Okeh 4890 – Fiddlin’ John Carson – 1923

If there is a figure more deserving of the title of “Father of Country Music” than Jimmie Rodgers, one such contender is Fiddlin’ John Carson, who, while not the first to make records of what could be called “country music,” was undoubtedly one of the first to find great success doing it.

John William Carson was born in the north of Georgia—county of Cobb or Fannin—on the twenty-third of March, though there is dispute as to which year, probably 1874, though some sources suggest 1868 (earlier census documents, as well as his death certificate, agree with the later date, while later ones support the earlier year).  Before turning to life as a musician, Carson found work on the farm and railroad, as a jockey, making moonshine, and in an cotton mill.  In 1913, Carson participated in the first Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming in fourth in the fiddling contest.  He went on to take home first prize from the Convention a total of seven times between 1914 and 1922, earning him the nickname “Fiddlin’ John”.  In the cradle days of radio broadcasting, Carson made his debut on the Atlanta Journal station WSB on September 9, 1922 to great public acclaim.  Soon after, he was noticed by Atlanta furniture dealer and Okeh record distributor Polk C. Brockman, who spotted Carson in a newsreel of a fidders’ convention, and persuaded Okeh record man Ralph S. Peer to record the fiddler.  On the fourteenth of June, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first record at 24 Nassau Street (now 152 Nassau Street NW) in Atlanta, cutting only two sides.  Peer reportedly thought the two tunes were “plu-perfect awful,” but released the record nonetheless, and was surprised when sales took off like a skyrocket.  Whatever Peer’s personal taste, he was too smart to pass up a sure thing, and it was clear that the people wanted what Carson had to offer.  Before Carson’s recording career began, fiddler’s Don Richardson and A.C. “Eck” Robertson had made records of “country” music, in 1914 and 1922 respectively, but both did so only sporadically and without enormous success.  Carson, on the other hand, began recording prolifically in the wake of his debut session.  Five months after cutting his first two sides, Fiddlin’ John traveled to New York City for another session, this time laying down a total of twelve sides, a number of which, like “You Will Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” and “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down”, achieved considerable success.

Though far from the most skilled fiddler or talented singer, Carson appealed to record-buyers of the 1920s with his folksy manner and archaic sound that evoked memories of simpler times, which many longed for in the days of fast living, T-Model Fords, and New South industrialization.  Carson was also politically active within his state of Georgia, and used his music as a tool to further those ends, such as to promote the populist Democrat Tom Watson, or to condemn the accused Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan.  He continued to record for Okeh until 1931, producing a total of 155 sides, of which all but seventeen were released.  Many of those featured his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, and band the Virginia Reelers.  Three years after concluding his engagement with Okeh, Carson went to Camden, New Jersey, to begin a new series of recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, an arrangement which only lasted but two consecutive sessions in February of 1934.  In those two marathon sessions, Carson, with Moonshine Kate, guitarist Bill Willard, and banjoist Marion “Peanut” Brown, recorded twenty-four sides, all of which but four were released, many of which were re-dos of his popular Okeh recordings.  Thereafter, he retired from professional musicianship.  In his later years he worked as an elevator operator in the state capitol of Georgia.  Fiddlin’ John Carson died in Atlanta on December 11, 1949.

Okeh 4890 was recorded around June 14, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia.  These are takes “B” and “A”, respectively, both the earlier of two released takes of each side (only the latter of which are listed as issued in the DAHR).

Firstly we hear Carson’s history-making performance of the once-popular 1871 minstrel song by Will S. Hays: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Nextly, Fiddlin’ John delivers an equally rustic performance of “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow”.

The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Okeh 45317 – W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith – 1929

One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.

The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar.  Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives.  Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box.  He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions.  When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt.  At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record.  Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928.  Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia.  That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”.  Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers.  They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas.  After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings.  In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides.  Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively.  Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon.  Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday.  Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.

Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session.  Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar.  Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind).  Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.

“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”.  They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”.  The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.

Charleston No. 1, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right.  Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.

Carroll County Blues, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Gold Star 662 – Lightnin’ Hopkins – 1949

Dating to four years after the close of the second World War, these two sides are a little past the typical era of material presented on Old Time Blues, but their excellence earns them a position among the ancients.  They are the work of the artist who succeeded Blind Lemon Jefferson as “King of the Texas Blues”—and perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the earth—the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The man who would become “Lightnin'” was born Sam John Hopkins on the fifteenth of March in either 1911 or 1912, in Centerville, Texas, located halfway between Dallas and Houston.  He moved with his mother to neighboring Leona after the death of his father in 1915.  While attending a church picnic in nearby Buffalo, Texas, around the year 1920, the eight-year-old Hopkins encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was providing music for the function.  Jefferson instilled the blues in Hopkins, and the young boy was inspired to build a cigar box guitar for himself and start down the path of a musician.  He began his musical career with Jefferson—who purportedly scolded the young musician for joining in his music-making, but allowed him the rare privilege of playing alongside him once he became aware of Hopkins’ age—and his cousin “Texas” Alexander.

