Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.
Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks. As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town. While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session. They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”. With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression. In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo. Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.
Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas. There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s. They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience. In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas. They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s. Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell. Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer. He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971. Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.
Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions. Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.
From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.
I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.
On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.
St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.
The Carter Family—Maybelle, Sara, and A.P.—in the late 1920s, pictured in the Victor catalog.
I have written of the illustrious Carter Family before, more than once, but nothing I’ve so far published has done justice to their tremendous impact and legacy. In fact, I doubt whether I would be able to write anything that could honor their legend sufficiently. Nonetheless, I will do my best to pay them a worthy tribute, and I cannot think of a better record to accompany that attempt than the one herein. Not only is it without question among their finest works, but it contains, according to legend, the song that brought the Carters together, and the song that tore them apart.
The saga of the original Carter Family begins with the birth of Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter in Maces Spring, Virginia, on December 15, 1891. The son of Robert C. Carter and Mollie Arvelle Bays, growing up ‘midst the Blue Ridge Mountaintops fostered in the young Carter a love for music, and he took up the fiddle, but never achieved much note for his musicianship on the instrument. Music making did not put food on the table however, and so Carter found work as a traveling salesman, peddling fruit trees. It was in this line of work that he encountered the youthful Sara Elizabeth Dougherty, sitting on her porch and strumming her auto-harp. Far A.P. Carter, it was love at first sight, and they were married on June 18, 1915. In the following decade, Sara’s cousin Maybelle (who was also married to Carter’s brother Ezra) joined the couple and they formed a music group—the Carter Family.
Come the summer of 1927, A.P. got word of a record session to be held in Bristol, Tennessee, about twenty-five miles away from their homeplace in Maces Spring. He convinced Sara and Maybelle to make the journey, and they arrived late on the night of August first, and auditioned for Mr. Ralph S. Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. That day and the next, the Carter Family cut six sides: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”, “Little Log Cabin By the Sea”, “The Poor Orphan Child”, “The Storms are On the Ocean”, “Single Girl, Married Girl”, and “The Wandering Boy”. Their first records were released that November, and proved successful enough to bring the Carters back to the Victor studio for further recordings, and they did so prolifically. Between then and the end of 1934, they waxed over one-hundred-fifty sides for the Victor company. To ensure that the group had enough material to ensure continued financial success, A.P. set out to canvas the mountains in search of good songs, which he then copyrighted in his own name. In one such travel, Carter encountered the black musician Lesley Riddle, and the two became friends. Riddle impressed both his folk repertoire and his method of guitar playing upon the Carters.
In 1935, the Carter Family began recording for the American Record Corporation, but all was not well behind the microphone, for A.P.’s long song-hunting stretches away from his family drove Sara into the arms of A.P.’s cousin Coy Bayes. Sara and A.P.’s marriage dissolved in 1936, but the Carter Family stuck together as a music group for the time being. From 1936 until 1938, they recorded for Decca, before returning to the ARC for a string of records on their Okeh label in 1940. In the meantime, the Carter Family had relocated to Del Rio, Texas, from where they commuted to Mexico to perform on “border blaster” radio station XERA in Villa Acuña, Coahuila. The 500,000 watt station could be heard across most of the United States, and put the sounds of the Carters on the hearth of countless American homes, inspiring a wave of up-and-coming musicians. In some of these radio appearances, they were joined by the Carter children: Janette, Joe, Helen, June, and Anita. In October of 1941, the original Carter Family traveled to New York City to record one final session with the RCA Victor Company, for their Bluebird label. Around that time, they were photographed for a spread in Life magazine, scheduled to be published on December 8, 1941. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurring the very day before, needless to say it was bumped from the publication. And thus, as the war broke out, the original Carter Family broke apart; Sara moved to California with her new husband, A.P. and Maybelle returned to Maces Spring, where he opened a general store.
That was not the end of their story however, Maybelle Carter continued the musical tradition with her children—Helen, Anita, and June—performing as “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters” in the years to come, landing a place on the Grand Ole Opry in 1950 and remaining active until the 1970s. The original member reunited occasionally, as well, resulting in several sessions for Acme Records in the 1950s. A.P. Carter died on November 7, 1960, his dying wish to keep the music alive. Maybelle passed on October 23, 1978. The last surviving member of the original trio, Sara Carter Bayes died on January 8, 1979. A.P. Carter’s last wishes were fulfilled with the establishment of the Carter Family Fold in Maces Spring, Virginia, founded by his daughter Janette in 1979 and devoted to the preservation of old-time Appalachian folk music. The beloved legacy of music put forth by the Carter Family remains indelibly attached to the American experience, and shows no sign of faltering as the years go by.
