Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol, Part Two
The story begins, then, in Okeh's New York office, but this is like tagging a link in a continuous chain. More properly it has at least five separate place of beginning: an Atlanta fiddler's convention; a Fries, Virginia, textile mill; a Gap Creek, North Carolina, mountain farm; a Galax, Virginia, barber shop; and curiously, a Times Square motion picture theater. In the period June, 1923-January, 1925, Ralph Peer was the director who brought a company of actors together from their various locales and who integrated their skills in a new drama. He welded isolates into a movement in the sense that the hillbilly record industry achieved an esthetic unity like other movements in art and letters. Alternative captions for Peer's achievements – genre, idiom, tradition – have been used to separate hillbilly music from other forms. He and his colleagues thought of themselves only as businessmen selling a new product – native white folksong freshly recorded and packaged – to a buying audience from whom the music had originally come. It took eighteen months to season Peer's creation and another two years, January, 1925-December, 1926, to given it a broadly accepted public name. There was no single day in this forty-two month continuum when a given person broke a champagne bottle and launched the vessell Hillbilly Music.
Actually, students of Americana know that comic derivatives and "concert improvements" of folksong, as well as some traditional folk music, were available on cylinder or disc in the 1890's. An exhausive survey of the pre-race and hillbilly recorded corpus is badly needed.17 In essence, much of the material was presented by rustic monologists or black-faced comedians to brighten up the gloom in late Victorian parlors… The potpourri of rural dances, minstrel routines, laughing songs, country fiddling, and concert offerings was neither integrated nor specially categorized by the industry or public. However, it was well received. Alma Gluck's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" was the first Victor Red Seal disc to sell over a million copies and, needless to say, many of the purchasers felt they were getting a real view of plantation mores. Victor also did well with Charles Ross Taggart, a pre-World War I raconteur in the same vein as Uncle Josh from Pumpkin Center (Cal Stewart). Taggart added snatches of folk music to his routines on discs with such titles as "The Old Country Fiddler in a New York Restaurant." Then, as now, the media offered restyled vulgarized, folk-like songs as well as authentic pristine selections under a bewildering set of labels. The 1901 Columbia cylinder catalog identified the laready traditional "Arkansas Traveler" as the "description of a native sitting in front of his hut scraping his fiddle, and answering the interruptions of the stranger with witty sallies." But two decades later this same piece performed by Joseph Samuels was catalogued by Okeh as an Irish instrumental. Between 1901-1923 there existed no established category for recorded native music.
This is not the place to ask whether the camouflaged comedians and country fiddlers who first introduced folksong to record buyers were traditional or not (although it is a vital question). In this period no recording executive, or folklorist either, had any reason to ask. Such questions were formulated only after Ralph Peer and his associates opened a field, bounded it, and provided a name.
What was Peer's milieu when he recorded his first white folksinger? In 1920-21 the record industry had scored heavily with the rapid climb to popularity of race record star Mamie Smith and her followers. The general post-War economy was already sluggish, when a new competitive menace arose to challenge the medium. Radio was still a utilitarian message service during the War, but on November 2, 1920, Pittsburgh station KDKA broadcast the Harding-Cox election returns, and soon Westinghouse researcher Frank Conroad was reading newspapers and playing records over and over again from this primitive studio. New York station WEAF began selling time, and radio was on its way to big business. The record industry was directly challenged. "Almost overnight, radio sneaked into the picture and the novelty of tuning in music and static from a distance, combined with the convenience of no cranks to wind and no records to buy and change, began sending the sale of platters downward."18 Edison's progeny was in trouble in 1923.
