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The Charlotte Sessions
-- Recorded In Charlotte --

by Tom Estes

Tom is past president of the Charlotte Folk Society and plays banjo with the Kollard Kings, a group dedicated to the music recorded in Charlotte during the 1930s.

1927 was an exciting year in Charlotte, North Carolina. New Model-A Fords were being offered for $385; the first Belk department store opened on Trade and Tryon; and a special section in The Charlotte Observer announced that just down Tryon Street the new Carolina Theater was opening!

Technology in 1927 was advancing at a rapid pace. The invention of the electric microphone not only made “talking pictures” and transatlantic phone calls realities, it also meant that the quality of recorded sound for phonographs was much better than ever before. The same technology that was used to record the audio on The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, could also be used to produce quality records. Recording equipment was now small enough to carry into the field.

pic of Ralph Peer

Ralph Peer

Victor Talking Machine Company’s record sales were plummeting - they thought because of radio. In an effort to expand their markets and boost sales, Victor commissioned Artist and Repertoire (A&R) man Ralph Peer to travel to locations outside of New York and New Jersey to produce remote recordings and reach undiscovered skilled performers who had local popularity and a unique sound. Victor believed that people in other locations who were being introduced to these acts for the first time would also find them appealing and purchase their records.

Accordingly, Peer planned a trip which would include Charlotte, North Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Bristol, Tennessee.

The detail minded Peer visited each of the cities on a scouting mission well before recording on location. He found Charlotte to be a city which was easily accessible by road and by rail. (Victor would later make Charlotte a distribution center.) It had the facilities Peer needed. It had a major newspaper which could and would cover the recording event.

The Queen City retail market was huge by southern standards. Charlotte was a bustling city of 80,000 residents in 1927 and was a short distance from one quarter of the total number of mills in existence in the United States. The city was at the center of what was known as the Piedmont Crescent, an arc which extended from Richmond, Virginia to Birmingham, Alabama. That arc was loaded with musical talent. The city was perfect.

Peer was methodical in preparing for his remote recordings. In each of the three locations, he invited some musicians he knew, usually those who lived close to the remote recording location and who had already recorded in New York or New Jersey. This way, he was assured of getting some usable tracks. Then, using local newspapers and word of mouth, he attracted hitherto undiscovered acts. The Charlotte Observer ran a front-page story announcing the session which would record “Mountaineer Musicians of Western North Carolina.”

Peer knew what he wanted in a recording. Sales had proven that record buyers were not interested in “folkloric” music, especially string band music with no vocals. The public wanted, he said, something which was “new – built along the same lines” as traditional music. This became a major tenet in Peer’s recording platform. He wanted the songs he recorded to be both new and to sound familiar to his audiences, to be something they connected with.

The A&R man was looking for groups who could compose songs which sounded old-time but were original and could be copyrighted. Peer was looking for income, not only from the records, but from the publishing rights – for both Victor and for the performers. In fact, publishing rights became a major source of income for many of the musicians recruited by Peer. Almost all of the really successful artists recorded by Victor held copyrights on much of their material.

After a successful session at Bristol, Peer packed up his equipment and headed to Charlotte.

pic of th Old Charlotte Observer Building

Old Charlotte Observer Building

Once Peer arrived, he and two of his engineers set up their mobile studio in the Auditorium of the old Charlotte Observer building at the corner ofTryon and West Stonewall Streets. It was there that the first Charlotte recordings were made. A number of different groups or performers recorded during a six-day session. These acts recorded 46 sides which would be released by Victor.

Charlotte was at the center of North Carolina music. A perfect musical storm eventually made our city the hub of Hillbilly musical recording. The 1927 session was just the beginning. If you had been living in Charlotte between 1927 and 1938, you might have seen Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Charlie Poole Jr., Bill and Charlie Monroe, The Delmore Brothers, Wade and J.E. Mainer, Zeke and Wiley Morris, Jimmy Davis, The Blue Sky Boys, Cliff Carlisle, Riley Puckett, the Carter Family, and dozens more on the streets of the Queen city.

In his book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass Music, Wayne Erbsen wrote, “Even though [Blue Grass] music was named after Bill Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys, the music itself owes more to North Carolina than to Kentucky . . . ”

The Charlotte recordings helped to create the template for Bluegrass via its Hillbilly recordings. Most of the recordings made over the next decade and a half were based upon the sound of Bristol and Charlotte. Bluegrass music was built upon that sound.

The names of the performers who recorded in Charlotte during its short history reads like the roster of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Each tune, each group, and each musician had their own fascinating story. In the next few months, I will be sharing some of the most intriguing and remarkable tales associated with the Charlotte sessions. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Charlotte music, read the research put together by Levine Museum of the New South historian, Dr. Tom Hanchett.

