TELL IT TO ME:
REVISITING THE JOHNSON CITY SESSIONS 1928-1929
Bear Family, BCD 17591
We crawl into our telephoto machine: the so-called Bristol Sessions from 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, will not be unknown to those familiar with the history of country music, because the search for new talent by the Victor Talking Machine Company led by producer Ralph Peer Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family on which proved invaluable in the evolution of the country and set out a line that led directly to Johnny Cash. Less known is that a year later Peer continued a follow-up to this America’s Got Talent that did not yield the same harvest, and that before Peer and in the wake of Peer’s initial success, other similar talent shows took place: Okeh Records was already doing it in 1925, and five other record companies followed through 1937, including Columbia Records, which recorded in October 1928 and October 1929 in Johnson City, Tennessee, 100 of which were released. For the sake of clarity: all this did not happen for reasons of music history (to protect the recorded music from extinction) but was purely commercial. The intention was to tap into amateur talent, to make cheap platters and, above all, to sell those platters, because the 78 rpm platter, at the time the pinnacle of high fidelity, boomed in the second half of the 20s, although that would not last long. The last day of these recordings, 24 October 1929, was the first day that the stock markets collapsed, and when the Great Depression struck in 1930, the record market was destroyed. As a result, it is ironic that these recordings are being reissued 90 years later, not so much to sell records and make a profit, but precisely because of the enormous historical interest in the music.
The Johnson City Sessions have always been overshadowed by the Bristol Sessions, which found a much greater commercial response both then and in more recent times. In the meantime, Bristol even recognized the tourist value, proclaiming itself to be the birthplace of the country; and since 2014 there is even a museum dedicated to the Bristol Sessions. Bear Family released both the Bristol Sessions and the Johnson City Sessions and the Knoxville Sessions 1929-1930 on three sumptuous 4- and 5-CD boxes, and the Johnson City Sessions 4 CD-box, which appeared in 2013, garnered positive reviews among connoisseurs and in specialized magazines and raised the question of whether the Johnson City Sessions were better than the Bristol Sessions, or as one critic put it: “fewer music stars, more fun and more insight into a vanished world,” possibly because producer Frank Walker unlike Ralph Peer himself was a former musician with more ear for “colorful” music that went outside the lines as well as for older music genres, while Peer was mainly looking for new and contemporary music. The Johnson City Sessions have been overlooked for the simple reason that they have only been available since 2013 and then only in that expensive Bear Family box, not on digital online platforms.
Now put this summary on one CD. First, a most striking observation: this is not dull music from dusted archives. On the contrary, this sounds vital despite the age of 90, especially when you think about it (as far as you can think about this music) that it was recorded in 1928, barely one year after the very first spoken film! In addition, Bear Family has succeeded in making these very old 78 rpm records of which no masters exist anymore (they were taken on damn wax masters!) sound very clear, while it also helps that the chords of an instrumental like Just Pickin’ (Roy Harvey & Leonard Copeland) or Home Town Blues (The Roane County Ramblers) sound unbelievably modern.
I assume that these 26 tracks from 26 different acts and artists are not only a representative summary but also a Best Of of those who answered the call when the slogan “can you sing or play old time music?” was launched in an ad searching for “musicians of unusual ability, small dance combinations, novelty players etc.” And it will be no coincidence that the opener of the festivities has the word “cocaine” in the chorus, albeit that the message of Tell It To Me (The Grant Brothers & their Music) reads “drink whiskey but stay away from the coke.” Amongst these ragtime, gospel, waltzes, two steps, topical songs and string bands, there are even more sensational titles for moralizing texts such as the traditional British ballad Old Lady And The Devil (Bill & Belle Reed), although the moralizing could also happen with a normal title such as Just Over The River (The Garland Brothers & Grinstead), God Will Take Care Of You (The Spindale Quartet) and Powder And Paint (Ira & Eugene Yates). Some songs such as Louise (The Proximity String Quartet) show the influence of even older Irish folk; others such as When The Roses Bloom For The Bootlegger (Earl Shirkey & Roy Harper) are a clear imitation of Jimmie Rodgers’s yodel, and we hear also boogies such as Johnson City Blues (Clarence Greene), all as old as the street. Even older, because The Battleship Maine (Richard Harold) is not about the first world war as I thought at first listening, but about an incident in the Spanish-American war in 1898. Finally, I can vividly imagine that in that good old bad time many drunken fights must have originated at the up-tempo I Ain’t A Bit Drunk (George Roark).
The 38-page booklet frames the recordings and contains the scarce information available about these forgotten artists. Amazing: some of these records even have sales figures and some of these releases were also released in England and even Japan. Summary: scratchy violins and accordions abound in these recordings documenting the roots of genres such as bluegrass and Americana. There are no deeper roots than these!
Pre-listening is possible on www.bear-family.com
The review above was translated from a Dutch music blog.