Field Recording Sessions

Updated: January 26, 2012

For more than seventy-five years, scholars working for the Library of Congress, individuals associated with regional universities, hobbyists, amateur enthusiasts, and commercial companies have all sought to document the rich Appalachian musical heritage on sound recordings.

For more than seventy-five years, scholars working for the Library of Congress, individuals associated with regional universities, hobbyists, amateur enthusiasts, and commercial companies have all sought to document the rich Appalachian musical heritage on sound recordings. These recordings, numbering into the thousands, range from one- of-a-kind recordings preserved only in archives to recordings reproduced on mass-produced phonograph albums that have sold thousands of copies. While some important recordings of Appalachian performers have been made out- side the region, the vast majority have been recorded within Appalachia on back porches and in front rooms, in churches and meeting halls, as well as in temporary studios set up in hotel rooms, rented buildings, and radio stations.

Although Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, phonograph recordings of Appalachian music were not made until the 1920s. In June 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson, from north Georgia, recorded two songs for the OKeh label, and the commercial success of this recording sparked interest among the makers of Victrola records in “old time” or “hill country” music. Record companies first sought to meet this demand by hiring New York City studio musicians such as singer Vernon Dalhart to imitate the old southern style, but it was soon apparent that many of their customers wanted the real thing. From 1924 to 1928, record companies coaxed a number of Appalachian musicians into traveling to studios in New York or Chicago to record. These musicians included such major figures as fiddler Uncle Am Stuart, banjoist and singer Samantha Bumgarner, singer Henry Whitter, singer and bandleader Ernest V. Stoneman, fiddler Dedrick Harris, guitarist Frank Hutchison, banjoist Dock Boggs, fiddler and singer G. B. Grayson, string bands the Hill Billies and Da Costa Woltz (with Ben Jarrell and Frank Jenkins), and the band led by Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers. Such trips were expensive and time-consuming, and many older musicians simply refused to travel. Major record companies soon decided it was to their advantage to go to the musicians, and the era of commercial field recordings began.

By far the best known and most dramatic of these sessions took place in Bristol, Tennessee, in July and August of 1927. However, the first such session to take place within Appalachia was an expedition to Asheville, North Carolina, in late August 1925 sponsored by OKeh Records. Like the later Bristol sessions, the Asheville session was directed by Ralph Peer, a Kansas City–born, New York–based producer who had earlier supervised the first recordings of rural blues in 1920 and of Fiddlin’ John Carson. Peer set up a “recording laboratory” in a small room on the roof of the George Vanderbilt Hotel and within two weeks had recorded some fifty-nine masters of local musicians, including Stoneman, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Kelly Harrell, fiddler John D. Weaver, and other purveyors of what newspaper accounts called “folk lore songs of the mountain land.” Although Peer himself told local reporters that “the superior quality of the air” around Asheville made for excellent recordings and that OKeh planned to record there again, this 1925 session would be the only commercial one held in the city. However, some six weeks later, folklorist Robert W. Gordon, later to become the first head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, came into the area with a cylinder recorder and recorded some of the same musicians for noncommercial archival purposes. Despite a vastly inferior sound than the OKeh commercial sides, the 202 cylinders that Gordon recorded featured a wider range of music, including unaccompanied ballads.

By the summer of 1927, Peer, then working for the Victor Talking Machine Company, had acquired new electric carbon microphones developed by Western Electric and had taken his recording crew to Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans. On July 22, he and his crew drove into Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, for a two-week stay, renting the second and third floors of an empty building at 408 State Street (on the Tennessee side of that street). For the first week, Peer had scheduled specific musicians he wanted to record, including Stoneman. For the second week, he planned to hold open auditions and see who showed up. Sparked by colorful newspaper stories, musicians from as far as a hundred miles away came to audition, and Peer generated some seventy-six recordings. The results represented a cross-section of Appalachian music: vaudeville entertainers (the Johnson Brothers); gospel groups (Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Quartet); buskers and singers of topical ballads (Blind Alfred Reed); string bands (the Tenneva Ramblers and the West Virginia Coon Hunters); and family groups (the Shelor Family, Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker, and the Carter Family). Along with another unknown act, a young singer named Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family made the session legendary; within a year, both the Carter Family and Rodgers would have national reputations and see their records become some of the biggest sellers in the new country music industry. Peer did a follow-up session in Bristol in the fall of 1928, which produced an additional sixty-four recordings by some of the groups Peer had recorded in 1927 as well as by Clarence Greene, the gospel-singing Stamps Quartet, two African American musicians named Tarter and Gay, and banjoist Shortbuckle Roark.

Impressed by the sales success that Victor and OKeh had achieved with commercial releases of their field sessions, rival record companies wasted no time in initiating their own “old-time music” series and in sending their talent scouts into Appalachia. In late September 1927, shortly after Peer left Bristol, his former colleague Polk C. Brockman led an OKeh crew into Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a session that drew such performers as the Aiken County (South Carolina) String Band, Wanda and Ruth Neal, Dudley Vance’s Tennessee Breakdowners, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers and his Family, and Crockett Ward and his band (who recorded their well-known version of “Sugar Hill”). In February 1928, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company held a session in Ashland, Kentucky, in the back room of Carter’s Phonograph and Music Shop on Sixteenth Street. There, artist and repertoire agent James O’Keefe supervised some thirty recordings of such musicians as Lunsford (including the first recording of the song “Mountain Dew”), Clark Kessinger, gospel singers Welling and McGhee, Roy Harvey, the Tennessee Ramblers, Caplinger’s Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, and Jack Ready’s Walker Mountain String Band. Most of these recordings were issued on the Brunswick label, and some of them sold well, but the company never returned to Ashland.

