On the afternoon of June 12, 1931, the two biggest acts in country music, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, magically visited each other in their respective homes of Kerrville, Texas, and Maces Springs, Virginia — a feat accomplished by the wizardry of Ralph Peer and his Victor Talking Machine Company. These recorded “visits” were corny and awkward — the Singing Brakeman’s effortless entertainer’s charm made the demure Carters seem downright repressed — but they were a shrewd Depression-era marketing ploy by Peer, who unleashed the most extensive publicity blitz the stars of his hillbilly recording catalog had ever received. The records sold well and, despite their hokiness, they remain a fascinating memento of those legendary artists in collaboration.
Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family (one of three takes):
Carter Family Visits Jimmie Rodgers (one of two takes):
The visits took place eighty years ago this month, in a mobile studio set up in an empty storefront on Main Street near Sixth Street in downtown Louisville. They were part of a week of recording sessions that Ralph Peer had arranged not only for Rodgers and the Carters, but for a diversity of acts — country blues, holiness gospel, hillbilly string bands, Louisville’s native jug-band music — that ran the gamut from the famous to the utterly obscure.
The lion’s share of the material recorded by Victor that week was for its catalog of “race” records — blues, gospel, and black dance music marketed to African American audiences. The city was and had long been a hub for performing bluesmen and jug bands and the names that appeared in Victor’s Louisville ledgers were among the most gifted artists of the era: Arkansan Roosevelt Sykes; Mississippi’s Walter Davis; Henry Townsend from Cairo, Illinois; Belmont, Kentucky’s Bill Gaither; and Louisville-born Clifford Gibson. It’s curious that Peer didn’t hold these sessions in the other River City, given that most of these men were based in or around St. Louis at the time. But a stack of great sides were made, and made here, including some by Louisville’s own Whistler’s Jug Band. Buford “Whistler” Threlkeld and his band’s “Foldin’ Bed,” cut on June 15, 1931, remains one of the foremost — and last great — jug band classics.
It wasn’t just Victor’s race catalog that was enlarged that week in Louisville. Northern Kentucky guitarist Elmer Bird brought his Kentucky Corn Crackers down to record two sides; one of which, “Crossed Old Jordan’s Stream,” has long been an essential entry in the canon of pre-war sacred hillbilly music. Unfortunately, two similarly holy-minded tunes cut by a string band called the Kentucky Coon Hunters were never issued, and the band’s provenance has been lost to history.
(Here’s the flip-side of “Crossed Old Jordan’s Stream.” Both sides feature a very forward-looking mandolin.)
(It’s been written that Dock Boggs was also tapped by Peer to come to town from Norton, Va., to take part in the sessions, but couldn’t — or wouldn’t — make the trip.)
One of the most exciting products of the Louisville sessions from a purely musical perspective was that made by a black ensemble Victor dubbed the Louisville Sanctified Singers. Presumably a Pentecostal Holiness group, they made four sides of joyful noise with a gang of co-ed shouters, a brutally bashed guitar, and an ecstatic tambourine. (Victor’s files credited a “Miss Davis” and “Mrs. Hayes” as the lead singers, and I don’t see why the latter wouldn’t be the wife or sister-in-law of jug-band leader, violinist, and hell-raiser Clifford Hayes.) Their tunes are impossibly catchy; they’re also impossibly rare. Only several copies of their first record are extant and no copies of their second are known to survive. Keep your eyes open, neighbors.
The star of the week, though, was Jimmie Rodgers. Tubercular, wracked with coughing fits, frequently spitting up between takes, the Blue Yodeler still managed to record a variety of tunes — from Tin Pan Alley schmaltz to innuendo-laden blues (in one instance with Clifford Gibson on second guitar).
His time in Louisville is arguably the broadest recorded display of his versatility, with no take more illustrative than his collaboration with Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band. “My Good Gal’s Gone Blues” is the sound of sublimely competent and confident performers collaborating across lines drawn both by Jim Crow segregation and that of Victor’s marketing schema. It’s also one of the only places — if not the only place — where you’ll hear a yodel and a jug sharing sonic space. (And it’s also only the second time in Jimmie’s career when he recorded with African Americans; the first time was a year earlier in Hollywood with Louis Armstrong and Lil’ Hardin.)
Cliff Carlisle had a particularly fond memory from the week. The great steel guitarist, alongside his partner Wilbur Ball (with whom he performed as the Lullaby Larkers on WHAS radio), had been tapped to accompany Rodgers on two of his Louisville sides. Carlisle recalled to Jimmie’s biographer Nolan Porterfield that after the session Rodgers graciously invited them to Cunningham’s for their famous frog legs.
It remains a mystery why Ralph Peer chose Louisville for the site of the sessions, but, eighty years later, it’s hardly important. The Singing Brakeman, the Whistler, the Corn Crackers, our own Sanctified Singers, Cunningham’s frog legs — they’re all long gone. It’s a good time for us to remember them.
[A slightly abridged version of this piece appeared in the LEO Weekly, June 22, 2011 — our first “Root Hog Or Die” column for that publication.]