Bristol's Music HistoryWatch the Mountain Stage 7.5 minute sample of Bristol: The Birthplace of Country Music. Click here!
Music has been made for hundreds of years in the southern mountain region. The influences which are felt in the music come from many traditions. The ballads of the early Scotch-Irish and settlers of the British Isles are evident, as are their instruments, such as the fiddle. The blues and work songs of laborers of African heritage are evident, along with their instruments such as the banjo. The mountain dulcimer and the autoharp have connections to the zithers of European ancestry, while the ukulele and the guitar were popular parlor instruments. The guitar's folk influences come primarily from the Southwest and Deep South.
In late July 1927, Ralph Sylvester Peer, a record producer and talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, came to Bristol, Tennessee. His goal was to record musicians from the southern Appalachian region for commercial musical records. For a number of reasons, the world-wide influence of these recording sessions has been described as "the big bang of country music." During these sessions — the Bristol location which was suggested to Peer by pioneer country recording artist Ernest V. Stoneman — Jimmie Rodgers and the original Carter Family were first recorded, as well as Henry Whitter, Blind Alfred Reed, B.F. Shelton and many others over the course of ten days. "The Bristol Sessions," by virtue of the Rodgers and Carter discoveries, the business model initiated by Peer at Bristol wherein artists were paid on a percentage basis for record sales based on song publishing rights, and the national and international distribution of the Bristol recordings by the Victor Talking Machine Company — the largest record company in the world at the time — laid the groundwork for what subsequently became the "country music industry" and disseminated rural music globally for the first time. At the same time, musicologists agree that the recordings made at Bristol in 1927 are the purest cross-section of traditional American music ever recorded in one session — recordings naively made with no attempt to influence the music or the performers delivery in search of a "hit."
From the 1930s through the 1950s, live radio broadcasts in the region nurtured the music and the artists. These shows included WOPI's "Jamboree", "Farm and Fun Time" on WCYB, and the "Barrel of Fun" on WJHL. Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin and countless others, appeared on these programs, which led to the development of bluegrass and contemporary country music.
African American Roots"The African-American music of the rural South provided the source for gospel, jazz, and blues, while the oft ignored black contribution to country and hillbilly music went far beyond providing the banjo and Charley Pride. Southern rural musicians drew upon a common well, segregated into blues, country, and folk by recording companies and folklorists only well into the 20th century. Until the explosive emergence of the blues a century ago, blacks played fiddle and banjo for dances throughout the South, entertaining audiences of both races and often playing with European-American musicians." — Art Menius
The plucked banjo string . . .
The field holler . . .
The gospel spiritual . . .
Each of these traditions is an element of what has made country music. Each is rooted in the African American experience, in the southern Appalachian Mountains and through the South. The migration of the music and the influence on the musical traditions are so fundamental that what we know as country music would not be possible without the African American contribution.
The birth of country music, as we know it, can be traced to the recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee in the summer of 1927. The influences that brought those sessions to life go back much farther. Lesley Riddle of Kingsport, Tennessee was an African American guitar player who directly influenced the Carter Family, known as the “First Family of Country Music.” Riddle accompanied A.P. Carter on song collecting trips in the mountains and remembered how the melody would go as Carter would recall the lyrics. Riddle's influence on Maybelle Carter is seen in her distinctive "Carter scratch" style of guitar playing and particularly on the song "The Cannonball," which she learned from Riddle. Also recorded was El Watson, a harmonica player in the style of DeFord Bailey, the first "star" of the Grand Ole Opry. Watson recorded solo and with the Johnson Brothers and was recorded again in the following years. Bailey's "Fox Chase" and train whistle songs set the standard for harmonica players to emulate in the early days of the emerging country music. Bailey made the first recording in Nashville in 1927 and performed on the Opry until 1941. Jimmie Rodgers, known as "The Father of Country Music," learned to play guitar and sing in the railroad yards of Mississippi, influenced by railroad workers, many of whom were African American. Many of the songs of Jimmie Rodgers were blues, from the fields and byways of the South.