Victor V-40089 was recorded on February 15th and 14th of 1929, respectively, at Victor’s home in Camden, New Jersey. The Carter Family consists of Sara on auto-harp and Maybelle on guitar, both of course singing. A.P. joins in singing on side “B”.
The story goes that when A.P. Carter met Sara while traveling door-to-door peddling fruit trees, she was sitting out on her porch singing “Engine One-Forty-Three” and playing her auto-harp, and he fell in love at first sight and approached with matrimonial intentions. The song tells the true story of a wreck on the C & O line on October 23, 1890 near Hinton, West Virginia. This recording also bears the distinction of being one of the five songs by the Carter Family that were included by Harry Smith in his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music.
Engine One-Forty-Three, recorded February 15, 1929 by the Carter Family.
While the previous is said to be the song that birthed the Carter Family, the following is said to have eventually broken them up. After her divorce, Sara Carter wasn’t happy performing on border radio with her ex-husband, while her lover Coy Bayes was in California. One show, she dedicated a performance of “I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes” to Bayes, and he rushed down to Del Rio to sweep her off her feet and back west, leaving A.P., Maybelle, and the children to return home to Maces Spring, and thus bringing the story of the original Carter Family to its close. A standard of the Carters’ repertoire, they recorded it twice, and many other artists covered it subsequently.
I’m Thinking To-Night of My Blue Eyes, recorded February 14, 1929 by the Carter Family.
“Now listen ev’rybody from near and far, if you wanta know who we are—we’re the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill!”
For more than eight decades and counting, the national song of the greatest state on earth has been played by the Light Crust Doughboys of Fort Worth, Texas, from their beginnings with Bob Wills and Milton Brown, they were among the earliest groups to pioneer the jazzed up hillbilly music we now call western swing.
The Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill on the air in the early 1940s. From left-to-right: Zeke (Muryel Campbell), Cecil Brower, Bashful (Dick Reinhart), announcer Parker Willson, Abner (Kenneth Pitts), Snub (Ramon DeArman), Junior (Marvin Montgomery), and Knocky Parker. Pictured in the WFAA-KGKO-WBAP 1941 Combined Family Album.
The venerable Light Crust Doughboys got their start in 1931, when W. Lee O’Daniel, a manager of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company in Saginaw, Texas, set out to hire musicians to promote the company’s product on the radio waves. Meanwhile, the Wills Fiddle Band, consisting of fiddler Jim Rob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, were eager to secure a corporate sponsor as the Great Depression tightened its grip. They had previously worked under the employ of an electric lamp company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, and Wills convinced O’Daniel and Burrus to sponsor the act in 1931. Newly christened the “Light Crust Doughboys”, after the flour Burrus produced, they made their radio debut under O’Daniel’s management around the beginning of 1931, with announcer Truett Kimsey establishing their famous introduction: “the Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!” Soon after, O’Daniel canceled the show because he didn’t like their “hillbilly” music. Fortunately, they’d already built a sizable base of fans, and public outcry forced O’Daniel to reinstate their program. The original lineup of Doughboys made one record—against O’Daniel’s wishes—for RCA Victor as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, but it wasn’t long before the members parted ways. Milton Brown got fed up with O’Daniel’s management (he required that they also work factory jobs for Burrus) and left to form his own Musical Brownies, while Bob Wills was fired for consistent unreliability the following year, so a new group of musicians assumed the mantle of Doughboys. By the time the band recorded again in 1933, this time for Vocalion, only Arnspiger remained from its original roster, and new members included Leon Huff and Ramon DeArman. Come 1935, W. Lee O’Daniel was fired from Burrus Mill, and founded his own flour company with a new radio band to match, but the Doughboys stayed put.
