edited from Jack Neely (http://www.lynnpoint.com/st_james/history.htm):
The St. James sessions of 1929-30 are a rare window onto a fertile time and place in the history of American popular music. The 1920s saw the dawn of music on the radio, and improvements to recording technology that saw the introduction of mass-market recordings of popular music. And the Roaring ‘20s was accompanied by a surprisingly worldly stew of folk music, blues, show tunes, jazz, Hawaiian, and vaudeville novelties that all played a part in the evolution of what we now know as popular music.
Knoxville, Tennessee, was in the thick of it. In the 1920s and early ’30s, it was a city of more than 100,000 blacks and whites. It was a teeming, dirty, lively, arrogant, complicated place with two railroad stations, two daily newspapers, three radio stations, a dozen movie theaters, a comprehensive electric streetcar system, and a small airport. Knoxville was one of the industrial centers of the South, a national center for textiles, marble, furniture, and railroad equipment. Prohibition was still in effect, and Knoxville was a national black-market distribution center for moonshine, with connections to organized crime in Chicago and elsewhere.
But the city was also on the very fringe of the country, surrounded by some of the most remote hollers in America, where folk, blues, and country music were evolving Galapagos-like, in eccentric patterns. The Tennessee River flowed free and damless through Knoxville, and flooded every spring.
Knoxville’s interest in music was already deep. Before the Civil War, Knoxville had been a center for the otherworldly style of singing known as Sacred Harp. After the war, it was home to one of the South’s first orchestral groups, and by the early 1870s, the city had a European-style “Opera House.” In the 1880s and ’90s, Knoxville hosted major classical-music and opera festivals that drew some of the great talents from New York and Boston. But Knoxville was still in the middle of the South, where most new American forms of music were in various stages of gestation: blues, ragtime, jazz, hillbilly, bluegrass. By the turn of the century, young men playing new styles of guitar or fiddle, were making a living in the streets.
Many of those early musicians were blind. Musicians were mostly people who couldn’t do anything else for a living, because music wasn’t much of a living. Before the 1920s, which saw both the dawn of radio and the beginning of record companies’ interest in recording popular and folks music, the best a folk or country musician could hope for was a Mercury dime in a tin cup.
There were no real recording studios in Tennessee at the time—in the 1920s, Nashville had no reputation as a recording center, and most country-music recordings were still made in New York. So when one of the nation’s most famous record companies, the Brunswick/Vocalion label set up a temporary studio in the St. James Hotel in downtown Knoxville, hundreds of musicians came, from miles around, to take a turn behind the microphone.
It made some sense for Brunswick to come to Knoxville. The city had been home to several of the earliest country-music recording artists, musicians like Charlie Oaks and George Reneau, who had travelled to New York in the early ‘20s to make records. They set up at the St. James.
Touted as Knoxville’s first “fireproof” building, the St. James Hotel was built not long after the ruinous Gay Street fire of 1897. The St. James wasn’t the biggest hotel in town, or the swankiest, but it was the closest to Market Square, the one place in town visited occasionally by nearly everyone, rich or poor, black or white. Market Square had its own musical heritage, not just for the Market House auditorium, where the great Duke Ellington played a show in 1930, but for the street musicians playing for change, a phenomenon that had been mentioned in a recent essay in the New York Times.
Whether it was that story or Knoxville’s earlier reputation for breeding recording talent, or something else altogether that lured them, several Brunswick technicians to set up at the St. James in the summer of 1929. Leading the expedition was musical director Richard Voynow best known for his associations with jazz: he was a former pianist with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and was also a songwriter who had worked with Hoagy Carmichael.
Knoxville and the greater region responded with enthusiasm.
Today Knoxville’s best-known for its role in the early development of country music, especially for spawning some of country’s earliest national stars, like Roy Acuff. During the St. James sessions, though, Acuff was a young man on the north side of town, still learning to play the fiddle—and better known hereabouts as a ballplayer.
Some who showed up at the St. James were backwoods groups who were obscure and remained so. A few were already well-known, like Nashvillian Uncle Dave Macon, who was already famous on a relatively new radio show on WSM called the Grand Ole Opry, came to Knoxville this one time to record, making a trip that would have seemed backwards a decade later.
Some were country groups who went on to bigger and better things, like Mac and Bob, who would be stars of the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, and the original Tennessee Ramblers, featuring Willie Sievers, one of country music’s first female guitarists. Ballard Cross, a member of the famous Georgia band the Skillet Lickers, played his original version of “Wabash Cannonball,” a song Acuff would make a national standard.
It’s not surprising that the St. James sessions were a remarkable collection of country musicians of the period. These sessions differ from the earlier ones in Bristol and Johnson City, though, in that they include a much wider variety of music than what we now know as country.
The so-called Tennessee Trio, a.k.a. Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a.k.a. Martin, Bogan and Armstrong—who would have to wait more than 30 years to become international stars—made their first recordings at the St. James. One of those recordings, “Knox County Stomp,” serves as the soundtrack to the Terry Zwigoff PBS documentary Louie Bluie, which shows one of those original Brunswick 78s spinning on a turntable.
After Brunwick pulled up stakes at the St. James, they didn’t do much with the records. The record industry was changing rapidly; there would be no more field recordings in the area.
The years to come would bring blight to the poor city of Knoxville. But as one factory after another closed, and a well-known author called Knoxville “the ugliest city in America,” Knoxville of the mid-20th-century had one thing to be proud of, and that was its local music. By the end of the 1930s, Knoxville’s Roy Acuff was a major national star in a new recording industry that was just beginning to coalesce 180 miles west, in Nashville; and in years to come, onetime Knoxvillians Chet Atkins, Don Gibson, the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, and many others would make their marks. They may never have heard much about the recordings at the St. James which were, after all, just the beginning.