‘Can You Sing Or Play Old-Time Music?’ — The Johnson City Sessions

Posted by | October 10, 2013

Please welcome guest author Ted Olson. Olson produced and wrote liner notes for two box sets for Bear Family Records, The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music (with Christopher King and Tony Russell) and The Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929: Can You Sing Or Play Old-Time Music? (with Tony Russell). Olson is the author of two poetry books, Revelations (2012) and Breathing in Darkness (2006), and a study of Appalachian culture, Blue Ridge Folklife (1998).


Ralph Peer’s 1927 Bristol Sessions were revolutionary in their influence, but the Johnson City Sessions recordings, overseen by Columbia’s pioneering A&R scout Frank B. Walker, reflect Walker’s more eclectic tastes and keener sense of humor. Indeed, the recordings from the Johnson City Sessions provide a distinctly different portrayal of Appalachian music. Peer was interested primarily in capturing vocal performances of sacred material or secular songs with concisely-structured lyrics projecting generalized emotions—ostensibly to reach the broadest possible audience.

The newspaper ad from October 1928 in which Columbia Records announced the Johnson City Sessions and encouraged musicians to travel to Johnson City. Courtesy the author.

The newspaper ad from October 1928 in which Columbia Records announced the Johnson City Sessions and encouraged musicians to travel to Johnson City. Courtesy the author.

For his part, Walker maintained an open-tent approach, which led him to make recordings that would not have interested Peer. And by the sheer happenstance of who showed up to make records for Walker, the Johnson City Sessions also documented some different regional sounds and styles from those recorded during the Bristol Sessions. Walker recorded a wide range of Appalachian musicians, primarily from Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina. In Bristol, Peer had recorded musicians from the first three of those states plus Virginia, but had not attracted North Carolinians.

Like Peer, Frank Walker was a pioneer of the commercial recorded sound industry. Born in 1889 and reared in Fly Summit, New York, Walker when young played music in a string band and ultimately considered rural white vernacular music as his “first love” (his own words, taken from his interview with Mike Seeger). After World War I Walker promoted concerts for Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, then left to work for Columbia Records.

By 1923 he was successfully recording Bessie Smith and other blues performers. (By his own recollection, Walker had already begun recording rural white music by 1922. He claimed that his label, believing such music was commercially unprofitable, refused to release these earlier recordings.) By January 1925, he had convinced Columbia to launch a series of commercial records that eventually featured performances by such white musicians as Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett, and Charlie Poole. As was the industry standard at the time, Walker initially worked in temporary studios set up in lowland Southern cities. It was after Peer’s success at Bristol in 1927, Walker decided to set up his own temporary studio in nearby Johnson City.

A few of the 78 RPM records made in Johnson City in 1928 sold well when released by Columbia in early 1929. One record by the duo of Earl Shirkey and Roy Harper, “Steamboat Man” backed with “When the Roses Bloom Again for the Bootlegger,” sold nearly 75,000 copies. Walker decided to return to Johnson City the following October to make additional recordings.

Marshall Brothers Lumber Company, site of the 1928 Johnson City Sessions. Courtesy Johnsonsdepot.com

Marshall Brothers Lumber Company, site of the 1928 Johnson City Sessions. Courtesy Johnsonsdepot.com

His timing was unfortunate, to say the least, coinciding with the Wall Street Crash; in fact, the last day of recording in Johnson City in 1929 took place on October 24, 1929—“Black Thursday.” As a result, the 1929 Johnson City Sessions recordings, despite their overall excellence, sold poorly upon their release in early 1930.

Few of the recordings from Johnson City are widely known today. Three records—“Old Lady and the Devil” by Bill and Belle Reed, “The Coo-Coo Bird” by Clarence Ashley and the Bentley Boys’ immortal “Down On Penny’s Farm”—were both reissued in 1952 on the influential Anthology of American Folk Music. “Down On Penny’s Farm” would lend a thematic and stylistic backdrop for not one but two Bob Dylan songs, “Hard Times in New York Town” and “Maggie’s Farm.”

Other outstanding recordings from the sessions include, from 1928, “Johnson Boys” by the Grant Brothers, “Southern Number III” by the Roane County Ramblers, “Johnson City Blues” by Clarence Greene, “Lindy” by the Proximity String Quartet, and “Roll On Buddy” by Charlie Bowman and His Brothers; and from 1929, four classic recordings by Clarence Ashley, “I’m Just a Black Sheep” by Jack Jackson, “Beckley Rag” by Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland, “West Virginia Hills” by the Moatsville String Ticklers, and “Powder and Paint” by Ira and Eugene Yates.

Frank Walker’s inspired work on the Johnson City Sessions may not have garnered much scholarly attention, yet his peers certainly bestowed respect upon him for his subsequent roles in the recorded sound industry. For his work for RCA Victor, producing recordings by Bill Monroe, Glenn Miller, Coleman Hawkins, and Duke Ellington, and for MGM Records overseeing the career of Hank Williams, Sr., Walker acquired the sobriquet “The Dean of the American Record Industry.”

Columbia Records’ Johnson City Sessions have long merited an in-depth examination, and that examination is now here, in the form of a four-CD box set and book released by Bear Family Records. Developing a story begun in the 2011 box set The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music, this new collection, entitled The Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929: Can You Sing Or Play Old-Time Music?, continues Bear Family Records’ commitment to tracing the larger story of the location recording sessions conducted in Appalachia in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

Johnson Box Cover

The Johnson City Sessions compiles all 100 extant recordings made during those 1928 and 1929 Columbia sessions—the first time that they have been collected in any form. The recordings and accompanying book chronicle the presence in Johnson City of all the musicians who heeded the invitation of a widely disseminated October 1928 newspaper ad, calling upon area musicians to participate in “an actual try-out for the purpose of making Columbia Records.”

In April 2013 the State of Tennessee erected an official historical marker to commemorate this compelling if overlooked event in early country music history. In October 2013, Johnson City will host several public activities focused on the Johnson City Sessions, including the dedication of the Bear Family Records box set.

Today, the Johnson City Sessions recordings are deemed by those who know them best (scholars and record collectors, if not yet the general public) to be a strong, distinctive cross-section of old-time Appalachian music made at the cusp of the Great Depression. Indeed, they might arguably constitute the second-most important recording sessions ever conducted in Appalachia. If the 1927 Bristol Sessions can be considered “the Big Bang of Country Music,” then the Johnson City Sessions were a major aftershock.


See the Birthplace of Country Music webpage for the upcoming (October 17-20) Johnson City Sessions Weekend events list (tickets for the ticketed events can be accessed there).



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