Peer returned to Bristol in 1928 to further enhance his "Southern Series" and recorded Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay. The African American duo was known for its performances on piano, fiddle and banjo and played for events, clubs, dances and camps in the southwest Virginia and east Tennessee region. During the turn of the century and the early years of the twentieth century, the black string band tradition was strong, with musicians playing for both black and white audiences. Carl Martin of Big Stone Gap, Virginia and Howard Armstrong of Lafollette, Tennessee, along with Ted Bogan of Knoxville, Tennessee, recorded for Brunswick Co. in 1930. They played the juke joints and coal camps in the 20s, 30s and 40s and eventually developed more of a blues style as they migrated to the north. Steve Goodman, singer/songwriter who performed with Martin in the 70s, considered their group "the greatest string band there ever was. Like so many great musicians, they were pretty much never recognized by the mainstream and their influences remain nothing more than a footnote in music's history." Howard Armstrong, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts, has been the subject of two documentary films and continues to play music.
Brownie McGhee also emerging from the southern mountain music tradition, a contemporary of Lesley Riddle from Kingsport, Tennessee. He learned to play music at an early age after suffering from polio as a child. His style of Piedmont blues music was steeped in the African American folk tradition of the region. His career on guitar included accompaniment by harmonica player Sonny Terry during many years, with the folk revival of the 60s bringing great attention to his music.
The middle years of the twentieth century brought the emergence of bluegrass music, which blended white and black influences on traditional music to create a new genre. Bill Monroe, "The Father of Bluegrass Music," learned to play from the street musician Arnold Shultz in his hometown of Racine, Kentucky. The drive of bluegrass music is attributed to the banjo, which originated in Africa, and was made with an animal skin stretched across a hole in a hollow gourd, featuring a fretless neck and three or four strings. It was called a "banjer" when it came to this country. The four-string tenor banjo was common in Dixieland jazz bands, as well as bands like the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. The five-string banjo is produced in both open back and closed back, or resonator, styles. The five string banjo is played in both the old-time "clawhammer" style and the bluegrass style, popularized by Earl Scruggs, who transformed the instrument from one which had been supporting in the string bands into a hard driving lead instrument.
The music of our country combined many elements during its growth, bringing together musicians from a wide variety of styles to create unique sounds. Jimmie Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong, the trailblazing jazz innovator, who later performed pieces that were adopted by western swing and bluegrass. Armstrong also recorded a country album. Bob Wills, "The King of Western Swing" fused black and white concepts into his unique music, which blended jazz, blues, Appalachian dance tunes, and Hawaiian-inspired steel guitar with popular and country songs. He particularly idolized Bessie Smith, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and adapted several of her songs. Bluegrass musicians continue to perform other blues material recorded by Bessie Smith and her contemporaries in the decades since.
A mural depicting these connections and influences in our country's music is in the Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. Modeled on original artwork by Willard Gayhart and inspired by musician Jack Tottle, "All in the Family" is a tribute to "America's Bluegrass and Country Music and Their Intimate Family Ties to Blues, Jazz, Folk, Pop, and Hawaiian Music." A soon to be released book entitled, ALL In the Family II: A Mural By Marianne DiNapoli Mylet At East Tennessee State University, by Jack Tottle documents the musicians illustrated in the mural.
