The Johnson City Sessions



“The Johnson City Sessions: “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” (Bear Family 4 CD and booklet)

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In 1928, just as their fellow musicians had a year before in Bristol, men and women came in from the farms and down from the mountains to Johnson City. The lure was money, a chance at fame, or, at the very least, an opportunity to have their voices recorded on a 78 rpm record for posterity. The Johnson City sessions of 1928-29 that resulted may not have been the big bang of country music, but they were a major aftershock.

In 1928, Frank Walker of Columbia Records was hoping lightning would strike twice in the Tri-Cities area. The Bristol Sessions recorded by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company were tremendously successful, making stars of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

Walker put an ad in the Johnson City Chronicle asking “Can you sing or play Old-Time music?” “Musicians of unusual ability” were invited to “call upon Mr. Walker or Mr. Brown of the Columbia Phonograph Company at 334 East Main Street.” That address was the location of a defunct lumber company at what is now Colonial Way near WJHL.

“The Johnson City Sessions were better organized,” Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, said.



“There was more advertising, more scouting, more capital put into promotions up front.”
The ad ran three times in late September and early October. Olson said that more singers and musicians participated in the Johnson City Sessions than in the Bristol Sessions.


“They saw the ads and made it to the tryouts on Oct. 13, 1928, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The recording sessions were held over four days, Monday, Oct. 15 to Thursday, Oct. 18. A few of the musicians who saw the ad and heard it was happening had already recorded for Ralph Peer,” he said, “but most of those who recorded in Johnson City were not part of the Bristol Sessions.”

Among them were the Roane County Ramblers from the Kingston-Harriman area outside of Knoxville, who became one of the biggest bands to emerge from the Johnson City Sessions of 1928. Charlie Bowman of Gray — who recorded for Walker along with his brothers and sisters — was “a real success story,” Olson said.  While many of the musicians who recorded in Johnson City lived in East Tennessee, he pointed out, some of the musicians probably traveled from the Greensboro-Burlington area of North Carolina or from the Corbin, Ky., area.

Admittedly, the Johnson City Sessions have been overlooked by history, but Olson has long recognized their importance.
“Those recordings are strong and dynamic, featuring a diverse range of material. They were well-received by record buyers of that generation and were talked about for years.”
Olson turns to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music to place the Johnson City Sessions in historical perspective. This 1952 anthology of 78 rpm recordings became a major anthology of American music, influencing artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia. It was reissued about 15 years ago on CD, becoming “ a cause for great attention,”
Only the most powerful records made it on to the anthology. Among them were the Johnson City Sessions recordings of Bill and Belle Reed’s “Old Lady and the Devil,” the Bently Boys’ “Down on Penny’s Farm” and “The Coo Coo Bird” by Clarence “Tom” Ashley.


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