By KINNEY RORRER—
The term mountain music first appeared on phonograph records in 1933 as recorded by such country singers as Elton Britt, Ken Landon, James Brown, Jr. and the Kelly Brothers. Mountain music came to be defined as rural acoustic music played on stringed instruments – such as fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, etc. – and based on folk songs and tunes found in the southern Appalachians as well as the Ozarks.
One region, particularly rich in this vein of music, is the Blue Ridge Plateau – the mountain counties of southwest Virginia encompassing Floyd, Franklin, Patrick, Carroll, and Grayson. These five counties served as one of the Fertile Crescents of a musical form that would be popularized in the 1920’s via commercial recordings – helping to lay the groundwork of old time country music and bluegrass that is still loved and revered today.
That these counties should have such a rich tradition of rural mountain music should come as no surprise. The region had been settled in the eighteenth century primarily by people of Scots-Irish and German descent who had followed the Great Wagon Road south from Pennsylvania before turning westward along the Wilderness Road toward the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Cumberland Mountains. When Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1773 of the Scots who were emigrating from the British Isles he said – “…they carry with them their language, their opinions, their popular songs and hereditary merriment. They change nothing but their place of abode.” – that they brought with them a culture of fiddle tunes, ballads and dancing.
The Scots-Irish had an expression called “passing the time,” which referred to time not spent doing work. Their love of music, dancing and story-telling was often used to “pass the time.” Often poorly educated with little money for books and so-called high culture, they made their own entertainment, often on homemade instruments. Fiddles and banjos could be made from wooden cigar boxes, gourds and lard buckets. Their geographical isolation encouraged the prolonged continuation of their musical traditions. For example: though fiddle tunes such as “Miss McLeod’s Reel,” “Old Molly Hare,” “Soldier’s Joy” and others had originated in the British Isles, they continued to be played in the Blue Ridge, though sometimes under different names. It was the longevity of this musical tradition that brought people of the counties in southwest Virginia before commercial recording equipment in the 1920’s to share this marvelous mountain music with the world beyond the Blue Ridge.
Early Recording Pioneers
A native of Carroll County, Henry Whitter, was among the very first mountain singers to be heard on 78 rpm phonograph records. In 1923, on his own initiative, Whitter took time off from his job as a cotton mill worker in Fries, Virginia (Grayson County) to journey to New York City in a bold attempt to make records. He was successful in obtaining a recording session for Okeh records and recorded at least nine sides in December of 1923. One of these, “Wreck On The Southern Old 97,” was lifted by Vernon Dalhart whose 1924 recording went on to become a mega hit selling in excess of one million copies, probably the biggest selling country record of the pre-World War ll period. Whitter continued recording for Okeh from 1924-1926. He also provided backup music for other Okeh artists such as Roba Stanley and Kelly Harrell.
In 1927 Whitter formed a partnership with a blind fiddler named G. B. Grayson of northeast Tennessee. Between 1927 and 1930 the duo of Grayson and Whitter recorded songs and tunes that would become icons of old time and bluegrass music. Tunes recorded by Grayson and Whitter such as “Train 45”, “Handsome Molly”, “Nine Pound Hammer”, “Going Down The Lee Highway”, “Short Life of Trouble”, “Little Maggie With A Dram Glass In Her Hand”, “Rose Conley” and “Tom Dooley” can be found in the repertoire of many modern traditional bluegrass bands. The roots of those bluegrass renditions go back to Grayson and Whitter.
Whitter’s initial success in making records inspired other regional old time musicians and singers to follow his trailblazing path into the recording studios. Two of his fellow residents of Fries, Virginia, Ernest V. Stoneman and Kelly Harrell, were inspired to make records after hearing those issued by Whitter early on. Stoneman recorded in September of 1924 and again in January of 1925 for Okeh records. His recording of “The Titanic” was the first old time version of the ballad captured on a phonograph record.
