By Andrew Male
Reading time 29 Minutes
In 1967, the same year J.L. Anderson premiered Spring Night, Summer Night
In 1967, the same year J.L. Anderson premiered Spring Night, Summer Night at the Pesaro Film Festival, and somewhat ironically introduced it as part of a “New Appalachian Cinema”, the late California film-maker and gay activist Peter Adair released his first documentary, Holy Ghost People. Adair’s raw, kinetic hour-long film chronicled the lives of the people of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, a close-knit Appalachian mining community of Pentecostal Christians whose church services cleaved hard to the words of Mark 16:17-18 (“they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”), and saw wild, rapturous congregations surrendering to ecstatic unknown languages, drinking strychnine, and dancing deliriously with writhing poisonous snakes cradled in their arms.
While two films could hardly be considered a movement, in their sympathetic portrayal of a marginal and often maligned community, and their respectful re-presentation of Appalachian culture and society, they can also be linked to High Lonesome Sound, John Cohen’s 1963 documentary about Kentucky Mountain Music, which introduced the world to the chilling, forlorn falsetto of Kentucky coal-miner, Roscoe Holcomb.
If a “New Appalachian Cinema” did exist, no matter how small and disparate a ‘movement’, (and do we dare include the Kentucky exploitation cinema of Ron Ormond here?), it was almost certainly linked to the wider US folk revival of 1950s and 60s, when, inspired and ignited by Folkways Records’ 1952 release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, folk musicians and scholars like Cohen, Mike Seeger and and Tom Paley sought “authentic” recordings of “old-time music” and tracked down rural musicians who’d recorded for father-and-son ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax between the 1930s and the 1950s.
One Kentucky musician, whose music was integral to the folk music revival was Jean Ritchie. Raised in the Cumberland Mountains, Ritchie moved to New York in 1946, where she met Alan Lomax, who recorded her songs for the Library of Congress. A fixture on the Greenwich Village folk-scene, Ritchie signed to Elektra in 1952, her sweet, wavering soprano and the hypnotic bright strum of her picked mountain dulcimer helping to introduce younger folk fans to the eerie charms of such ancient ballads as O Love Is Teasin’, Shady Grove, and Nottamun Town.
Another younger Appalachian musician who benefitted from the 60s folk revival was Hedy West, a working-class Georgia-born singer and banjo-player who was embraced by the Greenwich Village folk scene as much for her Appalachian upbringing as her claw hammer banjo technique and unpolished regional singing style.
However, despite being embraced by the New York revivalists West felt patronised and insulted by the way many of them regarded this southern music. “I found something insulting in the way people looked at the South,” she said, “and in the way Northern youngsters sang songs born in the South. So I took to singing the songs whenever I could, partly to clear up misunderstandings, and partly, I suppose, to compete with the other singers of the folk song revival.”
What West was seeing, however, was a deep-rooted snobbery, bound up in notions of purity and prejudice, that the north had always displayed towards the music of the south, and it had been there ever since the first Appalachian record was recorded, on August 1, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee.
According to the Library of Congress, the term “Appalachian music” was “an artificial category, created and defined by a small group of scholars in the early twentieth century”.
Those who employed the term tended to be "ballad-hunters" or “song-catchers”, musicologists like Cecil Sharp and Robert Winslow Gordon, who went in search of British folk songs that had survived in strange forms in the remote regions of southern Appalachia.
For people like the Harvard-educated Gordon, the founding head of the Archive of American Folk Song, these Appalachian folk songs were more ”authentic" than songs informed by the music of African slaves or “Hebrew Broadway jazz”, and the songs were often notated in a manner that focussed on their British roots and overlooked the influence of the Appalachians’ German, French, Eastern-European and African-American populace.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1927, when US talent scout and producer Ralph Peer stopped off in Bristol, Tennessee on a two-month long, $60,000 scouting trip for the Victor Talking Machine Company, that Appalachian music, in its “truest” form, was captured.
Re-workings of traditional folk songs had been available on wax cylinder since the 1890s, but before 1923 the US music industry had no designated term for home-grown folk music like Vernon Dalhart’s Wreck Of The Old 97, or Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland Robertson’s Arkansaw Traveler.
The first home-grown white Southern music star was almost certainly Fiddlin’ John Carson, a one-time jockey and handyman from the Blue Ridge mountains who played the fiddle at conventions and political rallies before landing a regular gig with Atlanta commercial broadcasting station, WSB, in 1922. Billed as “The First of the Hill Billies,” Carson became a hit across the south, playing “old-timey” mountain music, for an audience of his peers.
