Victor P-79 – Smoky Mountain Ballads – 1941

In the year of 1941, the venerable folklorist and song collector John A. Lomax—best remembered for his 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, his field recordings made for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and his discovery of the legendary Lead Belly—set out, at the age of seventy-four, to assemble a groundbreaking album of folk music from the Great Smoky Mountains of the southeastern United States.  He selected from the catalog of the Victor record company (and their subsidiary label Bluebird) a total of ten masters of traditional mountain folk music recorded by relatively contemporary musicians and groups by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family.  It was late in his illustrious career, and only one of the numerous remarkable accomplishments to his name.

The album cover for Smoky Mountain Ballads, edited by John A. Lomax.

John Avery Lomax was born on September 23, 1867, in Goodman, Mississippi, but he got to Texas as fast as he could.  His parents James Avery and Susan Frances Lomax brought the family by wagon to “the low cedar-clad hills of Bosque County,” north of Meridian, Texas, where young John was reared.  Growing up on what was then the western frontier, Lomax was exposed to cowboy ballads and folk songs sung by a former slave hired to work on the family farm, and he began to do what had seldom yet been done: collect them and write them down.  At twenty-one, he left farm life behind and enrolled in college in Granbury.  After graduating, he became a schoolteacher around the region of his upbringing.  In 1895, he entered the University of Texas in Austin, graduating two years later with a major in English literature.  While there, he showed his collection of folk songs to one of his English professors, who decried them “cheap and unworthy.”  The dejected Lomax then burned them behind his dormitory and turned his focus to his studies.  After his graduation, he married Bess Brown—with whom he would have four children, Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess—and taught English for a stretch at Texas A&M.  In 1907, he attended Harvard as a graduate student under Professors Barret Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge.  Unlike his professor at U.T., they encouraged his interest in cowboy songs and ultimately helped him receive a Sheldon grant to research them.  Thus, in 1910, at the age of forty-three, John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, with a foreword by former president Theodore Roosevelt, the first in a series of song collections he would compile.  With U.T. professor Leonidas Payne, he also established the Texas Folklore Society in 1909.  From 1910, Lomax also worked an administrative job at the University of Texas, until Texas governor Jim “Pa” Ferguson’s feud with academics got him fired in 1917.  So he moved to Chicago to work as a banker in a firm operated by the son of one of his former professors, and later worked with U.T. alumni groups after Ferguson’s impeachment.

After his wife passed in 1931, at his son John Jr.’s encouragement, Lomax set off on a lecture tour that ultimately resulted in his involvement in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song.  Having previously recorded some Texas folksingers like Newton Gaines on wax cylinders, he arranged with the Archive to provide him with portable recording equipment, with which he would traverse the American South in search of traditional folksingers to record for posterity in the Library of Congress, preferably ones untainted by the influence of modern popular culture—those who still adhered to an older tradition.  With his son Alan behind the wheel of his Ford sedan, the Lomaxes began their journey in their home state of Texas in June of 1933, visiting rural prison farms in search of musical convicts whose incarceration had separated their traditional repertoires from the dissemination of popular music.  They were first turned away at the gates of the prison in Huntsville, but they soon found success when they arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas.  There, they discovered sixty-three-year-old James “Iron Head” Baker and seventy-one-year-old Moses “Clear Rock” Platt,two “habitual criminals” who had spent the better part of their lives in the Texas prison system.  Lomax recorded them singing hollers such as “Go Down Old Hannah”, “Old Rattler”, and “Black Betty”, ultimately making return trips to collect more of their music.  Lomax eventually grew fond of “Iron Head”, and send him small amounts of money, which were reciprocated in the form of small handcrafted trinkets.  Eventually, Lomax secured Baker’s parole to act as his assistant, though the arrangement was short-lived.  Soon after, they ventured on to Louisiana, where they paid a visit to the State Penitentiary at Angola.  Locked away behind the prison walls was a singer and guitarist who would become Lomax’s greatest discovery: the forty-five-year-old Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.  After recording Lead Belly in several performances in July of 1933, Lomax returned a year later with superior equipment to capture more of his extensive repertoire in better quality.  This time, Lead Belly requested that Lomax deliver a song he had prepared as a plea for his pardon to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly was released later that year (though the state insisted that the song had nothing to do with it).  Required to find work or face re-incarceration, Lead Belly convinced Lomax to take him on as a driver and aide in his travels. Ultimately, Lomax traveled several hundred-thousand miles and preserved hundreds of songs by numerous performers, both in and out of prison, for the Library of Congress.

