The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and New Markets: Race and Hillbilly Music
A San Francisco bandleader, Art Hickman, and his pianist-arranger Ferde Grofé are generally given credit for inventing the type of dance band which dominated popular music for half a century. Around the time of the First World War they were among the first to write separate music for the reed and brass sections, combining the higher and lower instruments in each section into choirs, but unlike John Philip Sousa's concert band, for dancing rather than listening. Hickman seems to have been the first to hire three saxophones, enabling him to write richer harmonies. He also wrote songs, among them 'Rose Room', published in 1917. It is surely no coincidence that 'Rose Room' is the sort of tune that lends itself to an interesting arrangement, and was recorded by Benny Goodman's sextet nearly twenty-five years later; or that Duke Ellington's 'In a Mellotone' (1940) is a countermelody to it.
Hickman suffered from ill health and died relatively young in 1930, but by then bands all over the USA were playing his kind of music: black and white, hot and 'sweet' (or 'strict tempo', as it is called in Britain). Paul Whiteman's was by far the most successful. Whiteman was a good businessman and a great talent scout; we shall come back to him during the Big Band Era. He was called the 'King of Jazz' because Johann Strauss II had been the 'Waltz King' and Sousa had been the 'March King', and because publicists have tiny minds; Whiteman never took that seriously. But any sort of lively dance music was heard as 'jazz' by the public. The less strict moral atmosphere of the 1920s, in which young women went out dancing with their young men friends without supervision (and smoked cigarettes, and bobbed their hair!) carried the same association: hence the 'jazz age'.
The bands outside the biggest cities, indeed almost any bands outside New York, came to be called territory bands. Among the excellent black groups were Troy Floyd's eleven-piece band at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, with such sidemen as Herschel Evans (later with Count Basie); Alphonso Trent led a band in Dallas which included violinist Stuff Smith, trumpeter Harry Edison (later with Basie) and reedmen James Jeter and Hayes Pillars (who later co-led a popular dance band in St Louis for a decade). The white Coon-Sanders Nighthawks, so called owing to their late-night broadcasts from Kansas City, was led by drummer Carleton Coon and pianist-arranger Joe Sanders, who was nicknamed the Old Lefthander from his days as a baseball pitcher. Both were also singers and composers. In the earliest days of radio the Nighthawks was one of the bands that sold more records as a result of the novelty of broadcasting. The band's national fame ended when Coon died of complications following an abscessed tooth; but Sanders remained a popular leader in the Chicago area (where my parents were among the young people who would drive 75 miles to dance to his music).
Another white band was the California Ramblers, who made an uncountable number of recordings between 1921 and 1937 with constantly changing personnel and under many different names. Trumpeters Henry 'Hot Lips' Levine (later on the NBC staff) and Red Nichols, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini and, as vocalists, songwriter Sammy Fain and early country star Vernon Dalhart may be heard on some of these recordings.
Somewhat smaller bands were Roy Johnson and his Happy Pals, which included Jack Teagarden at one time, as did Peck's Bad Boys in Texas (led by the pianist Peck Kelley), and the Blue Devils, led by bassist Walter Page, which melded into the larger band of Bennie Moten. Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, on the West Coast, included Lionel Hampton and Lawrence Brown, the great trombonist who later spent decades in Duke Ellington's band. Typical of the territory bands was that of the Midwesterner Slatz Randall, who worked and recorded in Minneapolis for a decade after 1929, making a dozen jazz-influenced pop records, such as the slightly saucy 'Bessie Couldn't Help It'; the latter was recorded by Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong and many others, but Randall's record is the most fun. The Benson Orchestra of Chicago was led by Edgar A. Benson, and included Frankie Trumbauer. Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra, a Chicago institution, employed many famous jazzmen over the years. It recorded with Freddy Keppard in 1923 and Louis Armstrong three years later, and Tate remained one of Chicago's leading music teachers throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Among the most successful and prolifically recorded territory bands was Bennie Moten's black band, whose classic 'South' was an acoustic hit in 1925; both the electrical remake in 1929 and its reissue in 1944 were hits. As in the ragtime era, there were a great many musicians and hundreds of bands whose contribution is now lost. Most of the bands never recorded; some remained local in more or less steady hotel or restaurant jobs, while others toured. The musical ferment was intense.