There were many responses to depression. One was receivership; another was intense plugging of tested items; a third was involvement in the process of changing the phonograph's role from a utilitarian talking machine to a piece of home furniture; a fourth was the quest for new material and a new market. At this juncture Polk C. Brockman,19 a young and imaginative Atlanta record dealer, conceived an idea of great consequence. He had grown up in a mercantile family and had entered his grandfather's furniture store, James K. Polk, Inc., quickly taking over the phonograph department. By 1921 the firm was Okeh's largest regional outlet with particularly heavy sales of the new race records. The young Atlantan convinced Okeh executive Otto Heineman and W.S. Fuhri to give him a wholesale distributorship, and Brockman soon met Peer in New York City. Brockman's business trips to headquarters were frequent; on one such trip early in June, 1923, he found himself in the old Palace Theater on Times Square viewing a newsreel of a Virginia fiddlers' competition. Struck by a novel idea, he took out his memorandum pad and jotted down "Fiddlin' John Carson – local talent – let's record." His next step was to arrange for an Atlanta recording expedition. Brockman recalls that Peer had no particular type of talent in mind but wanted anything that might stimulate lagging sales. Both men went South via an extended Chicago detour for an Okeh dealers meeting held in conjunction with the National Music Industries annual convention. Meanwhile, Okeh engineers Charles Hibbard and Peter Decker proceeded to Atlanta with the acoustical recording equipment. Brockman rented an empty loft on Nassau Street, off Spring Street, from a suspicious landlord. With an associate, Charles Rey, he rounded up his artists – Warner's Seven Aces, a local collegiate dance band; Eddy Heywood, a Negro theater pianist; Fannie Goosby, a young blues singer; and Fiddlin' John Carson. A number of other performers – the Morehouse College Quartet; Kemper Harreld, violinist; Lucille Bogan, blues singer from Birmingham; Charles Fulcher's novelty jazz band; and Bob White's syncopating band – also recorded but, apparently, not all their material was subsequently released.
Atlanta marked Okeh's initial out-of-town expedition and the first of any major company to record traditional artists of either race in the South. There was no way for the local press, at that time, to assess the session's eventual significance. On June 12 the Atlanta Constitution radio columnist noted that the General Phonograph Company of New York was in town to record the Seven Aces – starts on the newspaper's own WGM.20 Three days later the Atlanta Journal carried a more detailed story on the event:
"Canned music" recorded by local musicians will be made for the first time in Atlanta by the Okeh company, of New York, it was announced Friday by R.S. Peer, production manager of the company, who is completing arrangements here for the recording of selections by a number of local musical organizations. About thirty recordings will be made at the laboratory of the company on Nassau street, including selections by the Morehouse college quartet of negro singers, "Fiddlin' John" Carson, the Seven Aces, and other organizations. Manufacture of the records here is made possible by a recording machine recently invented by an engineer of the Okeh company, which lowers the high cost of producing the records away from the home laboratories.21
Fiddlin' John Carson recorded on Thursday, June 14, 1923.22 Initially Peer did not respond to Carson's vocals and felt his singing to be"plu perfect awful." 23 But Brockman knew the fiddler's potential audience – the great numbers of rednecks and woolhats who had flocked into Atlanta's mills and factories since the days of the city's reconstruction. Carson was very well known to these people. He was born in 1868 on a Fannin County Blue Ridge Mountain farm and, at the age of ten, began to play his grandfather's instrument – a Stradivarius copy dated 1714, reputedly brought to the north Georgia hills from Ireland in 1780. Carson fiddled during his years as a young race horse jockey in Cobb County, and, when too large to ride, he competed at the annual Atlanta Interstate Fiddlers' Conventions. Here in the city he was able to scrap out a living with his bow between intermittent jobs as a textile hand and building trades painter. He fiddled constantly at political rallies for friends Tom Watson and Eugene Talmadge, on trolley cars and at street corners presenting topical ballads to casual audiences, at the many Civic Auditorium fiddlers' conventions, and, finally, on the then-infant radio.24