Carson cut his first record for record for Okeh on June 14, 1923, recorded by Peer, who labeled him “pluperfect awful”. The song, Be Kind To Man When He’s Down, went on to sell 500,000 copies.
A new wealth had come to the South and other rural areas following the First World War, and a clear commercial market for regional music was established. Peer was unable to see that Carson’s raw, faltering singing style, and “unprofessional” see-saw fiddle playing was exactly what rural southern audiences wanted. This wasn’t the sound of New York big bands, “race music” or city blues, but the music of their own home town: a new music genre was born. Now it just needed a name.
For Peer, the success of the “pluperfect awful” Carson was proof there was money to be made by recording in the South. A working relationship with another Okeh recording artist, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, opened his mind to the possibility of recording genuine white Southern locals on their home turf, while a further convincer was the success of north Georgian string band, The Skillet Lickers. A wild Saturday night dance band, with a humour on the edge of nightmare, The Skillet Lickers were fronted by James Gideon Tanner, a Monroe, Georgia chicken farmer with a young girl’s falsetto and the face of a haunted clown, and Riley Puckett, a blind, yodelling Georgia guitarist and banjo picker, whose near-operatic singing style earned him the nickname, ”the Ball Mountain Caruso.”
This hill country dance music didn't arrive at a name until January 15, 1925, when musicians Al Hopkins, Tony Alderman, John Rector, and Joe Hopkins arrived for a recording session at Okeh Records New York studios, and their engineer – Ralph Peer again – asked them their name. “Just call us anything you want,” said Al Hopkins. “We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia anyway!” Peer told Okeh's secretary to write “Hill Billies” in the recording ledger.
The word, “hillbilly” first appeared in print in the New York Journal in April 23, 1900 “a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” However, the stereotype goes back further, perpetuated by writers from industrialised north American cities who depicted Appalachia as a bygone America, both an eccentric backward region left behind by industrial progress but also a place of untouched purity, representing a simpler, bygone era, unsullied by gross modernity.
The first song to feature the word “Hillbillie” in the titles was Uncle Dave Macon’s Hillbillie Blues. Born in 1870 in Smartt Station, Tennessee, the son of a Confederate army officer, Macon was raised in a Nashville hotel for vaudeville and circus performers, and, by 15, had purchased his first banjo. After his father was murdered outside the hotel in 1986, the family moved to Readyville, Tennessee, where his mother ran a stagecoach inn, where Macon would entertain passengers, playing his banjo from a makeshift stage. In 1900, Macon formed the Macon Midway Mule and Wagon Transportation Company, and became famous for singing his wares to customers. After the company closed down in 1920, forced out of business by the new automotive industry, Macon took to performing for money at birthday parties and charity events and was soon spotted by a Loew’s theatre talent scout, who put him into service on the vaudeville circuit.
Macon expanded his act with two more vaudeville talents, fiddler Sid Harkreader, and buck dancer, “Dancing Bob” Bradford. Spotted performing by a representative of Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company, the regional distributor of Vocalion Records, Uncle Dave started making records in 1924, recording for Brunswick-Vocalion in New York.
However, when artists came to record in New York
However, when artists came to record in New York, they trended to modify or alter their sound for their northern hosts. it was Ralph Peer’s Bristol Sessions of 1927 that first captured authentic “hillbillies” on record in their home environment.
When Peer started working for Victor Records in 1926, one of the first artists he recorded was Ernest Stoneman. His recording, The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane, sold 60,000 copies with no promotion, and in his first three months at Victor, Peer’s royalty cheque was a quarter of a million dollars. Naturally, Peer wanted more regional southern musicians, and fast, but few were coming through the doors.
Inspired by Stoneman, Peer took sixty thousand dollars and the new Western Electric Recording System (which allowed for higher quality recordings of stringed instruments), visited Stoneman in Galax, Virginia and told him to go up into the mountains to seek out some authentic performers, saying that any hopeful artists should meet him in Bristol, Virginia, home of a successful Victor Records outlet, and with good road and rail links for the surrounding Appalachians.
Unfortunately, when Peer got to Bristol, all Stoneman had “discovered” was a handful of family friends. Peer stuck an ad in the local newspapers and over the next ten days singers and musicians who’d never visited Bristol in their life arrived by horse, buggy, bus, train and on foot. Peer recorded twenty-one acts at Bristol, including fourteen previously undocumented Southern white artists. Of those, seven returned to the studio and two would become country music legends: Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family.