Youngsters often started out in dime-a-dance halls, where the band played one chorus of each tune: that was your 10-cent dance. In the Red Mill on North Main Street in Los Angeles, where trumpeter Buck Clayton played in the late 1920s, the band played only half the chorus of a tune on Saturday nights, speeding up the dance hall's take. Such bands played stock arrangements, provided by the publishers of the tunes. One of the best arrangers was Archie Bleyer, who became better known decades later through his studio and television work and as a label boss. Stock arrangements were usually not very challenging, but Clayton, who was still a teenager in the late 1920s and later became a fine arranger himself, wrote in his autobiography: 'One of my biggest troubles with the stock arrangements that we were playing were the famous Archie Bleyer arrangements ... I could see then that I had a hell of a lot to learn. "Business in F" and "Business in Q" were two particular stocks that used to hang me every night.'
The people who danced to all these bands became the equivalent of the New Orleans 'second line' as popular music changed. Dance band music was already well established by 1920, and was the biggest single category in popular music for decades after the adoption of electrical recording in 1925, for several reasons. The dancing in Broadway shows, and later in films, was incomparably better than it had been in earlier times. The girls in the back row of the chorus had studied ballet, and were better dancers than the star performers of the nineteenth century. American popular music was now a national rather than a regional affair; not only were records sold for dancing at home, but dance music was broadcast live on the radio every evening. Radio was conservative during what came to be called prime time, but later in the evening remote broadcasts from ballrooms caused the folks at home to roll up the rugs.
There was a tremendous upsurge in the popularity of ballroom dancing itself, fuelled by the success on Broadway of Vernon and Irene Castle. Vernon Blythe, an English magician, met Irene Foote in an American show in 1911; their performance in Watch Your Step in 1914 made them world-famous. They hired black bandleader James Reese Europe to provide their music, started a chain of dancing schools and invented the ubiquitous foxtrot (which anybody could do), as well as the turkey trot, the bunny-hug, the Castle rock and many more, and were also behind the tango craze which swept the country. Vernon joined a British flying squad in France during the First World War; he taught flying in the USA and was killed in an accident in 1918. A film of their lives made in 1939 starred (who else?) Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The scores of popular dance bands included that of Vincent Lopez, who made the first live band broadcast on radio in 1921; Wayne King, a new 'Waltz King', whose broadcasts from a Chicago ballroom were sponsored by a cosmetics company, and whose music appealed to an ageing audience (which used more and more cosmetics); and Fred Waring, who forsook mainstream 'hot' dance music and played sweeter and stricter music as time went on, subsiding into a glee club style. Live broadcasts brought fans to the ballrooms, but Waring was suspicious of recording, thinking that it must be bad for live music: he had big hits on Victor until early 1933, and then did not record at all for a decade. A radio show that paid Waring $12,500 a week became a target for pirates, who recorded Waring off the radio and sold the recordings to other stations; in 1936 Waring won one of the first lawsuits against bootleg records. Ted Lewis was a popular entertainer and second-rate clarinettist whose catch-phrase was 'Is everybody happy?'; his show band often included hot soloists on recordings, such as Fats Waller. Isham Jones made a renowned recording of 'Stardust', the third most often recorded song of the century (after 'Silent Night' and 'St Louis Blues'), establishing it as a romantic ballad; previous recordings had been at a bouncy midtempo, which is what Hoagy Carmichael intended.
We have met Carmichael before as a close friend of Beiderbecke, he was among America's best-loved songwriters. One of his first tunes was called 'Freewheeling'; Bix changed it to 'Riverboat Shuffle', and it became a jazz classic. 'Stardust' had fifteen hit recordings from 1930 to 1943, and several more in later years. (It was originally 'Star Dust', by the way: two words.)Carmichael appeared as himself in a few films, playing piano and singing and acting in his inimitable laconic drawl. He was also a recording artist, and in 1957 made a delightful album of his own songs, backed by all-star jazzmen.
Bix played on some of Carmichael's recordings, playing a fine solo on 'Riverboat', and on the high-spirited novelty 'Barnacle Bill the Sailor' (written with Carson Robison, a maverick who became known for his activities in country music). 'Barnacle Bill' is famous for one of Joe Venuti's pranks: the trio in the vocal refrain consisted of Carmichael, Robison and Venuti, who could not resist singing, 'Barnacle Bill the shithead!'