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Notes From the 1927 Charlotte Sessions

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The Charlotte Sessions
Notes From the 1927 Charlotte Sessions

by Tom Estes

Tom Estes is a past president of the Charlotte Folk Society and plays banjo with the Kollard Kings, a group dedicated to the music recorded in Charlotte during the 1930s. This is the second of a series of articles written by Tom Estes on the RCA Victor Recording Sessions in Charlotte.

The 1927 Charlotte Sessions followed the Bristol Sessions by a few days. RCA Victor’s Artist and Repertoire man, Ralph Peer, set up a remote recording studio in the auditorium of the old Charlotte Observer building and invited the world to come and audition. Fresh off of a successful session at Bristol, Tennessee, Peer came to Charlotte to record more “Hillbilly” sides for the label. Following are ten interesting facts about the ’27 Charlotte Sessions.

1. These sessions featured what most musicologists recognize as the first racially integrated music session.
The Georgia Yellow Hammers

The Georgia Yellow Hammers

Before playing a note, The Georgia Yellow Hammers, four white musicians from the Deep South, carved out a place in the history of music. They invited fiddler Andrew Baxter and his guitar player son, Jim, along to audition for Peer. This is significant because Andrew Baxter was bi-racial; he was not only black, but also Cherokee.

Andrew Baxter

Andrew Baxter

Gordon County, Georgia, was home to both The Baxters and the Yellow Hammers. The story goes that the Yellow Hammers and The Baxters rode the train together to Charlotte for the sessions. The Yellow Hammers sat in a forward car and The Baxters sat in one of the cars in the back of the train. Keep in mind that 1927 was only twelve years removed from The Birth of A Nation (also known as The Clansman). This movie spurred the rebirth of the modern era KKK in Stone Mountain, Georgia, just north of Gordon County.

Some say that bias against Indians was even more intense than prejudice against blacks. The Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s forced relocation of targeted Eastern Tribes, occurred two generations prior these sessions. Gordon County was at the heart of the Trail of Tears. In this program, fifteen thousand Cherokee were removed against their will. Baxter’s grandparents would probably have been involved. See Community Net Media's Trail Of Tears Short Documentary on YouTube.

It is not unique that Peer recorded a black group or performer. He was already recording what were then known as “Race Records.” The unique thing was that this Hillbilly session involved both black and white musicians recording on the same tracks. I am not saying this was a statement in social justice. I am saying that this was an affirmation that music transcends social norms. When the Yellow Hammers and The Baxters entered the session, the walls of separation came down. Together, they recorded The G Rag. Afterward, The Baxters frequently played music with the Yellow Hammers. The Baxters also recorded in Charlotte without the Yellow Hammers. You can hear the excellent guitar work of Andrew’s son, Jim Baxter, here.

2. The 1927 Charlotte Sessions were an economic success for Victor.

The most successful recording was a song recorded by the Yellow Hammers, The Picture on the Wall, which sold close to 200,000 records. That was a huge figure for this time when many releases sold less than 10,000. Musicologist Charles Wolf said that this song promoted the Georgia Yellow Hammers to the position of stalwart performers in the Victor catalog. You can hear The Picture on the Wall here.

3. At least two groups, Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers and The Carolina Tar Heels, had banjo players who used a three-fingered right hand technique.
Doc Boggs

Doc Boggs

This was 20+ years before Earl Scruggs perfected the three-fingered roll while playing with the Morris Brothers. (Scruggs was three years old in 1927.) You can hear Red Patterson’s three-fingered banjo picking here. You can hear the banjo of Doc Boggs here.

4. One of the first commercially successful protest songs was recorded in the ’27 Charlotte Sessions by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers.

The Battleship of Maine was a humorous treatment of the motives of war and the realities of social strata and economics on the common soldier. The New Lost City Ramblers performed this song on The Today Show in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were never invited back. The Piedmont Log Rollers’ version can be heard here.

5. Another of the songs from the Charlotte ’27 sessions went on to become part of the body of music used in the Civil Rights movement.

The Georgia Yellow Hammers recorded the pre-minstrel slave song Mary Don’t You Weep. Pete Seeger took it into the Civil Rights struggle. It has since been covered by The Kingston Trio, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. Franklin’s recording sold over 2 million records and was designated “Double Platinum.” You can hear Springsteen’s version and you can hear Aretha Franklin’s recording.

6. The Carolina Tar Heels’ recording of When the Good Lord Sets You Free is a classic and has become a jazz standard.
Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

Like Mary Don’t You Weep, this song appears to be pre-minstrel. Carl Sandburg collected part of this song for his book The American Songbag as Moanish Lady in the same year as the sessions (1927). The song was adopted by the jazz musicians as, Oh, Mona! You can hear Nat Gonella perform it jazz style here.

