Frank Buckley Walker (1889 – 1963) was the Artist and Repertoire (A & R) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division during the 1920s and 1930s. Along with Ralph Peer of Victor Records, Walker mastered the technique of field recordings. Specializing in southern roots music, Walker set up remote recording studios in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas, Little Rock and Johnson City searching for amateur musical talent.
The interview excerpted below with Frank Buckley Walker was done by Mike Seeger on June 19, 1962.
Walker: We would decide, for instance, to record down in Johnson City, Tennessee, and write down to various people that you heard about and you would let that be known. It would be mentioned in the paper and the word would get around in churches and schoolhouses that somebody was going to come down there for a recording. Not for a session, but for a recording. And we would be very glad to listen to people, and they would come in from all over. A regular party. We would sit up all night long and listen to them and weed out the things we wanted and those that we didn’t want, because they only had a few things that they were able to do and do well.
Seeger: Did you judge them yourself or did someone else?
Walker: No that was my job – that was my job. It was sort of a twenty-four hour deal. You sat and you listened to them and you talked with them and decided on this and you timed it. You rehearsed them the next morning, and recorded them in the afternoon and evening. It was a twenty-four hour deal, seven days a week.
Seeger: You helped the people how to understand and record songs?
Walker: I think so. I hope so, because in many cases they hadn’t the slightest idea of what it all was about. So you had to give them an atmosphere that it was home, so you didn’t pick a fancy place to record in. You usually took the upstairs of some old building where it looked pretty terrible. You hung some drapes and curtains and you also made it look and act a bit like home. You brought in a little of the mountain dew to take care of colds or any hoarseness that might happen, and also to remove a little of their fears of strangers doing this sort of work. You try to make them feel at home, and we felt the only way we could ever get that was in their own native habitat. You couldn’t have done this in New York.
Seeger: That’s why you recorded down there?
Walker: Always. We recorded in dozens and dozens of different places, all the way from San Antonio to Houston and Dallas and Johnson City, Tennessee and Memphis and Little Rock and New Orleans and Atlanta and everywhere. But that’s the way we built it up in advance – getting the word around that a certain time of the year we were going to be there. And these people would show up sometimes from eight or nine hundred miles away.
How they got there I’ll never know, and how they got back I’ll never know. They never asked you for money. They didn’t question anything at all. They just were happy to sing and play, and we were happy to have them. Most of them we saw had something to go back with.