What was also born in Bristol during those nine days was the Hillbilly myth. Peer elaborated and exaggerated the “down-home” details of his recording artists, playing up Jimmie Rodgers country wildness and the bare-foot, calico-clad appearance of The Carter Family. Both were marketed as “hillbilly music”. It was a canny move. Both artists would make Ralph Peer a millionaire.
Born in Pine Springs, Mississippi, in 1897, Jimmie Rodgers was the first country superstar. Raised by his father, a train foreman, following the death of his mother from tuberculosis, Rodgers spent his childhood riding the rails, working as a water-boy and befriending train drivers, engineers, and black construction gangs who played him blues and gospel songs, and taught him how to play the guitar and banjo. Laid low by ill health and weak lungs, in 1924 Rodgers was also diagnosed with tuberculosis, retired from railroading and began singing “blackface” in a minstrel show, before joining a dance troupe with his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams.
At the Bristol auditions, Rodgers arrived with a band, the Entertainers, who ran out on him at the last minute, leaving Rodgers to sing lachrymose lullaby ballads The Soldier’s Sweetheart and Sleep Baby Sleep on his own. However, it was Rodgers’ second release for Victor, Blue Yodel Number One (T is for Texas), released in 1928, that catapulted him to stardom. Showcasing his unique high dancing falsetto, white field-blues grit, syncopated bass-and-strum guitar style, and innate self belief, it pocketed Rodgers $2000 a month and made him a star. Tragically, within five years, he’d be dead, at the age of thirty-five, from a pulmonary hemorrhage.
Whereas Rodgers’ hillbilly image was that of the rambling, romantic loner, The Carter Family represented another side of the rural South: simple country-folk; mom, pop and the kids, food on the table, and rolling green hills just outside your front door.
The trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle sang reworked traditional folk songs over guitar, autoharp and banjo, but unlike Rodgers, who was a dapper dresser, and a self-promoting showman, The Carter Family were giving nothing away.
Tall, stern, tight-lipped on account of bad teeth, A.P. Carter looked more like an undertaker or revenant than a vaudeville entertainer. Sara was grouchy and withdrawn, while Maybelle, just 18 and seven months pregnant, was disinclined towards musical entertainment.
The Carters had already auditioned for one record label, Brunswick, in 1922, but they’d been sent away because, a) their lead singer was a woman (Sarah), b) Sarah’s deep, unsmiling contralto sounded like a man’s, c) the sound of the autoharp, played by Maybelle, wasn’t in a high enough register for recording purposes, and d) they’d auditioned with a set of religious songs that were ten-a-penny among southern groups.
But where Brunswick saw problems, Peer saw opportunities.
Peer saw novelty in a female-fronted group who played guitar and autoharp when pretty much everyone else came with fiddles and banjos, and Peer heard, in Sara Carter, a relaxed and natural near baritone whose deep warmth sounded especially fine on Victor’s new extra-sensitive electronic recording equipment.
If the high, reedy sound of sopranos, tenors, and fiddles had been just right for acoustic mechanical recorders, The Carters were the smooth sound of the new electrical age.
Unlike many of the earlier Peer recordings of string bands, where the vocal appears as just one strident instrument among many, on songs like Keep On The Sunny Side and Wildwood Flower, Maybelle’s warm, gently rocking guitar and vocal harmonies and A.P. bass harmonies take a backseat to Sara's warm, heartfelt vocals.
Also, Peer discovered that, in A.P., the Carters had a songhunter who keenly collected field ballads, folk hymns and Victorial gospel, and reworked them into his own songs; exactly the kind of thing Peer wanted to sell to his poor, back-country market. Peer worked for Victor on no salary, and offered his artists “free” management on strict terms; that his artists worked exclusively for him and that he held the copyrights of all their new songs. It’s this deal that made Peer a millionaire, and changed the country music industry.
At the time, most other A&R men worked on salary, and were always looking for public domain songs so as not to pay copyright holders. Peer looked for new songs because new songs made him money. In the pursuit of mammon, the art of the songwriter was born. As hillbilly music grew as a commercial concept, so did the marketing of the hillbilly image. Record labels referred to the music as “home and hill country ballads” but mail order catalogues called it “hillbilly”, and the bands themselves started doing the same. Central to the proliferation of the manufactured hillbilly image, however, was George Hay’s Grand Ole Opry.
At the start of the 20th Century, millions of rural Americans began leaving the countryside to work in new industrialised cities. This great migration also coincided with the rise of commercially licensed radio broadcasting. The old tradition of the country barn dance took to the airwaves, and in 1925 George Hay, a radio presenter at Nashville’s WSM station had the smart idea of a programming of old time music every Saturday night. WSM’s super-powerful radio transmitter beamed Hay’s show, The Grand Ole Opry, out from the city into the surrounding countryside, pulling in local musicians happy to play for little or no money in the promise of regional exposure or the chance that a local promoter or record label might hear them.