7. Red Patterson, who led the Piedmont Log Rollers, was a pal of Charlie Poole’s.

They worked at the same mill in Southern Virginia and used to play music together. If the banjo sounds similar, you now know why. The Piedmont Log Rollers also produced the first recording of Down on the Banks of the Ohio. This ballad was destined to become a bluegrass classic when it was covered by The Monroe Brothers. Interestingly, this is the only version of the song I have heard which tells why Willie murdered his love. It may not be what you think. By the way, Red Patterson beat his friend Charlie on recording Sweet Sunny South. Poole didn’t record it until 1929. You can hear it at the Red Patterson link above.

8. The music of the cotton mills had an impact on Charlotte music from the outset.

Red Patterson, as mentioned earlier, was a mill worker from Virginia, as probably were his band mates. But there were local mill workers who recorded here, too. Gwen Foster, for instance, worked in a mill in Gastonia. Foster did a solo recording of Wilkes County Blues. I find it interesting that Victor’s session notes label this song as “a guitar solo.” It is a harmonica tune. No guitar can be heard. It is an amazing performance! You can hear it here. Foster was also a friend of David McCarn, who wrote the consummate mill song, Cotton Mill Colic.

9. Charlotte music was distinctive.

The ’27 sessions weren’t Old Time, but the music was squarely based on the traditional sounds of Appalachia. It went far beyond the sounds of string bands, however. It was pre-Bluegrass, but you can hear Bluegrass in it.

As surely as these musicians exhibited the culture of their origins in their music, their music was also reflective of their current environment. Patrick Huber points out in Linthead Stomp that this music emerged in a time of cities, towns, and railroads and that “much of the music recorded in the 1927 Charlotte session was clearly a product of [the] modern, urban-industrial world.”

The Sessions in the Queen City were a watershed moment in traditionally based music. Down home musicians were experimenting with the blend of antebellum music, string band sounds crafted deep in the Appalachian Mountains, Tin Pan Alley tunes, Piedmont Blues, and songs fashioned in the crucible of the cotton mills. This blending produced a music which was distinctive and cutting edge. These recordings laid the foundation for what was to become Bluegrass.

10. The most significant person to record in the 1927 Charlotte sessions, however, could not play an instrument and couldn’t carry a tune.

That person was Ralph Peer. He single handedly invented the modern music business. The list of performers he recorded reads like a “Who’s Who” of the most popular musicians of the 20th Century. He produced and sold millions and millions and millions of recordings. Peer was responsible for the formation of BMI, which gave these performers the ability to collect royalties. His impact on American traditional music in general can be seen in the fact that 40% of the recordings in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music were Peer recordings. And Charlotte was a part of Peer’s history.

Few of the acts that recorded in Charlotte in 1927 made it through the Great Depression as performers. The economic hardships and historical currents of that age were too much to bear. The groups disbanded and the members went back to work in the mills and factories and to the farms of the Piedmont – wherever they could make a living. After all, they had to survive.

The musicians that Peer recorded in Charlotte in 1927, however, had a lasting legacy. Many of the recordings of the 1927 Charlotte sessions have been re-mastered and reissued in digital form. All of the songs recorded in the Charlotte ’27 Sessions can be found on YouTube or other sites on the Internet. As a performing artist, if folks are listening to your music 90 years after you record it, I judge you are successful. Few musicians will ever have that said about their music.

You can obtain a list of the recordings by visiting Dr. Tom Hanchett’s website at www.historysouth.org.

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Roots of an Old Time Song

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The Charlotte Sessions
Roots of an Old Time Song

by Tom Estes

Tom Estes is a past president of the Charlotte Folk Society and plays banjo with The Kollard Kings, a group dedicated to the music recorded in Charlotte during the 1930s. This is the third of a series of articles Tom has written related to the RCA Victor Recording Sessions in Charlotte.

Alex Haley’s 1978 novel, Roots, and the resultant 1988 mini-series created an industry specializing in tracing family history and pedigrees. You have seen in the past two articles that there were a number of times in which an Old Time song recorded in the Queen City has popped up in the repertoire of contemporary rock, blues, jazz, or folk artists. I thought it might be interesting to trace the history of one particular song.

For the most part, the 1931 Charlotte Victor Sessions involved a group of established acts who had recorded in other locations for Ralph Peer. One of those was the Carter Family. They launched their 1931 recording tour in Charlotte. It would wind up fifteen days later in Louisville, Kentucky with their recording two songs with Jimmie Rodgers.

