. He has dedicated his life to educating the public about Saltville’s history and continuing its traditional craft of making salt, including passing down this knowledge to son Baron through an apprenticeship. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Quilt Signals

We have quite a few quilt connections in our museum – from the huge Birthplace of Country Music quilt hanging in our atrium to the quilt “tapestries” on sell in The Museum Store to the museum’s color scheme based on old quilts and flour sacks. Master Artist Sharon Tindall has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages integral to the success of the Underground Railroad, codes that told enslaved people about what to expect next on their journey and how to find safe haven.


Sharon Tindall specializes in early African American quilt patterns and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She shared her experience with apprentice Nancy Chilton. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

A Connection Between Music and Language

The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord or one-stringed instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Playing the đàn bâu can create microtones capable of imitating the six essential tones and variations of the Vietnamese language, nearly impossible to achieve with any other instrument. Traditionally, it is also used as an accompaniment to Vietnamese poetry readings.


Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing an instrument called the đàn bâu at 17, later touring and performing throughout the United States with her family. She is seen here with her apprentice Anh Dien Ky Nguyen. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

From Everyday Object to Musical Instrument

Music has often been made from everyday objects – for instance, think of a washtub bass or the spoons. The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around World War II, when island locals resourcefully crafted these instruments from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55-gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as sinking. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel, resulting in a melodic percussive instrument that can play three full octaves.


Master Artist Elton Williams, who worked with apprentice Earl Sawyer, grew up in Trinidad and immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the U.S. © Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program

For the Love of Fonts

Prior to the advent of photocopiers, short-run quick print, email, and social media, the local letterpress was the primary producer of the vast majority of materials for mass communication – from church bulletins to wedding announcements to commercial advertisements, and so much more. My favorite elements of letterpress are the individual letters used in the printing process (and so many possible fonts!) and the wonderful act of rolling out the ink ready to print. We have our own letterpress studio here in Southwest Virginia at the Burke Print Shop in the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Left: Images from the letterpress apprenticeship between Garrett Queen and Lana Lambert in the Real Folk exhibit. Right: Letter blocks at the Burke Print Shop. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program; © Rene Rodgers

Different Dulcimers

When I used to think of a dulcimer, I thought of one particular type – an hourglass-shaped instrument – because we had one like that hanging in our home when I was a child. Since then, I’ve learned there are many types of dulcimers (all from the zither family) that are played in many places throughout the world – from the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer to the banjo dulcimer and the bowed dulcimer – with different shapes and different ways of being played. The dulcimer from my house – and the one most familiar around our area – is the mountain dulcimer, a fretted string instrument that first appeared in the 19th century among Scots-Irish communities. It is also known as the lap dulcimer.


Left: Phyllis Gaskins, seen here with apprentice Anna Stockdale, plays the Galax dulcimer, which is lozenge-shaped, has four strings all tuned to the same note, and is played with a turkey or goose quill. The Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal instrument in old-time string bands, mirroring the fiddle. Right: Master Dulcimer Maker Walter Messick apprenticed Chris Testerman, an award-winning fiddler who is already considered one of the great up-and-coming luthiers in the region. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

An Unorthodox Route to Creativity

The late Pastor Mary Onley, known as “Mama-Girl,” was a self-taught artist who came from generations of farm laborers, working in the fields herself at the age of 12. Severe allergies resulted in several hospitalizations, and during one of these, she reported being visited by a spirit who instructed her to create art out of paper and found objects – something she had never done before. She went on to become one of the most celebrated folk artists on the East Coast, creating lyrical newspaper and glue sculptures that reflected her inner visions and unique creativity.


In 2016, Mama-Girl taught son David Rogers her unorthodox artistic techniques and how to open his mind to receive his own divine artistic inspirations. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program