Henry Whitter Biography-1923
Hailing from Fries, Virginia, millworker-turned-musician Henry Whitter (April 6, 1892- November 17, 1941) was the first Country vocalist to record songs on a commercial label. In late February, 1923 Henry Whitter had saved up his money and boarded a train to New York City. On March 1 he sauntered into General Phonograph Corporation’s Okeh office and announced that he was the “world’s greatest harmonica player.”
Ralph Peer at first tried to get rid of him, then begrudgingly agreed to give him an audition. “Finally I took him down to the recording studio and we ran off a half dozen of these things,” he recalled. “He was a great harmonica player- no doubt about that!” The harmonica solos Whitter recorded were not assigned master numbers, promptly shelved and forgotten until another Country musician Fiddlin’ John Carson had a hit with “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane” several months later.
The date of Whitter's first recording is a real discographic mystery. Polk Brockman clearly recalls that Hager recorded Whitter in New York before the Atlanta expedition. In Whitter's only folio, Familiar Folk Songs (Jefferson, North Carolina, ca. 1935), the author asserted a March 1, 1923, recording visit to New York City. ["Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol" by Archie Green; Journal of American Folklore]
According to Brockman, who had just produced the first recordings of Fiddlin’ John Carson: “They sent these white label pressings to me and asked me what they thought about them. I thought they were worth releasing.” Although Whitter’s songs were not immediately released, he returned in December to wax records including the song that would one day make him rich, “The Wreck of the Southern Old 97.” He was paid $25 each for the songs but more importantly he received royalties, a system implemented by Ralph Peer that eventually would become the industry standard.
In an interview in 1959 with Lillian Borgeson, Peer implied that Whitter wrote Okeh and the company ignored him. He then set out on his own to NY where he appeared without an invitation or appointment. According to Peer the recordings done in March were probably never released but redone when he went back in December 1923. A bill of sale for “Wreck” was made out to Fred Hagar, who may have done the recording. The success of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s record, “The Little Old Cabin In The Lane” recorded for Okeh in June 1923 and the release of Eck Robertson’s “Sallie Goodin” for Victor prompted Polk Brockman and Ralph Peer with Okeh to call Whitter back to NYC for his historic session.
On December 10, 1923 Whitter recorded ten songs (one is missing from Victor’s files) three being harmonica solos and six vocals. Peer later commented that he taught Whitter how to organize the songs by adding instrumental verses. He also said that he didn’t know Whitter could sing implying that the first session in March were harmonica solos only. “So I brought Whitter back to NY for more recordings,” said Peer, “and I discovered the dope could sing. So I began to make records where he would sing a chorus and play a chorus. All these things were so simple but somebody had to learn them.”
The Wreck of Old 97
The “Wreck of the Southern Old 97” backed by “Lonesome Road Blues” was released by Okeh in Jan. 1924. “Wreck” was the story of mail train #97 that crashed down a 75-foot ravine outside Danville Virginia on Sept. 27, 1903, killing engineer Joseph Broady and eight others. Whitter claimed to have learned from a fellow mill worker Fred Jackson Lewey, who also played guitar and sang, in 1914. Whitter used the melody of the “Ship That Never Returned” when he sang the ballad.
“The Wreck of the Southern Old 97” was an immediate hit and within months George Reneau (for Vocalion) and Ernest Thompson (for Columbia) had recorded copies of the song. Because Peer had copyrighted the song under Whitter’s name, Henry began to receive royalties.
That summer singer and recording artist Vernon Dalhart was looking for new material from the emerging “hillbilly” division. He wrote down the lyrics to “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97” from Whitter’s recording as best as he could understand them and recorded the song for Edison (credited to Whitter). Dalhart’s single was backed with an Ernest Hare black-face song. After modest sales Dalhart convinced Victor to record it as “The Wreck of the Old 97” along with a song his cousin arranged from traditional sources called “The Prisoner’s Song.” The Victor record would eventually top seven million and according to Whitter, his royalties exceeded “twenty-three thousand dollars,” a huge fortune at that time (approximately $350,000 today).
Later Hagar with Okeh paid Whitter $200 (approximately $3,500 today) for what appeared to be a clear title to “Wreck of the Old 97.” At what point this was done is unclear. What is known is the Vernon Dalhart version backed by “The Prisoner’s Song,” Victor Record no. 19424, would become the first certified million-selling Country Music release in the American record industry.
The success also prompted a 1931 lawsuit about the rights to the song since several versions had been circulating in the area and Charles W. Noel also claimed authorship. Originally, the ballad was attributed to Fred Jackson Lewey and co-author Charles Noel. Lewey claimed to have written the song the day after the accident, in which his cousin Albion Clapp was one of the two fireman aboard the ill-fated train. Lewey worked in a cotton mill that was at the base of the trestle, and also claimed to be on the scene of the accident pulling the victims from the wreckage. Musician Henry Whitter subsequently polished the original, altering the lyrics, resulting in the version performed by Dalhart.