The Carters laid down seven tracks in Charlotte: Weary Prodigal Sun, My Old Cottage Home, When I’m Gone, Sunshine in the Shadows, Let the Church Roll On, Lonesome for You, and Can’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. A. P. Carter was the songsmith of the group, having been trained in shape note singing and fiddle playing. Remember from past articles that Victor’s Artist and Repertoire man, Peer, insisted on songs; not just fiddle tunes. He wanted something which would tug at the heart strings of the record buyer but would be new.

A. P. gathered songs from a number of different sources. Some of the Carter Family songs came from a body of music they knew. Some came from songs they heard on radio or on a record. Many other songs came from the black tradition via his friend Lesley Riddle, an early sidekick of Brownie McGhee.

Delehanty and Hengler

Delehanty & Hengler

The Carter song I have chosen to trace is When I’m Gone. Harper Van Hoy, founder of Fiddler’s Grove, used to tell me that in order for a song to truly be an Old Time song, its roots had to be before the turn of the twentieth century. When I’m Gone certainly has that pedigree. It was written by a couple of minstrel performers, W. H. Delehanty and Irish born T. H. Hengler, in 1874. In the book Monarchs of Minstrelsy, the author describes the duo as the greatest minstrels “the world ever knew or ever will know.” A. P. may have gleaned the song from Princeton, West Virginia fiddler Alfred Reed. Reed’s version can be heard here on YouTube.

Nobody knows exactly where A. P. Carter got the song. It was recorded on some early cylinders. He might have heard it there. But what is sure is that he put it through the creative process he used on so many of the songs he collected. This was the same process which was encouraged by Ralph Peer, a process which made the songs unique enough to be copyrighted. One musicologist compares A. P. Carter’s reworking of his song catalog to the process used by a chef – taking the ingredients which already exist and making something special through combining them and cooking them in the creative oven.

The Carter Family 1927

The Carter Family 1927

The result was something special. Sara’s alto voice carries a great lead. And this is one of the few early Carter Family songs in which you hear Maybelle and A. P. singing harmony. But one of the most inventive things in the recording is Maybelle’s guitar rhythm. You can hear the Carter Family version here. One can hardly recognize the song as the same one sung by Blind Alfred Reed, but it is. It had been cooked through Carter’s creative process.

This song caught the attention of J. E. and Wade Mainer, who were looking for material in 1937. They added the high lonesome sounds of the mountains and kept the Carter rhythm.

Then, the song morphed again when it was recorded by Charlie Monroe in Rock Hill, South Carolina. But you can still hear the rhythmic guitar work introduced by Maybelle.

After that, the song sat dormant for 50 years until it was picked up and reworked by Luisa Gerstein. She did a Reddit video of the song. She changed a few lyrics, and took Maybelle’s rhythm to another level with her group, Lulu and the Lampshades. At first, like A. P., Luisa copyrighted the song. The Carter Family sued and an agreement was reached in which A. P. and Luisa shared authorship. You can hear the version posted on Reddit here. (Take my word for it – it’s worth going through the commercial to hear what they did.)

Finally, Anna Kendrick picked the song up and used Louisa’s cups rhythm in the movie Pitch Perfect. She was nominated for an Academy Award for that movie. This is the way it came out on the big screen.

For any naysayers who think Old Time Music is dead – you don’t have to look far to find it. Charlotte music is being played everyday on the radio, on ipads, on phones – even on ring tones! It did my heart good to show my granddaughter that what she knew as The Cups Song was actually one of those tunes that I often embarrass her with. And knowing what I do about A. P.’s creative license with his music and Peer’s desire to remake traditional music into something which would appeal to contemporary audiences, I know they would both approve.

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Ties That Bind: Cotton Mills and Charlotte Music

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The Charlotte Sessions
Ties That Bind: Cotton Mills and Charlotte Music

by Tom Estes

Tom Estes is a past president of the Charlotte Folk Society and plays banjo with the Kollard Kings, a group dedicated to the music recorded in Charlotte during the 1930s. This is the fourth in a series of articles written by Tom Estes on the RCA Victor Recording Sessions in Charlotte.

The textile mills were the cultural foundry in which hillbilly music was forged. People came from all over – yes, from the mountains – but also from the farms and the cities. They came from the South and from the North to work in the textile mills. They brought with them songs from home, songs from Tin Pan Alley, songs from the ragtime rage, and blues. All of these blended together to form a new music, known as “Hillbilly Music.” As any sociologist will tell you, not only did these men have an effect on each other, the modern industrial economy of which they were a part had an effect on them. They may have come to the mills in wagons, but they soon drove automobiles.

