Sometime on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1929, Will Bennett walked into the lobby of the six-story St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue in downtown Knoxville. Bennett walked up the stairs to the mezzanine, where the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. had converted the broadcast studio of WNOX into a modern recording studio. Heavy drapes hung on the walls to absorb the sound, according to photos from the time. There was a comfortable chair in one corner and a couch in another, next to a grand piano and a single microphone.
Bennett recorded two songs that day: “Railroad Bill,” an old blues ballad about a 19th-century folk hero/train robber, and its B-side, “Real Estate Blues,” released on the Brunswick subsidiary Vocalion later that year. “Railroad Bill” had been around since about 1900, but Bennett’s is the first known recording, and it has appeared on a handful of CD anthologies; it later became a minor standard among both black blues artists and white old-time folk musicians. Bennett’s performance of “Railroad Bill” is strong but enigmatic. It betrays no particular regional style, or maybe it shows a little bit of all of them.
That performance is all that’s left of Bennett. There’s no official record of him anywhere, before or after he arrived at the studio that day. He apparently had never recorded before and never recorded again, though his recording suggests he was comfortable in front of a microphone. The country-music historian Charles Wolfe, who was the first to seriously look at the recording sessions that took place at the St. James in 1929 and 1930, wrote an article for Old Time Music in 1974 that identifies Bennett as “a remarkable blues singer from Loudon, Tenn.,” though that’s never been confirmed and likely isn’t true.
“He’s the mystery man,” says Bradley Reeves, co-director of Knox County’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. “But his one record is absolutely fantastic—hot stuff, ahead of its time.”
Bennett isn’t the only mystery surrounding the St. James sessions. Some experts contend that the St. James recordings are among the most remarkable music of the era, notable for their sophisticated, cosmopolitan style as well as their unprecedented variety—unlike similar sessions of the time, the Knoxville recordings weren’t limited to just country or just the blues. Dozens of musicians—shadowy figures like Bennett and the folk singer Bess Pennington but also the popular Knoxville-based jazz journeyman Maynard Baird and Uncle Dave Macon, one of country music’s first genuine superstars—recorded at the St. James, in styles ranging from old-time mountain music and gospel to commercial country, jazz, and blues. But for more than 80 years the music made at those sessions has remained obscure and inaccessible, almost completely written out of the historical record. Some, like Macon’s, were never released. Few people have heard these records since they were released into the almost instant obscurity of the early days of the Depression.
“There’s something unique about them,” Reeves says. “I don’t know what it is—it’s a different feel, a different mood. They’re never boring. Uncle Jimmy Thompson—my God, it’s great. The guy just talks about drinking moonshine and goes into a little fiddle jig or reel—he was already about 90 years old when that was recorded. He goes back before the Civil War. Then you go into some of the hottest gospel. I think they were ahead of their time, and I always have.”
But people may finally get a chance to hear these rare and unusual records. The German reissue label Bear Family Records, known for its exhaustive archival country, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll compilations, has announced plans for a definitive CD box set of all 101 commercially released songs from the sessions, set for release in late 2015 or early 2016.
There’s an enormous task ahead, though: gathering original 78s from collectors all over the world for digital transfer and remastering; unearthing as much biographical information as possible on performers like Bennett; and piecing together accounts of the sessions themselves.
Bear Family, founded in 1975, has issued hundreds of high-quality sets, including recent ones on similar sessions in Bristol and Johnson City; the company has also earned the cooperation of TAMIS, which will be credited as an executive producer in exchange for access to its archives. But the scope of this project is maybe bigger than anything Bear Family or TAMIS has tackled before. With so much still to be done in such a short time, can they uncover this lost part of Knoxville music history?
