Country Music Records

A discography, 1921-1942 by Tony Russell

Oxford University Press, New York, 2004
xiii + 1183 pp. ISBN 0-19-513989-5

I cannot remember exactly when I first heard rumblings of Tony Russell's plan to gather together the complete discographical details which document the pre-1942 corpus of old time and proto-Country music into a good degree of order.  It would almost certainly have been about three decades ago, probably within the pages of his seminal journal Old Time MusicCover pictureAt long last, with the editorial assistance in more recent years of Bob Pinson and the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, he has made good on his intention.  With the primary sources encompassing a number of disparate sub-genres - including Western Swing, Cajun, urban-based Country (written and performed by the so-called 'Citybillies') and the North-eastern tradition of tunes played for quadrilles, barn dances, varsoviannas, and other dance forms imported from the Old World - this project was always going to be time-consuming, labour-intensive and incredibly complex.

Despite that, or perhaps exactly because of the challenge created by these stumbling blocks, this volume has turned out to be mightily impressive, beyond even what aficionados could possibly have hoped for.  The American arm of Oxford University Press have served the project in the finest possible manner, with quality printing (if a little light in density) on fine thin, though still opaque, stock.  The attractive dust jacket is rendered in basic black with reproductions of a dozen labels selected from the many thousands of 78 r.p.m.  shellac issues chronicled between its covers, strikingly printed in varying hues of orange.  The binding is strong and tight and will no doubt prove to be durable, and the entire thing reeks of class.  In all of this the Press follows their own precedent set by the fourth edition of the Godrich, Dixon and Rye Blues and Gospel records 1890-1943, issued under their now defunct Clarendon Press imprint in 1997.  Further influences are more tangible, as Tony Russell acknowledges (page 35) that his layout and formatting follows, with some divergences, that of the earlier volume.

Finally, with the appearance of this publication practically the entire pre-1942 regional and ethnic recording output of the American commercial companies has now been not only catalogued (draft manuscripts having existed in private hands for many years in varying degrees of completeness) but made freely available.  Ironically, much of this work - one thinks of not only of this volume, but those featuring jazz and also blues and gospel, already mentioned (though one of the original compilers was Australian; as was John Edwards, upon whose groundbreaking investigative efforts all old timey discographical research is founded) - has resulted from the instigation, primary research and organisational efforts of committed, not to say obsessed (and I count myself among this group), researchers living in Britain.

It is in the nature of such ventures that first editions will inevitably be flawed, and other published discographical works have been through a number of subsequent, revised, editions.  The blues and gospel chronicle has, as noted above, reached its fourth published version; while an updated edition of Dick Spottswood's massive, seven volume Ethnic Music on Records is, I hear, due shortly in the CD-ROM format.  With the old timey dataset now accessibly available in print it becomes not only possible but practically an obligation for collectors and other researchers to identify and bring into the light missing or erroneous data.  Although I am listed as a contributor, had it been possible to view the final draft prior to publication I could have tipped in a number of omissions and anomalies to hand.  Much of this is minor detail, but then the foundation of the whole discographical genre consists of minutiae, and, above all, on accuracy and completeness.

Comprehensive details of the recorded output of hundreds of performers between 1921 and the watershed year of 1942 (including a good many tracks never originally issued) are featured.  Quite a few entries span multiple pages, that for Vernon Dalhart alone taking up more than fifty.  In addition, Russell has skilfully summarised the corporate histories of the relevant recording companies and their associated labels; detailed the many historic field trips made by recording engineers to the southern states, which resulted in a multitude of artists who would never have dreamed of travelling to New York City being immortalised on disc; and generated comprehensive indices to both performers and tune titles.

This latter is particularly useful, enabling at least a basic analysis of how popular and widespread each item appears to have been.  Unsurprisingly, the core fiddle repertory of dance tunes (many with associated vocal stanzas or couplets) feature heavily : thirteen separate of recordings of Cumberland Gap, for instance, fourteen Mississippi Sawyers, twenty Soldier's Joys, and a massive thirty Turkey in the Straws.  Also here are a goodly number of songs which straddled the white/black musical divide, a feature brought into the light by Russell himself back in 1970, in his hugely stimulating and refreshingly iconoclastic volume Blacks Whites and Blues (London: Studio Vista).  Here we find nine versions of Frankie and Johnny, thirteen John Henrys, and fifteen each of Birmingham Jail and Bully of the Town.  The widespread fascination for the pioneering days of the nineteenth century, fuelled by the hugely popular Western film genre (and a good number of such actors - Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter and the like - are present and correct), is reflected in eighteen versions of Home on the Range, half a dozen of Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie, and twenty four Red River Valleys.  Several of the notorious and colourful real-life characters of that time and era find a degree of immortality, including five recordings of Billy the Kid (but only one of the more obscure Cole Younger).  The career and violent end of an outlaw who, like many other criminals before and after (Bonnie and Clyde, for example), was often perceived as a victim of social injustice and a hero of the oppressed rural poor is glorified in sixteen versions of Jesse James (including five by Vernon Dalhart for various companies), and in three others under the variant title Death of Jesse James, although the index regrettably does not cross-reference this fact.  Among the rather more incongruous items found within the broad remit of the genre is a bizarre syncopated cover version of Sir Harry Lauder's Roamin' in the Gloamin' by The Girls of the Golden West, complete with phoney Scottish accents and rolled 'r's; three versions of Grannie's Old Arm-Chair (plus another four if you know to look under The Old Arm Chair); and a pair of British Music Hall numbers - one of which has been much reissued in recent decades - by the duly obscure (and unjustly omitted) Arkansas Travelers.

