By JOSH BECKWORTH—
Henry Whitter’s role in early country music has often been to serve as an easy punchline. The tale is often retold of Ernest Stoneman hearing Whitter’s early recordings for the first time and declaring that his former acquaintance was so bad that surely anyone else could do better. Whitter’s nasally delivery and rough guitar work are referenced when one wants to point out how far country music has come since its amateurish early years. If it hadn’t been for the discovery of G.B. Grayson, virtuosically playing his fiddle in relative obscurity, at the infamous Mountain City fiddlers’ convention, some would be quick to argue that Whitter would have faded away as a forgotten relic, a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time to make some early records, but who was ultimately unworthy of prolonged attention.
The real Henry Whitter was something else altogether. To view Whitter solely as a musician is to miss where his real talents lay. Whitter may have been a subpar guitar player and a less than impressive singer, but he had a talent nonetheless: shameless self-promotion. It was this ability to exude confidence, to stand in an office in downtown New York, stare across official-looking desks, and tell skeptical men in suits that he was without a doubt “the world’s greatest harmonica player” that allowed Whitter to make a living for himself in an industry that didn’t even exist at the time.
This aggressive self-confidence, coupled with an underlying business acumen, was not lost on his contemporaries. One critic, writing in 1929, summarized Whitter in this way:
“Henry Whitter, as the leader of this [hillbilly] movement is entitled, perhaps to a few lines of description. Though probably the world’s worst singer, he is really good upon his chosen instruments. He is also, I hear, a peculiar combination of simplicity and shrewdness and has his own business ideas, one of which is to stand on a street corner, announcing his identity and distributing photographs of himself. I was informed by a local photographer that Whitter once introduced himself to him somewhat as follows: “Howdy do? I guess you’ve heard tell on me. I’m the celebrated Mr. Henry Whitter, of OKeh recording fame. I made ‘The Wreck of the 97’ what it is today. There’s been millions of copies sold. Okeh give me a good contract and that record made me barrels o’ money. I got money to burn, by God!”
Although this anecdote is probably questionable, there is no doubt that Henry Whitter was somehow able to use a natural talent for self-promotion and confidence to overcome any musical deficiencies he may have had. Even though it may be difficult to imagine, country music as we know it today owes a huge debt to an untrained youth whose nasally warblings helped launch a commercial genre.
Whitter’s musical career can actually be traced to his youth. He was born William Henry Whitter in 1892 in Sulphur Springs, a rural community in Carroll County Virginia. In 1900, the Whitter family – with seven-year-old William Henry – were living in the Old Town district of Grayson County. In 1910 the family had moved six miles up the New River to the mill town of Fries – a place which offered Whitter’s family, along with other mill workers, the ability to earn a steady income while enjoying many modern luxuries not available to neighboring subsistence farmers. Most of the Whitter family began work in the mill, and this industrial life would be a defining factor in Whitter’s formative years.
Whitter seems to have possessed more musical talent than he is given credit for. He was a multi-instrumentalist, playing not only the guitar, but the harmonica, banjo, fiddle, piano, and organ. Whitter’s mother had herself been a fiddle player, and the whole family was interested in music. His father was an avid singer, although he couldn’t play an instrument. After gaining employment in the Washington Mill, the family’s love of music led them to spend a substantial portion of their new found disposable income on a cylinder phonograph which allowed them to suddenly hear music from performers around the country and the world.
The young Henry Whitter – born in the Virginia countryside – would spend the majority of his adolescent years laboring alongside his family in the Washington Mill. Between shifts, he spent his time on the streets of Fries. It was within this community that he began to develop as a performer. Whitter played harmonica and guitar everywhere he could: at work, at home, and on street corners. Along with his guitar and harmonica performances, he also entertained passersby with performances from his ‘limberjacks’ – wooden figures that rhythmically danced when the performer patted his foot.