With Lead Belly along, Lomax went back to Yankeeland to begin a new series of lecture tours featuring the folksinger.  Not long afterward, the partnership between the folklorist and the folksinger ended quite acrimoniously, as Lead Belly sued Lomax for payment that he believed had been withheld—though they later recovered a friendly acquaintanceship.  In 1934, he remarried, to Miss Ruby Terrill, whom he had first met in 1921 while she was the dean of women at the East Texas State Normal College in Commerce.  His associated with the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Music continued after his field work had more-or-less concluded.  In 1947, with his son Alan, he wrote and published Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, a memoir of his life on the road in search of America’s native song.  John A. Lomax died from a stroke on January 26, 1948; an ailing Lead Belly gave his last concert in Austin, Texas, honoring the late folklorist.  His legacy was carried on by his sons John Jr., Alan, and Bess, and his influence continued to be felt, both in the field of folklore scholarship and in folk music for the decades to come.

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Keynote 106 – Talking Union – 1941

As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops.  As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights.  In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music.  In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”

The album cover of Talking Union;  “Dedicated to the Memory of Joe Hill.”

The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics.  Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well.  They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one.  Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill.  “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed.  In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores.  Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label.  Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work.  Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album.  Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song.  As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43.  The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.

Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303.  It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July.  The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar.  The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.

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Victor 19171 – Wendell Hall – 1923

One of the foremost exponents of the ukulele craze in the 1920s, Wendell Hall—the Red Headed Music Maker—enjoyed a fruitful career beginning with his introduction of the wildly popular “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, and could perhaps be viewed among the earliest artists to “cross over” from popular to hillbilly style music.

Wendell Woods Hall was born on August 23, 1896, the youngest of three sons born to minister George and church organist Laura Hall of St. George, Kansas.  His family moved to Chicago around the turn of the century, and there young Wendell got his start in music.  He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, but fell ill during the flu epidemic the following year and did not see combat; instead, he spent some time entertaining his fellow troops following his recovery.  Following his return home, he found work as a song plugger for the sheet music industry.  Before long, he struck out on the vaudeville circuit singing and playing the xylophone, but soon—like his contemporary Cliff Edwards—switched to the more inexpensive and portable ukulele.  On occasion, he was known to double on guitar or tiple.  He began publishing popular songs in the early 1920s, and by 1923 he’d arrived in New York to embark on a successful career as a radio and recording artist.  He made his debut on September 28, 1923, in a session for Gennett records, cutting the first of several versions of his big hit “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  The following month, he re-did the number for Edison and Victor, beginning a successful engagement with the latter which produced a string of popular records and lasted until 1933, interrupted by brief stints for Brunswick in 1925 and ’26 and for Columbia in 1927.  Hall’s rural-flavored novelty songs often blurred the line between popular and “hillbilly” music, and he frequently collaborated with the country guitarist, whistler, and fellow Kansan Carson J. Robison, who made his first records with Hall.  With the smash success of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” and other successful records behind his belt, Hall introduced and marketed a signature “Red Head” model of ukulele, manufactured by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, and instructional booklets on “Wendell Hall’s Ukulele Method”.  He remained a popular radio artist into the 1930s after the Great Depression had killed off his record career, but began to falter as the ukulele fell from favor later in the decade.  Nonetheless, he remained an active musician and music publisher, and made a brief comeback in the early 1950s.  Wendell Hall died on April 2, 1969 in Mobile, Alabama, and was buried in Manhattan, Kansas.

Victor 19171 was recorded in New York City on October 12, 1923.  It was released on the twenty-third of the following month.  It reportedly sold more than two million copies, and Hall later re-recorded both sides electrically on July 29, 1925, to keep them technologically up-to-date.  This record was transferred at 76.59 RPM, as is widely accepted for acoustical Victor records of this era.

Firstly, the Pineapple Picador sings his biggest hit composition, that old chestnut “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  Hall later followed up with the “Second Installment” in 1925 and “Part 3” in 1933.  The simple but humorous ditty proved enormously popular with artists in a wide range of genres.

It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Actually recorded first at the session, Hall sings his “theme” song “Red Headed Music Maker” on the “B” side, interpolating “Red Hot Blues”.

