BY JOSH BECKWORTH—
When considering early country music recordings it is often difficult to discern the impact of the commercial recording industry. After all, most of the songs recorded during the first decade of country music were drawn directly from the folk tradition, and in many cases these releases are the best recorded examples of songs and tunes that would otherwise have been lost to history. But even though the songs and tunes are anchored in a folk tradition, these early recordings — and the artists that performed them — must always be viewed through the lens of commercialization.
From the very beginning of the recording industry and the dawning of the “country music format,” commercial forces shaped folk products into marketable forms. Henry Whitter’s rendition of “The Wreck On The Southern Old 97” is a good example. Even though it was one of the first ‘folk’ songs ever recorded by an ‘authentic’ folk artist, the commercial record cannot be viewed as an undiluted folk product. The recording medium itself limited songs to around three minutes, making it impossible to record all the words to the longer original ballad. Almost all versions of the song currently performed rely on Whitter’s original, truncated version.
Whitter’s first commercial records helped spur additional recordings from artists who saw the performance of folk music as a means to increased financial stability, and soon artists were testing new approaches to generate more money from record sales. It was quickly discovered that solo performances, although common in the authentic folk tradition, sold poorly. In 1924, Whitter, attempting to compete with the string band records being produced by Fiddlin’ John Carson in Georgia, had recorded with a small band of his own. After hearing Whitter’s initial records, Ernest Stoneman traveled to New York, mimicking Whitter’s journey a year earlier. Stoneman attempted to outdo Whitter by producing records he felt would be even more commercially successful. Stoneman eventually brought along other musicians – like fiddler Uncle Eck Dunford – to his recordings to help create a fuller sound for his group. The decision made by Whitter and Stoneman to use other musicians to form whole bands, rather than to play as solo artists, was a conscious decision motivated not by any authentic folk tradition, but rather by the desire to create a more marketable product.
Songs recorded by another Virginia string band, The Hill Billies, underscore the speed in which the structure of folk songs also began to be adapted for heightened record sales. By 1926, just two years after Whitter’s first solo recordings, the Hill Billies had become known for their ‘authentic’ string band renditions of tunes like “Sally Ann” and “Buck Eyed Rabbit.” However, though these songs were traditional, they were highly crafted commercial products. Realizing that records with singing sold better than purely instrumental pieces, record executives had dictated that the Hill Billies begin including vocal refrains in their fiddle breakdowns. Soon, the Hill Billies also began subdividing their arrangements into individual breaks for a variety of instruments. The fiddle would play a set number of repetitions, followed by a banjo or a ukulele. This approach, giving each instrument its own break to stand out is a technique that is commonplace with bluegrass bands today – but something that was developed through trial and error by record companies and perfected by early commercial string bands like the Hill Billies.
The explosion of these highly crafted commercial recordings being produced in the early twenties was, ironically, the greatest tool for preservation of songs and tunes from the southern folk tradition – and their most prolific destroyer. While some songs, like “Wreck of the Old 97” were able to maintain relevance as a result of early commercial recordings, other songs and styles were quickly erased. For example, traditional ballads, which often extended into dozens of verses with no instrumental accompaniment, did not sell, and consequently, were not recorded. As a result, many of the traditional ballads of Virginia have become essentially extinct, existing now only on the pages of printed song collections.
The recorded medium — with its rapid and easy dissemination — also quickly began to erode and homogenize more regional playing styles. Musicians like Fields Ward — who was raised in a home full of traditional folk influences — looked increasingly to records for inspiration. Though a native of Grayson County, Virginia, Ward attempted to replicate the more exciting guitar style of Georgia native Riley Puckett, for example. Musical techniques known to folk musicians of Virginia for decades, were quickly abandoned in favor of the newer sounds being heard on records. Open fiddle tunings, which allowed for drone strings to be sounded in unison with noted strings, became increasingly rare. Clawhammer and frailing banjo styles, which dominated most early country records, were gradually replaced by finger picking styles, and, after the debut of Earl Scruggs’ banjo style with Bill Monroe’s band, these older banjo styles were permanently relegated to ‘old-time’ status. Ted Lundy — a native of Galax born in 1937 to an extensive musical family — is a good example of this trend. He chose to model his banjo playing on Scruggs’ style, rather than the regional clawhammer style of his own father, Charles Edgar Lundy. His career blossomed in the 1950’s — with the growing popularity of bluegrass.
This is not to say that folk music in a true form ceased to exist after the dawn of recorded music — only that it must be viewed as a separate product, with a totally separate purpose. The overarching purpose of all commercially recorded music was to sell records. Songs were selected, arrangements were made, and instrumental styles were chosen to suit this commercial end. By contrast, folk music continued to exist to satisfy the needs of local audiences. These songs were often traditional, with some regional history which made them relevant to the local audience. Performers of these ‘folk’ pieces were often amateurs, more interested in maintaining and sharing a collective musical experience and satisfying a community need than in demonstrating technical virtuosity. Many of these artists, as a result, were never recorded. However, their music can be equally, if not more, interesting than the music of more well known recorded artists, as it allows insight into the song selections and performance styles typical of their respective communities.
Emmett Lundy’s recordings for the Library of Congress in 1941 gives us a good insight into the tunes and bowing patterns typical of 19th Century Grayson County. Wade Ward, who learned to play in the decades preceding the rise of commercial country music, offers insight into the banjo style that dominated the region traditionally. The Shelor Family provide good insight in the more archaic tunes and unadorned string band style that would have been common in a community dance prior to the influence of records.
Ironically, many true folk artists today choose to perform songs for friends and neighbors that were once featured on commercial recordings. These songs are often altered: performed with instruments, lyrics, and styles not found on the original recordings. This reinvention forms a loop in which folk music is commercially altered, recorded, and released, only to be reabsorbed and repurposed by contemporary folk performers. To discern these subtle differences, between a song being performed for a small, familiar audience and ones being crafted for commercial success, allows for great shades of nuance to be gleaned from these seemingly simple songs and tunes.