During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
Among the artists were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded hits like “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” there. These songs launched them to stardom and their successes were only the beginning for Peer, who popularized the genres of country, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin music.
Peer had already been recording “hillbilly” songs — what is now known as country — across the Southern United States for five years before the Tennessee recordings.
A new book by music journalist Barry Mazor, “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” follows the arc of both Peer’s life and the music industry.
His story begins in the era of the wind-up crank cylinder and ends in the age of color television. In that span of time, he navigated performance rights and recording contracts, emphasizing that songwriters and producers each received their share of the profits.
“I think Ralph Peer did more than anyone, any other one single person, to change the popular music we hear,” Mazor told Art Beat. “Yet people don’t necessarily know the name.”
But the names of artists he worked with are recognized as musical greats: Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Perez Prado, Buddy Holly. The list goes on.
While Mazor was working on his previous book, “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century,” he learned about Peer’s relationship to Rodgers. Mazor was fascinated by the man who recorded and produced so much of the music he personally enjoyed listening to and writing about.
After Mazor published his Rodgers biography, Peer’s son offered the music journalist access to rooms full of previously unpublished documents from his father’s life, including personal papers and royalty statements, Peer’s wife’s diaries and his mother’s letters.
“It was an opportunity to tell an important story that had never been done,” Mazor said.
The narrative of Peer’s career begins in the years leading up to World War II. He traveled the country, recording songs by musicians who were rooted to a place and imbued with its history. He brought their native music to the masses, recognizing that the public wanted “something new — built along the same lines,” as he wrote to folklorist John Greenway in 1955.
Peer’s breakthrough was Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920. It was the first blues track with a black vocalist.
“It just took off like a rocket,” Mazor said. “It was like nothing anyone had heard before.”
Peer consistently replicated that reaction over the entire course of his career.
“Finding an untapped opportunity that worked — an audience unaddressed, a style of music under-explored, a new way to freshen what was already available — was precisely what excited Ralph Peer, spurred him to musical and music business experimentation, as the discovery of some new reaction or interaction might galvanize an applied scientist,” Mazor writes in the book.
Peer also transformed how we listen to music. As a producer, he was one of the first to record artists on-site instead of taking them out of their environments and into an unfamiliar studio. Instead of looking for songs that could be easily transcribed to sheet music, where most of the industry made its money at the time, he paid attention to songs that relied on improvisation, the ones learned by careful listening and rote repetition, passed down as auditory tradition.
To monetize those records, he helped create Broadcast Music, Inc., a performance rights organization that guaranteed musicians get paid when their songs are played. Since its founding in 1939, BMI has represented artists from Willie Nelson to Lil Wayne.
As Mazor notes, Peer’s story is pertinent now, as the modern music industry bucks against the architecture of an old system. He watched the industry shift from singles to albums; today we’ve looped back to the single. Peer worked through how to finance music on the radio and television; today we’re figuring out how to pay artists when we listen online.
“I think that’s something that’s missed when people set up the dichotomy that either it’s authentic folk music, really of the area, or it’s commercial music, which is really something else, as if hit pop music didn’t strike some chord with real people,” Mazor said. “Of course it does.”
From a certain lens, Peer’s career could be seen as a legacy of appropriation: popularizing roots music meant changing it. He added repetitive choruses to the traditional version of “The Storms Are the Ocean;” cleaned up offensive language from the original version of Popeye’s theme song; and inserted English lyrics into Spanish folksongs.
Without Peer’s influence, the modern music world would look very different. By adapting local music for a broader audience, he ensured its survival.
“Traditional music lives as traditional music,” Mazor said. “Times moves on. Things change. if they don’t change, they die. So one of the ways it didn’t die was by popularizing it. Ralph Peer is as responsible for that as any single person. I don’t think it’s appropriation, I think it’s extension.”