From the very beginning, Charlotte had strong ties to cotton mills and cotton mill culture. The first cotton mill in the United States was founded in 1815 in Lincoln County, North Carolina – only forty miles from the Queen City. Textile mills became an important part of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Piedmont embraced the mills because they provided jobs and aided in economic redevelopment. Patrick Huber writes in Linthead Stomp that by the time the first Charlotte Sessions were held, the Southern Piedmont had become “the world’s greatest center of textile manufacturing . . .” One of the constants in all of the Charlotte recording sessions is that musicians from the textile mills participated.

At the time of the first recording sessions, mills located in the Piedmont Crescent which extended from Richmond, Virginia to Birmingham, Alabama employed more than 250,000 workers. Over half of those were located in the Carolinas. That huge gathering of people brought in by the mills did three things: (1) it brought musicians together who otherwise might never have met, and (2) it provided a readymade audience for the musicians, and (3) it provided an interchange with music from other musicians who played other types of music.

One of our resident fiddlers, Clyde Williams, grew up in Newton where his father worked in the mill. Clyde told me that as a child he could walk down the street and he never was out of earshot of the music being piped through the radio in each home. When WBT had music every radio was tuned to WBT. When WSM out of Nashville was playing music, every radio was tuned to WSM.

Loray Mill

Loray Mill

The mills provided a good living for the workers. In the 1920s there was no established industry which provided higher paying jobs than the mills. As the economy goes, however, businesses change. The Great Depression had a devastating effect. The mills laid workers off and expected more work for less pay for those who remained employed.

For those of you who may be transplants to the Carolinas, you may not know of the labor struggles in the textile mills. It is not my intent to chronicle all of them nor to put them in context. But I would mention the Loray Mill strike of 1929. The workers were being required to work six 11-13 hour days each week with no breaks, even for meals. In response, the workers organized and went on strike. The strike ended soon after ballad singer Ella Mae Wiggins was shot and killed by mill supporters.

Dave McCarn

Dave McCarn

One of the folks who recorded at the 1931 Charlotte Sessions was a second generation mill worker by the name of Dave McCarn who was “one of the most critically acclaimed hillbilly recording artists to emerge out of Gaston County’s music scene . . .” McCarn was born three years after the Loray mill was built in 1902. Like many children of that era, he began working in a mill at the age of 12. He got married and had a family. He had an old SS Stewart guitar and taught himself to play. He learned to play the harmonica from fellow mill worker Gwen Foster. He become a proficient musician and performed for a while in a mill town jug band.

Right around the time the impact of the Depression was being felt in the mills, McCarn left, he said, to find work. It has never been documented that his leaving was tied to the Loray Mill strike, even though the timeframe fits. One cannot help but speculate that his leaving the mills was tied to the labor problems. Looking for work, he and his brother, Homer, hoboed their way to Memphis, Tennessee. Their search for work was unsuccessful. Dave was just about to pawn his guitar for a ticket home when he accidentally found Ralph Peer holding a field recording session in Memphis. It was there that McCarn recorded Cotton Mill Colic, the first of a trilogy of “Colic” tunes. With the money Peer gave him, he was able to get back home – his guitar still in his possession.

Cotton Mill Colic became his most famous song. It was covered by the Blue Sky Boys, Pete Seeger, and Mike Seeger, among others. You cannot find a collection of union songs which doesn’t contain Cotton Mill Colic. It was his recording in Charlotte, however, which completed the trilogy.

  1. Cotton Mill Colic, recorded in Memphis on May 19, 1930
  2. Rich Man Poor Man [Cotton Mill Colic 2], recorded in Memphis on November 19, 1930
  3. Serves ‘Em Fine [Cotton Mill Colic 3], recorded in Charlotte on May 19, 1931

I really think that all of these must be taken together to understand them. The song recorded in Charlotte is as fine a piece of existential work as Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. McCarn, I believe, stands for many of the mill workers at that time. In the first Colic song McCarn laments the life of a mill worker and how they can never get ahead. In the second song he contrasts the mill owners and bosses with the common laborer and still laments how the laborers fall further into debt. In the last stanza of the third song recorded in Charlotte, McCarn shows that life is not any better anywhere, even in the idyllic mountains.

In the third stanza of Serves ‘Em Fine, McCarn sings:

Now in the year nineteen and thirty
They don't pay nothing and they do us dirty.
When we do manage to get ahead
It seems like all of the mills go dead.
We're always in a hole getting deeper everyday,
If we ever get even it'll be judgment day.
There's no use to colic and there's no use to shirk,
There's more people loafing than there are at work.

The conclusion is an obvious sarcastic reply to the wistful mill hands wishing they could go back to their homes to escape this hand to mouth existence.

