Mostly what you’ll hear at old-time music gatherings these days is fiddle-led jam sessions that try to reach the blissful and transcendent groove that many old-time fans have become addicted to. But old-time music wasn’t always so focused on the fiddle. In the 1920s, country-music recordings tended to lean more toward singing, and singers were serious about their music. Songs sold more records and could hold the attention of a live crowd more than tunes. In those days, songs were often the way that stories, life lessons, religious beliefs, and humor were communicated between people. A good song triggered the imagination, and made you think.
Those of us who play old-time music today have all sorts of ways that we can learn the old songs. The most common way is person to person, the way musicians have for centuries before technology brought us radio, records, and, later, streaming and iStuff. Another is to learn from old recordings, which give us direct access to rare and diverse playing and singing styles from musicians who learned their music before the influence of mass media. The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music? (Bear Family), a new four-disc box set, is an important new resource for musicians and a broad window into just how varied the musical styles of the day were.
Its hard to talk about the Johnson City sessions without making obvious comparisons with the famous Bristol sessions. After all, Johnson City is just 25 miles down the road, and both sessions happened in the span of just three years. But the Johnson City sessions were different. They were conducted by a very different person than Ralph Peer, Victor Talking Machine Company’s shrewd businessman in Bristol.
Frank Walker was the man in Johnson City. He worked for Columbia Records, and while he was every bit the veteran of making “race” and “hillbilly” records that Peer was, Walker was a musician, an enthusiast, and a person who was able to endear himself to the folks of the mountain South. He chose musicians for the Johnson City sessions with an ear for what would sell, but also with an eye for the eccentric, the rugged, the colorful, and the obscure.
He came to Johnson City in 1928 and set up his mobile studio first in a lumber-company store, and the next year in a small brick building on Main Street. He ran newspaper ads asking “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” and relied on word of mouth to bring hopeful musicians to town to audition. All told, he recorded close to 150 songs and tunes in Johnson City by dozens of individual artists and groups, ultimately issuing 100 sides. The result is a wide and profound sample of old-time country, gospel, and blues. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family aside, the Johnson City sessions rival and perhaps eclipse the overall musical quality of the sessions in Bristol. The sound quality is great, by any standard, and there isn’t a single clunker in the lot.
There is, of course, a healthy dose of gospel and unaccompanied church singing, many string-band numbers, a variety of country duets, solo singers, blues pieces, and top-shelf fiddling. There were no stars made in Johnson City, but Clarence Ashley, Charlie Bowman, the Bentley Boys, Roy Harper, Bill and Belle Reed, and others made records that remain classics. Walker recorded Frank Shelton, George Roark, and the Grant Brothers, who had recorded in Bristol, but most of those who recorded in Johnson City had never before made records.
Legendary banjo man Clarence Ashley first recorded “Coo Coo Bird” in Johnson City and recorded as a member of the stellar string band Byrd Moore and Hot Shots. The Roane County Ramblers, a powerhouse fiddle band, recorded eight fiddle tunes, including the first recording of “Home Town Blues,” which was later appropriated by others as “Lee Highway Blues.” East Tennessee champion fiddler Charlie Bowman recorded his composition “Roll on Buddy” and “Gonna Raise the Ruckus Tonight” with his brothers and sat in with two of his daughters as the Bowman Sisters, one of the first sister duos to record. In the sisters’ version of “Old Lonesome Blues,” recorded without their father, their voices are fused in perfect harmony, accompanied only by the strange and meandering accordion of Fran Trappe.
Those familiar with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music will recognize both the Bentley Boys and Bill and Belle Reed, whose recordings of “Down on Penny’s Farm” and “Old Lady and the Devil,” respectively, are standouts on that collection. Both of those recordings were made in Johnson City, and each group made one other recording there; the additional tracks from these two obscure and brilliant groups are even better than those that appear on Smith’s Anthology. There is also the intriguing eight-person West Virginia string band the Moatsville String Ticklers, the virtuosic North Carolina guitarist Roy Harper, the otherworldly sounding Greensboro Boys Quartet and several other a cappella groups, bluesman Ellis Williams, and many more small-band and duet or trio performances.
Bear Family Records has packaged The Johnson City Sessions similarly to its collections of the Bristol sessions, the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, and other recent box sets it has produced. It is a large, attractive box with four CDs made from the original 78s, with a 135-page book written by two of the world’s premier country-music scholars, Ted Olson and Tony Russell. The book has scans of the actual recording logs, many rare photographs, new essays by both Olson and Russell, and newly researched biographies of the musicians and songs which reveal just how varied and colorful the cast of characters was.