Carmichael was from Bloomington, Indiana, and many of his songs served to match his laid-back Midwestern personality. One of the most quintessentially American composers, he and his career were inseparable from the jazz age. He wrote words and music for 'Rockin' Chair', 'Memphis in June' and 'New Orleans', but he usually worked with lyricists: Mitchell Parish wrote the words for 'Stardust' and 'One Morning in May', Stuart Gorrell 'Georgia on My Mind', Sidney Arodin '(Up a) Lazy River', Ned Washington 'The Nearness of You', Paul Francis Webster 'Lamplighter's Serenade' and Johnny Mercer 'Lazybones', 'Skylark' and 'In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening' (the last of which won an Oscar in 1951).
After the Swing Era began in 1935, the music was more jazz-oriented, but most of the public just wanted to dance, and the sheer number of bands was astonishing. Composer-arrangers Will Hudson and Eddie DeLange together led a well-known outfit in the late 1930s; among their vocalists was Georgia Gibbs. Horace Heidt's sidemen included Frank DeVol on reeds (later a studio arranger and conductor), Frankie Carle on piano (who later led his own sweet band) and Alvino Rey on electric guitar, which was unusual at the time. (Rey also formed his own band, taking DeVol and the King Sisters vocal quartet with him.) Lobo, a trained dog, took part in Heidt's act, and a later gimmick was giving away money on the radio, until that was outlawed as a lottery; he then held regional talent contests on local radio and early television.
Sammy Kaye and Kay Kyser were among the most successful leaders. ('Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye' was changed by another bandleader to 'Swing and Sweat with Charlie Barnet'.) Kaye also invented an element of participation in that members of the audience were invited to lead the band, which survived well into the television era. Kyser's gimmick was the College of Musical Knowledge, a sort of quiz. Both bands used the corny device of singing the song title at the beginning of the arrangement. Neither was taken seriously by jazz-oriented critics, but both served up superbly reliable dance music, choosing the best tunes, playing them at the most appropriate tempos and pacing their sets extremely well. They had scores of hit records: Kyser's novelty 'Woody Woodpecker' drove the country crazy in 1948.
Guy Lombardo formed his Royal Canadians in the early 1920s in Canada, and it first recorded in 1924. Lombardo was a violinist turned front man (and later became a well-known speedboat racer); his brothers Lebert played trumpet, Victor baritone saxophone, while Carmen led the reed section and vocal trio, sang solo and wrote some fine songs, including 'Coquette', 'Boo Hoo' (covered by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing, albeit with some reluctance), 'A Sailboat in the Moonlight and You' (covered by Billie Holiday) and 'Sweethearts on Parade' (of which Armstrong made a beautiful recording in 1930). A sister, Rose Marie Lombardo, was a vocalist; later the band's very popular singer was Kenny Gardner. The band featured a muted trumpet section and quavering reeds and played in strict tempo, and was regarded as a joke by jazz fans, who perhaps were not listening closely enough: the band often seemed to float over the beat, a hip 1920s dance band that never changed. The inclusion of some of its early recordings in Brian Rust's Jazz Records 1897-1942 is evidence that it once played hot. Its music was good enough to make it the third-biggest act on records of the entire period 1890-1954, after Bing Crosby and Paul Whiteman, as well as one of Armstrong's favourites.
Paul Whiteman may not have been the 'King of Jazz', but he was the king of show business. Bandmaster of a fifty-seven-piece outfit in the U.S. Navy during the First World War, he formed his first group in 1919, adopting Hickman's style as well as Grofé as pianist and arranger. Whiteman's bands were twice as big as those of his competitors; he presented a kind of 'symphonic jazz' which was pretentious even then. But as a dance band it was a harbinger of the Swing era to come and has long been underrated. Whiteman's vocalists at various times included Morton Downey and Mildred Bailey. Downey was one of the first band singers; some thought Whiteman was mad to hire a singer, but as usual he was merely ahead of the field.
Grofé's arrangements for Whiteman, which initially jazzed the classics, attracted a Victor recording contract. The first disc was a 12" 78 of 'Avalon' (the tune taken from a Puccini opera) backed with 'Dance of the Hours' (by Ponchielli). The first hit was the two-sided 'Whispering' / 'The Japanese Sandman' in 1920; each side was a big hit and the record sold over two million copies. 'Wang Wang Blues' was another hit, initially released under trumpeter Henry Busse's name. Busse was a German immigrant who later led his own band; 'Hot Lips', recorded with Whiteman in 1922, became his nickname and his theme, and his solo on 'When Day is Done' started a vogue for 'sweet jazz'.