Knoxville in the 1920s was buzzing with music—vaudeville acts, street musicians, string bands on the new radio stations, jazz bands at dances and on the stage of the brand-new Tennessee Theatre. It was the first golden age of recorded music and the dawn of the radio era; our modern ideas about pop, country, folk, and jazz were being established, as were the boundaries between “white” and “black” music. At the time, though, those distinctions were still far from settled—old-time mountain music and folk ballads mixed with ragtime, blues, gospel, and early versions of swing in clubs and theaters and on Market Square.
It was this melting pot that attracted the Brunswick company to Knoxville in 1929. (There was also Sterchi Brothers Furniture on Gay Street, a dealer for Brunswick’s subsidiary label, Vocalion. Furniture companies were among the original bankrollers of the record industry, so their customers would have a reason to buy expensive record players.) In the first half of the decade, producers had recruited musicians and then sent them to studios in New York or Chicago. In later years, record companies found setting up temporary headquarters in some sort of regional hub made more economic sense. The company moved almost a ton of recording equipment into the St. James in the summer of 1929; the first sessions, producing 44 issued sides, were held in late August and early September. Another round of recordings that produced 57 sides followed in late March and early April 1930.
The sessions drew musicians from Knoxville and the surrounding area but also from Nashville, Kentucky, and perhaps as far away as Cincinnati. The participants ranged from professional working bands, like Maynard Baird’s Southern Serenaders and the country string band the Tennessee Ramblers, to ambitious semi-pros and perhaps even amateurs. Country music makes up the bulk of the recordings, but in many different forms, from old-time string bands to more modern acts like Ballard Cross, who recorded one of the earliest versions of “Wabash Cannonball,” and the Jimmie Rodgers-influenced Cal West. There are black and white gospel groups, the eerie gospel blues of Leola Manning, and Bess Pennington’s haunting folk songs.
Some of it is genuinely great—Leola Manning’s performances, early sides by Howard Armstrong and Carl Martin as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, the slick, modern country of the Tennessee Ramblers. Much of it is at least interesting—“Railroad Bill,” Baird’s Knoxville jazz. A lot of it is sentimental or worse. But it’s all distinctive, if only for the fact that none of it sounds the same.
After the 1930 sessions, a third round of recording was planned, but it never happened. The commercial prospects of the Knoxville sessions initially seemed promising—Brunswick was drawing on a local pool of established, experienced talent, performers with experience on radio and in front of big audiences. But the records that were issued were doomed almost as soon as they were released by the beginning of the Great Depression. Between the time the first recordings were made and the last records were issued, the record industry had been gutted. Seventy-five-cent shellac music discs became a luxury almost no one could afford.
“1929, it was that last gasp,” Reeves says. “That was it. Nobody could buy these records. Things like the Bess Pennington record, which is one of my favorites, maybe 500 were pressed, if that. The survival rate for these 78s was bad enough, even if they were pressed in the thousands. But if you’re dealing with hundreds of records, it’s even worse. These records really never had a chance. If they’d just had a chance, I think they would have made a difference. But by the time the record industry came back as a whole, everything had changed—the people had changed, culture had changed, radio had changed everything.”
he fact that the Knoxville sessions were headed by Richard Voynow, a former jazz pianist who had played with Bix Beiderbecke, suggests Brunswick was looking for more than just country music when he came to Knoxville.
“Richard Voynow, the producer for Brunswick, had a sense that it’s not music if it’s not inclusive of all the different peoples that lived here,” says Ted Olson, a professor of Appalachian music history at East Tennessee State University. “So he looked for African-American artists as well as all kinds of white artists of various backgrounds. He was very adamant about capturing a true slice of the population at that time, so that meant recording African-American artists. I think that’s one of the very special things about the Knoxville sessions, that they’re inclusive of African-American artists. Oftentimes I think people who are not aware of Appalachian music somehow leave African-American artists out of the picture, but African-American artists have always been a part of the Appalachian music story.”
