On the Left Column is a list some of the most important categories and artists in Country Music, starting with my Country Music Timeline. Also included on the left Column are biographies of A & R men like Ralph Peer and Frank Walker and many the leading stars of early Country Music.
Biographies of important Country Music artists on the Left Column are arranged in chronological order by the date of the first recording. There are more biographies for individuals in the string bands underneath. Under Uncle Dave Macon you'll find bios for Sid Harkreader and Sam and Kirk McGee. Under some groups like the Carter Family you'll find an extensive complete list of all their songs and the origins of their songs. Eventually I'll add other artists song origins.
See my new columns with research, biographies, reviews, books and articles: Roots articles, Roots books, and Collectors. Hope you like it!
Roots of Bluegrass Music:
Early Country Music
Richard L. Matteson Jr.
Country Music: Definitions, Biographies and Origin
Country Music (Country and Western) is an American style of popular musicassociated with the rural, agrarian southern United States or with the music of cowboys in the west. Country music was originally (1922-1924) called “old timey” (old-time), “old familiar tunes,” “hill country tunes,” “mountain” music or “songs of the hills and the plains.” In 1925 country music began to be called hillbilly music as in “originating in mountainous regions of southern US.” The word “country” didn’t become the standard term until the mid-1940s when (lead by Ernest Tubb) it began being called “Country and Western” and eventually this was shortened to “Country.” The music spans a wide variety of styles and is usually played on guitar and other stringed instruments.
The Early “String Band” and “Cowboy” Years (1922-1933) span the time period of the first commercial recordings made in the early 1920’s until the early 1930s and encompasses the major politic and economic event of the 1929 Depression. Early Country ends with the beginning of Western Swing before the honky-tonk style which was firmly entrenched until after the death of “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams in 1953. A new phase of Country began with the birth of rock n’ roll and Elvis (starting in the late 40s but 1954 seems to be the accepted date) in the mid-1950s, which is the end of the radio era.
The Western Swing and Honky-Tonk Years span the years 1933-1950. These years includes the Opry Stars like Roy Acuff and Red Foley, honky-tonk stars like Earnest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Eddy Arnold and the Western Swing bands of Light Crust Doughboys, then Milton Brown and Bob Wills.
I’ve selected 29 of the most important Country-recording artists, however, several of the groups have additional biographies bringing the total to 43 with 5 additional record company bios found in this section. Most of the important songs and performers are included in the Country Music Timeline. The number of Country Music recordings between 1922 and 1942 (World War II) is a staggering 20,000 according to Guthrie Meade’s book “Country Music Sources” with around 11,400 different pieces.
I’ve tried to feature the most important artists and most influential songs with more emphasis on the genesis from 1922-1929, hence the inclusion of Ernest Thompson and Roba Stanley, two obscure figures in a luminous history whose impact was certainly minimal. Roots is arranged chronologically by the first recording dates; for example Henry Whitter recorded before Fiddlin’ John Carson even though his first recordings weren’t released- Whitter still recorded first. Vernon Dalhart, a recording artist since 1916, made his first Country record for Edison in 1924. Although I’ve tried to get the ferret the facts, this is not a scholarly work and is not footnoted. When practical I’ve listed sources, but some quoted material may appear without credit. Any unauthorized use of copyrighted material is unintentional.
The Beginning of Country Music
Many people believe that country music began on August 1, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee when Ralph Peer signed Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to recording contracts for Victor Records. This simply isn’t true. Country Music was in full swing by 1927, one of the biggest country hits of the first twenty-five years, “The Prisoner’s Song,” was recorded in 1924. Although Rodgers as well as The Carters would make a significant impacts on country music in the late 20’s and 30’s they were just two of hundreds of country artists who recorded in the 1920s.
Stated simply- Country Music began when “country” artists began making commercial recordings and began performing on commercial radio. The first such recording after the advent of radio was Eck Robertson in 1922 followed by Henry Whitter and Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1923. [Some historians like Tony Russell include the Vaughan Quartet gospel discs (Vaughan 300 series) as the first Country recordings which were issued on their own custom-made label in 1921.] Certainly it was the combination of radio and recordings as well as a distinct defined genre (old-time/hillbilly music and western “cowboy” music) that was the nucleus of creation in the 1920s.
The song that started it all- Sally Goodin with fiddler Eck Robertson:
Painting by Richard L. Matteson Jr.
