The American record company Okeh Records tried to extend its 1920’s success with “race records” by reaching a wider audience with “hillbilly music,” which mainly originated in the Appalachian mountains. Known in its purest form as “mountain music,” which featured fiddles, banjos and tales of the hard Appalachian life, “hillbilly music” was slightly more modern, relying more on guitar as its cornerstone instrument. Finding success again, Okeh further focused hillbilly music into a genre called “old-time music,” drawing on Southern rural musical traditions, both secular and religious. In 1923 Okeh introduced Appalachian musician FIDDLIN’ JOHN CARSON who came popular with a string of “old-time” hits, including “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Critics didn’t all appreciate Carson’s downhome lyrics, many of which celebrated the simple life on the farm, but Carson connected with audiences. His recordings are widely considered to be the firsth “country” records (though fans of Texas fiddler ECK ROBERTSON, who started recording in 1922, and who you can learn about through this biography page on oldtimemusic.com, might disagree).
Speaking of fiddles, let’s digress for a moment to learn a little about the surprisingly global set of instruments that might compose a traditional mountain, “hillbilly” or old-time band:
By the 1920s must music fans became familiar with the instruments most often used in Appalachia, such as the fiddle (introduced by British/Irish immigrants), the guitar (introduced by Spanish immigrants), the mandolin (an Italian version of the ancient lute), the fretted dulcimer (introduced by Germans and other Northern Europeans), and the banjo, which became one of the instruments most identified with music of the American mountains, but has its origins in Africa.
English and Irish immigrants brought their fiddles with them when they came to “the Colonies,” and as early as the mid 1700s you’d be hard pressed to find an American
folk ensemble without one. “The fiddle” was always a bit less reputable than its classical cousin, “the violin”–in fact, the two instruments are exactly the same, the only difference is the approach of the musician. American fiddle players diverged from their European and even their Canadian fellows as they picked up African-American phrasing and syncopation.
[Watch this 2003 performance of “Orange Blossom Special” by Vassar Clements and the Del McCoury Band for an example of great bluegrass fiddlin’]
Originally introduced to the world by Spanish settlers and popular in many regions of America, especially in the Southwest near Mexico, since the 19th century, the guitar only became primary element of the “folk” ensemble in the 1920s. The most influential early folk
guitarist was MAYBELLE CARTER of the Carter Family, an ensemble we’ll meet below, who introduced a new picking style, now widely imitated, in which she played the melody line using the guitar’s lower strings and filled in the rest by plucking or strumming the higher strings. Also in the 1920s, Jimmy Rodgers, who we’ll also meet below, brought Hawaiian slide guitar into his early country music. In later decades guitarists like BURKETT H. “UNCLE JOSH” GRAVES, who popularized the previously obscure slide bar style on a kind of resonating guitar known as the Dobro, introduced by Slovak immigrants to America, the Dopyera Brothers (“DOBRO” = DOprovera BROthers), and DOC WATSON, who was a master of both “flatpicking” and “fingerpicking” techniques, solidified the acoustic guitar as an essential folk instrument through their energetic and highly accomplished playing
[Learn about the history of the guitar in bluegrass music | Watch Maybelle Carter play guitar and sing “Gold Watch and Chain,” accompanied by the Foggy Mountain Boys | Watch “Uncle Josh” play Dobro, trading solos with banjo-player Earl Scruggs | Watch Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs play “John Hardy“]
Though the mandolin, Italy’s regional variant of the ancient and widespread lute, started to appear in the United States as early as the 1850s, many Italian immigrants brought their mandolins with them when they immigrated to America in the 1880s. At the turn of the 20th century the mandolin was a familiar Vaudeville instrument, and also became popular among the middle class youth on college campuses and in towns throughout the South, though inthe ’30s and ’40s bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who we’ll introduce below, was the first mandolin virtuoso to take the instrument to the country music-loving masses.
[Read this brief history of the mandolin, focusing on its use in North America | Watch Bill Monroe play incredible Kentucky Mandolin]
THE FRETTED DULCIMER:
Though it has fallen out of favor in recent years, the dulcimer, first introduced by German and other Northern European immigrants in the 19th century, the dulcimer was a standard “hillbilly” instrument for generations. It was most popular in rural communities on the eastern side of the Appalachian mountains and in the South.
One of the instruments most closely associated with music from the Appalachians, and therefore most closely associated with the music of rural whites, is the banjo. but the banjo is actually an instrument that originated in Africa. Early banjos first appeared in the colonies most active in the African slave trade in the late 1600s. Known at first by other names such as the banza and the strum-strum, the name “banjo” arrived in the late 1700s and took about fifty years, until the 1840s, to stick. In the early 1900s “minstrel shows,” which we met above, featured banjos in their imitations of life on the plantation, introducing it to white musicians who quickly embraced it, adopting it as an instrument central to mountain music.
[Read this excellent history of the banjo, before and after it arrived the New World | Watch American banjo master Bela Fleck travel to Africa in search of the earliest banjos in the inspiring documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” | Check out very banjo-esque African Akonting | Watch the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band that formed
after meeting at Black Banjo Festival, kick musical butt during their set on NPR’s “Mountain Stage”]
Okay, back to the chronology.