Where, for whatever reason, tracks were originally unissued on shellac disc, but have appeared subsequently in either vinyl or CD format (a fair sprinkling by the likes of Jimmie Davis and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys spring to mind) this fact is usefully noted.  But even where such reissues are absent, there exist a number of test pressings in private hands (that of Joe Bussard, for instance - I recently reviewed a CD compiled from his collection for this site), but these priceless, often unique copies remain undocumented here.  So too - unlike the afore-mentioned Godrich, Dixon and Rye and Spottswood tomes - are the hundreds of items made under the auspices of the Library of Congress and other corporate institutions.  Such listings had been a staple feature of the early issues of Old Time Music, and perhaps we may hope for their inclusion in future editions.

A review is certainly not the ideal, or even particularly appropriate place to extensively chronicle minor faults, typos and omissions (I'll be sending a list to Tony following a more detailed and extensive trawl), but limited examples from a few such areas is, I think, acceptable.

At times, opportunities for noting more accurately the names of certain musical participants have been missed.  'Duke' Clark, for example, was Theodore Clark.  Mellie Dunham was Alanson Mellen Dunham, and Smoky Wood was John Bryce Wood.  Tony Russell certainly knows all this, though, and it's clearly just an oversight.

Brian Rust's The Victor Master Book Volume 2 (1925-1936) (it's been a decade or so since I last said this, so it's perhaps worth repeating - there never was a first volume) gives the classically trained musician and recording studio enabler Eli E Oberstein as 'Conductor' of the National Barn Dance Orchestra's session of 1933, suggesting a more formally organised studio band, perhaps along the lines of Henry Ford's Old Time Dance Orchestra, which performed a closely-related repertory, and has been deliberately (and perhaps unfairly) excluded here.  Incidentally, the Ford-sponsored group and Mellie Dunham's Orchestra were in Victor's New York Studios on consecutive days in January 1926, committing to posterity a similar selection of largely Old World tunes, including some tracks featuring dance calls.

It has been suggested elsewhere that, on aural grounds, 'King' Bennie Nawahi is the steel guitar player on the Grey Gull matrix 3869-B by the 'Small Town Players', and that the date, given here as 'January/February 1930', should more accurately be circa 30 January 1930.  Certainly Nawahi was recording for that company a short time earlier, with matrices 3824-B and 3825-A,B, and is known to have been in New York City making tracks for Columbia on 30 January 1930.

An examination of the label of Uncle Joe Shippee's 1926 tune medley on Perfect 11236 - Miss McCloud's Reel; Peel Her Jacket; Pig Town Fling - would have revealed the transposition of the second and third selection.  Similarly, the label of Mellie Dunham's Orchestra's 1926 coupling on Victor 20537 - given simply as Medley Of Reels here, evidently citing a source from the original company files - actually names the featured tunes : Medley of Reels: 1 Irish Washerwoman, 2 Lannigan's Ball, 3 Campbell's are Comin, backed with Medley of Reels: 1 Miss McCloud's Reel, 2 White Cockade, 3 Johnny Coakley.

Where such huge quantities of discs, with releases geographically spanning practically half the civilised world, are involved, there are some inevitable omissions in the dataset chronicling which tracks appeared in which form on which issues.  Frank Morris' sole coupling, from 1925, for instance, appeared also on Silvertone 3110; while Carson Robison's With a Banjo on My Knee (matrix 20705 version) was issued in Europe on Kristall 21593.  Matrix 80842 by The Girls of the Golden West was issued in Britain on Regal Zonophone MR 1597 in its second take (i.e. another recording of the same item, most often made consecutively), and I'm left wondering whether the other issues in the diaspora (it appeared additionally on releases in India and Australia) actually use this take also.

Where details of instrumentation are absent from the recording companies' files or the original record labels we become reliant upon aural perception, and inevitably no two listeners will necessarily agree.  But on Polly Ann by Frank Wilson & His Blue Ridge Mountain Trio, for example, I believe a guitar is present, in which case it's almost certainly played by Elbert Bowman.

As Tony Russell observes, the general corpus of Hawaiian-style performances falls strictly outside the scope of this work, as they did also (though with less obvious reason) with Spottswood's ethnic tome, mentioned earlier.  But certain groups straddled the old timey/Hawaiian fence, and appropriate details are justly given here.  For that reason, a link to the as-yet-unpublished (though pretty close now) complete 78 rpm Hawaiian music discography being coordinated by T Malcolm Rockwell would certainly have repaid the effort and rendered a number of those entries more accurate and complete.  As one researcher heavily involved in that project I could also have provided relevant data had I seen the manuscript near its final draft.  To highlight merely a pair of instances, the coupling Don't Say No and Hula Nights, by the Honolulu Strollers, appeared additionally on Zonophone EE 324; while half a dozen tracks by Jim and Bob, the Genial Hawaiians, were issued also on Timely Tunes, one of Victor's budget labels.

In the final assessment, though, my enthusiasm and admiration for the finished product finally sitting on my shelves (for many years 'I'll believe it when I see it' had become my personal comment most often associated with any mention of the project) knows no bounds.  The appeal of the volume will necessarily be rather limited, though imagine what a best seller it might be if merely one per cent of the uncounted millions who champion the modern incarnation of country music were to buy a copy in order to discover where the roots of that music lie.  That's highly improbable, of course, but every library, at least, ought to have one on its reference shelves.

There never was any question that Tony Russell was the best qualified man for the job, and that trust and confidence has been fully vindicated. He deserves our unqualified thanks for such intense efforts undertaken across so many years and a lengthy breather in order to regroup. But we look forward with keen anticipation to the upgraded second edition not too many years down the line.

Keith Chandler - 23.1.05

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