In 1927 it was claimed that the actual author of "Wreck of the Old 97" was David Graves George, a local resident who was also one of the first on the scene. George apparently did write a ballad about the wreck, but his claim of authorship was not upheld by the United States Supreme Court, nor did the Court invalidate the 1924 copyright claimed by F. Wallace Rega, in part due to the testimony of folklore expert Robert Winslow Gordon. Subsequent research by others, notably Alfred P. Scott, determined that Charles Noel was most likely the originator of the famous ballad, and that George's and Lewey's claims were spurious.
Whitter would testify at that trial and detail his contribution in arranging the song. Since then, "Wreck of the Old 97" has been recorded by numerous artists, including Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Hank Snow. The Texas alt-country band Old 97's took their name from this song and it is now a bluegrass standard.
After the “Wreck”
The initial success of Dalhart’s “The Wreck of the Old 97” prompted Okeh to release more records of Whitter in 1924. Whitter bought a Model-T Ford with his royalty money and his regional fame prompted others that knew him like Kelly Harrell and Earnest Stoneman, who figured he could sing better than Whitter, to pursue recording careers. Probably at Peer’s urgingWhitter formed a string band (like John Carson had done for Peer) named the Virginia Breakdowners with James Sutphin- Fiddle and John Rector-banjo. Their July 1924 recording also lead to a recording in 1925 with John Rector’s other band- “The Hill Billies.”
Whitter also recorded three noteworthy sessions backing other singers. The first was with Roba Stanley in 1924. He played guitar and harmonica in her second and last recording session. He also backed his friend Kelly Harrell in several sessions since Kelly sang but did not play an instrument. The last session was with Fisher Hendley in 1930.
Whitter’s most popular instrumental harmonica was his show-stopping “Fox Chase” recorded under a variety of names for Okeh and Victor. He recorded it for Broadway-Paramont in Chicago in August 1926. Henry also did sessions with fiddler Joe Samuels in New York in 1926. When Peer moved to Victor Whitter naturally followed him and recorded three solo sessions. He recorded two harmonica solos for Ralph Peer at Victor’s famous Bristol Sessions on Aug. 2, 1927. Then he recorded again in Atlanta in 1928 and Memphis in 1929 for Peer.
Whitter was also one of the first country performers to use a harmonica rack, allowing him to play guitar and harmonica simultaneously. Though he isn’t considered a particularly distinguished guitarist or singer, the important early songs he contributed to the country music tradition as well as his fruitful partnership with fiddler G.B. Grayson that started in 1927 secured his Country Music legacy.
G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter: In 1927, at a fiddlers convention in Mountain City Tennessee, Henry Whitter met his recording partner Gilliam Banmon Grayson “G.B.” Grayson, who played fiddle previously with Clarence “Tom” Ashley. Born in 1887 and raised in the secluded northwest corner of Ashe County, he suffered blindness from an early age. Known professionally as G.B. Grayson, he was usually called Banmon by friends and family. He came from a respected family including an uncle, Major James Grayson, who organized volunteer regiments of Union sympathizers from North Carolina and Tennessee during the Civil War and led the 'Mountain Yankees' in battle against the Confederacy. Banmon Grayson's career options were limited by his blindness, but he was able to soak up the rich musical heritage of the Lost Provinces. As a young man he moved to adjacent Johnson County, Tennessee, and settled in the town of Laurel Bloomery, earning a meagre living by fiddling and singing on street corners, at parties, tent shows and social events.
Whitter recognized in Grayson a superior talent, and suggested a partnership that might benefit them both. By the fall of 1927, Whitter had arranged recording dates with both Gennett in New York City (early October) and Victor (October 18) in Atlanta, sessions that introduced Grayson's expressive singing and fiddling to a wider audience, with Whitter providing guitar backup and occasional vocal interjections. More sessions followed, and over a three-year period Grayson and Whitter recorded nearly 40 songs.
They toured the coalfields of West Virginia together. The seven sessions of recordings Whitter and fiddler G.B. Grayson (Gilliam Banmon Grayson, 1888-1930) made from 1927 to 1929 are considered among the best of the hillbilly genre. Recently bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley paid tribute to them by recording an entire CD of their songs. G.B. Grayson, hailed from Johnson Tennessee and was related to Sheriff Grayson a central figure in their 1929 ballad, “Tom Dooley.” The song became a huge number one hit for the Kingston Trio in 1958 and helped spark the folk revival of the 1960’s. Other important songs that they recorded that have become country and bluegrass standards are "The Banks of the Ohio," “Little Maggie,” "Train 45," and "Handsome Molly," which was recorded and popularized by the Rolling Stones.