The 1923 recordings for Okeh (Henry Whitter’s “The Wreck of The Old Southern 97” and Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane”) laid the groundwork for the future public clamor. The whole disenfranchised region in the south needed music that they could identify with; it was the music of their parents- the music that was passed down through the generations. It was music made by country folk, who worked in mills or farms, for country folk. This was the appeal of the early “hillbilly” recordings. Although the word, hillbilly (or hill billie) has been used both pejoratively and humorously in American print since the 1900 it was never applied as a music genre until 1925.
What the recording industry wasn’t prepared for was the enormous commercial and popular success of “hillbilly” songs. Ralph Peer with Okeh and later Victor and Frank Walker with Columbia were searching for ways to compete onslaught of commercial radio stations. Radio was already cutting into their profits by early 1920s. After Peer’s hit with a blues song on a newly created “race” division, he was looking for new material. When Peer recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” which sold over 500,000 units, the rush to record country artists was on. Then in 1924 one record, “The Wreck of the Old 97” with “The Prisoner’s Song” on the B side, would change everything. “The Prisoner’s Song” alone would go on to reportedly sell over 20 million copies and hillbilly music would be a dynamic force in the recording industry.
To solidify the genre’s name, Peer in 1925 christened a popular band (Al Hopkin’s Buckle Busters), The Hill Billies. When Peer began calling his Country artists “hillbilly,” the name stuck. Victor also discovered a new form of hillbilly music in Carl T. Sprague a ranch hand, veteran cavalryman and Texas A&M athletics coach. They recorded Sprague’s traditional cowboy ballads in mid-1925. The Western could now be applied to the Country.
Carl T. Sprague
Western culture and cowboys had always fascinated Americans and much of the world. The musical heritage of the west is a long and rich one. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show touted one of the first western bands, Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band, which was organized and directed by William Sweeney in 1883. By 1895 Powder River Jack and Kitty Lee performed “cowboy songs” at the show. In 1910 John Lomax published “Cowboys Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.” Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Band formed in 1918 merged with Billy McGinty’s troupe and became a major vaudeville attraction. Gray and Gene Aurty would play roles in Country’s western recording revolution.
Songs that would qualify as Country had been recorded earlier. Certainly Billy Golden could qualify as the first Country Music recording artist. Golden recorded “Turkey in the Straw” in 1896 and then the bluegrass standard “Roll on de Ground” in 1899. His performances were in a similar vein to those of future Grand Ole Opry star, Dave Macon. The “Arkansas Traveler” from 1901 by Len Spencer on Ed 8202 was a hit and stayed in the Columbia catalogue for years. Silas Leachman recorded “Turkey in the Straw” and then “Bake That Chicken Pie” by Collins and Harlan on Vi 5116 was a hit in 1907. “They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dawg Around” by Byron Harding certainly resembles a song that would be a hit for John Carson in the 1920s.
There were hundreds of songs (see Early Country Timeline) that were recorded before 1922 that would become standards of the early country repertoire. Some were very successful like Alma Gluck's 1915 song "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" recorded for Victor which reportedly sold over one million copies.
Besides the early recordings of “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw,” there were some country fiddle recordings made by country fiddlers. To say that old-time fiddler Eck Robertson was the first “country musician” to record commercial sides (Victor on June 30, 1922) is not correct. Charles Ross Taggart (1871- 1953), an American comedian and folklorist who appeared all over the Eastern U.S. as "The Man From Vermont" and "The Old Country Fiddler" from the mid-1890's to the mid-1930's, recorded two songs with Victor; "Rural monologue with violin specialty," and “Violin Mimicry” Victor 17700 in 1914. Another country fiddler Don Richardson, born in Kentucky in 1898, recorded “Arkansas Traveler” on Columbia A2140 in 1915. Eck Robertson stature as a great fiddler isn’t the reason he made the first country recording. Robertson simply was the first country musician to record after the onset of radio in 1922.
Clearly radio was the other commercial force that began the country music “revolution” in the 1920s. One of the first radio stations to feature the emerging music was WSB in Atlanta, which began broadcasting March 16, 1922. Much of the programming on early country stations centered on live performances. There were no DJs and Country Top 40 back then. Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance (later called the National Barn Dance) began in 1924. The Grand Ole Opry, a Nashville offshoot, started broadcasting in 1925. Country musicians would travel to play at dances, fairs and fiddle contests and promote their performances on local radio shows that were popping up all over the South. Radio dominated commercial Country Music during the depression, most people didn’t have money for records but they could listen to the radio.
