Today's encore selection -- from American Roots Music by Robert Santelli. When commercial radio first appeared in 1920, the sales of phonograph-records began to collapse. The unlikely savior of the phonograph-record companies was a little-known genre of music from the South that came to be called country music:
"The first shot in the media revolution occurred on November 2, 1920, when the first commercially licensed radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, made its debut broadcast by announcing the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election. Within months, new commercial stations were popping up around the country like dandelions after a spring rain. Some were a little bizarre -- an early Washington, D.C., station was licensed to a priest and boasted the call letters WJSV, 'Will Jesus Save Virginia.' Others went to big commercial enterprises, like Chicago's WLS, owned by Sears and standing for 'World's Largest Store.' Still others were licensed to insurance companies, like Nashville's WSM -- standing for 'We Shield Millions,' the slogan of the owners, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. By 1922 and 1923, most major cities could boast of a radio station, and in the uncluttered airwaves of the time, people routinely picked up signals from hundreds of miles away.
"One effect of the popularity of the new radios had was to knock the bottom out of phonograph-record sales. The flat 78 rpm records had been around since the turn of the century, but record companies saw them as playthings for well-to-do families of the time; they featured a lot of light opera, pieces by Sousa's Band, vocal solos by Caruso, and barbershop harmonies by the Peerless Quartet. Now, suddenly, people found they could hear music free on the radio; why buy records for seventy-five cents apiece? Desperate to maintain sales, the record companies began casting about for new markets. They stumbled upon one in 1920, when the Okeh label released a song called 'Crazy Blues' by a vaudeville singer named Mamie Smith. It was the first blues record by an African-American artist, and it became a bestseller by appealing to a hitherto untapped record market -- black Americans.
|The Carter Family
"In June 1923, the same man who had recorded Mamie Smith -- Ralph Peer, a thirty-one-year-old, moon-faced A&R (artists & repertoire) chief who had been born in Kansas City, Missouri, but now worked out of New York -- found himself in Atlanta looking for talent. A local dealer promised to buy five hundred copies if Peer would record the town character -- Fiddlin' John Carson -- a fifty-five-year-old former millworker who had won fame at the Municipal Auditorium's annual fiddling contest. Peer agreed and in a temporary studio recorded Carson playing the fiddle unaccompanied and singing 'The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.' 'I thought his singing was pluperfect awful,' Peer admitted years later. But he released the record -- and was surprised to see it become a modest hit.
"Within months, the race was on as the major record companies scrambled to tap into this new market of working-class southerners. At first they didn't even know what to call the music: Some ads mentioned 'oldtime southern tunes,' others 'hill country music,' others 'oldtime music.' Victor called its series 'Native American Melodies.' In 1924, a Texan singer working in New York, Vernon Dalhart, actually had a nationwide hit with a train-wreck ballad called 'The Wreck of the Old '97.' He followed this up in 1925 with a topical 'broadside' ballad called 'The Death of Floyd Collins,' about the miner who attracted widespread attention when he was trapped in a Kentucky sand cave; this record sold more than three hundred thousand copies, and if any of the record companies had lingering doubts about the marketability of southern music, these reservations were put to rest.
"Following Ralph Peer's lead, the companies began sending talent scouts into the South to hunt up and record on-location fiddlers, singers, banjo players, and gospel quartets. In the summer of 1927, Peer hit pay dirt once again. In an old hat factory doubling as a temporary studio, in the Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol, he discovered the two acts that were to dominate country music's first decade: a singing trio called the Carter Family and a former railroad brakeman named Jimmie Rodgers."
American Roots Music
Edited by Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren, and Jim Brown
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Copyright 2001 by Ginger Group Productions Inc. and Rolling Stone
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