Red Headed Music Maker, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Sunrise S-3269 – The Girls of the Golden West – 1933

The Girls of the Golden West, Dolly and Millie Good, pictured on an advertisement for XER, Villa Acuña, Mexico, circa 1932-’33.  Possibly previously unpublished online.

Probably the obscurest of any of Victor’s Depression-era offshoot labels, Sunrise was produced by the RCA Victor Company in conjunction with Bluebird and Electradisk for a period of nine months, from August of 1933 up to May of ’34.  Timely Tunes—Victor’s previous foray into the world of budget records—supposedly lasted only three, but they seem to turn up a whole lot more often!  No one seems to really know for certain exactly why they were made at all.  Electradisks were produced for Woolworth’s stores, so perhaps they were made for sale at some store that folded because of the Depression.  Another leading hypothesis suggests that they were made for sale at gigs by the artists appearing on the label, a known practice in the 78 era.  What is known about them is that they are exceedingly difficult to find.  There are a total of 386 issues assigned to the label according to the DAHR, including popular, jazz, blues, and hillbilly music, but not all of them have been confirmed to have any existing copies—eight of them are explicitly noted as “not issued.”

That’s not to say, however, that the appeal of the label outweighs the musical content of the record.  The Girls of the Golden West were top names in radio game of the Great Depression-era, when America got bit by the Western bug.  Sisters Mildred and Dorothy Goad, born April 11, 1913 and December 11, 1915, respectively, were born in southern Illinois and reared in East St. Louis (though they later claimed to hail from the west Texas town of Muleshoe). They took up singing while children, and when they turned professional they changed their names to Millie and Dolly Good, and a family friend proffered that they call themselves the “Girls of the Golden West”, probably after the 1905 play of the same name or any of the three motion picture adaptations of it.  While still teenagers, the Girls of the Golden West began singing on local St. Louis radio stations KIL and KMOX, before taking their act to goat gland doctor John R. Brinkley’s “border blaster” station XER in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, which was powerful enough to broadcast their music across most of the United States.  The Girls’ big break came in 1933, when they got a ritzier gig on the Prairie Farmer Station, Sears-Roebuck’s WLS, in Chicago to perform on the National Barn Dance, a predecessor to the WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.  Along with that came their first recording session for RCA Victor, in which the duo cut nine sides to be released on the company’s new Bluebird label.  They continued to record for RCA Victor through the end of 1935, after which they had a session with the American Record Corporation in 1938.  Their success on the Barn Dance brought them as guests onto Rudy Vallée’s NBC radio program, and they stayed on WLS’s roster until 1937, after which they moved to Cincinatti’s WLW to appear on the new Boone County Jamboree, where they remained until after World War II, by which time the show had become the Midwestern Hayride.  The Girls of the Golden West continued singing professionally until their retirement in 1949, after which they focused on homemaking for their families.  They recorded a final time, late in life, for the Fort Worth, Texas-based Bluebonnet Recording Studios.  Millie Good died on November 12, 1967; Dolly survived her by fifteen years, passing on August 4, 1982

Sunrise S-3269 was recorded in Suite 1143 of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, Illinois on July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West: Dolly—who plays the guitar—and Millie Good; their first session for RCA Victor.  As suggested by the label, it also appears on Bluebird B-5189, as well as Electradisk 2082, and Montgomery Ward M-4412.

On the first side—with Dolly strumming that guitar like an automobile engine—the Girls sing “Listen to the Story of Sleepy Hollow Bill”, a fun little prohibition-era outlaw ditty written by the “Melody Man” Joe Davis and published under the pseudonym “Harry Lowe”.

Listen to the Story of Sleepy Hollow Bill, recorded July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West.

On the flip, the Girls sing a classic song of the Golden West right out of John A. Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Harry Stephens’ “Hi O, Hi O (The Night Herding Song)”, in an arrangement by one V. Adams, as Lomax’s published song included no written melody.

Hi O, Hi O (The Night Herding Song), recorded July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West.

Supertone 9208 – Bradley Kincaid (W L S Artist) – 1928/1927

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”.

Bradley Kincaid, as pictured in Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, 1928.

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.

Bury Me On the Prairie, recorded c. February 28, 1928 by Bradley Kincaid.

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.

Sweet Kitty Wells, recorded c. December 19, 1927 by Bradley Kincaid.