On March 16, 1922, the Atlanta Journal had established WSB with a 100-watt transmitter as the first commercial broadcasting unit in the South, and on June 13 it increased its power to 500 watts. Three months later, on September 9, Fiddlin' John Carson made his radio debut as part of a novelty program. It was several years before another old fiddler, Jimmie Thompson, inaugurated Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Carson had been preceded on WSB by a new folk performers: a Negro quartet from the federal prison in Atlanta; a north Georgia mountain quartet from Miss Berry's settlement school; the Atlanta Primitive Baptist Sacred Harp Singers; the Reverend Andrew Jenkins, a blind evangelist-newsboy and gospel singer. Other folk artists followed Fiddlin' John: Clayton McMichen, Charles and Miles Whitten, Ted and Boss Hawkins, Riley Puckett, and Lowe Stokes, who formed an old time string-band (The Hometown Boys); Dave and Andrew Hendrix, Jesse Jones, and Horace Thomas, a Negro jubilee four; Bob White, a blues-ragtime cornetist and jazz group leader. WSB's manager, Lambdin Kay, put Carson on the air in 1922 for the same reason that Brockman put him on wax in 1923, his appeal to a hitherto untapped market; yet there was no direct tie-in between WSB's pioneer country music broadcasts and Okeh's recordings of the same music. Carson's first recorded selections were "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane/The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow." When Peer expressed misgivings at the initial session in the improvised studio, Brockman offered to buy 500 "right now" – in reality, as soon as they could be pressed in New York. Peer acceded and issued the item as an uncatalogued special without a label number for local Atlanta consumption. He could not imagine a regional or national market for the disc. In fact, the first Okeh press releases on the southern session to a national trade journal featured the Morehouse College Quartet and Warner's Seven Aces. Meanwhile, in Atlanta Brockman prepared for Carson's new debut. A scant four weeks after the Nassau Street session the 500 records arrived via Railway Express. The Elks were in town for their 59th reunion and were invited to a small but festive old time fiddlers' competition in Cable Hall, 82 Broad Street. On Friday night, July 13, Carson played both recorded numbers on the Cable stage in front of a large German phonograph with a morning glory horn and did a brisk sale of his own unnumbered discs across the footlights. He was pleased. Brockman recalls the mountaineer's quip, "I'll have to quit making moonshine and start making records."
Peer's early reservations vanished when Brockman reordered Carson's record. On July 19 the Atlanta Journal commented that the fiddler's two most famous tunes were on sale at local distributors and soon they were played for WSB's appreciative audience. The uncatalogued special was now, late in July, given label number 4890, and, hence, was automatically placed in Okeh's popular series: dance bands, sacred, Hawaiian, Broadway tunes, novelties, instrumentals, standards. There was no thought of special nomenclature, nor was there any problem in classification, for Carson's disc at this time. On August 3 – a day of national mourning for President Harding – Okeh placed special release ads in both Atlanta papers for the current records of such popular best sellers as Vincent Lopez, Billy Jones, and W.C. Handy, as well as the new local favorites, Warner's Seven Aces, The Morehouse Quartet, and Fiddlin' John Carson.
Carson's entry in Okeh's catalog meant that his pieces were available in August and September beyond the Atlanta market. Early in November Brockman sent the fiddler to New York to record a dozen more selections and to place him under an exclusive Okeh contract. Peer released a second Carson disc, coupling a bathetic and a vulgar piece, "You Will Never Miss Your Mother Until She Is Gone/Papa's Billy Goat" (4994), and began to sense the outline of the coming boom. Now Peer recalled that his New York office held a test pressing of some material similar to that of the Atlanta fiddler. In the spring of 1923, Henry Whitter, a Fries, Virginia, millhand – a self-educated guitar and harmonica player – had journeyed to the city to seek fame and fortune. Somehow, he persuaded the Okeh concert and studio band director, Fred Hager, that he could do better as an entertainer than as a cotton spooler. The tests, instrumental combinations and ballads, were made, perhaps to get rid of the brash youngster, and put away on a shelf. But late in 1923 Peer sent them down to Brockman, the new country music expert, for advice. His reaction was positive and the songs, "Lonesome Road Blues/The Wreck on the Southern Old 97" (40015), were issued very early in 1924. The latter went on to make ballad we well as juridical history.