By the middle of the 1920s, Hopkins was living as an itinerant musician, a streak which was cut short by a stretch spent in the Houston County Prison Farm, on charges unknown.  After his release, Hopkins returned to his hometown and found work as a farmhand, giving up music for a short time.  By the end of the Second World War,  Hopkins had picked up his guitar once again and went back to Houston to sing on street corners.  There, in 1946, he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum, a talent scout for the Los Angeles, California-based Aladdin Records.  Hopkins traveled to California, and made his first records accompanying Texas piano man Wilson “Thunder” Smith, which gained him his nickname “Lightnin'”.  Recording a total of forty-three sides for Aladdin between 1946 and ’48, Hopkins went on to make discs for numerous other labels over the course of his long career.  He settled in Houston by the beginning of the 1950s, and began recording for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label, producing some hit records such as “‘T’ Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm”.

Already popular with southern black audiences, Lightnin’ became endeared to the folk and blues revivalists thanks to the promotion of Texas musicologist Mack McCormick in 1959, and he appeared at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960.  In 1962 he made the album Mojo Hand, introducing the titular song, which was to become a standard of his repertoire.  In 1967, he was the star of Les Blank’s documentary The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  He toured around the world, and made appearances on Austin City Limits in the 1970s, establishing himself as one of the leading country blues figures of his day.  After performing professionally to great acclaim in five consecutive decades, Lightnin’ Hopkins died of esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982.

Gold Star 662 was recorded around July of 1949 at 3104 Telephone Road in Houston, Texas.  Lightnin’ Hopkins sings and accompanies himself on guitar; on side “A”, he is backed on slide guitar by Harding “Hop” Wilson.

Firstly, Hopkins sings “Jail House Blues”, a quintessential country blues song drawing inspiration from the “floating verses” endemic of the blues, and with the slide guitar accompaniment adding a bit of extra zest to Lightnin’s own playing.

Jail House Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

One of Lightnin’s bigger hits of his early career, he sings and plays solo on “‘T’ Model Blues” (“Lord, my starter won’t start this mornin'”)—a masterful blues that sends a shiver right down my spine.

‘T’ Model Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Vocalion 1111 – Furry Lewis – 1927

There are some folks who say that seeing two “elevens” in a row holds some special or otherworldly significance.  Well, I don’t claim to know a thing about that, but I would say that this record does little to refute that proposition, for it constitutes the earliest musical document of a man who would in later years become one of the most beloved ambassadors of the blues during the its latter-day revival: Furry Lewis.

Walter E. Lewis is said to have been born on the sixth of March, likely in 1899 (as suggested by the U.S. Census of 1900), though the man himself claimed to have been born in 1893, and many (older) sources agree with that date.  He hailed originally from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, but grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was nicknamed “Furry” from a young age for reasons now lost to time.  It was probably around the same time that he took up music, starting out on a homemade cigar box guitar.  He claimed that his first “proper” instrument was given to him by the Father of the Blues himself: W.C. Handy.  In his youth, Furry took to a life of hoboing, which cost him his left leg in 1917, after he got it caught in a coupling between train cars in an ill-fated attempt to ride the blinds.  Thereafter, he returned home to Memphis and played around Beale Street.  Sometime in the early 1920s, Furry encountered songster extraordinaire Jim Jackson, who hooked him up with a job performing in Dr. Willie Lewis’s traveling medicine show.

In April of 1927, Furry traveled to Chicago to cut his first two-and-a-half records (and one unissued side) for Vocalion, who promoted him as singing “blues in a real Southern style.” He returned there in October of the same year to make three more records, plus an unreleased recording of “Casey Jones Blues”.  Finally, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made one of their excursions south, Furry cut eight more sides at the Memphis Auditorium on August 28, 1928, which included some of his finest and best known works.  Though not the most sophisticated of guitar players, he was a master of his own style with relaxed competence, and his natural showmanship, combined with exceptional diction and an amiable personality, made him a magnetic performer.  A career in music did not put food on Furry’s table however, and he spent most of his life in obscurity, working odd jobs for the city of Memphis, primarily as a street sweeper.  He still played music professionally—if only part time—at least as late as 1940, at which time he was enumerated by the U.S. Census in Missouri as a forty-four-year-old musician working for the “carnival”, and married to a blues singer by the name of Anny Mae Bell (though in later years he was quoted as saying “what do I need with a wife as long as the other man’s got one”).