“Until recently, black musicians in country and bluegrass music were overlooked, despite being vastly influential; bluegrass father Bill Monroe himself was highly influenced by black string player [Arnold Shultz] who taught him details of his craft. Through simple exposure and lack of research, black music in the south was mainly thought of as blues and gospel, while black fiddlers, banjoists and mandolinists fell through the cracks." — Meredith Ochs, from the liner notes to Altamont: Black Stringband Music from the Library of Congress (Rounder)
All in the FamilyBased on a print by Willard Gayheard, the mural "All in the Family" by Marianne Mylet can be viewed at the Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University
Top row (L to R):
A. P. Carter Family — Maybelle Carter [guitar], A. P. Carter [coat & tie, no instrument], Sara Carter, [guitar]
Leslie Riddle — In white shirt & tie with guitar
Jimmie Rodgers- In derby hat with guitar
Louis Armstrong — In dark suit with trumpet
Bob Wills — In white hat with fiddle
Bessie Smith — In long coat and feathered hat, no instrument
Arnold Shultz — In open collar shirt with guitar
Bashful Brother Oswald (Pete Kirby)- In overalls with Dobro
Joseph Kekuku — In white shirt and tie with Hawaiian guitar
Earl Scruggs — In white hat with banjo
Uncle John Scruggs — In dark hat with banjo
Bill Monroe — In white hat with mandolin
Norfolk Jazz & Jubilee Quartet — In shirtsleeves, no instruments
Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne — (Below Norfolk Quartet) with guitar, in coat, no tie
Bottom Row :
Elvis Presley — In light suit & tie with guitar
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup — In dark suit & tie with guitar
Browns Ferry Four Quartet — In shirtsleeves, with one guitar
Hank Williams — In white fringe shirt with guitar
Abbreviated Description of the Figures Portrayed
A. P. Carter Family
Carter Family recordings preserve hundreds of radition-based songs — old ballads, love songs, blues, and gospel songs from both black and white sources. Many of these, still widely sung today, might otherwise have been lost. Examples include "Wildwood Flower," "Wabash Cannonball," "Carters Blues," "John Hardy," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
This African-American guitarist and singer was a friend of the Carter family and was a frequent dinner guest in their home. He helped A. P. Carter locate obscure songs, brought material from his repertoire to the A. P. Carter Family, and taught blues guitar styles to hugely influential guitarist Maybelle Carter.
A former railroad man, "The Father of Country Music" was influenced by the music of African-American railway workers with whom he worked as a young man. He composed numerous songs, frequently utilizing verses and ideas from songs performed by black artists, and set the stage for the explosive growth of country music.
This trailblazing jazz innovator, widely beloved singer, and brilliant entertainer collaborated with Jimmie Rodgers ("Standing on the Corner") performed pieces later adopted by western swing and bluegrass — from "Back Home In Indiana," to "Bugle Call Rag" — and recorded his own country music album. The bluesy flavor of Armstrong's jazz is still embodied in music played today.
"The King of Western Swing," fused black and white concepts in his distinctive, and highly successful music. Wills’ western swing blended jazz, blues, Appalachian dance tunes, and Hawaiian-inspired steel guitar with popular and country songs. Wills hits from "San Antonio Rose" to "Steel Guitar Rag" (based on black guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s "Guitar Rag") have been re-recorded by numerous country and bluegrass artists.
"The Empress of the Blues," was a major force in the rise in popularity of African-American blues during the 1920s. Bob Wills idolized her and adapted several of her songs. (On Wills’ first recording opportunity, he chose to perform Bessie Smith’s hit "Gulf Coast Blues") In other blues songs recorded by Bessie Smith and her contemporaries would be performed, decades later, by various bluegrass artists.
No recordings and only a single photograph of this elusive figure exist. Nevertheless, his music lives today in both bluegrass and country music. The blues Shultz flatpicked on the guitar inspired Bill Monroe (who considered him a friend and major influence). Additionally, the Kentucky guitarists from whom super-guitarist Merle Travis learned utilized ideas they heard in Arnold Shultz’ fingerpicking style. (Guitar giant Chet Atkins, in turn, based his widely-emulated style on that of Merle Travis.)
