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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Bluebird B-8621 – Riley Puckett – 1940

Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.

With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.

George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894.  He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark.  Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll.  Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”.  He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs.  On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB.  In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions.  His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records.  After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series.  After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”.  A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve.  Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee.  After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta.  Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.

Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player.  It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.

First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others.  Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.

Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot.  Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!

Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

Columbia 15324-D – Riley Puckett – 1928

Blanche H. Bailey, the former Mrs. Riley Puckett, and Robert Puckett, at her home in Riverdale, GA. April 29, 1979. From the collection of Roy Robert Puckett, reproduced with permission.

Blanche H. Bailey, the former Mrs. Riley Puckett, and Robert Puckett, at her home in Riverdale, GA. April 29, 1979.
From the collection of Roy Robert Puckett, reproduced with permission.

May the seventh marks the 122nd anniversary of the birth of country music legend Riley Puckett.

George Riley Puckett was born May 7, 1894 in Dallas, Georgia.  He lost his sight as an infant after a doctor threw salt in his eyes as an ill-fated attempted treatment for an eye infection, and was educated at the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, Georgia (same place where Blind Willie McTell was educated).  As an adult, Riley’s clear baritone singing voice earning him the title of the “Bald Mountain Caruso.”  As talented with a guitar as with his voice, he sang, yodeled, and played both solo and with the string bands of some of the finest fiddle players of their time, Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen.  Puckett began playing on WSB in Atlanta during radio’s infancy in 1922, and recorded his first sides for Columbia in 1924, backed by Gid Tanner, starting with the same song that began his contemporary Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording career, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.  In the 1920s, Puckett was one of Columbia’s most popular hillbilly artists, but parted ways with the company in 1931, and recorded for a number of other record labels thereafter, ultimately leaving him with a recorded output of several hundred sides, solo and as a sideman.  Puckett continued to record sporadically throughout the Great Depression and into the 1940s.  In 1946, he died of blood poisoning from an untreated boil.

The last time we heard from ol’ Riley Puckett was when we heard him sing one of his most popular and well remembered songs, Ragged but Right.  Now, here’s another of his records that is a little more obscure.

Columbia 15324-D was recorded October 22 and 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia by Riley Puckett.

Last time we heard Kelly Harrell’s “Away Out On the Mountain”, it was sung by Jimmie Rodgers.  As much as I like Jimmie, I think Riley does excellent work with this song too.

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded October 22, 1928 by Riley Puckett.

Next up is “The Moonshiner’s Dream”, taking us back to the days of Prohibition.

The Moonshiner's Dream, recorded

The Moonshiner’s Dream, recorded October 23, 1928 by Riley Puckett.

Bluebird B-5587 – Riley Puckett – 1934

At one of my regular haunts the other day, I happened upon this exceptionally fine copy of what may be considered the great country singer Riley Puckett’s best record.  As it happens, some of Puckett’s relatives in Georgia are close family friends of mine, so I thought it might be nice to whip up a quick post for this fine disc.

George Riley Puckett was born in 1894 in Dallas, Georgia.  He was struck blind after a doctor threw salt in his eyes attempting to treat an infection.  Around the time of his early performances, he was dubbed “The Bald Mountain Caruso.”  Rising to become one of the most popular country musicians of the era, Puckett recorded both solo and with a number string bands, most notably Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, from 1924 until 1941.  He died of blood poisoning in 1946.

On Bluebird B-5587, Riley Puckett plays guitar and sings two of his finest songs, accompanied by the Skillet Lickers’ Ted Hawkins on mandolin.  Both sides were recorded March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.

On side “A”, Riley soulfully sings and yodels Carson Robison’s humorous tale of salvation on the wonderful “I’m Gettin’ Ready to Go”.

I’m Gettin’ Ready to Go, recorded March 29, 1934 by Riley Puckett.

On the “B” side, Puckett delivers a marvelous performance of one of his most famous songs, “Ragged but Right”.

Ragged but Right, recorded March 29, 1934 in San Antonio by Riley Puckett

Ragged but Right, recorded March 29, 1934 by Riley Puckett