Country Music Beginnings Presented By
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Country music beginnings including when, where, and how country music began in America and much more. Learn about country music in the good ole days!!
Origin / Beginnings / Grand Ole Opry / Singing Cowboy
Beginnings Of Country Music
When country music began in America, there
were no professional musicians. The typical musician sang only
to entertain himself, his family or at local events. There is
evidence of square dance-like events as far back as the 1830s
(with origins in European country dancing). At first, most
country music was either sung by itself or played on a lone
fiddle or banjo. A good fiddler was a very popular person and
was often asked to perform at events ranging from weddings to
cattle drives. There was no concerted effort to preserve the
songs played, but the songs that people loved lasted as they
were passed from town to town or generation to generation.
Songs traveled with wandering minstrels and soldiers as well
as those who moved across the country for the Gold Rush or in
search of a new home. Often people didn't even understand the
origins or meaning of the songs (especially when words were
misunderstood and the mistakes persisted in newer versions of
the songs) – they just liked the tune. The music of this
time has been given several names, including old-time music
and mountain music.
At the turn of the century, Sears, Roebuck & Co. began advertising affordable guitars in its nationally available catalogs, along with sheet music and song books. This made a new instrument available as well as a source for learning new songs that people may never have heard otherwise. The mandolin also became available and soon string bands were being formed with different combinations stringed instruments.
As vaudeville grew in the early 1900s, it was mainly composed of Northern performers. However, their example showed Southern performers that one could make money playing music in public, rather than only at home. This realization spawned the first generation of "hillbilly" performers. The term "hillbilly" was popularized in the 1920s after a musician named Al Hopkins was asked the name of his four-piece band. He told the producer to name them whatever he felt like because they were just a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. From then on, they were known as Al Hopkins and His Hillbillies, and the name stuck.
As the popularity of the newly invented phonograph grew, people across the country began to buy their records through the mail. Originally, the music consisted mainly of classical singers and orchestral arrangements of sentimental songs. One day in 1922 two Texan fiddlers named Alexander Campbell "Eck" Robertson (1887-1975) and Henry Gilliland (1846/7-?) traveled from Atlanta to New York City to get their music recorded. The two showed up at RCA Victor with one dressed as a Confederate soldier and one in a cowboy suit (there are conflicting stories on who wore which outfit, though Gilliland was a Civil War veteran) and managed to get an audition as well as a record. The recording of "Ragtime Annie" was among the first known country music recordings in history along with "Arkansas Traveler," "Sallie Gooden," and "Turkey in the Straw.''
Another was made by a man called Fiddlin' John Carson (1868-1949). Carson was a 55-year-old fiddle player and vocalist from Fannin County, Georgia, and was chosen to record for Okeh Phonograph Corporation in 1923 when the planned artist couldn't make it. He recorded two songs, a vaudeville tune called "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and an old minstrel folk tune called "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow." The record executives thought Carson's singing was horrible and were sure that there was no future in that kind of music. However, when the record was released, its listeners loved the music's deeply rustic sound and wanted more.
In 1927, Ralph Peer, a scout for the Victor company, set up a temporary recording studio on the Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee border. He put an ad in the paper looking to hire musicians from the rural and mountain areas nearby. People turned out in unexpected numbers to record - mainly because they couldn't believe that they could get paid for playing the music they loved! This began the commercialization of country music. Some early recording artists were Ernest "Pop" Stoneman (1893-1968) and his family, the Fiddlin' Powers Family from Virginia, Chenoweth's Cornfield Symphony from Texas (the first country band to be recorded), Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett from Georgia (later to perform with the Skillet Lickers), the Jenkins Family from Georgia and Samantha Bumgartner and Eva Davis from North Carolina (who were also the first female country stars). By the end of 1924, Columbia Records put out the first country music catalog and other labels were soon to follow. Soon, record companies began to emphasize the desire for original, rather than traditional, songs.
The first country music superstar actually started out to become a stage singer. Vernon Dalhart (1883-1948), born Marion Try Slaughter, traveled to New York to make his fame and in 1916 recorded some country songs. The songs on the record were a cover of "The Wreck of the old 97" and a folk-sounding dirge called "The Prisoner's Song." In 1927 he recorded several topical songs on subjects such as the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Santa Barbara earthquake that made him very popular. Besides the pseudonym of Vernon Dalhart, he also recorded and performed under the names Frank Evans, the Lone Star Ranger, Vernon Dale, Tobe Little, Bob White, Hugh Lattimer, Sid Turner and Al Carver.
The Carter Family, comprised of A.P. (1891-1960), his wife Sara (1898-1979) and his sister-in-law Maybelle (1909-1978), was the first successful country vocal group recorded. Sara (on autoharp) and Maybelle (on guitar) sang harmony with A.P. singing some backup. Maybelle had a notable guitar picking style - she played melody on the bass strings and the rhythm on the treble strings - which influenced future artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. They stayed together for many years, even after Sara and A.P. divorced and Maybelle moved away. One of Maybelle's three daughters, June Carter Cash, definitely, also, made her mark on history.
Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was a former working man who contracted tuberculosis in his twenties and turned to music to make a living (as many handicapped musicians did). He was in a string band of four that came to audition to make a record. When they arrived, there was a dispute over billing and pay and Jimmie went solo while the other three auditioned on their own. As it turned out, Jimmie got the record deal with "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Rock All Our Babies to Sleep." His style is said to combine the imagery of black country blues with the white yodeling tradition. His songs weren't sentimental and sweet, but the songs of the hard-working man taking his knocks and dealing with life. He became known as "The Singing Brakeman" and worked as a musician touring and recording until his death at age 36. Apparently knowing the end was near, he insisted on a final recording session that took place two days before he died.
Origin / Beginnings / Grand Ole Opry / Singing Cowboy
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