We now know that Carson sparked Okeh's hillbilly movement although Whitter preceded him by some four months as a recording artist.25 Peer had two country hit sellers on hand; Brockman began scouting for similar talent. A cornucopia opened. Okeh engineers in Atlanta found themselves listening to an array of local talent: The Jenkins Family – Blind Andy, Irene Spain, Mary Eskew – offered standard gospel numbers; Land Norris accompanied himself on the five-string banjo; J. Douglas Swagerty, the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church Choirmaster, sang hymns. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, an attorney and also an early Blue Ridge folksong collector-performer, responded to a recording session's announcement and journeyed, at his own expense, from Marion, North Carolina, to Atlanta to contribute two traditional songs. While a Georgia Sacred Harp unit sang "Wondrous Love," Fiddlin' John Carson's string-band, The Virginia Reelers, became the first group to record the social music of the area. Not to be outdone, in July, guitarist Henry Whitter took a fiddler and a five-string banjoist to Okeh's New York studio to record as The Virginia Breakdowners. Finally, during Okeh's first expedition to Dallas, Texas, in November, Chenoweth's Cornfield Symphony Orchestra appeared and the long parade of wildly exaggerated or grotesque band names – poking fun at the idiom from within – was on.
These were 1924 recordings. Peer was presenting neither gimmicks nor innovations but was seeking material to sell to conservative rural or rural-derived audiences. In these halcyon days Peer's performers could not have broken away from traditional folk style even if they had desired to do so. Within the first year following Carson's debut, Okeh presented a full sampling of folk material in straightforward style: sacred, secular, ballads, lyrics, vocal solos, instrumental combinations. These items were released initially in Okeh's 4000 pop series which gave way early in 1924 to a 40000 series. By the end of 1924, there were some forty folksongs scattered in this series and an Okeh executive felt the need for a distinctive sales category – an inclusive name that would identify this music to its audience. The June, 1924, monthly supplement distributed by dealers to announce new releases had identified A.A. Gray, Tallapoosa, Georgia, fiddler, as a Southern hill-country musician.26 The comparable December supplement identified two current discs by Carson and by Whitter as "old time tunes" played "in the real ‘old-time' way," and parallel to other headings – Dance, Vocal, Irish – it listed "Old Time Tune" Records. (Brochures for July through November are not presently available to me; hence the precise selection date for the new title is unknown.) Okeh had previously pioneered by selecting the name race records for its Negro 8000 series; now it had an old time group within its 40000 series. By January, 1925, a little six-page, accordion-fold brochure was printed with the title "Old Time Tune" Records (equivalent to Foreign Language and Race Records special catalogs). By May, 1925, the ninety-two-page Okeh Complete Catalog carried an Old Time Tunes section and this name was used in subsequent publicity material for many years. The qualifying combination, old time, probably had been connected to music in the context of a southern fiddlers' convention or religious revival meeting, since both functions made extensive use of traditional folksong.27
It is interesting to speculate on what chance the new modifier had as the overall name for the genre. In retrospect, it had very little chance, for the February, 1925, Okeh supplement announced a new release, "Silly Bill/Old Time Cinda" (40294), by The Hill Billies. The second "Old Time" Tunes special catalog followed in April and added another disc by the group, "Cripple Creek/Sally Ann" (40336). The provocative copy read:
Hear, folks, the music of the Hill Billies! These rollicking melodies will quicken the memory of the tunes of yesterday. The heart beats time to them while the feet move with the desire to cut a lively shine. These here mountaineers sure have a way of fetching music out of the banjo, fiddle, and guitar that surprises listeners, old and young, into feeling skittish. Theirs is a spirited entertainment and one you will warm to.
The Talking Machine World (April 15, 1925) printed a life-like pen and ink drawing of The Hillbillies. The sketch was soon reproduced in Okeh's May supplement alongside photos of dance band leader Vincent Lopez and Negro monologist Shelton Brooks. How then did the noun hillbilly find its way onto the labels of two Okeh discs released early in 1925 and into consequent printed media? The answer involves a southern string-band whose members came from Watauga County, North Carolina, and Grayson-Carroll Counties, Virginia. These two areas are well known to folklorists for the richness of their tradition. They come close to being the scholar's ideal and idealized "singing community."28 These three counties, significantly, nurtured the skills of the band members who were destined to name their region's music.