Olson and his frequent collaborator, the British country-music historian Tony Russell, have been selected by Bear Family to write the hardbound book that will accompany the St. James CDs. For Olson, an expert on the development of Appalachian music, the Knoxville sessions are the conclusion of an important period that kicked off with the famous 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tenn. In what is now referred to as the Big Bang of Country Music, both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made their first recordings there, under the direction of Victor Records’ Ralph Peer. The success of the Bristol recordings prompted Victor rival Columbia to send a producer to Johnson City for a smililar session the following year.
Olson’s own work on the Bristol sessions, in fact, has led him to the Knoxville recordings. In 2006, Olson co-edited, along with Charles Wolfe, a collection of scholarly essays on the Bristol sessions. After Wolfe died, in 2006, Olson decided that a fitting tribute would be to help make the music from those sessions available.
“I felt it was almost my personal duty to carry the story into its next logical form, which was actually to get the records out so people could hear them,” he says. “People were buzzing about the Bristol sessions, but not that many people had heard many of the records. What led me to contact Bear Family was to have the records available for people to hear—not just the well-known ones by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters but all of them.”
Bear Family’s Bristol Sessions, a four-disc set released in 2011, was nominated for two Grammy Awards—a first for the label. Olson and Russell, his partner on that project, teamed up again for a follow-up set collecting the music from the 1928 sessions in Johnson City, which Wolfe had referred to as an “aftershock” of the Bristol recordings. That set was released in 2013. The next step, Olson and Russell decided, was to explore the Knoxville sessions. (The Bear Family set will be known as The Knoxville Sessions, in keeping with the two earlier sets in the series, instead of The St. James Sessions.)
“We realized that it was inevitable that we revisit the Knoxville sessions as part of the trifecta of East Tennessee ’20s-era recording sessions,” Olson says.
Joe Bussard started collecting old records in the 1950s, when he was a teenager in Frederick, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where he still lives. Even then, in the early days of rock ’n’ roll, Bussard was something of a relic—he preferred old-time string bands, classic blues, and 1920s-era jazz. He still does, and for 50 years has shared his enthusiasm though a series of syndicated radio programs, including a slot on WDVX on Sunday afternoons.
“Today, it’s just nothing but horrible thumping, banging, squealing, hollering, the same old thing over and over,” he says. “I’m in the wrong world, man.”
When the LP supplanted the 78 in the late 1950s, those old shellac discs were regarded as worthless by all but a few adventurous collectors. Bussard and his colleagues and rivals would mount massive expeditions through the South, going house to house in small towns, asking people if they had old records to sell, or raiding the inventories of old drugstores, department stores, and record factories.
It was a cutthroat and sometimes shady business. Bussard tells a famous story about a guy who illegally commandeered the Vocalion vault in New York and sold everything out the back door.
“These were mint. These were first pressings, put in as a file copy,” Bussard says. “There was every Vocalion record ever made, of every series, I don’t care what it was. Every Brunswick record, every series, and all the Deccas and some Champion masters. This guy made a fortune selling them out of there years ago. I bought $28,000 worth of them in one night. It was a hell of a lot of records.”
One of those records was by Cal Davenport and His Gang, recorded in August 1929 at the St. James Hotel. It’s one of more than a dozen records from the Knoxville sessions that are now in Bussard’s collection of 15,000 78s—records by the Tennessee Ramblers, Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, the Wise String Orchestra, the Southern Moonlight Entertainers, the Gibbs Brothers, Leola Manning, Howard Armstrong’s Tennessee Trio, the Perry County Music Makers, Ballard Cross, the Appalachia Vagabond. (“I’ve got that mint,” Bussard says. “New. Absolutely mint. It can’t get any newer if you were standing beside the press when it came out.”) He’s found them in junk sales, farmhouses, antique stores, and in the collections of other record dealers. His copy of Ridgel’s Fountain Citians’ “Nick Nack Song” b/w “The Bald Headed End of the Broom,” he says, is the only one in existence.
“I traded a guy for it years and years ago,” Bussard says. “He’s still trying to get it back.”