Victor’s archrival, Columbia Records, apparently felt uneasy about following Ralph Peer into Bristol but did not hesitate to set up field recording sessions in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee, in October 1928 and October 1929. In charge of Columbia’s program was Frank Walker, who had discovered the Skillet Lickers earlier in Atlanta and who would in later years become the recording supervisor for Hank Williams Sr. Locating his studio in an empty cream- separating station, Walker ran advertisements in the local newspapers asking, “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” Very few of the musicians who responded to these ads had been at the Peer sessions—a testimony to the depth of musical talent in the Tri-Cities area. In 1928 Walker recorded fifty-seven masters in Johnson City by, among others, the Grant Brothers, Jimmy McCarroll and his Roane County (Tennessee) Ramblers, Richard Greene, and Earl Shirkey and Roy Harper. The following year an additional sixty-five titles were recorded in Johnson City, including some of the best-known recordings of Appalachian music: Clarence “Tom” Ashley’s banjo song “The Coo-Coo Bird,” Byrd Moore’s “Frankie Silvers,” and the Bentley Boys’ “Down on Penny’s Farm.” Virtually all of these titles were performed by white musicians, with the exception of “Buttermilk Blues,” by black harmonica player Ellis Williams.

By 1929, field recording activity by commercial companies was starting to taper off—the depression would soon curtail such sessions altogether. In August 1929 and again in April 1930, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company brought equipment from its Chicago headquarters to Knoxville and set up temporary studios at radio station WNOX in the Saint James Hotel. Several “staff musicians,” including fiddler Lowe Stokes and promoter Bill Brown, were hired to augment the local musicians on records. The company’s arrival garnered a full page of stories in the local newspaper. Most of the performers in Knoxville came from the east Tennessee– southern Kentucky area and included the popular family band the Tennessee Ramblers, Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, blues singers Leola Manning and Will Bennett, the Southern Moon- light Entertainers (comprised of the Rainey Family), and the harmony duo Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac and Bob). Two especially significant recordings were made by a local black string band headed by fiddler Howard Armstrong (called the Tennessee Trio) and by banjoist and songster Hays Shepherd (billed as the Appalachian Vagabond). The two Knoxville sessions yielded 157 sides, most of them released on the Vocalion label. In October 1929, OKeh staged a session in Richmond, Virginia, recording 92 sides; many of these were of non-Appalachian African American vocal groups, but some important mountain performers made recordings, including Bela Lam and his Green County Singers, fiddler Babe Spangler, and Fields Ward.

All told, commercial companies made slightly more than seven hundred high-quality sound recordings in Appalachia during the 1920s. This figure does not include those made outside the area by Appalachian musicians in Charlotte, Atlanta, New York City, Chicago, Memphis, and other sites. These recordings were not documents designed to preserve a region’s music in an archive; they were commercial products that were widely distributed. Extant sales figures suggest that an average commercial release of these recordings sold approximately five thousand copies; more than a few sold in the twenty thousand range. Major hits by the Carter Family sold up to one hundred thousand copies. The 78s on which these recordings were released were playable mainly on Victrolas and were fragile and easily worn out. However, many of the 1920s-era recordings were reissued on LPs in the 1960s and 1970s and subsequently on compact discs; numerous of these recordings are currently available in various historical compact disc anthologies.

Commercial recording of traditional Appalachian musicians by no means ceased in the 1930s and 1940s, but it shifted to centers such as Charlotte and Atlanta. In the meantime, folklorists, inspired by the 1920s work of Robert W. Gordon, used early disc recording machines to document their own research in Appalachia. Of the recordings these folklorists  made in the region, few were reproduced or made available on commercial releases, but most were housed in various public archives. In 1937 Alan and Elizabeth Lomax traveled through eastern Kentucky, where they recorded such musicians as ban- joist Pete Steele and fiddler W. M. Stepp. The latter’s recording of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” became so well known it was later incorporated into a ballet by composer Aaron Copland. In 1939 folklorist Herbert Halpert recorded ballad singer Horton Barker, of Chilhowie, Virginia, for the Library of Congress. In 1941 and 1942, Alan Lomax recorded the woman he considered the state’s finest singer, Texas Gladden, of Salem, Virginia, as well as her brother, instrumentalist Hobart Smith, of Saltville. In West Virginia, Professor Louis Watson Chappell began a private program of field recording that would last more than ten years. In Tennessee, another professor, William Kirkland, obtained a disc-cutting machine and documented the musical culture around Knoxville. Teams from the Library of Congress did extensive recordings of the Harmon Family in Cades Cove in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and her husband, Tilman Cadle, traveled through the Kentucky coalfields recording union and protest songs. After World War II, a new generation of folklorists entered Appalachia with tape recorders and video recorders. For example, in the 1960s, Thomas G. Burton and Ambrose N. Manning, working from their base at East Tennessee State University, chronicled the ballad singing tradition of the Beech Mountain area in nearby Watauga County, North Carolina.

The late 1940s also saw the rise of a number of independent record companies based in Appalachia. The most successful was Rich-R-Tone, owned and operated by Johnson City businessman Jim Stanton. Rich-R-Tone made the first recordings of several major performers, including the Stanley Brothers, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Buffalo Johnson, the Bailey Brothers, and the Church Brothers; a subsidiary label, Folk Star, released recordings by lesser-known performers. Acme Records, owned by Clifford Spurlock, of Columbia, Kentucky, flourished in the early 1950s and featured a series of new recordings by A. P. and Sara Carter. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge and Cozy labels helped document early bluegrass. Through the 1950s, the Shadow label, based in Bristol, Tennessee, released recordings by local musicians on a series of 45 rpm singles. 

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MLA Style

"Field Recording Sessions," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2014, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 20 Dec 2014 <http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=81>

APA Style

"Field Recording Sessions." (2014) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved December 20, 2014, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=81