The last session with Grayson was Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1929 for Victor in Memphis right before the Depression hit in late October. After his partner Grayson was killed in an auto accident in August 16, 1930, Whitter, although grieving for his playing partner, kept an agreement to play guitar on two sessions for Victor in Memphis, Tennessee with Marshall Small and banjoist Fischer Hendley of Fischer Hendley and His Aristocratic Pigs. Some of the selections recorded were “Girl With The Waterfall” “A Pretty Gal’s Love,” and “Will The Roses Bloom In Heaven/Shuffle Feet Shuffle.”
Grayson’s death as well as the Great depression seemed to have a profound effect on Whitter who stopped recording and rarely performed for the remainder of his life. He died of diabetes in Morgantown NC in 1941.
Henry Whitter Solo Recordings (some with Fiddler Joe Samuels) March, 1923- October 1929: A Woman’s Tongue Has No End; Broken Engagement Blues; Burglar Man; Butcher Boy; Chicken You Better Go Behind The Barn; Clouds Gwine Roll Away; Dollar and The Devil; Double Headed Team; Drunkard’s Child; Ellen Smith; Explosion at Eccles, WV; Farewell To Thee; George Collins; Fox Chase; Go Bury Me Beneath The Willow; Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad; Goin’ Down To Jordan To Be Baptized; Goodbyre Old Booze; Hand Me Down My Walking Cane; Heart Of Old Galax; I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again; Kaiser and Uncle Sam; Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy; Little Brown Jug; Liza Jane; Lonesome Road Blues; Long Tongued Woman; Lost Girl Of West Virginia; Lost John; Lost Train Blues; Love Me While I’m Living; Many Times with You I Wandered; My Darling’s Black Mustache; New River Train; Old Gray Mare; Old Time Fox Chase (Henry Whitter's Fox Chase); Peek-a-boo; Poor Lost Boy; Put My Little Shoes Away; Rabbit Race; Rain Crow Bill Blues (harmonica); She’s Coming Round The Mountain; Show Me The Way To Go Home; Snow Storm; Story By The Moonlight; Sydney Allen; There Was an Old Tramp; Tippy Two Step Blues; Train Blues; Traveling Man; Weeping Blues (harmonica); Hop Out Ladies & Shortenin’ Bread; Weeping Willow Tree; Watermelon Hanging On The Vine; Where Have You Been Son Long?; Western Country; Wreck of the Southern Old 97;
Henry Whitter’s Virginia Breakdowners (James Sutphin- Fiddle; John Rector-banjo) July 1924: Black-Eyed Susan;Jenny Lind Polka; Mississippi Sawyer; Nellie Gray;Round Town Girl; Sourwood Mountain;
Grayson and Whitter Recordings (Gennett/Victor) Oct. 1927-Oct. 1929: Banks of the Ohio; Barnyard Serenade (Cacklin' Hen); Cluck Old Hen; Coal Creek Mines; Coo Coo [Bird] (My Mind Is To Marry); Dark Road Is Hard To Travel; Don't Go Out Tonight My Darling; Drunkard's Doom (I Saw a Man At the Close of Day); Handsome Molly; He’s Coming to Us Dead; I Have Lost You Darling; True Love; I Saw A Man at the Close of Day; I Have Lost You; I’ll Never Be Yours; I Saw A Man At The Close Of Day; I’ve Always Been A Rambler; John Henry; Joking Henry; Lee Highway Blues (Going Down The Lee Highway); Little Maggie With A Dram Glass In Her Hand; Maggie Walker Blues (Girl I Left Behind); Mine is For Mary; Never Be As Fast As I Have Been; Nine-Pound Hammer; Nobody's Darling on Earth (Nobody's Darling); Old Jimmy Sutton; Ommie Wise; On the Banks of the Old Tennessee; Red Or Green; Red and Green Signal Lights; Rose Conley; Sally Gooden; She’s Mine All Mine; Short Life of Trouble; Shout Lula; Sweet Rosie O'Grady; There’s A Man Going ‘Round Takin’ Names; Tom Dooley; Train 45; What You Gonna Do With the Baby?; Where Are You Going, Alice?; You’ll Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone;
Hendley, Whitter, and Small (Victor) Nov. 1930: A Pretty Gal’s Love; Another Man’s Wife; Girl With The Waterfall; Mah Yaller Gal; Possum Hunt; Will The Roses Bloom In Heaven/Shuffle Feet Shuffle; Tar And Feathers;