All throughout the Great Depression years, thousands of listeners tuned their radios to listen in on the Light Crust Doughboys on stations across the Southwest. On the side, they continued to record successfully for Vocalion (and later Okeh and Columbia, once the label was discontinued in 1940), and even appeared in movies such as the Gene Autry picture Oh, Susanna! In 1936, they hired tenor banjo player Marvin (“Smokey”) Montgomery, who would become a mainstay of the group, composing many of the pieces they played, and eventually becoming the band’s de facto leader. As was so often the case, when World War II rolled in, many band members went off to fight, and Burrus canceled their show in 1942. After the war was through however, the band was reinstated in 1946, fronted by singer and fiddle player Jack Perry, though it never recovered its prewar popularity, and only lasted a few years. Yet an end for the Doughboys wasn’t to be, for in the 1960s, Marvin Montgomery revived the group, and he continued to be involved with the group until shortly before his death in 2001. Management of the group was assumed by Art Greenhaw in 1993, and the Doughboys shifted their focus more toward gospel music. To this day, though the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company is long gone, the Light Crust Doughboys remain the “official music ambassadors of the Lone Star State,” by decree of the state’s legislature.
Vocalion 04560 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on November 30, 1938. The Light Crust Doughboys are Buck Buchanan and Kenneth “Abner” Pitts on fiddles, Muryel “Zeke” Campbell on steel guitar, “Knocky” Parker on piano, Marvin “Junior” (later “Smokey”) Montgomery on tenor banjo and tenor guitar, Ramon “Snub” DeArman on guitar, and Jim Boyd on string bass.
First, Pitts, Montgomery, and DeArman sing and meow Marvin Montgomery’s “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy”, a perfectly innocent little ditty about a young girl who’s looking for her pet cat—honest! This song proved quite a hit in coin machines and even attracted the attention of Fats Waller. The Doughboys followed it up the next year with “We Found Her Little Pussy Cat”, and in fact the song proved popular enough that it remains in the Doughboys’ repertoire even in the modern day.
Pussy, Pussy, Pussy, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.
Next, they take it slow and easy on an instrumental performance of Joe Sullivan’s “Gin Mill Blues”, served as straight up, if rather barrelhouse jazz for the most part, with only a dash of “hillbilly” flavor, highlighting the talent of pianist Knocky Parker.
Gin Mill Blues, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.
Texas-born singer, songwriter, and storyteller Stuart Hamblen made his greatest hit with gospel songs in the 1950s, but many years earlier he got his start as pioneering singing cowboy, and helped push along the birth of “country and western” music in the days when the genre was narily yet zygotic.
Stuart Hamblen, pictured on a 1930 Victor flyer.
Carl Stuart Hamblen was born on October 20, 1908 in Kellyville, Texas, four miles west of Jefferson, the son of itinerant Methodist preacher Dr. J.H. Hamblen. As a boy, he spent much of his time traveling with his father on his evangelical pursuits, eventually taking the young Stuart to Hamlin, Texas, out Abilene way. There he encountered the lore of the western cowboy, and his songs, as well as that of black field hands. He attended McMurry College with intentions to become a teacher, but instead was drawn to music. In 1926, Stuart Hamblen began singing on KFYO in Abilene, by some accounts making him radio’s first singing cowboy. Three years later, he won a talent contest in Dallas, and used the cash prize to secure passage northward to Camden, New Jersey, home of the Victor Talking Machine Company, where he aimed to make some records, following much in the footsteps of his antecedent Carl T. Sprague.
On June 6, 1929, Hamblen made his recording debut with four sides for Victor, singing and strumming his guitar to “The Boy in Blue”, “Drifting Back to Dixie”, “When the Moon Shines Down Upon the Mountain”, and “The Big Rock Candy Mountains, No. 2”. Thereafter, the young man went west, to California, where he became “Cowboy Joe” on Los Angeles’ KFI. Meanwhile, he made a further ten sides for Victor through 1931, culminating with his own popular compositions “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose” and “My Mary”, both later popularly covered by the likes of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown, and others. By the middle of the 1930s, Hamblen had formed a western band called his “Covered Wagon Jubilee” (or simply his “Gang”), which at one point included guitarist Wesley Tuttle, and with whom he recorded again, first making a pair of unreleased sides for the American Record Corporation in 1934, before signing with Decca for another nine that year and the next, of which all but one were released. Those proved to be his last records for nearly a decade, none of which ever seemed to sell very well, and he focused primarily on his radio work. From the late 1930s through the ’40s, Hamblen also appeared in several motion pictures, several of which starred Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne. In 1938, he ran for Congress in California, as a Democrat. During World War II, he wrote and sang some patriotic songs, and recorded again for Russian spy Boris Morros’ American Recording Artists (ARA) label in 1944.