John Benjamin Hopkins, farmer, house-builder, and North Carolina state legislator, like many of his Watauga County neighbors knew the songs and fiddle tunes prevalent in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His wife, Celia Isabel Green Hopkins, knew the old ballads and church music as well as her husband's repertoire. After their marriage in 1878, they reared a large family of boys and girls, all with musical talent. In 1904 the elder Hopkins moved the brood to Washington, D.C., where he found employment in the Census Bureau. His hobby was organ building, and he taught several of his boys piano and organ tuning. Seemingly, they taught themselves to play any available instruments. In 1910 Al, Joe, Elmer, and John – ages twenty-one through eleven – formed an Old Mohawk Quartet and began entertaining in Washington's Majestic Theater. Music was to remain Al's main concern for the rest of his life.
About 1912 Mr. Hopkins built a large family house at 63 Kennedy Street in Washington's then open-field Northwest section. In the hot summers Mrs. Hopkins took the younger children back to their Gap Creek home farm. Daughter Lucy, until her recent retirement a Washington public school music teacher, recalls a variety of fiddle tunes, hymns, old ballads, and pop songs from both homes. In the early 1920's the eldest son, Jacob, had established a country hospital-clinic in Galax, Virginia. Many anecdotes cluster about his early use of musical therapy – bringing local banjo players into the hospital to cheer his patients. Doctor Hopkins was renowned and active as a surgeon and musician. As his practice grew, he brought his brother Al down from Washington to act as hospital office manager and secretary. Meanwhile, brother Joe, a Railway Express agent at White Top Gap, Virginia, had become an itinerant guitarist between regular jobs. He, too, gravitated towards his brother's office on his "bustin" trips.
On a Monday morning in the late spring of 1924, Joe found himself in a Galax barber shop where one of the young journeyman, Alonzo Elvis "Tony" Alderman, kept a fiddle on the wall. The guitarist and fiddler became friends at once, formed a duet on the spot, and began to make music. Tony cut no hair that week. On Saturday Al came for a shave – and for his brother – and joined in the harmony. Word of the new trio reached John Rector, a Fries general store keeper and five-string banjo player of local renown. In fact John had just recently returned from New York City where he, Henry Whitter, and James Sutphin had made three string-band records for Okeh as The Virginia Breakdowners. There seemed to be a great deal of competition among the Grayson-Carroll musicians. Rector felt that the Alderman-Hopkins' talent and his banjo could outshine the Breakdowners. Since he was looking for an opportunity to make the exciting New York trip to stock up on fall merchandise, he asked Al, Tony, and Joe if they wanted to record.
The boys were agreeable, for they preferred music to their respective trades. Tony's musical skill was considerable. As a lad he had played the trumpet in his father's Dixie Concert (brass) Band. From his many uncles and a particular family friend, Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman, he had learned to fiddle at mountain dances. Tony's memory of the summer New York trip is both clear and amusing. It took three days in Al's 1921 model T Ford to reach the city where Rector had arranged a session with Clifford Cairns, Victor A & R (Artist and Repertoire) man.29 In the studio Joe, John, and Tony used guitar, banjo, and fiddle while Al took vocal leads as well as acting as the group's leader. Also he turned the piano into a country music instrument – a precedent infrequently followed by subsequent string-bands. Good techniques for recording mountain string-bands were not yet perfected in 1924. The music was still relatively unknown in the industry; there were problems in balance and placement. Tony recalls the scene:
We played in front of a big horn, banjo ten feet back in the corner. I was fiddling like made on a fiddle with a horn on it which I couldn't hear. John Rector couldn't hear me either, and no one could hear the guitar. Nobody could hear anybody else, to tell the truth. Victor played the record back to us and my father could have done better on his own Edison! (No reflection on Victor; it was us.) So we went home a little sad and ashamed that we had not done better.30
Fortunately, the quartet was not daunted by its failure. In January, 1925, they planned a trip to the Okeh studio – this time in Rector's new Dodge. The weather was cold; hence they improvised a hot brick heater for the journey. To break the long trip from Galax north, they descended on the Hopkins family residence in Washington for shelter. Mr. Hopkins asked his two sons and their mountain companions, "What d'you hillbillies think you'll do up there?" His paternal jibe was to prove effective. In the city, having learned from their previous failure with Victor, the band members were in good form. Ralph Peer supervised the session and recorded six pieces. At the end of the last number Peer asked for the group's name. Al was unprepared. They had no name and he searched for words. "We're nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. Call us anything." Peer, responding at once to the humorous image, turned to his secretary and told her to list The Hill Billies on her ledger slips for the six selections.31 The recording-christening date was January 15, 1925; labels, as well as dealer release sheets, were soon printed and by February the first disc with the new band name was on the market.32
Meanwhile, en route home the boys had qualms about their choice. Tony seemed particularly sensitive: "Hillbilly was not only a funny word; it was a fighting word." Although he had grown up in an isolated log cabin at River Hill, ten miles southwest of Galax, he was in no sense backwoodsy or backwards. His father, Walter, was a self-educated surveyor and civil engineer, a justice of the peace, and a man of literary and musical skill. Tony felt that his family might be critical of the undignified name selected up North and half wished that he could reach Peer to alter the band's name.
