There were only four kinds of country music. One is your gospel songs, your religious songs. The others were your jigs and reels, like we spoke of a while ago at fiddler’s conventions. Your third were your heart songs, sentimental songs that came from the heart, and the fourth, which has passed out to a degree today and was terrific in those days, were the event songs.
Now would you like to ask me what I mean by an event song? An event song is something that had happened, not today, but maybe years ago, but hadn’t permeated through the South because of a lack of newspapers and no radio and no television in those days, but they had heard of it. For instance, some of the biggest sellers we were able to bring out was things like ‘Sinking of the Titanic.’
Bring out a record years after it happened and tell a story with a moral. The ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ was a big seller, but there was a little bit of a moral that people shouldn’t believe that they could build a ship that couldn’t be sunk.
That’s the way they talked about it; of thinking God took it upon Himself to show them that they couldn’t build anything greater than He could.
Everything had a moral in the events songs. Well, for instance, things that have been made into a motion picture since – do you remember the story of the famous Scopes Trial? (ed: later a movie with Spencer Tracy, ‘Inherit the Wind’). Well who would think of making a phonograph record about that? He said man descended from the ape. Maybe he did. Lots of people think so, but the country person didn’t believe that at all.
So we made a record. We sold 60,000 of them on the steps of the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee – just during that tremendous trial. That shows the interest of the people in hearing somebody else recount an event, because remember, there were thousands of buyers of phonograph records that had no other means of communication.
You had sad ones, the stories of Jesse James and all kinds of bandits and convicts and everything you could think of. Yes, and a murder here and there.
Naomi Wise is a story of a little girl who lived. Marion Parker was married unfortunately, in Atlanta. But there was always a moral so what was done wrong should not be done by the person who was listening. It did a tremendous amount of good; I can’t emphasize that too much.
Down through the Southwest, there was the story of Kenny Wagner (ed: also known as Kinnie Wagner). Kenny was a bandit but he was a clever bandit. He had the habit of committing a crime, getting caught, being put in jail, and getting out. He seemed to be able to master every jail that he was ever in.
Well, it was all very good for us from the record standpoint. We could have a record telling of the capture of Kenny Wagner, and then a record of the escape of Kenny Wagner.
We went on through his life through a series of escapes, and then came the time that Kenny was finally caught and shot, not accidentally but on purpose, and that was the end of it. So how were we to end up this series of the wonderful selling records we had? We brought out the finale. We called it ‘The Fate of Kenny Wagner.’ And again there was a moral at the end of it.
North Carolina and Tennessee had a different type [of songs] than Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama and so forth. Your North Carolina and through Virginia were based on the English folk songs, most of them.
Where down below in Florida and in Georgia throughout the South they get a little of Negroid, you know. It gets to be a mixture and there is a very good reason for it because in those days in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, you had your colored section full of colored people and you had your white, I am sorry to use the word but they used to call them “white trash,” but they were very close to each other.
They would pass each other every day. And a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so you got a little combination of the two things there. But they were very easily distinguished, you could tell them.
Excerpt from a Mike Seeger interview with Frank Walker on June 19, 1962. Frank Buckley Walker (1889–1963) was the Artist and Repertoire (A & R) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division during the 1920s and 1930s. Along with Ralph Peer of Victor Records, Walker mastered thetechnique of field recordings. Specializing in southern roots music, Walker set up remote recording studios in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas, Little Rock and Johnson City.
Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, AFC 1995/004: Mike Seeger Collection