Like Glenn Miller twenty years later, Whiteman saw off a previous era in popular music while summing it up and giving the public a little bit of everything: he recorded 'Last Night on the Back Porch' with a barber-shop quartet, led by Len Murray, in 1923; he not only jazzed the classics, but commissioned new music from George Gershwin, black composer William Grant Still and others, and his orchestra often worked as a pit band on Broadway. His number one hit 'Three O'Clock in the Morning' in 1923 sold 3.5 million copies of the song and led to a contract with Leo Feist as staff writer: this was a euphemism for song plugger and a form of bribe, giving Whiteman access to many of the best pop songs of the day. Whiteman made one of the first musical talking films, King of Jazz, in 1930, which contains perhaps ten minutes of worthwhile music. But he helped educate the public to listen to jazz-oriented music as well as dance to it.
Whiteman's vocal trio, the Rhythm Boys, comprised Al Rinker (Mildred Bailey's brother), Harry Barris and Bing Crosby. They had started out in vaudeville, and were lucky to land a spot with Whiteman when they were still very young. Crosby's first solo hit with Whiteman was 'Muddy Water' in 1927, and he recorded two songs from Show Boat the next year: 'Ol' Man River' and 'Make Believe' were among his early successes.
The Rhythm Boys left Whiteman in 1930 to work with Gus Arnheim's band at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. 'Them There Eyes', with the trio, was a hit that year, and Crosby's first solo hit with Arnheim was 'I Surrender, Dear' (co-written by Barris), which so impressed a CBS executive that Crosby was offered a radio show of his own. Harry Lillis Crosby, nicknamed after a cartoon character with big ears, became the top recording artist of the entire first half of the century, and by a very wide margin; he sold hundreds of millions of records (with over 350 hit titles) and starred in more than fifty films. His fame and worldwide popularity were such that during the Second World War German soldiers called him 'Der Bingle'.
Gus Arnheim wrote 'Sweet and Lovely', a beautiful song and a hit in 1931; he employed Woody Herman, who later made a memorable recording of it. Lombardo, Crosby and several others also had hits with 'Sweet and Lovely', and Herman's tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips made a beautiful version in 1944. At the Coconut Grove Crosby always had a bunch of friends in his dressing room, a card game under way and a radio, so they could listen to Arnheim's two-hour broadcasts. Crosby would dash upstairs to do his bit, and on one occasion ended by saying to a nationwide audience, 'Deal me in, boys; I'll be right down.' He loved cronies, cards, alcohol and women, but, under the influence of his mother and given the example of his unsuccessful father, he realized that he was making good money and could not be sure how long the success was going to last: he became a very wealthy businessman, while the success lasted all his life.
Rudy Vallee was one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, and also one of the most generous people in the business. The quintessential collegiate singer of the acoustic era, he crooned through a megaphone, and he later said that as soon as he heard Crosby, he knew his style had been superseded. (He also wrote, in an introduction to Louis Armstrong's autobiography Swing That Music (1936), that Crosby and all the other pop singers of the day could not have helped being influenced by Armstrong's singing.) Vallee played drums and reeds, then began singing through a megaphone of his own design, just as his hit records were played through a horn (fifteen of them in 1929 alone, when most record players were still acoustic). He was one of the first to understand the commercial importance of broadcasting, and was famous for his greeting, 'Heigh-ho, everybody!' He later became a well-known comic actor, generally playing stuffed-shirt types in films, and in 1961 starred on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Crosby acknowledged his debt to Pops. By 1930 Armstrong was recording the best pop songs of the day and showing everyone how they could be interpreted with loving care by a superior stylist -- in short, what good songs they were. He brought good songs to jazz and vice versa, determining the direction of jazz and pop for decades; his 'Stardust' was no less influential than Isham Jones's record.
Crosby had worked in the same band as Bix and many other first-rate jazzmen; his personal accompanist was the great guitarist Eddie Lang. Crosby's voice was a pleasant baritone -- it sounded, Crosby said, like someone hollering down a rain barrel -- a voice that everybody could identify with. His earliest records sound dated now, more because of the arrangements than his singing; he seems to be less at ease than at his peak in the 1940s, but he is indubitably there, and you can understand every word. Along with Armstrong, he was one of the first to appreciate the importance of the microphone: he sang easily, intimately and without strain, phrasing almost conversationally, as though singing personally to each listener. From jazz, perhaps, Crosby had learned the value of direct communication. Although never a jazz singer, together with Armstrong he virtually invented modern pop singing.