Now all you mountaineers that's listening to me
Take off your hats end holler ''Whoopee''.
For I'm going back home in the land of the sky
Where they all drink moonshine and never do die.
I'll take my dogs while the moon shines bright,
Hunt coon and possum the whole darn night.
If you can't get the money to move away,
It's too bad folks, you'll have to stay.

And the refrain heard all of the way through the song . . .

It suits you people. It serves you fine
For thinking that a mill was a darn gold mine.
Mill Children

Mill Children

All together, David McCarn recorded twelve sides for Peer. The only one that sold well was his first Colic song. McCarn gave up music and eventually went into the Army Signal Corps in WW II. When he came out he became a radio and TV repairman. He finally got out of the mills. He is buried in Mount Holly, North Carolina, just a few miles from where he was born.

Most of the textile old mills are gone – their shells either falling down or are being converted into condominiums. If you are interested in occupying a piece of history, the Loray Mill has been converted into loft apartments and commercial shops. To read the brochures, you would never know that this site was at the center of a violent labor conflict.

For more on the Cotton Mill connection to Charlotte Music I suggest that you read Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber and published by UNC Press. Old Hat Records has an excellent article on Dave McCarn. You can find it at this link: http://www.oldhatrecords.com/ResearchGGMusicians.html. I also recommend that you visit Dr. Tom Hanchett’s fine website at www.historysouth.org/recordedinclt/.

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Kid Smith & The Yodeling Dog

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The Charlotte Sessions
Kid Smith & The Yodeling Dog

by Tom Estes

Tom Estes is a past president of the Charlotte Folk Society and plays banjo with the Kollard Kings, a group dedicated to the music recorded in Charlotte during the 1930s. This is the fifth in a series of articles written by Tom Estes on the RCA Victor Recording Sessions in Charlotte.

This article is dedicated to one of the lesser-known musicians from the mills who recorded in Charlotte in 1931 – vocalist and guitarist Walter “Kid” Smith. Unlike Dave McCarn who tried to use music simply as a tool to escape the mills, Smith was a talented entertainer who had music in his soul and had to perform.

Smith was born in 1895 in Carroll County, Virginia, just above Galax. He got the designation “Kid” while boxing in Virginia. Some A&R man used it on one of his recordings and it stuck. In the 1920s Smith moved to Rockingham County, North Carolina to work in a saw mill and, eventually, in the Spray Cotton Mill where he came under the influence of Charlie Poole. They became fast friends. (It is amazing the influence that Poole had on the Charlotte recordings, though he never recorded here.)

Smith’s career was already established as a performer before he got to Charlotte. He would be known among aficionados of Old Time music for his part in the Carolina Buddies string band.

The Lawson Family

The Lawson Family

He was also a notable songwriter. On Christmas Day in 1929, a prosperous Stokes County tobacco farmer named Charlie Lawson took a shotgun and murdered his wife and six of his children before turning the gun on himself. The incident shook the nation. Over 5,000 folks attended the funeral. You can search the Internet and find a lot of information about the murders and, if you are into it, the current ghost stories that surround the event. (For instance, The Lawson Family Murders.)

Smith responded to the tragedy by writing a song, The Murder of the Lawson Family. He recorded it with some of Poole’s sidemen, including Posey Rorer, Buster Carter, and Lewis McDaniels, performing as the Carolina Buddies. If you fancy contemporary recordings, you might prefer Doc Watson’s version. The song has also been covered by Wade Mainer, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Charlie Poole.

On May 19, 1931, Smith and his two daughters, Thelma, who played the guitar, and Dorothy, who played the ukulele, arrived in Charlotte to record as Kid Smith and Family. They were the second act to record in that session, laying down two tunes – Whisper Softly Mother is Dying and Little Bessie. Whisper Softly Mother is Dying was written in 1873. You can also listen to an early bluegrass version. The Duke library has posted a free copy of the lyrics.

Little Bessie was recorded a number of times in Charlotte after the Smith Family’s version. Both the Dixon Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys recorded it. The Smith Family’s recording is not available. But you can hear the Blue Sky Boys’ version. If you want to hear how it has moved into contemporary bluegrass, listen to Ricky Skaggs’ ballad version. Traditional bluegrass fans will like this version by the Country Gentlemen.

Charlie Poole

Charlie Poole

After the Charlotte recording session, Smith returned home the next day, just in time to see his friend Charlie Poole before he died. Smith was close to Poole and was asked to be one of the pallbearers at Poole’s funeral. After Poole passed away, Smith quickly penned a tribute to his friend, entitled The Life and Death of Charlie Poole. He was asked to sing the song for a crowd of neighbors who had gathered in front of the Poole home after the funeral. The entire crowd, including Mrs. Poole and the musicians, broke into hysterical sobbing during the second verse – Smith, too. Kid Smith never finished singing it at the wake. Listen to The Life and Death of Charlie Poole here.