Bussard is a celebrity among collectors, in part because of what he owns—his collection is ranked as one of the best in the world. But Bussard is also famous for his generosity and his open-door policy. Over the years, he has welcomed hundreds of young collectors into his house, and he passes cassette copies of the music he owns all around the world.
In the mid-1990s, Bradley Reeves, then working at the Library of Congress in Washington, was one of those young pilgrims. That’s how he first heard about the St. James recordings.
“I said, ‘Have you got anything recorded in Knoxville?’ He pulled out Ridgel’s Fountain Citians,” Reeves says. “I thought, Fountain City, wow. Really? He put it on—it was fantastic, sounded great on this big-ass turntable he had. Then he pulled out Leola Manning and started pulling out other things from Knoxville. I couldn’t believe it. First time I’d ever heard about them.”
Bussard’s open-door policy doesn’t necessarily extend to record labels, however, even respected ones like Bear Family. He has worked with them before, but he’s not inclined to turn over his records for free or to allow them to be shipped to Germany for remastering. He says the company hasn’t contacted him yet about the St. James records. But he suggests that Bear Family will have a hard time tracking down all of the records.
“There’s going to be one record or two they ain’t gonna get a hold of, because there ain’t no copies that I know of,” he says.
Reeves has his work cut out for him over the next year and a half. His role in the Bear Family project is complicated—he’s opening the TAMIS archives to Olson and Russell for the book that will accompany the CDs, and he’s also conducting more research to fill in the gaps. Tracking down a lead on a Will Bennett from Calhoun, Ga., who may have come to Knoxville to record in 1929, is near the top of Reeves’ list. He hopes to track down Howard Armstrong’s son and surviving relatives of folk singers Bess Pennington and Haskell Wolfenbarger, one of the Knoxvillians who recorded at the St. James. He’s also curious about Gus Nennstiel, a Sterchi Brothers executive who supported local musicians and also worked with Brunswick.
“We’ve got it from the Knoxville side,” he says. “A lot of these guys came down from Kentucky to record. That stuff is out there—somebody has already mined the Kentucky string bands. Nobody has mined the Knoxville stuff, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.”
There’s even some chance that Reeves will uncover evidence of previously unknown recordings that were made but never released. He recently came across a newspaper article from 1930 that suggests Baxter Williams—he and his brother, Roger, were known as the WNOX Twins—recorded at the St. James. But there’s no mention of it in the master list assembled by Wolfe and Russell, which includes all the recordings, even the rejected and unissued ones. For Reeves, the discovery opens up the possibility that there’s still much more to be learned about the St. James sessions.
“Who knows what else is going to turn up?” he says. “We know there’s at least one previously unknown recording that was made but never released.”
Reeves has a personal stake in the project, too. When Reeves finally made it back to Knoxville in the 2000s, he digitized the cassettes Bussard had given him for the TAMIS collection and later added more tracks he’d run down on his own. (One of those was “Railroad Bill.”) Reeves’ interest coincided with the appearance, starting in the ’90s, of St. James tracks on nationally distributed CD anthologies—Rural String Bands of Tennessee, Rare Country Blues, People Take Warning! Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, 1913-1938.
As far back as 2007, Reeves was talking about a CD compilation of the best of the St. James recordings, with extensive liner notes and photos from TAMIS. He had actually started making serious plans for that when Bear Family approached him about its box set. Reeves knew that Bear Family had the resources for the full-scale reissue that he thinks the recordings deserve, so he abandoned his own dream project to cooperate with the label.
“That’s my job, to make these available to people,” he says. “I’m not a hoarder, I’m not a collector just for me. There’s got to be an end reason for all this. … If this gets done and everybody gets on board, this will be something we can be so proud of. We’ve got a lasting testament and these recordings will get their due—we’ll have the best sound possible, biographies, pictures no ones ever seen. It’s going to be really something to be proud of.”