Crosby recorded for Brunswick until 1934, then followed Jack Kapp to the new Decca label, where he stayed for twenty years, despite attempts to lure him elsewhere. He recorded duets with Armstrong, Jolson, Bob Hope, Mel Torme, Jane Wyman, Connee Boswell, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, his first wife, Dixie Lee, his son Gary and others. He was backed on records by Victor Young's orchestra, the Les Paul Trio and the bands of Waring, Lombardo, Eddie Condon, Louis Jordan, Xavier Cugat, Jimmy Dorsey, his brother Bob Crosby and many more. More than twenty of his hits, including 'Don't Fence Me In', were performed with the Andrews Sisters. He had the pick of the best songs of his era, many of which were written by Irving Berlin, but he also ranged back and forth through the history of popular song, from Brahms's 'Lullaby' through 'Mary's a Grand Old Name' (1906) and 'MacNamara's Band' (1917) to 'Swinging on a Star', by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, from the film Going My Way; both Crosby and the song won Oscars in 1944. (Young Andy was one of the Williams Brothers backing him on the record, and the song was included in children's music books.) Crosby also recorded several of the best country songs of the 1940s.
His only rival as a male pop singer in the early years was Russ Colombo, who also sang with Arnheim's band; he was credited as co-author of 'Prisoner of Love', and sang Arnheim's 'Sweet and Lovely'. Colombo died in an accident with a desk ornament, a duelling pistol that turned out to be loaded.
A popular female singer in the late 1920s was Helen Kane, the 'boop-boop-a-doop' girl, whose tunes included her theme, 'I Wanna be Loved by You', and the slightly suggestive 'Is There Anything Wrong in That?' Her little-girl voice inspired Betty Boop, the cartoon character. Kane sued the creators of Betty, but it was established that 'booping' had earlier been practiced by a black singer, Baby Esther. Kane's flapper persona was soon passé, but an echo of her tiny voice was heard from Wee Bonnie Baker on her 1939 hit with the Orrin Tucker band, 'Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!', the song itself revived from a 1920 show. Kane herself was dubbed by Debbie Reynolds in a 1950 film, Three Little Words. (Betty Boop's sensational curves ran foul of the censors after about a hundred cartoons, but she did a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in 1988.)
The best female singers were admired by jazzmen. Mildred Bailey was married to vibraphonist Red Norvo; in the 1930s they led a band together and were known as Mr and Mrs Swing. Connee Boswell, who was born in New Orleans, had a successful career as leader and arranger of a vocal trio with her sisters before going solo. A victim of polio, she worked in a wheelchair; she said she learned breath control by listening to Caruso records.
Ethel Waters was well known as a vocalist before Louis Armstrong. The English writer Charles Fox has described her as the first important jazz singer, because of the way she told a story; she began by singing popular blues, and could transform a pop song more subtly than Bessie Smith, displaying, as Fox says, 'a remarkably expressive voice, a keen understanding of how language should come across in song, and a rhythmic flexibility very rare at that time'. She became the biggest black star on Broadway after Bert Williams. As Thousands Cheer (1933) at Irving Berlin's Music Box had a book by Moss Hart and was a barbed political satire, full of laughs; Waters sang 'Supper Time' (an anti-lynching song), 'Harlem on My Mind' and the sizzling 'Heat Wave'.
Vocal groups, popular in the acoustic era, now sold records with more modern harmony. The Boswell Sisters paved the way for the Andrews Sisters, three girls from Minneapolis whose success began with 'Bei mir bist du schön' in 1938 and whose close harmony is still redolent of nostalgia for millions. (Bette Midler revived their 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' over thirty years later.) They too recorded with many other Decca artists, among them Lombardo, Les Paul, Danny Kaye and Carmen Miranda, as well as Crosby. Patti Andrews had solo hits, Patti and Maxene starred in Over Here on Broadway in 1974 and Maxene released a new album in 1985. The King Sisters had an unusually rich harmonic style, being a quartet: Alyce, Donna, Louise and Yvonne Driggs sang with Horace Heidt, then with Alvino Rey (Louise's husband), and had a television series in the 1960s.Male vocal groups included the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, both black, and enormously successful. The Ink Spots were a quartet; the voice of its lead singer, Bill Kenny, on 'If I Didn't Care' (1939) and 'To Each His Own' (1946) is unforgettable. Even more popular were the Mills Brothers, Herbert, Harry, Donald and John, the last of whom accompanied the group on his guitar. (When John died in 1935, he was replaced by their father.) They had hits from 1931 ('Tiger Rag') until the end of the 1960s; 'Paper Doll' (1943) sold over six million copies.