The name, Country Music, didn’t become established until the mid-40s when it was usually called “Country and Western Music.” The definition of who was a “Country Music” artist and who wasn’t is certainly confusing and arbitrary. Visibility on certain country radio stations or recordings on Country labels are the determining factors.
Consider one of Country Music’s biggest stars; his first role was in Giacomo Puccini's opera Girl of the Golden West; following this he played the part of Ralph Rackstraw in a production of HMS Pinafore. He also played the part of Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly. His name: Vernon Dalhart, a man who sold more country recordings than any other early recording artist. His versions of “The Prisoner’s Song” and the “Wreck of the Old 97” paved the way for the coming onslaught of future “country” hits.
It was the guitar in particular that can be credited with the beginning of early country music. The increased availability of the guitar in the 1890s lead to the development of classic string band (guitar, fiddle, banjo and eventually stand up bass) in the 1900s. The guitar was to the string bands in the 1920s what the banjo was to the Minstrel bands of the 1840’s. Although jug bands were popular around 1910, it wasn’t until the early 1920’s that white string bands flourished. It was the guitar and the string band that ultimately ushered in a new style of music- what we know today as “Country Music.”
My Role in Country Music
I began singing, played guitar and bass with a number of Country bands in the 1980s. At this time I also formed a bluegrass duo with Derrick Phillips. My current bluegrass band, The Bluegrass Messengers was formed with my talented students in 1995 in Winston-Salem, NC. Talented members have included Debbie Gitlan (award winning fiddler); Rex McGee (banjo); Martha Bassett (vocals & guitar) and Sally Spring (vocal) & Ted Lyons (mandolin). Wayne Hauser (banjo) recorded with famed fiddler Clark Kessinger. Several of my talented students are winning prizes and performing including Edward Dalton (guitar), Justin Swaim (banjo, guitar) and Daniel Habib (bass).
I’ve had several memorable performances that included Country Music Hall-of-Famers. In 1991 I shared the stage with Chet Atkins. My trio opened the show and we sang and played several songs (the segment is recorded). When I went to pick up Chet at the hotel to go play, the car trunk was packed with amps and guitars. There was no room for him to put his guitar! (He had to get a ride with other band members). I have a photo of me with Chet backstage (below) and as a tribute to him played in Nashville the next year at the Chet Atkins festival.
Chet Atkins and Richard Matteson backstage
Several years later I shared the stage with Roy Clark who was very complimentary of my playing. When Roy and I were promoting the concert we went out to my car to see a policewoman giving me a parking ticket. After recognizing Roy she tore up the ticket and got Roy’s autograph instead.
The other Country Music hall-of-famer who I played with several times is Doc Watson, a man I still consider to be a good friend although I haven’t played with Doc or talked with him in some years. Doc really sings and plays in the style of the old-time performers like Riley Puckett or Jimmie Rodgers. Doc has played on stage with my bluegrass group several times.
Chet Atkins played guitar with Bill Carlisle, Red Foley, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family and Hank Williams. Doc Watson played with Tom Ashley of the Carolina Tar Heels. So in a round about way, I have a link back to the stars of early Country Music in the 1920’s through them. And so the “circle is unbroken bye and bye.”
The most difficult challenge when writing about the 1920s is getting the facts right. I’ve corresponded with Nolan Porterman, author of the definitive Jimmie Rodgers biography and also old-time music authority Tony Russell. Archie Green was helpful in providing some details for my biographies of the Hill Billies, Haywire Mac, and the Carolina Tar Heels. He also gave me permission to use his excellent article, “Hillbilly: Source and Symbol” which I’ve quoted extensively.
Early Country Music Terms and Styles
Country music is a blend of many different styles of music. Some of the hit songs of early country music are arrangements of very old folk songs and hymn tunes that originated in England. “The Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, had his first major hit with a 12 bar blues song adapted from traditional lyrics entitled, “T For Texas,” his first Blue Yodel. The early country music stars embraced many styles of music from folk songs, to Tin-Pan Alley songs, to standard hymns. What’s interesting is that Country music has also embraced music form other lands and cultures; Hawaiian steel guitar music, Cajun music and music from South of the border (Tex-Mex).
Different branches of country emerged. Western Swing came from mixing jazz with cowboy bands; from the acoustic string band came the electric honky-tonk, from blues came Rockabilly, from old-time folk came Bluegrass. And so it went; many branches sprouting from the Country Music tree.
