Part 2 of 2
In Atlanta Gid Tanner was recommended and Tanner brought blind guitarist Riley Puckett with him to New York on March 7, 1924 to back-up his fiddle. Puckett became Columbia’s and Walker’s first country star, and picked his way through “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” accompanied on fiddle by Tanner.
On the flip side Puckett yodeled on “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep,” introducing a technique that was destined to longevity in country music. Their disc was released on May 20 and was an immediate success.
Columbia viewed this new music style as niche music for poor southern whites, and didn’t want to alienate their existing base of both northerners and wealthier southerners.
Initially, says Walker, “The music was not understood by my own people, and they said under no circumstances could we put anything of that sort on the market. But after due pleading on my part they agreed to let me do it providing we not make mention of it in any way. We must not put it on any of our [advertising] hangers or anything.”
The year 1924 is noteworthy in country music’s history because it produced the first multi-million selling tune ever. For Thomas Edison’s recording firm that summer vaudeville singer Vernon Dalhart recorded a cover of a Henry Whitter railroad ballad accompanied by his own harmonica playing and Frank Ferara’s Hawaiian guitar. “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97″ (Edison Diamond Disc 51316) was issued in August, and a month later was dubbed for release on Edison Blue Amberol Cylinder 4898.
Neither disc nor cylinder made a special stir, but their good sales did help Dalhart persuade his Victor executives, one of whom was Nat Shilkret, to let him record the ballad for them. Dalhart now coupled “The Wreck of the Old 97″ with his cousin Guy Massey’s piece, “The Prisoner’s Song.” It was released on October 3, 1924 on Victor’s Olde Time label, and went on to sell more than seven million copies.
Nor were the big New York recording companies the only ones interested in the newly emerging country music market. Art Satherley had joined Wisconsin Chair Company’s new Chicago based record label, Paramount, in 1918, first in manufacturing, then as a salesman. Although the label was known mostly for its race records, Satherley recorded a large number of old time country artists.
Paramount’s first foray into the genre came in 1924 with harmonica and guitar player Walter C. Peterson on the budget “Broadway” label (catalog #33150), though his work was tucked into the middle of a pop dance catalog series. By the mid-1920s, after earning a reputation as an expert in the infant genres of hillbilly and race music, Satherley was spending more time scouting and recording talent than working as a salesman.
“He tried to do a job and he did do a job,” noted Ralph Peer about Satherley. “He was a good judge of what the market needed.”
In January, 1925, Columbia had enough folk material to begin a Columbia 15000-D series, Familiar Tunes – Old and New, paralleling its own 14000-D race offerings. “I created a special series number, as I remember,” said Frank Walker, “at Columbia called the 15000 series, and we would make a record and we would manufacture and release it and offer it quietly by a little letter to our various distributors through the South.”
At this time Okeh, like Paramount, was still releasing country material on pop labels. Hence, Columbia was the first company to see the possibilities in an exclusive white folk series. By October 1925, OKeh followed suit with a similar 45000 Old Time Tunes category.
The record companies hadn’t quite yet settled on the moniker of ‘hillbilly music’ for this new style of music: descriptions included “Old- Time Tunes” (OKeh), “Old Familiar Tunes” (Columbia), “tunes from Dixie” (Brunswick), and “Olde Time Fiddlin’ Tunes from the Sunny South” (Victor).
The term first appeared on an OKeh release from 1925, a recording of a string band from Watauga County, NC, who showed up at the New York recording studio without having decided what to call themselves. When Ralph Peer, who was supervising the sessions, asked for their names, one of the group’s members responded, “We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. Call us anything.” So Peer released the sides under the name “the Hill Billies.”
Jack Kapp’s father was a Chicago based salesman for Columbia Records, and young Kapp joined that firm in 1914 as a shipping clerk. He was hired by Brunswick Records (also Chicago) in 1926 to form a race record division, with initial releases on the Vocalion label.
By 1927 Brunswick’s “tunes from Dixie” series featured Vernon Dalhart (he of the 1924 ‘Wreck of the Old 97’ fame), Al Hopkins, Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, and Buell Kazee. The Vocalion 5000 series featured Uncle Dave Macon, Am Stewart, Sid Harkreader, and Charlie Oaks.
“Kapp’s promotion follows a concrete survey of the country’s musical tastes, particularly in the Southern and Midwestern demands for ‘hill-billy’ and ‘race’ records,” Variety magazine noted on March 21, 1928. “These two departments have been chiefly developed by Kapp and have contributed to Vocalion’s financial success.
“It was Kapp who taught the mountaineer music dealers to capitalize the hill-billy folks’ penchant for purchasing from 6 to 15 copies of the same record. The mountain people don’t come down into the valley towns for months at a time, and their chief amusement is the constant repetition of their favorite record, wearing one out and playing a new one.”
Johnny Cash called the 1927 Bristol Sessions “the Big Bang of country music.” It’s a great sound bite, but it wildly oversimplifies the truth. Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, Vernon Dalhart, Frank Hutchison, Ernest Stoneman, the Skillet Lickers, Riley Puckett and Charlie Poole were already established recording artists by the summer of 1927.
Victor Talking Pictures and its star producer Ralph Peer had plenty of competitors in the field, and while Peer’s contributions are many, he and Victor were far from being the only show in town.
Recorded music in American life: the phonograph and popular memory, 1890-1945, by William Howland Kenney
Creating country music: fabricating authenticity By Richard A. Peterson
“Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol,” by Archie Green, Journal of American Folklore 78:309 (July- September 1965)
Ralph Peer interview–Lillian Borgeson, 1958. Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records,” By Sarah Filzen
Wisconsin Magazine of History 82/2 ( Winter 1998-99): 104-127
Brunswick records: a discography of recordings, 1916-1931, by Ross Laird