An influential genre was the torch song; nearly all the hit records in this style occur after 1926, because it requires an intimacy that was impossible without the microphone. Broadway stars Ruth Etting, Libby Holman, Fanny Brice and Helen Morgan were famous for songs of regretful, passionate love; in some cases their personal lives reflected their stage personae. These four had over eighty hit records, but Etting was by far the most prolific. She was picked out of a chorus line in 1922 by her manager and first husband, mobster Moe 'the Gimp' Snyder, and was best known for 'Love Me or Leave Me' and 'Ten Cents a Dance' (which she sang in Rodgers and Hart's show Simple Simon in 1930). Moe shot her piano player, but he recovered, and married her; in spite of all the drama in her life, she had a long and happy retirement. She was played by Doris Day in the film biography Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and Jimmy Cagney was Moe.
Fanny Brice was also married to a mobster, gambler Nicky Arnstein; her most famous song was 'My Man', a French import which she sang for Ziegfeld in 1920 and in a film in 1929. She also did comedy and dialect songs, and was the popular brat Baby Snooks on the radio in the late 1940s. Barbra Streisand played Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway in 1964 and in the film in 1968. Libby Holman was well known for sultry renditions of 'Moanin' Low' (by Ralph Rainger and Howard Dietz) and 'Body and Soul' (in the show Three's a Crowd, 1930). She married tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds; when he was murdered a year later, she was accused and cleared, but her career never recovered. Helen Morgan sang in the Kern shows Show Boat and Sweet Adeline; The Helen Morgan Story was made for TV in the 1950s with Polly Bergen, who made fine albums of torch songs for CBS, but the 1957 cinema version unaccountably replaced Bergen with an actress whose singing voice had to be dubbed.
In the Great Depression the record business almost disappeared, because music could be heard free on the radio, but popular music, along with the cinema, became an important avenue of escapism. Curiously, the calamity of the Depression inspired only one memorable song, 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?', by Jay Gorney and Yip Harburg. 'Hallelujah, I'm a Bum' is sometimes quoted as a Depression song; actually there were two songs of that title: Harry Kirby McClintock based his on the hymn 'Revive Us Again', while Rodgers and Hart wrote theirs for a film of the same name. But neither was really a Depression song. Hart wrote: 'Why work away for wealth / When you can travel for your health?' This philosophy had little appeal in 1933.
But even the Depression could not alter the fact that new markets had been discovered. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway were oriented towards New York, while many Americans had their own indigenous musics which meant much to them. The great country music producer Art Satherley, born in England, loved American rural, or folk, music, and regarded all of it as country music, whether white or black; but according to the institutionalized racism of the era, it had to be divided into 'race' and 'hillbilly' music.
Cornettist, songwriter, bandleader and publisher William Christopher Handy had become a powerful figure in the music business, having discovered or written such imperishable songs as 'St Louis Blues', 'Beale Street Blues', 'Yellow Dog Blues', 'Memphis Blues' and 'Loveless Love' (also known as 'Careless Love'). 'St Louis Blues', which has a habañera 'Spanish tinge' in the middle section, is one of the biggest hits of the century and was first recorded in 1916. 'Memphis Blues' was originally a campaign song for Mr Edward H. Crump, a Memphis political leader. Handy's songs were not really blues, according to a strict musical definition which has lost some ground in recent years. Blues was a folk music that had evolved among ex-slaves in the nineteenth century from their work songs. Although the blues was and is an important element in jazz, jazz was never a folk music, while blues relied on unsophisticated but subtle and direct communication.
