Friday, April 15, 2011

Fiddle and Violins: Eck Robertson and Fiddlin' John Carson

Eck Robertson: Sally Gooden

Fiddlin' John Carson: Little Old Cabin In The Lane

The first-ever country record was recorded on 30 June 1922 (or possibly on July 1) – not in a random southern location, but in New York City, at the Victor Talking Machine Company on West 38th Street – and it was a fiddle number.

Over two days, the 35-year old Texan fiddler Eck Robertson put on record several tracks, accompanied on some by Henry C Gilliland, a 70-year old Civil War veteran wearing an old Confederate uniform. Robertson had been performing with his wife since 1906. At a gig in Richmond (though they probably didn’t call public performances “gigs” then) he met Gilliland, and both were urged by a lawyer with connection to Victor to go to New York and audition for the label, one of the biggest even then (it would go on to become RCA Victor).

Victor, which later became RCA Victor, had been decidedly mainstream. It had been Enrico Caruso’s label. But as the 1920s dawned, sales were dropping, so fiddlers like Robertson promised to serve the ethnic (read rural and/or black) niche markets. After a few months, Victor chose to release Robertson’s signature song, Sally Gooden. It made no impact whatsoever, nor did the fiddler’s four follow-up releases.

The first country hit came soon after, and it was recorded in the South. In March 1922, an Atlanta radio station, WSB, invited local fiddlers and other folk string musicians – pickers – to perform in its studio. The experiment proved popular, and the star performer was Fiddlin’ John Carson, then already 44. He was heard by a visiting A&R man, Ralph Peer, who three years earlier had released one of the first blues records, Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues. Peer, a key person in the development of country music, signed up Carson for the Okeh label.

On 14 June 1923, in a make-shift studio on Atlanta’s Nassau Street, Carson recorded Little Old Cabin In The Lane, a minstrel song from the 1870s written by Will S Hays. Peer thought Carson’s vocals were nothing like anything he had heard before, and not in a good way. Yet, what Peer thought was “pluperfect awful” singing would provide a template for generations of country singers. The recording was a hit – country’s first ever hit record.

(The above is reproduced and slightly expanded from a post in a series on the history of country music on my blog)

blog comments powered by Disqus