But back in Galax the boys encountered an old friend who was to tip the scale in favor of the new name. "Pop" Stoneman had already journeyed north on September 1, 1924, to record for Okeh "The Ship That Never Returned/The Titanic" (40288). He, too, like Rector, had felt that he could improve on Whitter. Stoneman's first record was not yet released at the time of The Hill Billies' Okeh session. Naturally he was most curious about their luck with Peer. In response to his query, they reported success and the christening. "Pop" laughed until tears came to his eyes. "Well, boys, you have come up with a good one. Nobody could beat it."33
Following the New York success the band put on its first live show in a Carroll County high school under its Peer-selected name. Dr. Hopkins had died earlier on the July 26, 1924, and there was no incentive for Al to stay in Galax. He now turned his father's Washington home into band headquarters, and following the release of their initial record the boys began a heavy schedule of personal appearances in nearby states, as well as radio work in the capitol city. About March 1925, as The Hill Billies, they made their broadcast debut on WRC with the theme song, "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad." Al's mother frequently accompanied her boys to the station and joined in singing the old ballads that were interspersed between the breakdown instrumentals and humorous skits. Fan mail began to come in addressed to The Hill Billies. Simultaneously, record buyers and radio listeners responded to the new association, hillbilly music.
The full story of the band that named the music is reserved for a separate paper. A few events, however, are salient to this account. On May 8, 1925, the Mountain City, Tennessee, Ku Klux Klan sponsored a tremendous fiddlers' convention,34 and, among others, invited The Hill Billies, having heard them on WRC broadcasts. At the gathering Charlie Bowman, a young country fiddler from Gray Station, near Johnson City, Tennessee, joined the band. He was the first of many newcomers to augment the original group's rank. Not only did he contribute his fine talent and humor at that time, but in later years he was to convey much of the band's story to discographers and folklorists.35 Following Mountain City a heavy schedule of personal appearances from South Carolina to New York commenced – at schools, vaudeville shows, fiddlers' competitions, political rallies, and even a White House Press Correspondents' gathering before President Coolidge. Much of the road work was correlated with trips to New York for recording sessions. On the final trip early in 1919 the band made a film sound short for Vitaphone that was released as a trailer with Al Jolson's The Singing Fool. It was certainly the first movie to couple the sound and sights of hillbilly music. A few years later Al Hopkins died following a car accident at Winchester, Virginia.36 The band did not survive his death.
Ralph Peer's contact with The Hill Billies occurred during one memorable session. Later in 1925 he left Okeh for Victor but the band he helped launch did not go along with him. Instead, it went over to the recently combined Vocalion-Brunswick companies to work with A&R man Jimmie O'Keefe. All their post-Okeh discs were released for dual sales purposes as The Hill Billies on Vocalion and as Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters on Brunswick. For personal dates they used both names interchangeably. During one New York recording session they were surprised to see on the Hippodrome Theater marquee lights, The Ozark Hillbillies. They responded to the competitive threat by having a Washington lawyer incorporate (January 21, 1929) their group – complete with an embossing seal and stock shares – as Al Hopkins' Original Hill Billies. But the gesture was of no avail. Other bands, singers, and units in show business appropriated their name. In time, they accepted the rivalry philosophically – especially when hillbilly became the generic term for southern country music.