Significantly, Hay also started to see himself as a defender of “the old ways” of “traditional” American folk culture. Already, the selling marketing of “old time” music focussed on its rustic image, with musicians choosing to market themselves by dressing in gingham, plaid, and denim overalls, go without shoes, and sing about moonshine, barn dances and the rustic life. Hay effectively forced the clichés to their commercial extreme, creating a “manufactured rusticality” – as music historian Louis Kyriakoudes, dubbed it – and defining the “hillbilly” image of country music in the process.
He purposefully rechristened Opry bands, giving them more countrified names such as The Fruit Jar Guzzlers, The Clodhoppers and The Gully Jumpers. Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Augmented String Orchestra became Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters. Groups would be photographed in farm overalls and ragged straw hats, standing next to horse troughs, or lying down next to pigsties.
Hay’s quest to find (or create) a pure, authentic American sound, was also a “whitewashing”, a manufactured image of a pure Anglo-Saxon music stripped of jazz, vaudeville, and country blues influences, but Hay and Peer’s country hillbilly mutation was also a creature strong enough to withstand the 30s Depression.
Hillbilly music, and the hillbilly image, sustained the American myth
Hillbilly music, and the hillbilly image, sustained the American myth of rural self-sufficiency. Record labels, newspapers and radio stations played up these rustic images, and the musicians and public happily went along with it. The economic depression that followed in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash hit the record industry hard, with shellac sales plummeting from $104 million in 1927 to just $6 million by 1933. Field recordings ground to a halt, and the “race records” market was almost wiped out, but country music continued to sell, advertised in Sears Roebuck catalogues, beamed out by state-wide by super-powerful radio stations, and popularised by live concert tours, and Hollywood movies.
Hollywood’s first true country star was Gene Autry. Born in Grayson County, North Texas in 1907, the grandson of a methodist preacher, Autry left high school in 1925 to work as a telegrapher for the St Louis-San Francisco Railway. His habit of singing while he worked eventually got him fired but also brought him to the attention of actor and vaudeville cowboy Will Rogers, who encouraged Autry to sing professionally.
Autry signed to Columbia Records in 1929, singing “hillbilly-” style blues about bootlegging, gambling, gangsters and jail houses, but hit big when he started recording with fellow St. Louis & Frisco Railroad employee Jimmy Long in 1932.
Their first record together, a lachrymose tribute to ageing fathers entitled That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, was a hit everywhere, eventually selling five million copies. Autry’s new sentimental style also brought him to the attention of film producer Nat Levine, who hired Autry as a singing cowboy in a series of movies for Republic Pictures. Autry had previously sung as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy” on Tulsa radio station KVOO, and cowboy singers and bands had already been part of the 1920s hillbilly recording boom.
Both Eck Robertson and Jimmie Rodgers traded on a cowboy image, and America already had a deeply established romantic relationship with the cowboy, from the 19th century novels of James Fenimore Cooper, the touring wild west shows of Buffalo Bill Cody, the paintings of Frederic Remington and the wealth of dime store novels that followed in the wake of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Hollywood itself had built its foundations on the western and gradually, the romantic image of the cowboy - the laconic loner from a pioneering time before migration, industrialisation and economic depression – edged out the dustbowl image of the hillbilly as the most marketable image of country music.
Helped in part by negative media coverage of events like The Harlan County War, and a post-depression US country filled with poor and homeless Appalachian families looking for work, the hillbilly image was suddenly too close to grim reality, while the cowboy signified independence and escape.
Old hillbilly artists started to changed their image, and adapt their styles, with some adopted more exaggerated cowboy images and others accommodating wider outside influences such as jazz and blues.
One of the finest of these post-Depression assimilators was Bob Wills. Born on a farm in Limestone County, Texas, in 1905, into a family who regularly held and played at barn and ranch dances, Wills was raised on music from an early age, not just old-time fiddle music and waltzes but the blues of his African-American neighbours and friends. A fiddler in touring minstrel and medicine shows of the early 30s, with a sideline in blackface comedy, Wills incorporated jazz and city blues into his style, especially the records of Bessie Smith and fellow blackface performer, Emmett Miller. With singer and bandleader Milton Brown, Wills fronted the Aladdin Laddies and The Light Crust Doughboys (set up by the Burrus Mill bread company to promote their Light Crust Flour on Texas radio station, KFJZ).
