One of the truly great folksingers to record in the 1920s—years before the folk revivals of the early 1940s or 1960s—was Bradley Kincaid. Popular on radio and records, and with a successful series of songbooks, he helped to disseminate the numerous American folk songs he had collected and bring them to the listening public in a way that academics like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg could not approach, and he always he did so in a most respectful and dignified manner. We have briefly discussed Kincaid once before on Old Time Blues, but that was in the early days, before the now high standard of quality had been established, and the accompanying text was rather lacking, so now let us direct our attention once again to the “Kentucky Mountain Boy”.
William Bradley Kincaid was born on July 13, 1895, in the village of Point Leavell in Garrard County, Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. One of the ten children of poor farmer William P. Kincaid, he received little formal education in his early years, but began his musical pursuits at a very young age, when his father—an amateur musician himself—traded one of their hound dogs for a guitar to give to young Bradley (or so the story goes). When old enough to work, he got a job at a lunch counter in nearby Stanford, Kentucky, but soon left the position to fight for Uncle Sam in the German War. On his return home, he took a job at a Cincinnati tailoring firm. He also continued his education at Berea College, having attended their Foundation School for two years prior to his service to complete the sixth through eighth grades. While there, he began to collect songs and became more seriously interested in folk music; he also met music teacher Irma Forman, whom he would later marry. From Berea, Kincaid moved onward and upward to the YMCA College in Chicago in 1924, where he earned a four year degree in 1928. As a singer in the YMCA College Quartet, he made his radio debut on Sear-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago in 1926. Soon afterward, he began appearing on the station regularly as a cast member of the National Barn Dance program on the recommendation of the Quartet’s manager. Soon, the fan mail began to pour in—Kincaid reportedly received 100,000 letters in every year of his time on the Barn Dance.
As a professional singer, Kincaid repudiated the “hillbilly” stereotype (or “Hilly Billy,” as he put it) that was so prevalent since country music styles first found commercial success, instead presenting himself as an educated and sophisticated folksinger—pioneering (alongside Buell Kazee and Bascom Lamar Lunsford) a similar mold to that in which folk musicians like Pete Seeger would model themselves in subsequent decades. A year into his tenure on the National Barn Dance, Kincaid made his recording debut for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett records and their numerous client labels. The year after that, he published his first songbook, titled Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, the success of which made it the first in a series of thirteen, and which purportedly made him the first of many country singing stars to do so. Additionally, “Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog” guitars, manufactured by Harmony, were sold by Sears-Roebuck, the proprietors of the station that hosted the National Barn Dance. Kincaid departed WLS and the Barn Dance in 1929 and made for WLW in Cincinnati and a Brunswick Records deal. Subsequently, he performed on WGY, Schenectady, and WHAM, Rochester, in New York, and began recording for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label in 1933, and for Decca in ’34. For the latter, he made a series of Irish records rather outside of his typical repertoire. After leaving completing his Decca recordings in 1935, Kincaid did not record again for quite some time. While appearing on WBZ in Boston alongside banjo player Marshall Jones, he nicknamed the young musician “Grandpa” for his cantankerous demeanor. In 1944, Kincaid joined the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, holding that position for five years. After World War Two, he recorded again for Majestic Records in 1947 and ’47, and briefly for Captiol around 1950. Thereafter, he bought and owned WWSO in Springfield, Ohio, from 1949 until 1953, at which point he retired from performing professionally and opened a music store. He recorded occasionally during his retirement, in 1963 and ’73, and sang for small audiences, but mostly enjoyed a quiet life. In 1988, at the age of ninety-three, Bradley Kincaid was seriously injured in a car accident, from which he never fully recovered. He died the following year, on September 23, 1989, in Springfield, Ohio, the town he had called home for some forty years.
Supertone 9208 was recorded around February 28, 1928, and December 19, 1927, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois. Bradley Kincaid sings and accompanies himself on his “Houn’ Dog Guitar”. It was also issued on Silvertone 5187 and 8218. Split up, side “A” also appeared on Superior 2588, while side “B” appeared on Gennett 6363 and Champion 15502, and on Melotone 45008 in Canada.
Firstly, Kincaid sings a charming rendition of one of my favorite cowboy songs: “Bury Me On the Prairie”. Kincaid’s pleasant tenor voice and straightforward delivery afforded him widespread appeal with early radio audiences.
Nextly is the old folk song “Sweet Kitty Wells”, notably the namesake of the popular country singer of the 1950s onward, recorded at Kincaid’s very first recording session.