The 1929 Depression closed record companies and began a new phase of early country music. Gradually the acoustic “string band” sound would be replaced by a more sophisticated sound heralded by the “western swing” band of the mid-30’s. Radio became “king.” Then in the mid-1930s the B Western movies drove the western sound. By the mid-40’s bluegrass music would supplant the old wave established in the 1920’s and “classic country” honky-tonk era highlighted by Hank Williams would emerge.
The string band era starts in 1922 with Eck Robertson and ends around the time western swing and “classic country” honky-tonk styles started becoming popular in the mid-30s. Here’s a brief look at some of the important terms and styles found in early country music:
Traditional Ballads and Folk Songs- were the staple of many of the easy country music artists. Movies like “O Brother Where Are Thou” created a renewed interest in the old songs popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. Folk songs (songs with no proven author) include blues type songs, work songs, cowboy songs and ballads (songs telling a story or based on an event).
String Bands- In the late 1800’s guitars were cheaply manufactured and became popular in urban areas. Primarily used by jazz and blues musicians, guitars didn’t become popular in the rural south and west until the 1920’s. The classic string bands (guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle) developed in the 1920’s. Although some of the early Country recording artists were solo artists, the early country sound was defined by the guitar and the string band sound.
Hawaiian Steel- Steel guitars, an important part of the country sound, were originally invented and popularized in Hawaii. Legend has it that Joseph Kekuku, a Hawaiian schoolboy, discovered the sound while walking along a railroad track strumming his guitar. He picked up a bolt lying by the track and slid the metal along the strings of his guitar. Intrigued by the sound, he taught himself to play using the back of a knife blade.
Other persons who have been credited with the invention of the steel guitar include Gabriel Davion, an Indian sailor, around 1885, and James Hoa, a Hawaiian of Portuguese ancestry. Hawaiian groups were a big hit at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. From there the sound of the Hawaiian guitar spread throughout the United States. The major music publishers between 1915 and 1930 published a large number of Hawaiian guitar methods and songs.
The sound of the Hawaiian guitar was picked up and incorporated into blues and country music. There were even hillbilly string bands who took a Hawaiian name, such as Nelstone's Hawaiians, or the North Carolina Hawaiians. Frank Wilson, a NC Piedmont musician, played slide or Hawaiian guitar for the Blue Ridge Ramblers and The Hill Billies (Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters) in the 1920’s on various recordings.
The Dobro or resonator guitar was popular in many early country recordings. A regular guitar with a slide was also used. In the early 50's several players began experimenting with adding pedals which raised the pitch of a string, and in 1953, Bud Isaacs used a pedal steel guitar on the hit recording "Slowly" by Webb Pierce. The sound quickly caught on and many steel players converted to playing the “pedal steel sound." Hawaiian songs like “Aloha Oe (Farewell To Thee),” a 1916 hit by Ford's Hawaiians (Henry Kailimai leader) on Diamond Disc 5105-C, were covered by country stars like Henry Whitter and later Marty Robbins.
Hymns and Shape-Note Hymns- Most early country artists sang hymns and as country music evolved, many established artists did gospel albums. Some of the religious songs were standard hymns found in church hymnals.
Shape-Note Hymns were printed hymns that used shaped notes that were based on William Little and William Smith’s book ‘The Easy Instructor” published in 1798. Some of the main books were The Kentucky Harmony 1816, Southern Harmony, Sacred Harp and the Social Harp. Hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “Green Pastures” and “Shall We Gather at The River” are examples of shaped-note hymns.
Cowboy and Western Songs- America had long been fascinated by the west and cowboys. In 1925 Carl Sprague recorded the first (commercial country) cowboy songs. Many of the country stars yodeled and sang cowboy songs. Riley Puckett, Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart are some of the stars that made the cowboy song an important part of their repertoire. Some great acoustic songs are cowboy and western songs. They include songs like “When The Works All Done This Fall,” “Red River Valley,” “Home on the Range,” and “Streets of Laredo.”
Western films had always required some music and by the 1930’s authentic cowboy songs became part of the films. After Texas-born Ken Maynard, who sang and played fiddle, introduced the role of “singing cowboy” to the screen, Gene Autry, soon followed by Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers, inaugurated a cycle of elaborate and colorful musical westerns. The singing cowboy became a source of traditional ballads and newly composed screen songs that quickly fed back into hillbilly repertories. Besides the western songs, the influence of Mexico and the Hispanic roots found in the southwest became part of early country music. Songs like El Rancho Grande (Autry) and Cielito Lindo were part of the western genre.