Bashful Brother Oswald (Pete Kirby)
For over half a century the Hawaiian-derived Dobro work of Bashful Brother Oswald backing country star Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry embodied an enduring element of country music’s sound. As a young man Oswald learned from a slide guitarist, Rudy Waikiki, who came from Hawaii and played in the style pioneered by Joseph Kekuku.
Sounds from the Hawaiian Islands migrated to the mainland United States starting around the early 1900s, notably via the Hawaiian slide guitar style, a technique which is most often credited to Joseph Kekuku. The swooping sound of the Dobro, steel guitar, or resophonic guitar, as it has come to be known, has been used widely in popular music, ballroom orchestras, country music, western swing, and bluegrass.
In the 1940s this unique genius of the five-string banjo introduced the revolutionary style which would forever define the sound of bluegrass music. The banjo — itself of African origin — was transformed, in Scruggs’ hands, into a virtuoso instrument. Folklorist Alan Lomax referred to him as "The Paganini of the Banjo." Earl Scruggs with his partner, Lester Flatt, recorded dozens of the songs and tunes which comprise today's bluegrass standards.
Uncle John Scruggs
An exponent of the African-American banjo tradition which stretches back in time for centuries and predates banjo playing by white settlers in the Appalachian region. We know Uncle John only from a brief 1920s film clip outside a sharecropper’s cabin, playing to an audience of delighted tiny children (Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be, Yazoo Video)). His energetic music, however, speaks volumes about the role of music in America.
The "Father of Bluegrass Music" built his new artistic creation on a dual foundation. One pillar was the Scots-Irish-derived dance music of his fiddling uncle, Pendleton Vandiver. The other was the blues — much of which he learned from his friend, the gifted black musician, Arnold Shultz. A remarkable number of the important figures in bluegrass music learned their craft as members of Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys.
Norfolk Jazz and Jubilee Quartet
In the 1920s and 1930s this energetic group recorded more than 140 songs exemplifying the small group harmony style
that served as the basis for various country hits and bluegrass gospel favorites. The NJ&JQ’s classic recordings included songs — such as "I Am a Pilgrim," "Cryin’ Holy,", etc.—which were later embraced by country and bluegrass artists.
Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne
An African-American street musician, Rufus Payne was Hank Williams’ first mentor on the guitar. As a youth, Hank followed Payne around, periodically paying him fifteen cents or so for a lesson. Said Hank, "All the training I ever had was from him." No pictures of Payne are known to exist—thus the figure shown is just a representation.
The young country singer who became the central figure in the rock and roll revolution began his career by recording an uptempo Arthur Crudup blues entitled "That's All Right Mama" and a reworking of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky." Presley gladly acknowledged his great debt to African-American music, and especially to Crudup.
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
A Mississippi-born black blues singer, who learned guitar at the age of thirty-two, Crudup had a string of rhythm-and-blues hits. However, due to unscrupulous practices by those in the music industry, received very little compensation. Crudup's music, however, reached Elvis Presley at a deep level, and provided a lifelong influence.
Browns Ferry Four
Country stars Merle Travis, Rabon and Alton Delmore, and Grandpa Jones combined their talents in this gospelrecording group during the 1940s. Their popular sound owed much to earlier African-American quartets, and can be heard echoed in subsequent gospel recordings, especially in bluegrass music.
In his short lifetime Hank Williams contributed a major legacy of songs, simply crafted, yet unforgettable to millions. His compositions, several of which crossed over as pop hits, were often suffused with the imprint of the blues. They ranged from the sad ("Weary Blues From Waiting"), to the upbeat ("Hey Good Lookin’") to gospel "I Saw the Light", to the whimsical "Jambalaya." As author Colin Escot put it, he "provided a soundtrack" for the lives of millions. For more information Contact Raymond McClain, Director
ETSU Bluegrass and Country Music Program
Center for Appalachian Studies & Services
Box 70556 East Tennessee State University
Johnson City TN 37614-0556
Phone: (423) 439-6957
Web Page: http://www.etsu.edu/cass/bluegrass/