Between 1924 and 1934 Stoneman recorded both solo and with a full band that often included his family members. It was Stoneman who suggested to Victor A & R director Ralph Peer that he hold a field recording session at Bristol, Tennessee – the now famous Bristol Sessions – that produced the first recordings of the Carter Family of southwest Virginia along with Mississippi artist Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father Of Country Music.” At Bristol, in the summer of 1927, Stoneman cut fourteen sides while the Carters cut six sides and Rodgers only two. Stoneman’s recordings preserved a wide variety of songs and tunes including camp meeting songs, ballads and mountain dance tunes that are still played by old time bands in the region today.
Another important band from the Galax area bordering Carroll and Grayson county was The Hillbillies, formed by John Rector, brothers Al and Joe Hopkins and Elvis Alderman. Rector, who had already made records with Henry Whitter in the summer of 1924, persuaded his musician friends to form a band and try their hand at making records. In January 1925 they made their first recordings for Okeh in New York. Though the personnel changed from time to time, they continued recording until 1928; also appearing on the radio and even in a fifteen minute film short that was shown in theatres. A major highlight for the Hillbillies’ career was playing at the White House in 1928 for President Coolidge. This band’s exposure helped to popularize the term “Hillbilly” for mountain music — applied initially to the to the records from the genre — later revised to Country Music.
Posey Rorer & Charlie Poole
Posey Wilson Rorer became the first Franklin County fiddler to be heard on records. Badly crippled at birth with clubbed feet, Rorer learned to play as a youngster on a fiddle he made from a wooden cigar box. While working as a coal miner in West Virginia during World War l, he encountered a wandering banjo player and songster who was a native of the North Carolina piedmont, Charlie Poole. Rorer took Poole with him back to Franklin County where the two of them made moonshine whiskey. The profits earned from the whiskey paid for corrective surgery for Rorer’s feet and a new banjo for Poole.
In 1925 Poole and Rorer went to New York City on their own initiative and secured an audition with Columbia Phonograph Company. Their first release from the July 1925 session, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues”/ “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister,” was one of the best selling old time music records on the Columbia label selling over 102,000 copies. Rorer went on to record more than 130 sides for the major record companies including Edison, Victor, Gennett, Paramount, Brunswick and the American Record Company. The sales for his Columbia sides alone account for more than 515,000 records sold, meaning that his fiddling was heard by more listeners than any other Franklin County fiddler. On the highly influential “ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC,” produced by Harry Smith in 1952, Rorer’s fiddle work is heard on more selections than any other fiddler on the 3 LP set. His 1931 recording of “I’ll Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” became a source for later bluegrass bands and is still heard at bluegrass concerts today.
Following the Footsteps
The success of the pioneer recordings made by Whitter, Stoneman, The Hillbillies, Rorer, etc prompted even more musicians from the region to come forward with their talents for the studio microphones.
Bands such as J. P. Nestor & Norman Edmonds and the Pipers Gap Ramblers from Carroll County took their turns in the recording studios. From Grayson County came the Sweet Brothers, The Buck Mountain Band, and the Ward Family.
Floyd County supplied Blind Alfred Reed, who spent his formative years in Floyd, and would later record “The Wreck of the Virginian” at Bristol in 1927 and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” at a 1929 session in New York; The Floyd County Ramblers for Victor Records in 1930 recording “The Story of Freeda Bolt,” a local murder ballad; and fiddler Elder Golden P. Harris, who started his own record label circa 1933.
Patrick County provided the Blackard-Shelor Family, Holland Puckett and Spangler & Pearson for more music that went from the mountains to the microphone. And Dr. William K. Lloyd & Howard Maxey added to the legacy of Franklin County music when they recorded tunes for Okeh records in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1927.
The great music from our mountains continued in the decades following this “Golden Age of Old Time Music” with the likes of Peg Hatcher, Ivan Weddle, the Kimble Family, Buddy Pendleton, Rudy Lyle, Dent Wimmer, Wayne Henderson and many other fine musicians. The Crooked Road, The Floyd Country Store and the annual Ferrum Folklife Festival along with the world famous Old Fiddlers’ Convention at Galax have continued to preserve and showcase the great music of our mountains – helping to propel this music further and farther into the future.