Hokum- is a humorous song with comic or sexual innuendoes found in American blues and jazz music.
It originated with the blackface and other elements of the Minstrel Show. Hokum also encompassed dances like the cakewalk and the buzzard lope in skits that unfolded through spoken narrative and song. W.C. Handy, himself a veteran of a minstrel troupe, remarked that, "Our hokum hooked 'em," meaning that the low comedy snared an audience that stuck around to hear the music.
Early practitioners surfaced among the Memphis, Tennessee jug bands heard in Beale Street's saloons and bordellos. The light-hearted and humorous jug bands like Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers played good time, upbeat music on assorted instruments such as spoons, washboards, fiddles, triangles, harmonicas, and banjos, all anchored by bass notes blown across the mouth of an empty jug. Their blues was based on popular influences of jazz and ragtime and not the gritty 12 bar forms of the Delta blues. The Allen Brothers became the first country band performing mostly hokum blues.
The hokem songs crossed over to the early Country musicians and comedians and were popular in the radio "barn dances" broadcasts of the 1920s and 1930s. The first blackface comedians at the WSM Grand Old Opry were Lee Roy "Lasses" White and his partner Lee Davis "Honey" Wilds, starring in the Friday night shows. Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Stringbean and Roy Acuff toured with the Wilds' tent shows from April through Labor Day. Music was a part of their act, but they were comedians. They would sing comedic songs, a la Homer and Jethro. They would do odd lyrics to existing songs, or write songs that were intended to be comedic. They were out there to come onstage, do five minutes of jokes, sing a song, do five minutes of jokes, sing another song and say "Thank you, good night," as their segment of the Grand Ole Opry. Almost every country band during that time had some guy who dressed funny, wore a goofy hat, and typically played slide guitar.
Hokem songs were embraced by a wide variety of country stars from Tom Ashley’s “Farm Girl Blues” to The Allen Brothers “Salty Dog.” Later in the 1930s the hokem songs would be standard repertoire of the great Western Swing bands like Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies and Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.
Western Swing- This very popular style of Country Music developed in Texas and Oklahoma the 1930s and saw enormous popularity in the 40s. By World War II the term Western Swing began to be used to define the style. The style is a blend of big band, blues, Dixieland, jug band, and jazz, among others. Musically, it contributed the drums and Hawaiian Steel Guitar to Country Music. It was a Saturday night dance music that combined the style of jazz and big band swing with the culture of the Southwest. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were two of the outstanding western string band of the 1930s.
Some say “Blues in a Bottle” by Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers made in San Antonio, TX March 28, 1928 on Okeh was the first recording of Western Swing. Prince Albert Hunt recorded another session in 1929 before the Depression and was shot to death outside of a Dallas bar in March of 1931. The early cowboy bands laid the groundwork for Western Swing. In 1883 Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band was organized and directed by William Sweeney, a cornet player. In 1918 Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Band formed, merged with Billy McGinty’s troupe and became a major vaudeville attraction. Gray’s Band also recorded in the 1920s.
Event Songs- are songs about actual events. Starting with“The Wreck of the Old 97” in 1923, the first Country event hit, a new and profitable market developed which was followed by “The Titanic” and “The Death of Floyd Collins” in 1925. Many of early Country’s biggest hits were songs about events.
Earthquakes, shipwrecks, murders and railroad disasters were some of the tearful ballads dashed off quickly following any event in the 1920s. They tell such tales as that of the tragic death of Floyd Collins in his mountain cave, the sinking of the great Titanic, the Scopes trial in Tennessee, the death of Floyd Bennett and innumerable railroad wrecks.
After “The Wreck of the Shenandoah” sold over 150,000 copies record companies began to cast about for other ballads and when the supply was not available they had to find someone to turn them out to order. The new supply dealt with old or recent events but adhered to the old ballad form. Vernon Dalhart, in particular, benefited from his event recordings. His former playing partner, songwriter Carson Robison, specialized in quickly writing the ballads after an event, recording them and getting them released.
