American Roots Music: The Song of Rural America 1920-1960 II

Louis Rosen under the aegis of the 92Y

Tonight we address “The Bristol Sessions.” Though hillbilly music was first recorded in 1923, myth calls out July/August 1927 as the “big bang” of country music and Bristol, Tennessee as the location. Talent Scout/Record Producer Ralph Peer, having left Okeh Records, was contracted to the Victor Talking Machine Company to travel down south and record artists in the genre he’d actually named= hillbilly. (RCA and Victor would merge to create RCA Victor in 1929.)  He was given the enormous sum of sixty thousand dollars, equivalent to three quarters of a million dollars today.

“In Autumn of 1927, David Sarnoff and The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) linked up a network of radio stations across the country in what was the birth of affiliates. Radio was the greatest means of promoting records, a way to bring artists into homes, creating what we now think of as ‘stars,” Rosen tells us. “Media changes in radio news, photojournalism and sound reels created celebrities like Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. Up till then few people knew what the president looked like.”

No matter how long a song had been performed, an artist’s version of it could be legalized as belonging to them. If a publisher was honest, a songwriter would receive 50 percent of publishing or ½ cent per song per record sold. Most of the untutored artists were just looking for a little extra money. Recording was technically evolving. Singing into a microphone (not a large horn) created more authentic sound. (Curiously microphones didn’t make their way to musical theater until the 1960s.) Equipment became portable.

A.P., Maybelle and Sara Carter 1927

One of the first musicians Peer recorded was Virginian Ernest Stoneman, his wife Hattie, Eck Dunford, and Mooney Brewer. We listen to the recording, a fiddle/banjo-accompanied “Skip To Ma Lou.” Lou was a common term for “sweetheart.” (A version from Western Nebraska had 40 verses!) Then, we hear Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers’ “Do Lord Remember Me” a repetitive, foot-tapping spiritual. These were examples of more raucous, southern based, Pentecostal music later personified by Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Both were one-part songs i.e. without bridges or choruses. The records sold well.

When a reporter was invited in to the sessions, he wrote an article headlined Mountain Songs Recorded Here by Victor Company. “Peer may have given him some initiative,” Rosen notes. “The reporter also bought stock before RCA and Victor merged.” (Early insider trading.) Lots of talent read the piece and responded.

A standout among these was The (original) Carter Family: A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and their cousin/sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. Generations of Carters would epitomize country music for decades. “He’s dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They looked like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.” (Ralph Peer)

Sara sang lead and played autoharp, A.P. sang bass, and 18-year-old Maybelle harmonized and played guitar. Maybelle’s unusual, subsequently influential style allowed the musician to provide both melody and rhythm. Rosen demonstrates with his own guitar. “The lower strings pick out melody, while strumming and chords keep going,” he says. Her distinctive method became known as “the Carter lick,” “the Carter Scratch,” or Carter family picking. Paul Simon and Neal Young use the technique.

Though A.P. would wander around during recordings and sometimes simply not show up, records were duly made. A.P. traveled, collecting songs he’d give to Maybelle for reinterpretation, changing vernacular, harmony or perhaps structure. The band received $50 for each song recorded. We listen to “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”- a bluegrass standard, and “The Storms Are on The Ocean”/The heavens may cease to be/This world may lose its motion love/If I prove false to thee… Sound is repetitive and similar.

Aware their musical identity would be fixed, Peer cautioned the group not to say much about their personal lives, Rosen notes. “Circulars would state that programs were morally good. The Carter Family was so effectively vague about relations, that 40 years later when Pete Seeger interviewed June Carter Cash (wife of Johnny Cash) things had to be clarified.”

Sara objected to the song “Single Girl, Married Girl” on just such grounds: Single girl…going dressed up so fine/Married girl…she wears any  kind…Single girl…she’s gone anywhere she please/ Married girl…got a baby on her knees… You get the idea. Still, she made the record, which was a hit. “You can’t overestimate the degree to which they were a major commercial act,” Rosen remarks. Peer became the family’s manager sticking with them even when sales declined.

We hear “John Hardy,” essentially a murder tale along the lines of the folk standard, “Stagolee,” and the classic, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” with which Rosen became familiar as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” performed by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Next come two radically different versions of “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea,” one by The Carters and one by Aaron Copland. You’d never know both originated with the same song. The first is bluegrass, the second operetta.

Carter Family Records

The Carters went over the border from Texas for a twice daily radio show. There were American laws limiting the reach of radio broadcasts. Mexico had no such rules. The family’s popularity spread even further. By 1939/1940, Sara and A.P.’s children as well as those of Maybelle joined performances that were prerecorded and distributed to radio stations. The group became an essential radio voice.

Ironically (vague relations providing a buffer) Sara would divorce A.P., though she stayed in the musical group until 1944. When she married her husband’s cousin and moved to California, the group disbanded. Maybelle continued to perform with daughters Anita, June, and Helen Carter as The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. In the 1960s a new generation of folk singers turned to classic Carter songs. The family band was revived a third time in 2010.

Opening: Right: Victor Race Records, Wikimedia, Public Domain; Left: Wiki Commons, Site of Bristol Sessions, Public Domain

A.P., Maybelle and Sara Carter 1927. Carter family promotional photo by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Records: Left: Wiki Commons Happy or Lonesome, Public Domain; Right: Wiki Commons, Wildwood Flower- Public Domain

Louis Rosen

The songs of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley dominated the urban airwaves during the first half of the 20th Century, but folk, hillbilly music — now known as country — gospel, bluegrass, western swing, blues, Cajun and zydeco were the sounds of rural America.” Louis Rosen

This is a 13 week class.

Among Rosen’s single class programs coming up are:

Bob Dylan 80TH Birthday Celebration, Part VI: THE BASEMENT TAPES  Sunday, October 3, 2021, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

The Beatles Part VII: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR – The Album, the Film and a Psychedelic Odyssey Sunday,
October 17, 2021, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Tickets from the 92Y

Louis Rosen – musician/songwriter/author/educator  


About Alix Cohen (1168 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.