Musical Milestone 002: The Birth of Country
Let's pull over and examine another Musical Milestone. This one's dated 1927. It was the year the Holland Tunnel opened under the Hudson River, connecting New York City with New Jersey. Charles Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic, direct from New York City to Paris, as the first solo transatlantic flight. And 1927 was a landmark year in the history of what would come to be called "Country Music".
In the 1920's, recorded music was mainly centered around opera and symphony orchestras. Ralph Peer was one of the pioneers who changed that. Peer was born in 1892 in Independence, Missouri and worked in the family furniture store as a teenager. They sold phonographs, and Peer was in charge of the record department.
He knew regular folks were craving music more to their liking, and in 1920, he was on the team that recorded "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith. This record was different in a couple of ways. First, it was a blues song. But more importantly, it was the first record to appeal directly to the African American population. And did it ever. The record sold over a million copies!
Ralph Peer was also the man who signed the legendary Fats Waller. Peer was with the new OkeH label at that time. He started traveling with portable recording gear and set up in stores after hours or in hotel rooms. He would advertise his arrival in local newspapers and pay artists $25 per song. He recorded Louis Armstrong and King Oliver in New Orleans.
By now it was clear that popular music was the future of the record business - but what about rural white music lovers? Enter the era of "hillbilly" records - again, thanks to Ralph Peer. In 1923, Peer recorded Fiddlin' John Carson's "Little Old Cabin In the Lane". It's been accepted as the first "hillbilly" record and it sold over half a million copies nationwide. Peer knew he was onto something. What were called "race" records and "hillbilly" music are known as "roots music" today.
In those days, recording studios were only to be found in the biggest cities. Travel was expensive, time consuming, and pretty much out of reach for rural musicians especially those in the depressed Deep South. So Ralph Peer continued his talent hunt and headed for the hills and mountains of Appalachia. The musical traditions of Appalachia are rooted (there's that word again) in the British Isles, a tradition that blossomed in the 1960's folk music boom. Ralph Peer had heard about the abundance of musical talent in the Virginia and Tennessee hills from Pop Stoneman, who he recorded in 1924. Stoneman told him to go to Bristol on the Tennessee side. Who came to play? Well, all told, 19 solo artists and groups came to record, but four people put the summer 1927 in the history books. One was the man who would forever be known as the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers. And the other three were the first family of Country Music, The Carters - A.P., Sara, and Maybelle.
The very first song Jimmie recorded was "The Soldier's Sweetheart" on August 4th, 1927. Peer held the recording sessions on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company on on the Tennessee side of State Street in Bristol.
The Carter Family's first recording was “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”. In all, Peer recorded 76 songs. The unprecedented success of the so-called Bristol Sessions earned Bristol Tennessee the title "Birthplace of Country Music."
We'll leave Musical Milestone 1927 now, but we'll revisit some of the artists who were part of what some call the "big bang" of country music in the summer of 1927.