Brown’s smooth jazz croon combined with Bob Wills breakdown fiddle was a unique combination but it was the bands the pair formed following the Doughboys collapse – Brown’s Brownies and Wills’ Texas Playboys - that solidified the western swing sound, with both adding dance and jazz elements, Brown through Bob Dunn’s amplified steel guitar and Fred 'Papa' Calhoun’s piano and Wills with added horns and drums, plus steel and electric guitar. The roots of rock’n’roll are there in Wills’ swinging sound and the Texas Playboys’ 1938 recording of Ida Red would later serve as the model for Chuck Berry’s equally revolutionary Maybelline.
Initially, the Texas Playboys look was tailored, smart; white shirts, neckties, double-breasted business suits, and dark polished boots. By the end of the 30s that look had changed to cowboy dress shirts, bolo ties, Western-cut coats, cowboy boots and Stetson hats.
A harder cowboy image, that still held onto a proud hillbilly heritage, but ditched the more comic, patronising image of the overalled hick, was fostered by honky tonk musicians such as Ernest Tubb. The son of a sharecropper, born in Ellis County Texas in 1914, Tubb sang with a rough, short baritone, the result of a 1939 tonsillectomy, and, with his group, the Texas Troubadours, played a music that was heavily riff and rhythm based - with occasional “belly rub” songs for slow bar-room dancing - and songs like Walking The Floor Over You that sketched out an often autobiographical blue-collar life of heavy drinking, unfaithfulness and despair.
Another performer who incorporated western style into his music, but who was hillbilly through and though, was a singer from Mount Olive, Alabama, called Hank Williams. Schooled by an African-American Alabama street-performer called Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, and undeniably influenced by Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb, Williams’ style mixed blues and gospel with a dancehall beat and such hillbilly elements as Jimmie Rodgers-style yodelling, lonesome fiddle and self-penned working-class tales of liquor, honky-tonks and rural hardship. Much of Williams’ early success depended on his ability to mix a folksy, “Howdy neighbours” delivery with a well-crafted western image, from the name of his group – the Drifting Cowboys – to the pseudo-western outfits he sported, decorated with fringe, rhinestones and embroidery. When a little more money started coming in for early 50s hits like Hey Good Lookin’ and Kaw-Liga, Williams graduated to elaborately tailored stage uniforms by Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors of Hollywood.
Williams success, before his untimely death on New Year’s Day, 1953, gave country music an artistic respectability it had always lacked. In 1949, Billboard magazine stopped using the term “hillbilly” in its charts, instead opting for “folk and blues”, “country” and, finally, “country and western”, an incorporation of traditional country music, cowboy music, western music, honky tonk and western swing.
Yet, that rebel “hillbilly” element never went away. In his lineage, and his almost caricature southern outcast style, Elvis Presley was pure rebel hillbilly. That early Presley sound, with Bill Black’s slapback bass, D.J. Fontana’s jumpy snares, Scotty Moore’s amplified, improv guitar lines, and Presley’s hiccupy hillbilly-blues vocals confounded when first heard with writers looking for a new term, dubbing it “bopping hillbilly”.
Influenced by West Virginia pianist Johnny Johnson, Chuck Berry also incorporated hillbilly music into his sound. Following a lacklustre audition for Chess Records, playing a series of reverential blues numbers the Chess brothers had heard before, Leonard Chess asked Berry to “play us your worst song?”, and Berry, Johnson and rhythm section unveiled their “black hillbilly” number Ida Red, which won them the deal, and, when renamed Maybelline, became Berry’s first single, eventually. selling one million copies by the end of 1955.
Chuck Berry’s Maybelline, along with Elvis Presley’s Blue Moon Of Kentucky, can both lay claim to being the progenitors of the rockabilly sound, western swing and bluegrass souped up with amplified electric guitar riffs, pounding bass, slashing snares, and 50s studio effects such as slapback echo, reverb and tape delay.
In fact, records such as Wanda Jackson’s Hard-Headed Woman, Charlie Feathers’ Tongue-Tied Jill, Peanuts Wilson’s Cast Iron Arm, and The Johnny Burnette Trio’s Train Kept A-Rollin’ bear more similarity to the music played at the snake-handling churches of Pentecostal Christians, and in Peter Adair’s Holy Ghost People, music possessed of a wild, rapturous, margin-walking euphoria that taps into the both true soul, spirit, and defiance of that original Appalachian sound, and the impure life-force of 20th Century rock music, keeping that High Lonesome Sound alive.
Andrew Male is a freelance arts journalist and the senior associate editor of MOJO magazine. He lives in South London with his wife, Colette, and their cats.
Art by Sophie Mo