Henry Whitter: The First-Recorded Country Musician and Spark That Set the Bristol Sessions Aflame

An early publicity photo of Henry Whitter – Photo courtesy of Brian and Ann Baker Forehand

THE WRECK OF THE OLD ’97 was an American rail disaster involving the Southern Railway mail train — officially known as the Fast Mail (train number 97). While en route from Monroe, Virginia to Spencer, North Carolina on September 27, 1903, travelling at an excessive speed in an attempt to maintain schedule, the train derailed at the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, VA, where it careened off the side of the bridge, killing 11 on-board personnel and injuring seven others. The wreck inspired this famous railroad ballad, which was the focus of a convoluted copyright lawsuit but became seminal in the genre of country music.

GOING DOWN THE ROAD FEELING BAD – Also known as the “Lonesome Road Blues” — One of Whitter’s first recordings from the 1923 Okeh session. The earliest versions of the lyrics are from the perspective of an inmate in prison with the refrain, “I’m down in that jail on my knees” and refer to eating “corn bread and beans.” The song has been recorded by countless artists from Woody Guthrie to Bill Monroe to the Greatful Dead.

While the country music tradition is known to have emanated from the hills and hollers throughout most of the early American South, it was the gumption of one man that first put those sounds to record. Henry Whitter, a Fries, Virginia millhand who dared to dream his way into OKeh Records was the first ever recorded country music artist.

When we talk about musicians of the golden age of early country music, we must remember that these individuals were not stationary, one-dimensional characters but rather, people with interconnected and varying lives. Henry Whitter, through his own will power and sheer ambition, elevated himself from textile worker to successful recording artist. His recording career spanned multiple labels and two decades.

Whitter’s initial foray into recording was unprompted — he took it upon himself to travel to New York City unannounced and demand a test recording with the OKeh company. It has been said that the genre of country music as we know it today would not have existed — and that the infamous Bristol Sessions of 1927 would not even have happened — if not for the release of the Whitter recordings from this 1923 session. When these recordings were released almost a year later (including ‘The Wreck of the Old 97’ — cited as the first-ever recorded country song), Ernest Stoneman heard his fellow Carroll County performer and decided he could do better. And thus, the spark ignited a lifetime career as performer and producer and spawning one of the greatest family legacies of country music. But, there’s much more to the story!

In the words of Whitter scholar 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 co-worker 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…”

From Always Been A Rambler: G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, Country Music Pioneers of Southern Appalachia.

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