EARLY COUNTRY MUSIC:
“Country” music developed into a national genre in the early 20th century when the hillbilly/mountain/old-time music of Appalachia and the Southeastern U.S. traveled westward, either in the person of itinerant musicians or due to the migration of music fans. At the time Americans still considered the Southwest (Texas, Oklahoma and states nearby) very much part of a wild frontier. Whether or not there were actually still many roaming, hard-living cowboys, the image of the lone man–and his lone horse–living, and singing about, a rough but honorable life, was a romantic one.
Still, even as country music developed into one of the most distinctly American of American art forms, the genre owes a substantial debt to music and culture from abroad. In 1924 Georgia guitarist Riley Puckett introduced yodeling, a vocal style from Swiss and Austrian Alps, in his song, Rock All Our Babies To Sleep. In 1927 fellow country yodeler JIMMIE ROGERS embraced the Hawaiian slide guitar and applied the sound to songs like T For Texas which straddled the line between folk and blues.
In the 1920s an African-American musician named HUDDIE LEDBETTER (a.k.a. “LEADBELLY”) embodied all the contemporary trends in folk music at once with his genre-bending “folk-blues” songs that were as much gospel as they were country. Ledbetter was born on a Louisiana plantation, moved to Texas with his family when he was a youth, worked in the cotton fields and regularly ran afoul of the law, though, according to legend, he earned pardons from two different prison sentences by appealing to the authorities through his songs. In the latter part of his life Leadbelly was part of the political folk scene in New York, cavorting with and directly influencing, a couple characters we’ll meet later–Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
In the 1930s the global economy collapsed and the world fell into the abysmal Great Depression. The economic devastation touched everyone, but it hit in the Great Plains in physical form. About a hundred million acres of land in the Plains, a vast tract covering the panhandles ofÂ Oklahoma and Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, had been so overly and unwisely farmed that a mid ’30s drought and a concurrent set of windstorms kicked up the dusty top soil and blew it upward, darkening the sky. Add the environmental disaster to the fact that in this “Dust Bowl” there were next to no jobs and you’ll understand why so many Western families emigrated from the area elsewhere–mainly to California–to build a new life.
One of these Dust Bowl-born, California-bound job seekers was a politically astute singer-songwriter named WOODY GUTHRIE. Son of an Okemah, Oklahoma businessman, Guthrie’s family faced a seemingly unending string of tragedies–devastating fires, debilitating disease–that made life a struggle even before the dust storms hit. When Guthrie was in his early ’20s–already married with three children–he left home to go westward seeking work. Guthrie brought his guitar with him on his travels and made more money playing songs he wrote than working any kind of odd job.
In the 1930s Guthrie and his guitar, eventually marked with a sticker reading, “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS,” which was his re-purposing of a slogan that appeared on the side of anti-Franco planes during the Spanish Civil War–ended up in New York, a main center of the growing American Left, where he spent time in Greenwich Village haunts such as the “Village Vanguard”, a jazz club that became the a de facto center for white political dissidents. There, and for the rest of his career, Guthrie wrote music most associated with the Left, especially with
communism, and while he wasn’t active in any one group he did inspire generations of activists through his frank, insightful and wryly clever pro-worker, anti-war, deeply human lyrics.
[Watch Woody Guthrie perform “This Land is Your Land” and “So long it’s been good to know yuh,” which you’ll recognize from class | Listen to Woody Guthrie’s “Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti”: part 1/part 2/part 3 | Listen to a 1944 BBC interview with Guthrie]
THE RISE OF COUNTRY:
In the late ’20s and early ’30s a singing trio from Virginia, THE CARTER FAMILY, applied tight mountain gospel and shape-note singing harmonies to traditional folk ballads and almost single-handedly created and codified the canon of American traditional country music. The ensemble was composed initially of Sarah, Maybelle and A.P. Carter, but remained popular for over forty years, changing personnel each decade or so as generations of Carter children, including JUNE CARTER, who went on to partner with country legend Johnny Cash, joined the group. Widely acknowledged as “The First Family of Country Music,” the beloved Carters continue to inspire American country and folk musicians to this day.
[Watch the early Carter Family, composed of A.P., Maybelle and Sarah Carter sing, “No Telephone in Heaven” | Watch the Carter Family perform “Wildwood Flower” on the Grand Ole Opry | Enjoy the Carter Family’s version of “I Walk the Line” | Watch Johnny Cash and June Carter perform “Foggy Mountain Top” in 1967]
During the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood romanticized the disappearing Old West in a series of movies and television series’ featuring singing “cowboys” like GENE AUTRY and ROY ROGERS. These cinematic cowboys sang “Western music” that popularized horse riding and hard working yet honest cowboy living, creating an escape for audiences during the hard times of the Depression and second World War.
In the early 1930s, while Oklahoman Woody Guthrie was bringing Western folk ballads to the boys back East, fiddler BOB WILLS and his band, the Oklahoma-based “Texas Playboys,” blended rural country and Western music with both Eastern and New Orleans big band jazz to pioneer a genre that became known as Western Swing. By the middle of the decade Wills had added horns, reeds and drums to the Playboys, not completely erasing the line between “white” and “black” music, but liberally blurring it.