Johnson City celebrates its musical heritage
In 1927, music recorded in Bristol, Tennessee by Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer would come to be known as "the Bristol Sessions", credited as "The Big Bang" of country music for introducing the world to music made by The Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers.
Inspired by that success, Columbia records sent producer Frank Walker to Johnson City, Tennessee,
"The Johnson City Sessions were early Hillbiilly music recording sessions that were location recording sessions," said Ted Olson, Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. "In other words, the record company moved their equipment here temporarily in order to be in the right place at the right time to attract local musicians.'
Walker came to Johnson City in October 1928 and again in October of 1929, setting up a recording shop in the heart of downtown.
"He was looking for any Appalachian musicians that would wander into his studio whose music he liked enough to record. In other words, he had an open tent philosophy. He was not looking for any specific type of music in fact, the very last type of act that came into his studio in October of 1929 was an African-American bluesman. So, he wasn't looking for any particular type of music but just anything that might sound good on a record and potentially sell through the commercial market," said Olson.
Walker recorded dozens of rural musicians and while he didn't find another Carter family or Jimmie Rogers, he did manage to unearth some hidden talent.
"You might say that the Johnson City sessions captured a truer picture of Appalachia of the 1920's than had the Bristol sessions," said Olson. "Clarence "Tom" Ashley was a wonderful musician and his most classic recording of all was made right here in Johnson City called The Coo Coo Bird . He continued to do that even though, by the depression, he wasn't making new records he was touring with medicine shows and fairs and that sort of thing. He worked for a time as a country music comedian so he continued to be a performer but not a recording until he was re-discovered in the 60's and then of course he brought Doc Watson on board to record with him."
Another song recorded by Walker was a song by the Bently boys titled Down on Penny's Farm which would go on to influence two of Bob Dylan's songs: Hard times in New York Town and Maggie's Farm.
Olson says timing wasn't in Walker's favor. He made his last recordings just days before the stock market crash in late October of 1929.
"The records were released in the beginning of 1930 and by that time the record industry was tanking so the 1929 Johnson City Sessions never really had a chance to be widely heard and they did not sell well commercially," said Olson.
It wouldn't be until the 1950's that Walker's recordings began to be appreciated through the 1952 release of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.
"A lot of people today in the Americana music world know quite well about the Anthology of Americanca music. "It's kind of a classic album. The City Sessions were included in that anthology including Down on Penny's Farm (Bently Boys), The Coo Coo Bird (Clarence Ashley) and The Old Lady and the Devil (Bill and Belle Reed).
Eventually, Frank Walker would leave Columbia Records but continued doing what he loved, recording music.
"Frank Walker always felt pride about the Johnson City sessions but it wasan't the kind of success story that forever put him on the map for having done a field recording in Appalachia," said Olson. "In the late 40's and 50's Frank Walker had his gig with a record company MGM and he's well-known for having discovered Hank William, Sr. during Hank's tenure with MGM records so Frank Walker is certainly an important figure in the recorded sound industry."
Olson has worked to help give Walker and the Johnson City the credit he feels is due co-producing music for A Bear Family Records box set, The Johnson City Sessions-Can you Sing or Play Old-Time Music? . The 4-CD Box set includes the recordings made in the late 1920's and a history book that Olson co-authored with Tony Russell.
"We're trying to honor the work that Frank Walker did in Johnson City and frankly, recognize it for the first time because it was an important part of his overall effort that hasn't been acknowledge yet," said Olson. "The Johnson City sessions are a recovered story. It's a story brought out of complete obscurity and hopefully now the world will recognize that these recording sessions are in many respects equal to "the Bristol Sessions", just very different."\
The Johnson CIty Sessions Box Set is available online as well as at the Nelson Fine Art Center on East Main Street in downtown Johnson City (the site of the 1928 Johnson City Sessions), and also at the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol.
Johnson City and East Tennessee State University will host a box set release celebration October 18-20.
Saturday, October 19, 2013:
1:00 PM- "Studio One" Live radio show on WETS-FM hosted by Dave Carter. Johnson City Sessions-themed show, featuring live interviews with Richard Weize, Tony Russell, and Ted Olson, and possibly featuring live performances of Johnson City Sessions music by The ETSU Old Time Pride Band (and, if available, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott).
7:00 PM Johnson City Sessions Box Set Release Party, The Down Home, downtown Johnson City [featuring performances of 1920s-era Appalachian music by Hello Stranger, The Corklickers, The ETSU Blues Band, The ETSU Old Time Pride Band, and The Bowman Family Band] . Ticketed event $20 apiece. For information call (423) 573-1927.
Sunday, October 20, 2013:
5:00 PM-- VIP Event at The Venue, downtown Johnson City [featuring gathering of family members of the original Johnson City Sessions musicians] . Ticketed event $75 a piece (includes Mountain Stage Performance). For information call (423) 439-8587.
7:00 PM-- "Mountain Stage" Show, Culp Auditorium, East Tennessee State University [featuring performances by Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, Sarah Jarosz, Old Man Luedecke, The Deadly Gentlemen, and The ETSU Old Time Pride Band] . Ticketed event $30 advance, $35 at the door. For information call (423) 439-8587.
Special thanks to: ETSU Appalachian Studies, Ted Olson, Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound for their help with this story.