“The 1927 Sessions in Bristol [TN] were so successful artistically and in terms of commercial sales,” says Dr. Ted Olsen, interim director of East Tennessee State University’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, “that the other labels said, ‘Aha, Victor is doing something really smart’ … by going to the mountains to get the music rather than expecting mountain musicians to travel outside Appalachia to the big cities of Atlanta or New York.”
Johnson City, TN, like Bristol, was a haven for early recording artists, including the legendary Jimmie Rodgers. And so, in 1928 and 1929, Frank Buckley Walker, head of the Columbia Records “hillbilly” recordings division, headed there, field recording instruments in tow, in search of native Appalachian musical talent. The scraggly bearded man was known by Johnson Citians simply as “Uncle Fuzz.”
From October 15-18 1928, the Brading-Marshall Lumber Company’s business office at 334 East Main Street (a site now occupied by an Interstate 26 onramp) attracted a myriad of local musicians, each auditioning for a potential record contract with Columbia Records. Walker listened intently as each individual or group played music, in hopes of being invited back that same week for a recording session in their rented temporary makeshift studio. Historians would later tag his pioneering efforts as the “Johnson City Sessions.”
One of the most well-known old-time musicians to emerge from these sessions was Country Music Hall of Fame fiddler Charlie Bowman. Three of his brothers and two of his daughters recorded with him. The two daughters, Jennie and Pauline, were among the first sister acts recorded in the genre. Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman was a major influence on the distinctive fiddle style that defined 1920s and 1930s country music, and cut two of his signature pieces — “Gonna Raise the Ruckus Tonight” and “Roll on Buddy” — in Johnson City.
The Bentley Boys’ “Down on Penny’s Farm” from the 1929 sessions ricocheted forwarded 30 years to impact a young folk singer from Minnesota who was about to make his own mark on the world.
“Bob Dylan was so moved by that particular performance from the Johnson City Sessions that he used the melody for a song … ‘Hard times in New York Town,'” Olsen said.
Olsen said Dylan also borrowed the theme of “Down on Penny’s Farm” for the classic, “Maggie’s Farm.”
But the gravy train would not continue. “…the deepening Depression eventually curtailed field recording activity,” says Charles K. Wolfe in The Bristol Sessions, “and after the 1929 Columbia sessions in Johnson City, no more records would be made in the Tri-Cities area until after World War II.”
“If not quite as majestic in scope as the 1927 Bristol Sessions, at least the 1928-29 Johnson City Sessions are extremely distinctive in terms of the quality of music they produced,” said Olsen.
“The Bristol Sessions”
Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music
Edited by Charles K. Wolfe and Ted Olson
McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2005
Johnson+City+Sessions Columbia+Records Frank+Buckley+Walker Charlie+Bowman Roane+Country+Ramblers Bentley+Boys appalachia +appalachia+history Appalachian+ballads appalachian+culture appalachian+history