Carolina Buddies

Carolina Buddies

Smith authored another well-known song, Otto Wood the Bandit, which was recorded by the Carolina Buddies with Smith singing the lead. Otto Wood (1895 – 1930) was arguably the most famous bandit which the Old North State ever produced. Born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, Wood led a life of which legends are made. He was arrested eleven times and escaped incarceration ten times. (The one time he didn’t escape, he conned the Governor into a pardon!) This is incredible because Wood was missing his right hand and had a club foot on his left leg. Just shows that folks can overcome a handicap if they are motivated!

Like a number of bad men at that time, Wood was romanticized and built a following. In 1930 he was killed in Salisbury, North Carolina in the back seat of a sheriff’s car he was attempting to hijack and use for a getaway. Thousands of folks gathered in Salisbury to view the body. Out of respect for Otto, locals took up a collection to ship his body to his mother in West Virginia.

This one song was enough to earn Kid Smith a place in North Carolina music history. It has been covered by a number of Bluegrass and Old Time artists, including Norman Blake and Doc Watson. Watson’s version can be heard here.

Kid Smith continued to perform for the rest of his life. He worked as a musician, a songwriter, a comedian, and a broadcaster. He moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1940, where he had a daily radio program on WFVA radio. In 1947 he married Texas Tona Lee, a well-known singer and guitarist. They hosted a long running show which included “Tom Dooly, the Yodeling Dog.”

Kid Smith retired in 1969 at the age of 74. He lived for another eleven years in retirement. Kid Smith would definitely be in the list of Charlotte performers I would most want to meet – and I would love to hear that Yodeling Dog!

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Hambone, Bootleggers, and Politicians

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The Charlotte Sessions
Hambone, Bootleggers, and Politicians

by Tom Estes

Tom Estes is a past president of the Charlotte Folk Society and plays banjo with the Kollard Kings, a group dedicated to the music recorded in Charlotte during the 1930s. This is the sixth in a series of articles written by Tom Estes on the RCA Victor Recording Sessions in Charlotte.

1931-bread-bank-line

1931 Bread-Bank line Cartoon

In 1931, the United States was still in the midst of the Great Depression. It was a dark time for America. New York’s Bank of the United States, with over two hundred billion in deposits, failed – making it one of the single largest bank failures in American history. People who had little or no food rioted. Veterans of WWI demonstrated in Washington, trying to get minimal assistance. Bread lines and soup kitchens adorned practically every city in the U. S. The music industry suffered. Nonetheless, Victor held its second Charlotte session that year.

A&R Man, Ralph Peer, found a way to keep his stable of recording artists going and continued to use the sessions to record undiscovered local talent. There was an abundance of characters who participated in the Charlotte Sessions. In this article I will introduce you to some of the most interesting little-known artists who recorded in the Queen City.

Hambone

Charleston, South Carolina natives, Elmer Bowman, and his lifelong pal, Chris Smith, were medicine show veterans who graduated to vaudeville. In 1912, Bowman and Smith penned the words to Beans, a comical treatise concerning the normal table fare of the financially challenged.

The tune caught the ear of two performers that recorded in the Queen City – James Albert (also known as “Hambone”) and El Morrow. No one knows what the instrument was that they used in the performance. On the session notes, it is listed as guitar.

Under the name of Hambone and Morrow the duo recorded Beans and Tippin’ Out. You will get a blast listening to Beans and Tippin’ Out. Both records were released in Victor’s Race series.

Not much else is known about Hambone and Marrow. They more or less passed silently into history. You should listen to these recordings. They ROCK!

Bootleggers

According to more than one scholarly work, the duo of Darby and Tarlton were one of the most influential of the early recording artists. Darby was a cousin of blind Skillet Licker guitarist, Riley Puckett, and was known as a solid blues guitarist in addition to being a moonshiner and bootlegger. Darby was half Cherokee and credited his musical interest to his Indian heritage. Tarlton, the son of a sharecropper, hailed from Cheraw, South Carolina. As a boy, he learned blues from local black musicians. Even though you don’t recognize the names of Darby and Tarlton, if you are familiar with Columbus Stockade Blues and Birmingham Jail, you know their work. They are credited with the authorship of both tunes.

Darby and Tarlton

Darby and Tarlton

Darby and Tarlton were among the first Hillbilly artists to seriously incorporate blues into their country music, much more overtly than Jimmie Rodgers. One musicologist says that the duo sounded a lot like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. Tarlton played a slide guitar on all of their recordings. You can get a taste of their Blues influence in Sweet Sarah Blues.

