“The non-southern strain of early country music”



edited excerpt from Paul L. Tyler (“Hillbilly Music Re-imagined: Folk and Country Music in the Midwest”):

America’s contemporary culture wars between Red States and Blue States yield regional maps that echo the old sectional divide of slaveholding versus free soil territories. While not an arena of political or social strife, folklore scholarship has also been visited by sectionalist mischief, particularly with regard to the study of the benign art form of American country music, once widely referred to as “hillbilly music.”

D. K. Wilgus asserted that “early hillbilly performers came not only from the lowland and upland South, but from the Great Plains and the Midwest.” His wisdom, that the music’s “essence was of rural America,” was ignored. Most country music historians equated the term “hillbilly” first with musicians from the upland South, and quickly expanded that symbolism to reflect on other regional styles contained in the section of the United States identified as the South.

I contend that alternative readings of the hillbilly symbol disclose similarities between the southern mountains and other socially and culturally distinctive places occupied by non-southern rural Americans. There are other rural music scenes and musicians whose stories should be considered in writing the full history of American country music.

The non-southern strain of early country music has been ill-served by the postwar recording industry. Most of what people know today about the sounds of early country music is from 78 rpm phonograph records re-issued in the modern formats of LP and CD. These projects have had a decidedly southern bias.

I have been fortunate to hear the sounds of hundreds of 78 rpm recordings of midwestern artists that have not been re-issued, and thus are not widely accessible to modern fans or scholars. To fully understand the scope and range of country music in the first half of the twentieth century, it is necessary to take a larger sample than was offered by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (SFW 40090) or by County Records 500 series of LPs.

The many titles in Yazoo’s re-issue series on CD, subtitled Early American Rural Music: Classic Recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, have provided only a few hints at what has been overlooked by other editors.

Bill Malone pointed out that when the early recording scouts went out in search of rural talent, they “did not go to Maine, Wisconsin, Nebraska, or California, but to Virginia, Georgia, Texas, and other southern states
instead”. How- ever, field trips to the Midwest and Northeast were not so necessary, for a few north- ern cities, primarily New York and Chicago, were the centers that produced the over- whelming majority of sound recordings of any type. A third center was located at the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana. Gennett Records was like a magnet for rural musicians from both the South and the Midwest.
Even a partial list of overlooked midwestern artists is inviting and intriguing. There are elderly fiddlers who recorded in the early 1920s such as Jasper “Jep” Bisbee of Paris, Michigan, the earliest born (1843) of all the American fiddlers who ever made a commercial record.

Close behind him in age were fellow Michiganders Col. John Pattee of Monroe and George Pariseau of Bad Axe, who had interesting careers in the ballroom and the vaudeville stage. Few old-time fiddling enthusiasts beyond the circle of 78 collectors are familiar with the distinctive sounds of John Baltzell of Mt. Vernon, Ohio; of another railroad worker, B. E. Scott of Mattoon, Illinois; or of retired street car conductor Tommy Dandurand of Kankakee.

A number of string bands and singing guitarists from Indiana made recordings in Richmond between 1927 and 1934: the Draper Walter family, Kentucky natives who had been in Richmond for over 20 years; Clyde Martin and the Hoosier Rangers, led by Cecil Wright of LaFountaine; multi-instrumentalist Homer Lovell of Winchester, who played on WOWO-Fort Wayne in the 1930s; and Richard Cox and his National Fiddlers, who performed on WIND in Gary.

Unidentified and unheard, at least by me, are a few groups probably from Indiana: the Happy Hoosiers, the Hoosier Hawai- ians, and the Hartford City Trio, most likely from the Hartford City, the seat of Black- ford County. From Ohio came the aforementioned Wing’s Rocky Mountain Ramblers; Dan Workman, probably from South Solon, with the Gibson String Trio; and Ed Showalter of Preble County with the Richmond Melody Boys (whose records were logged as by the Kentucky Woodchoppers and released as by the Texas Cowboy Trio). To the unidentified category belong the Buckeye Boys and Brown’s Happy Four, with fiddler Charles Payne of Ironton.

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