In 1952, Harry Smith included Lewis’s two-part Victor recording of “Kassie Jones” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, and when the white folks at large finally came around to appreciating the musical merits of the Afro-American blues during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Furry was among the first of the drove of still-living bluesmen of the genre’s first generation on records to be “rediscovered” (though really he was there all along).  He was recorded in his Memphis home by Samuel B. Charters in 1959, resulting in a Folkways LP which bring him into a greater spotlight than he had ever known before.  As his style of music enjoyed a surge of popularity the likes of which it had never known before, Furry rose to a position of stardom that exceeded that of his contemporaries; while most of the rediscovered blues greats mostly found their greatest success at folk music festivals and such affairs, Furry’s fame brought him a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1974 and a small role in the 1975 Burt Reynolds movie W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and he opened for the Rolling Stones on two occasions.  After enjoying his newfound fame for more than a decade, Furry Lewis died in Memphis of heart failure, complicated by pneumonia, on September 14, 1981.

Vocalion 1111 was recorded on April 20, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  Furry Lewis accompanies himself on his own guitar on side “A”, but on “B” is instead accompanied by Landers Waller on guitar and Charles Johnson on mandolin (one of whom can be heard in the background making comments).

Though some discographies suggest otherwise, the guitar playing on “Rock Island Blues” is unmistakably Furry’s own handiwork, and the melody closely mirrors that of his “Furry’s Blues” and “Good Looking Girl Blues”.

Rock Island Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

On the “B” side, Johnson’s mandolin and Waller’s guitar lend an entirely different atmosphere to “Everybody’s Blues”.

Everybody’s Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

Vocalion 5250 – Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band – 1928

Nearly a decade before the days of Bob Wills and Milton Brown created the mold for the western swing band, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, under leader Otto Gray, paved the way for their style of showmanship with their barnstorming nation-wide touring, widespread radio exposure, exuberant stage presence, and extraordinarily large ten-gallon hats.

Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys on a promotional postcard. Circa 1930.

Officially, the venerable Oklahoma Cowboy Band was founded in 1924 by real cowboy Billy McGinty, born January 1, 1871, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  However, it seems that inklings of the organization existed as early as 1921.  Under McGinty, the band made one record, including the first recording of “Midnight Special”, for Okeh in 1926.  Soon after, McGinty retired from music to focus on his ranch and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, Oklahoma, and the band’s manager and announcer Otto Gray assumed leadership.  Gray was a Stillwater man, born March 2, 1884.  On the side he raised midget cattle on his Oklahoma ranch.

Members came in and out throughout their run, but in their heyday, the band had a fairly steady lineup consisting of three Gray family members: Otto; his wife, the former Florence Opal Powell, known as “Mommie” (February 27, 1888 to November 14, 1950), who sang occasionally; his son Owen (February 3, 1908 to August 12, 1947), who sang and played guitar; the Allen brothers: fiddler Lee “Zeke” and left-handed banjo picker Wade “Hy” Allen (not the same Allen Brothers as the “Chattanooga Boys”); “Chief” Sanders; and Rex, the “wonderful police dog,” the “bark of the air,” who barked in rhythm on their radio shows.  Most of the band members were competent on more than one instrument, and one of their novelties was to “finger one instrument and play another.”

Under Gray’s leadership, the Oklahoma Cowboys toured the vaudeville circuit, and reportedly appeared on over 130 radio station across the States.  On the record, they recorded fifteen sides for Gennett in 1928, of which seven were issued, with an additional two in 1930, followed by eighteen sides for Brunswick/Vocalion from 1928 to 1931, all of which were issued.  In spite of their relatively prolific recording career, their records are quite scarce today.  They shot a one-reeler, titled Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, for Veribest Pictures in 1929 or ’30.  In November, 1930, they published and official songbook, titled Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, which sold for fifty cents a copy and included some hits from their repertoire, such as “Midnight Special” and “Adam and Eve”.  On June 6, 1931, they became the first Western band to be featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. The Oklahoma Cowboys continued to perform into the late 1930s; Otto Gray retired from music in 1936.

Vocalion 5250 was recorded on September 17, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.  The personnel at this session is unconfirmed, but likely includes “Chief” Sanders on fiddle, Wade “Hy” Allen on left handed tenor banjo, Owen “Zeb” Gray on guitar, and another unknown guitarist—quite possibly Lee “Zeke” Allen, seeing as he’s only official band member not accounted for in that listing aside from “Mommie”, but I’m not sure if she played an instrument, and he did play second guitar in their 1929 short film.  Owen Gray performs the vocals on both sides.

First, Zeb tells the story of mankind from Adam to Ford on the humorous “Adam and Eve”.

Adam and Eve, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Next, on a popular hillbilly song and staple of the Oklahoma Cowboys’ repertoire, Zeb tells us all that we shouldn’t—or couldn’t—be doing: (don’t try it, ’cause) “It Can’t Be Done”.

It Can’t Be Done, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.