Whitter married a young girl named Orene Eunice Jones in February 1913. Their son, Paul, was born on June 24 of 1916. Despite Whitter’s blossoming interest in musical performance this period of his life was still dominated by work at the Washington Mill. His parents, father-in-law, brother-in law, sister-in-law, and later, his son Paul, would all come to be employed at the Mill.
Of course, Whitter had to start somewhere. Coming from a musical background, Whitter seemed to immediately gravitate toward musical performances as a means of escaping the menial mill work that occupied most of his day in the Washington Mill spooling department. He had learned to play the harmonica first, but seemingly aware that a solo harmonica artist would have limited opportunities, Whitter set out to learn the guitar. True to his nature as someone willing to aggressively challenge his own limitations, Whitter ordered a guitar and began playing with no real knowledge of how the instrument was played. He began by wildly flailing the strings, but he practiced regularly, sitting on an empty gas tank that had been rolled off a train car in front of the Fries Depot.
It was also during this period that Whitter began working on his trademark mode of performance, utilizing a guitar and harmonica simultaneously. With the help of fellow worker, John Summer, who worked in the machine shop of the Washington Mill, Whitter fashioned a holder that would allow him to play the harmonica while backing himsel up and a guitar. With these tools at his disposal, Whitter began performing all around Fries in the hours he wasn’t at work.
His desire to appeal as a showman as well as a musician was also evident from this period prior to his first recording session. Practicing and performing were no doubt fun for Whitter, as they were for other musical millworkers around the Virginia mountains and North Carolina Piedmont. But, unlike many amateur musicians of the time, Whitter never lost sight of music as a means to escape the mills. Fortunately for Whitter, he was about to be in the right place at the right time.
The place was John Rector’s general store. By 1923, Whitter had left the rented company house in the town of Fries where he had grown up and was living instead with the extended family of his wife in the nearby community of Stevens Creek. At the time, Stevens Creek was a well populated area, inhabited by many mill workers who commuted to work in Fries every morning. The hub of this small community was a general store located on the banks of the creek. The store had been in operation for years, even predating the founding of Fries itself. Once run by a man named Henry Isaac, by 1923, the store was under the operation of John Rector, a banjo player who enjoyed playing with local musicians who came in to shop. Whitter was a regular participant in the impromptu jams and happened to be playing with Rector one afternoon in early 1923 when a salesman stopped by to drum up business. Impressed by the music and feeling obliged to encourage the local players, he told Whitter and Rector that, through his travels, he had heard of a record company in New York called OKeh and suggested the two take their talents there and attempt to make a recording. Rector, tied to his business and suspicious of such a bold undertaking, shrugged off the suggestion. But Henry Whitter saw an opportunity to change careers. Shortly thereafter, Whitter apparently wrote to the OKeh company inquiring about making a record but received no response. Undeterred, Whitter carried his guitar case aboard a train leaving the Fries station heading to New York.
Whitter was excited by the prospect of traveling to New York to launch a professional musical career. But Rector, a responsible and successful business owner, deferred. Whitter would have to go alone. Undaunted, Whitter told everyone at the Washington Mill of his plan to break into the world of professional musicians, a world dominated at the time by formally trained performers, not rustic mill workers. Whitter’s boss, no doubt reflecting on the sentiment of many of Whitter’s co-workers, responded, “Henry, you will be seen walking back up the railroad tracks, dragging your guitar behind you.”
But again, if there is one word that describes Henry Whitter, it is tenacious. Despite discouragement, Whitter began diligently saving money out of his paycheck to purchase a ticket to New York. His wife remembered, “He just wanted to go. He always wanted to be famous.” Preparing to leave and brimming with this trademark self-confidence, Whitter reminded those around him, “You know, after I make this record I’ll never have to work in a cotton mill again.” With guitar in hand, the thirty-year old Whitter boarded the train for the long, fateful journey to New York City.
