Dave Buckhout .
Publication Date: March 23, 2015
March 23, as far as anyone knows for sure, is the birthday of one Fiddlin’ John Carson. A skilled musician, songwriter and showman, Carson is hailed as the first country music star (c. 1920s). A millworker, he had been a part of the early 20th-century flood of poor Appalachians into southern cities seeking work in the humming, dirty and dangerous cotton mills. This was no small migration and it brought with it no small portfolio of musical traditions. Building on ‘old-country’ Scots-Irish traditionals all rearranged, mashed-up and leavened with alternate lyrics, foreign instruments (such as the Italian mandolin, the African banjo) and ‘new-world’ tales of trials and tribulations, these were the string-band templates that would, in their day, be collectively labeled “mountain,” or by promoters and advertisers: “hillbilly” music. Today we use a more nostalgic title: old-time. All of American country music (and, by way of that influence, a good deal of rock-and-roll) can trace its lineage to these tunes, these performers and the thick, if brittle 78 rpm discs sold and played over the radio during the 1920s-30s. The budding centres of proto-country—Nashville and Atlanta—both vied for the title of “country music capital” throughout the 1920s. With the opening of the Grand Ole Opry in 1925, Nashville would soon cement its hold. But it was in Atlanta—the transplanted home of Fiddlin’ John—where major recording studios Okeh, Victor and others in conjunction with WSB radio first pumped out this new style wholesale to the public … And it was in Atlanta (c. 1990s), where my fascination with old-time itself took root.
I knew little of this history when I moved to Atlanta; but had been primed before arriving by what some might view an odd source: The Grateful Dead. Bonafide flag-bearers for all things psychedelic, the band also contained some fairly committed fans (Jerry Garcia chief among them) who dug deep into the roots, often paying tribute to traditional folk and country music through a wide-ranging palette of covers. The Dead introduced me to the stylistic descendants of old-time: South Appalachian bluegrass, folk-country, country & western and mid-century commercial country (especially its “Okie” Bakersfield, CA, offshoot). Backtracking through these stylistic ligaments leading up to our own times is what eventually led me back to old-time; and when I got there, I was transfixed. I liken it to discovering an old trunk in an attic filled with letters or periodicals that in their reading becomes an immersive stroll through life and living in an era long past. But the light of this new found interest also refracted a dim truth, as I just as soon discovered this world of early 20th-century recordings disappearing—rapidly. The relentless march of new technologies and formats, music-listening habits and worst of all: old collections of 78s finding their way to the dump, had surely consigned most of this music to oblivion. Well, yes and no …
As I tuned into old-time and its recordings, I likewise stepped into a world of historical enthusiasts. It was clear that the tireless efforts of a handful of professional musicologists, preservationists, musicians (who all seem to recognize whose shoulders they were standing on) and a just-as-devoted group of amateurs was all that stood between preserving old-time recordings for the future and the voracious indifferent void that has swallowed up so much now-forgotten cultural art throughout human history. Even with that voracious void looming, it seemed this dedicated crew was scoring significant cultural victories. It was a trend that only seemed to accelerate as the millenium turned over. One review in the early aughts hit the note. Touting the release of a 2-volume set of obscure old-time era tracks, a release by Revenant Records called “American Primitive,” it well-summarized the service these preservation stalwarts were providing. In paraphrasing, the reviewer lyrically depicted how all of the songs “… are like flash-bulbs going off in the dark” — i.e. individual moments about which the story of the performer is little known being lifted up out of that dark oblivion—a few points-of-light rescued from the maw at the very last second. That quote at once sparked a moment of pause and praise: though the vast majority of recordings were already gone, they might all have been gone but for a few individuals and their passionate efforts. I was among the many reveling in their victories.
If The Dead set the table, then it was two programs broadcast locally that provided me with a feast. A Sunday morning show on what was then Georgia State University’s college radio station: WRAS 88.5 (just down the road from the original location of WSB in downtown Atlanta) sent me on my way. The 20th Century Archives show introduced me to: Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit-Jar Drinkers, The Skillet-Lickers, The Carter Family and Fiddlin’ John Carson among others. Proto-country though it was, it was soon clear that in the (ahem) ‘great’ tradition of lame commercial labels, “hillbilly” was predictably lame; for a wide range of influences—European and African American—were evident in the malleable alloys of early country. There are hints of the blues, obvious riffs on ragtime, barrelhouse, and swing; even some mexican, latin and cajun spice darting around the traditional Euro ‘fiddle-tune’ nougat that was always at its core. Ready for the next step, I did not have far to go: Joe Bussard’s Country Music Classics, on every Friday @ 5p on Georgia Tech’s WREK 91.1. If the 20th Century Archives show was the sampler, here was the old-time promised-land. Bussard’s unrivaled personal collection is certainly the ‘Library of Congress’ of vintage 78s, gathered over a lifetime of digging through old farmhouses, basements, attics, trash heaps and antique stores. And though Jimmy Rodgers was always the stated favorite on Country Classics, Fiddlin’ John found enough regular air-time to rank high on Bussard’s old-time charts.
Though performed in the main by whites from Appalachia, it was through these shows and the trove of re-released recordings that so many like myself came to understand the impact old-time has had on the whole of American music since the 1920s. I was able to more fully recognize and appreciate how deep-rooted traditions are embedded, consciously and subconsciously, in the music we listen to today. It is good to know where you are from, for it contains a unique knowledge that can only instill a deeper appreciation for where you are … In step, we attended our first “Fiddlin’ John Carson Birthday Celebration” in 2005. Held annually by Carson’s local descendants and fans at the country star’s gravesite in the once-feral, now redeemed Sylvester Cemetery (located on the DeKalb County side of Atlanta’s East Atlanta neighborhood), an impromptu picking circle well-commemorates the memory of a star that had been all-but forgotten. And but for family and the tireless attempts of a few good souls to keep old-time in circulation and on the air, this would surely be the case. For preservation can take no holiday. This annual celebration and the dedicated contemporary hands saving, restoring and redistributing music once left for dead reminds us that the work of preserving memory is continual and personal. It is no small task to take memory and again give it life.
Dust-To-Digital … Atlanta’s own, this firm is on the forefront of collecting / digitizing / preserving / distributing old-time music. Founded by Lance Ledbetter (once a host of 20th Century Archives) and now run by he and wife, April, their prolific Grammy Award winning releases makes D-To-D the gold standard.
Joe Bussard’s Country Classics … A national treasure, this show is still streaming decades after my first listen (Bussard having performed the broadcast in some form since the 1950s). Country Classics live-streams every Friday @ 5p on WREK 91.1
Revenant Records … Creation of old-time preservation warriors, John Fahey and Dean Blackwood (Austin, TX), Blackwood says it well enough himself: “Crucial to the Revenant ethos is the notion of the neglected gem … if the masses reject or ignore it, it just may be worth looking into.” (With Fahey’s passing, the label’s future may be uncertain; though the 2013-2014 Paramount Records collaboration with Jack White’s Third Man Records was impressive.)
Smithsonian Folkways: Anthology of American Folk Music … No discussion of old-time is complete without mentioning Harry Smith’s groundbreaking compilation released in 1952.
Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp / UNC Press … A quick plug for a work that goes deep on the Southern millworker and “hillbilly” music traditions—and in which Fiddlin’ John Carson plays a lead role.