Bluegrass Songs- Bluegrass music started around 1945 with Bill Monroe’s classic band with Lester Flatt and Earl Skruggs. Many of the songs of the early Country musicians are bluegrass standards today. The bluegrass band was a development of the old-time string bands of the 1920’s that featured the three-finger banjo style and up-tempo renditions. Called “folk music on overdrive,” bluegrass places emphasis on the instrumental solo and specific roles for each member of the string band. Bluegrass music is considered to be a branch of country music.
Blues Songs- There were many songs called blues songs that were not in the standard twelve-bar form. Some were eight bars, some were called blues but were 16 measure songs and others were mountain blues performed mainly by white musicians. Songs like “Worried Man Blues” or “Cannonball Blues” are non-standard type blues songs.
Hillbilly- On April 23, 1900 an article appeared in The NY Journal which defined the word, hillbilly: “A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires of his revolver as the fancy takes him.”
It would take “Country Music” over twenty-five years to shake the “Hillbilly” association once it stuck at recording session 1925. Ralph Peer asked bandleader Al Hopkins (1889-1932) what he should call the his group, and got the response “We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia; call us anything.” It was Peer who came up with the name “Hill Billies,” a name that would categorize early country music and it’s musicians.
In response, several key figures began to fabricate a stereotypical image of the “hillbilly” that is still with us today. George Hay, creator of the Grand Ole Opry, recast many of that show's early stars in a “hillbilly” mold in the late 1920s. Under Hay, Dr. Bate & his Augmented Orchestra was renamed The Possum Hunters, while the Binkley Brothers became The Dixie Clodhoppers. Opry stars who had previously performed in suits and ties, as most country performers of the period did, were instead made to appear in straw hats and patched overalls, preferably toting a jug. But despite the costuming, Hay’s stars were largely authentic country-style musicians, many of whom worked in Southern cities or towns.
Twelve Bar Blues- The standard blues form was developed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s from songs like Alabama Bound and Careless Love (Loveless Love). The twelve bar form uses one lyric line and echo (repeating the first line) and an answering line that rhymes with the first lines. Some of the early blues songs composed/arranged by WC Handy (like “ St. Louis Blues”) are songs with standard 12 bar blues sections as the main part of the song. Other early blues songs like Easy Rider, Corinna, Corinna, and Step It Up and Go adhere to the traditional 12 bar blues pattern.
Minstrel Songs- Minstrel music was developed in the late 1830s with the advent of the five-string banjo by Joel Sweeney of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. This new form of music became very popular as the performers, usually working usually in small groups, went from town to town or traveled with the circus. In 1843, Dan Emmetts "Virginia Minstrels" performed the first minstrel show with banjo, fiddle, bones, and tambourine. Examples of these songs are Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races, Buffalo Gals, Jim Crack Corn, Angelina Baker, and Beautiful Dreamer.
Medicine Show- The traveling medicine shows brought entertainment to America in 1900s. Flamboyant pitch doctors roamed the land, hawking their tonics, elixirs, and miracle cures, and with them came a host of singers, dancers, comedians, banjo pickers, blues shouters, jug blowers, string ticklers, and minstrel men. The shows died out by mid-20th century, but not before a handful of seasoned veterans left their musical legacy on phonograph records. Many of the early Country performers featured in this book like Tom Ashley (see: Carolina Tar Heels) and Gene Autry, provided entertainment for the shows.
Vaudeville- troupes were popular in the U.S. from 1890’s to 1930s and early 20th centuries. They consisted of different, often unrelated, acts featuring musicians magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, singers, and dancers. By 1900 chains of vaudeville theatres around the country included Martin Beck's Orpheum Circuit, of which New York's Palace Theatre was the most famous (1913 – 32). Jimmy Rodgers played the Orpheum Circuit and Otto Gary and His Cowboy Band toured the vaudeville circuits in the northeast. Many of the popular Country Musicians like Uncle Dave Macon formed small vaudeville acts for their road shows usually featuring a blackface comedian and buckdancers.
Old-time Songs- The word, “old-time,” is generally applied to songs that were popular between 1890 and 1930. Old-time was used to describe Country Music by some record companies. The Georgia Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention, held in Atlanta starting in 1913, featured the old fiddle standards and songs.
Old-time Gospel- The old-time country string bands played both gospel and secular songs. Old-time gospel music may be spirituals or folk hymns, which are usually traditional and not printed in hymnals. Examples are “Gimme that Old-Time Religion” and “Do Lord.” Southern Gospel is the same style but usually is composed.