At the height of his singing cowboy fame, Stuart Hamblen built up quite a reputation as a hard drinker, gambler, and all-around hellraiser. He’d get drunk, shoot out streetlights, and get sent to jail, only to have his sponsors bail him out so he could be on the radio the next day. But that changed when Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on his first Crusade in 1949. Hamblen’s wife persuaded him to attend the revival, and the reverend turned his life around. Hamblen experienced a religious awakening, and announced the very next day on his radio program that he was “hitting the sawdust trail.” From then on out, he dedicated his work to sacred music, composing “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and “This Ole House”, and recording far more prolifically—and successfully—than ever before, with sessions for Columbia, RCA Victor, and Coral. He also prominently supported the temperance movement, and, after his radio show was canceled because he refused to do advertise beer, he renewed his political ambitions in 1952 with a presidential run on the Prohibition Party ticket, garnering 72,949 votes. He also remained associated with Billy Graham, who credited much of his success to Hamblen’s timely conversion. Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with “Stuart Hamblen Day” Los Angeles on February 13, 1976 and later with “Stuart Hamblen Days” in Jefferson, Texas. Following a battle with brain cancer, Stuart Hamblen died at the age of eighty on March 8, 1989.
Victor V-40311 was recorded in Hollywood, California on August 21, 1930. It was released on October 17th of that year, and sold a total of 1,826 copies. Hamblen is accompanied by his own guitar, as well as unidentified players on steel guitar and fiddle.
Hamblen sounds rather like Ernest Tubb (who would not make a record for another six years) as he sings and yodels his own composition “Sailor’s Farewell”.
Sailor’s Farewell, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.
On the reverse, he sings a cowboy’s tale of heartache on another original composition: “By the Sleepy Rio Grande”.
By the Sleepy Rio Grande, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.
In Old Time Blues’ continuing cavalcade of Texas’ native music, western swing, we turn our spotlight to the accomplished steel guitarist and composer of such standard songs as “Born to Lose”: Ted Daffan.
Ted Daffan and his Texans, pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941. From left-to-right standing: Buddy Buller, Chuck Keeshan, probably Elmer Christian; seated: Ralph Smith, Ted Daffan, and probably Harry Sorensen.
Theron Eugene Daffan was born in the Beauregard Parish of Louisiana on September 21, 1912, but he got across the border to Texas as fast as he could. He graduated from high school in Houston and later found work there in a musical instrument shop. Inspired by Milton Brown’s music, Daffan became a pioneering user of the electrified steel guitar, following in the footsteps of the Musical Brownies’ Bob Dunn. During the days of the Great Depression, he played steel guitar in Hawaiian radio bands before moving on to Texas swing bands like Shelly Lee Alley’s Alley Cats and the Bar-X Cowboys. In 1939, Daffan composed “Truck Driver’s Blues”, one of the earliest examples of what was to become a common theme in country music—supposedly Daffan would see truck drivers come into restaurants while he was dining and go straight for the jukebox, and he wanted a part of that racket—which became a hit for Cliff Bruner’s Boys and the Light Crust Doughboys. As a result of that success, Daffan was signed by CBS in 1940 to record with his own band, the Texans, for their Okeh label. With his Texans, Daffan had hits with “Worried Mind”, “I’m a Fool to Care”, and “Born to Lose”, all compositions of his own, and all of which became standards in their own right. Like Bob Wills, Daffan relocated to California in the 1940s and led a band there, but only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Texas. After World War II, he began shifting his career focus away from playing and recording music and more toward songwriting and publishing, and he founded and owned both record and music publishing companies. Ted Daffan died in Houston on October 6, 1996.
Okeh 05668 was recorded on April 25, 1940 at the Burrus Mill Studio in Saginaw, Texas. It is Ted Daffan and his Texans’ first record. Daffan’s Texans are made up of Ted Daffan on lap steel guitar, Sidney “Buddy” Buller on electric tenor guitar, Chuck Keeshan on second guitar, Harry Sorensen on accordion, Ralph Smith on piano, and Elmer Christian on string bass.
The first side the Texans recorded, Chuck Keeshan sings the Tommy Duncan-style vocal on Daffan’s own composition, the classic “Worried Mind”.
Worried Mind, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.
On the flip-side, Daffan showcases his steel-guitar playing abilities on the instrumental “Blue Steel Blues”.
Blue Steel Blues, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.