In late 1930 the duo split because of a dispute about royalties. Darby then formed a group known as the Georgia Wildcats which came to Charlotte to record in the 1931 sessions. Over four days they recorded six tunes. Hear one of their tunes, a variant of Lonesome Road Blues, Lonesome Frisco Line. All of the Charlotte recordings are available in the Bear Family box set on Amazon for $70.

In a later interview, Tarlton reminisced about writing Columbus Stockade Blues and Birmingham Jail while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama. The town was so impressed with the song, they invited him back to dedicate the new Birmingham jail in 1937. After his years of performing, Darby and his wife returned to moonshining and bootlegging. This was still in the prohibition era. Neither Darby nor Tarlton ever found success in music on a grand scale again.

In addition to the songs recorded in Charlotte, the team left a legacy by serving as sources for many of the acts who would record later, including Jimmie Davis, The Dixon Brothers, Wade Mainer, and The Monroe Brothers. They changed the way country music was performed. From the time of their recordings forward, blues would have a major impact on Hillbilly music.

Politicians

Jimmie Davis

Jimmie Davis

Jimmie Davis is one of the most interesting characters in all of the history of country music. When he came to Charlotte in 1931, he was already a star. You can hear one of his thirteen Charlotte songs, She Left A Runnin' Like A Sewing Machine.

When Davis arrived in Charlotte, he brought with him some of the best musicians to ever record in the Queen City. Each one was an accomplished musician and showman. Each one went on to become a successful act on his own. The Victor recording logs list their names as Snoozer Quinn, Buddy Jones, and Dizzy Head.

Snoozer Quinn was an exceptional Jazz guitarist who played with some of the greats (like Louis Armstrong). Snoozer was so good that other professional musicians would seek him out when they finished their evening shows. Snoozer would entertain them until after daylight. He recorded eight solo sides of pure guitar work for Victor in 1925. The recordings were never released and are lost to the annals of history. But bandleader Johnny Wiggs went to the hospital where Quinn was and recorded six tunes.

Quinn still has a cult following. There are a number of current websites dedicated to him and his music - see his story and more. And by all means, if you are playing guitar, if you are interested in Jazz, and if you appreciate virtuosity, listen to Snoozer’s Telephone Blues.

Buddy Jones was born in Asheville, North Carolina. He and his brother had a history of performing with traveling medicine shows until they settled in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was a noted Western Swing musician. The 1931 Charlotte session was his first with Jimmie Davis. They continued to perform together for six more years before Jones went out on his own. Hear him sing Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama. This song was recorded over a decade prior to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock!

Shreveport Homewreckers

Shreveport Homewreckers

The third member of Davis’ band was a black bluesman by the name of Dizzy Head (Ed Schafer). Schafer was an artist who not only played guitar, but even participated in singing the lyrics on some songs with Davis. For a real treat, listen to one of the Charlotte tunes with Schafer participating with Davis , Down at the Old Country Church. Hear some of Schafer’s pure blues work with his band, The Shreveport Home Wreckers. WOW!

From this team of sidemen, you get a sense of Davis’ creativity. He had assembled accomplished Jazz, Blues, and Western Swing musicians and welded them into a unit. Even though Davis was known as a Jimmie Rodgers imitator, he was very unique. His music went well beyond the single guitar work of Rodgers. He amalgamated a band in which we hear the seeds of Old Time, Bluegrass, Western Swing, Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll. It is no wonder he enjoyed vast popularity.

Jimmie Davis would later run for and win the governorship of Louisiana. To discredit Davis, his opponents would often amplify some of his rowdier recorded numbers at their rallies (like Charlotte song She Left A Runnin' Like A Sewing Machine). They stopped in frustration because the crowds were all dancing to the music. (You would have to be familiar with Louisiana culture to appreciate that.) Davis is most remembered for being the author of You Are My Sunshine, which is the official song of the State of Louisiana.

While in his first term as governor, Davis acted in a number of B-Westerns and continued his recording career. Even so, he was able to keep taxes down, build hospitals, repair and create roads, raise teachers’ salaries, and set up Louisiana’s first civil service system. (Makes me think that maybe we would get more done if current politicians would spend more time singing.)

Davis won the governorship again in 1960. He had been roundly criticized by his opponent for campaigning in a Cadillac. So on inauguration day, Davis with his usual flair, road his white horse, Sunshine, up the steps to the state capitol building to take his oath of office.

At Davis’ funeral, former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards said, ''Just imagine: he served two terms as governor of Louisiana and was never indicted. That's a genuine achievement.''

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