The details of this trip have been a bit controversial ever since researchers began attempting to ascribe a specific date to early country recordings. Ralph Peer, who recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta on June 19, 1923, adamantly contended that Whitter’s appearance did not pre-date the Carson recording. His contention was that Whitter had written a letter to OKeh prior to the Carson recording, but it was only after the success of that recording, when Peer formally invited him, that Whitter traveled to New York. Based on Peer’s timeline, Whitter would have shown up some time later in the year of 1923.
By contrast, Archie Green contended in his famous essay “Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol” that Whitter’s trip predated Carson’s by several months. He cited interviews with Whitter’s family members, Whitter’s own claims during his lifetime, and Polk Brockman’s (the OKeh talent scout who had discovered John Carson) assertion that the Whitter test pressing existed prior to the Carson recordings as evidence. In addition, Whitter maintained possession of a postcard sent back to Fries from New York during the initial trip, also bearing the date March 1, 1923. Whether the date was added afterward in order to support Whitter’s claims is impossible to prove. But, given the fact that Whitter died in 1941, years before any controversy about the recording date existed, it seems unlikely that he would have had a vested interest in arguing that his discovery of Carson was the first time a rural singer was recorded and that Whitter’s arrival in New York was only made at Peer’s behest.
According to Fred Hager, who operated the recording studio used by OKeh in New York, Whitter showed up in their offices sometime in 1923 and was ushered into the studio to make a few test recordings. These records, which no longer exist but were no doubt unimpressive to the ears of OKeh executives, were shelved. Whitter went back to Fries and returned to work in the spooling department of the Washington Mill. However, a musical revolution was about to explode in Atlanta. Fiddlin’ John Carson’s field recordings, issued in a limited run for local sale, began to take off in popularity. Peer and Brockman, suddenly aware of a great untapped market of people who favored rural musicians to classically-trained ones, frantically looked around for a way to keep the momentum going. They found their answer in Whitter’s test recordings and quickly summoned the obscure mill hand back to New York in December for what would become his first official recording session.
Initially, Whitter favored harmonica solos. The harmonica had been his first instrument and he apparently felt it was his best chance at success, but Ralph Peer, who was actively attempting to shape rural musical forms unfamiliar to him into something marketable, felt that these first sessions needed something more. His accounting of this first session gives insight into both his astute sense for marketable music as well as his disinterest in the rural talents providing it:
“I finally found out by talking to [Henry Whitter] that he worked in a cotton mill someplace. Charlotte or someplace like that. And he said he was the world’s greatest harmonica player… So I finally took him down to the recording studio and we ran off a half a dozen of these things, and he was a great harmonica player. There was no doubt about that. Then we issued one or two records. And, to me, they were something lacking. They needed something more. So, I brought him back, because he was successful, I brought him back to New York to do some more recordings. And then I discovered that the dope could sing. So then I began making recordings where he would sing a chorus and play a chorus, you see. All these things are so simple but I had to learn, somebody had to learn, by experiment. And we – we had Henry Whitter as an artist for a number of years.”
These first recordings – with Whitter’s pinched delivery interspersed with uncomfortably long harmonica solos – are difficult for modern listeners to appreciate. However, like fellow trailblazer Fiddlin’ John Carson, Whitter was standing on the cusp of a momentous transition from true folk music, designed to appeal to amateur performers and regionally defined, untrained listeners, to commercial country music, something that was polished and consciously designed to appeal to wider audiences. In that light, “Wreck On the Southern Old 97” – Whitter’s most popular early recording – sounds like the trumpet heralding a new age of popular music.
Despite its tedious harmonica solos and pinched vocals, “Wreck On the Old Southern 97” and other songs like it exploded in popularity during the years of 1924 and 1925. Dock Walsh – who would soon be propelled into stardom himself – recalled that he could “remember the first record I ever heard [Whitter] play was ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’ or ‘Wreck On the Old Southern 97.’ I knew I was in Winston Salem at the time and they was playing that thing all over, every house you went by.”
Adapted from Always Been A Rambler: G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, Country Music Pioneers of Southern Appalachia by Josh Beckworth