Jazz and Dixieland Jazz- Dixieland jazz usually identified by brass developed in New Orleans in the early 1900’s and eventually spread to other cities like Chicago and New York City and was quite popular among the general public. The term Dixieland became widely used after the advent of the first million-selling hit records of the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917. The music has been played continuously since the early part of the 20th century. Louis Armstrong's All-Stars was the band most popularly identified with Dixieland. Some songs are: At a Georgia Camp Meeting; St Louis Blues; Down By the Riverside; When The Saints; Bill Bailey and Frankie and Johnny.
Popular Standards From Late 1800 and early 1900’s- The popular songs were the staple of many of the acoustic recording artists of the 1920’s and 1930’s like the Carter Family and Vernon Dalhart. Song in this book include: The Band Played On; Bird in a Gilded Cage; In the Good Old Summertime; Shine On Harvest Moon and By the Beautiful Sea.
Old-Time Country- refers to the early country music recording artists like Fiddlin’ John Carson; Uncle Dave Macon, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers; Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The early recordings were done in the 1920’s and are covered by country artists today. Songs include; Ain’t No Bugs on Me; Cat Came Back; She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain; and Don’t Get Trouble in your Mind.
Tin-Pan Alley Songs- are the name given songs that were published in New York City music houses starting circa 1885. Many of the most popular songs came from Tin-Pan Alley writers like Harry Von Tilzer. The name is attributed to a newspaper writer named Monroe Rosenfeld who while staying in New York, coined the term to symbolize the cacophony of the many pianos being pounded in publisher's demo rooms which he characterized as sounding as though hundreds of people were pounding on tin pans. According to the story, he used the term in a series of articles he wrote around the turn of the century (20th) and it caught on. Songs include Alabama Jubilee; Take Me Out to the Ballgame and At A Georgia Camp Meeting.
Jug Band Songs- The origins of jug bands can be traced to Louisville, Kentucky around the turn of the century. The early jug bands played a mixture of early jazz, country and pop that had its roots in ragtime. By 1910 there were several jug bands in Louisville, usually consisting of a jug, fiddle, banjo and sometimes a mandolin or guitar. One of the first jug bands to be recorded was Earl McDonalds Dixieland Jug Blowers in the early 1920s. The Memphis Jug Band and Canon’s Jug Stompers were two other early popular bands. Tear It Down; Ragged But Right;
Honky-Tonk- Al Dexter’s 1936 song, “Honky Tonk Blues,” is said to be the first Country honky-tonk song. Dexter told writer Nick Tosches that he’d never even heard the phrase honky-tonk before 1936, when a buddy defined it for him as “those beer joints up and down the road where the girls jump in cars.”
In the mid-40s and 50’s honky-tonk would become a style and catch-phrase for a Country tavern or saloon. Honky-tonk country usually has stand-up bass or electric bass (most string bands had no bass) and eventually featured electric guitar. When the Texan Ernest Tubb, the first famous honky-tonker, revolutionized country music by hiring an electric guitarist, his motive wasn’t aesthetic; Tubb simply wanted to be heard inside a honky-tonk.
Copyrighted Songs and Songwriting- With the popularity of early country music recordings in the 1920’s, many folk songs were copyrighted. Many groups simply arranged existing songs and claimed ownership of the song. Big money could be made from the royalties of a hit song and record producers like Ralph Peer made more money from royalties than a salary from the company. A typical example is the now popular song, Man of Constant Sorrow, was claimed to have been written by Richard Burnett and appeared in his 1913 book but was also claimed by Emry Arthur, who first recorded the song in 1928. After “The Wreck of the Old 97” sold over one million units there was a disagreement over the ownership of the song which was eventually settled in court in 1931.
A.P. Carter and Leslie Riddle would scour the countryside searching for new songs. Many of the songs the Carter Family recorded were arrangements of existing songs. They would receive royalties along with the copyright holder Ralph Peer who would receive the majority of the royalties. The rights to a song could be sold. Eventually Henry Whitter sold his rights to “Wreck of the Old 97” for $200 which was a lot of money back then. Other musicians like Charlie Poole, who recorded for Columbia, never received any royalties for his hit song “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues.” He only received around $22 for a song that sold over 102,000 units and was the first big Country hit for Columbia.
Song writing became more and more important for country artists in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. There was less emphasis on ballads and traditional songs and more original songs. Still, most early country musicians played some older songs and traditional songs. Bluegrass music especially was a branch of Country Music that relied heavily on old-time songs, old gospel songs, and traditional songs.