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.

Victor 20971 – Blue Steele and his Orchestra – 1927

Blue Steele. From 1930 Victor catalog.

Blue Steele. From 1930 Victor catalog.

Perhaps the most commercially successful territory band of the 1920s was that of Blue Steele, who toured the southern United States in the 1920s and 1930s.  In addition to his success in music, Steele was also one of the more interesting characters of the 1920s territory band scene.

The man known as Blue Steele was born Eugene Staples on March 11, 1893 or 1897 in Arkansas.  According to legend, his nickname came from a metal plate he had in his head after being wounded in the Great War.  Perhaps caused by that injury, he was also known for his short temper and erratic behavior.  He started out playing trombone and mellophone in Watson’s Bell Hops, before starting his own band in 1925.  Although Steele filled his band with great musicians, because of his unstable personality and often poor treatment of his employees—he was known to have a habit of throwing punches right into the bells of his band members’ brass instruments—they tended not to stay with him for long, and we can thank Steele for bringing us a number of great talents by scaring them out of his band.  Quite a number of his musicians, including reed man and vocalist Kenny Sargent and guitarist, banjoist, and arranger Gene Gifford moved on to the Casa Loma Orchestra, a band known for their strict code of conduct, which may have been a welcome change from their prior engagement.  Nevertheless, Steele continued to lead successful bands well into the 1950s, despite becoming increasingly unstable as years passed; as legend has it, he murdered a tax agent in Atlanta “for no apparent reason.”  Blue Steele died July 7, 1971.

Victor 20971 was recorded August 26, 1927 in Savannah, Georgia, the first, and probably most successful record by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.  The personnel includes Frank Krisher and Frank Martinez on trumpets, Blue Steele on trombone and mellophone, Sunny Clapp on trombone, Kenny Sargent on clarinet, alto and baritone sax, Roger Sanford on alto sax, Pete Schmidt on tenor sax, Ted Delmarter on banjo and/or guitar, Sol Lewis on piano, Marvin Longfellow on tuba, and Tom Summers on drums.  The session was supervised by Ralph Peer.

The first side of this disk features a waltz, but all you pep-purists never fear, for it’s a good waltz, in fact it’s the first recording of Sunny Clapp’s “Girl of My Dreams, I Love You”.  Kenny Sargent sings the vocal on this side.

Girl of My Dreams, I Love You

Girl of My Dreams, I Love You, recorded August 26, 1927 by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play a peppy tune, “Sugar Babe, I’m Leavin’!”.  In my opinion, this is just about the zenith of music, pretty much perfection.  A vocal trio consisting of Sargent, Pete Schmidt and Steele himself sings on this side.  It’s bandleader Steele that completes this side with his interjection of, “and that’s Sugar Babe.”

Sugar Babe, I'm Leavin'!

Sugar Babe, I’m Leavin’!, recorded August 26, 1927 by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.