The classic blues is a twelve-bar verse, three lines of four bars each; the lyric consists of couplets, with the first line repeated once. (Leonard Bernstein, in one of his recorded lectures, used Shakespeare couplets as blues.) Each line of text takes about two and a half bars; the rest of each four-bar segment is improvised fill, sometimes vocal, but usually provided by the singer's own guitar or piano. The blues goes against European musical practice, and was therefore frowned upon by educated people both black and white; it uniquely combined major and minor modes. 'Blue notes', which cannot be played on the piano, are now thought to have stemmed more or less directly from African music. Classic blues lyrics came from a storehouse of images, words and phrases, including the argot that American blacks had used to express themselves safely since the earliest days of slavery. The verses and the musical accompaniment are like two voices: the accompaniment is a commentary on the story being told, and the result is a polyrhythmic, almost poly-emotional music. The blues is not a vehicle for self-pity, contrary to the commonplace orthodoxy, but a passionate, intensely rhythmic way of keeping the spirit up, by commenting on problems of life and love with lyrics full of irony and earthy imagery: defeating the enemy by confronting him. Blues is, above all, a music of great human bravery.
The commercial market for blues, like that for jazz, was discovered by the record business in time to capture many classic performers. Perry Bradford, an early entrepreneur in black music, placed two of his songs with Fred Hagar, music director of Okeh Records; 'That Thing Called Love' and 'You Can't Keep a Good Man Down', both published by the Pace and Handy Music Company, were recorded by Mamie Smith. To this day we can't be sure whether the backing group was black or white. The record sold well enough to call for another recording session, this time with a black group dubbed the Jazz Hounds. Bradford's 'Crazy Blues' (not a real blues, but a pop song) was recorded in August 1920. To everyone's surprise it was a sensation, and yet another genre of black music began to enrich the mainstream of American music. Obviously the discovery was waiting to happen; as early as 1920 Jerome Kern wrote songs with 'blues' in the title. More importantly, over five thousand genuine blues records were made before the Second World War.
Among the female blues singers were Trixie Smith (quickly signed by Harry Pace, who left W. C. Handy to form Black Swan, the first black-owned record label, for which Fletcher Henderson handled the musical side), Clara Smith, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, Victoria Spivey, Edith Wilson and Sippie Wallace, most of whom were all-round performers who included blues numbers in their acts. The two most authentic were undoubtedly Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey and her protégé Bessie Smith, called the Mother and the Empress of the Blues respectively. (None of the Smiths was related.)
Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith seemed larger than life, having powerful voices, powerful appetites and a reluctance to take any nonsense from anybody. Ma was perhaps the purer blues singer; her biggest hit was 'See See Rider' in 1925, with Louis Armstrong and Henderson. But of all the blues singers Bessie Smith was the one who had most influence on jazz musicians. Like Ma Rainey, she had developed a method of singing each song around center tones, perhaps in order to project her voice more easily to the back of a room; but she would also choose to sing a song in an unusual key, and her artistry in bending and stretching notes with her beautiful, powerful contralto to accommodate her own interpretation was unsurpassed: she could make a trite pop song into a blues masterpiece. Her biggest hit was her first, 'Downhearted Blues', in 1923, written by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin; others were 'Empty Bed Blues' in 1928 (it covered two sides of a 78, which at that time was very unusual) and 'After You've Gone', and two W. C. Handy songs, 'St Louis Blues' and 'Careless Love'.
To accept the obvious orthodoxy that the music of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Bessie Smith was regarded as old-fashioned by 1930 is to ignore what might have been. What would have happened to American music if the phonograph had captured the cornet playing of Frank Johnson in 1845, or if James P. Johnson had been commissioned to write for Paul Whiteman's concert in 1924 instead of George Gershwin? Who knows how many records Morton, Oliver and Smith might have sold if the bottom had not dropped out of the record business between 1929 and 1932? As it was, Bessie earned as much as $3,000 a recording session, and in 1929 appeared in a short film, St Louis Blues, with the Hall Johnson Choir and a band led by James P. Johnson. But she had her last national hit the same year, 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out', with Clarence Williams on piano. After 1931 there was no recording session until her last, in 1933, for which she was paid $50 for each of four sides, and her sales did not even justify that. She spent the rest of her life touring, and died of horrific injuries following a car crash, not knowing that she would influence singers who were not yet born.
The new market for race music led to a scramble to record black artists in the 1920s, not that many of them were 'signed up' in the modern sense: their records are still selling, but few of them received any royalties. Blind Lemon Jefferson, a street singer and guitarist who recorded prolifically, is thought to have been the first to record the slide guitar style (in 1926), in which the guitar is fretted with a knife-blade, a steel tube, a bottleneck (hence 'bottleneck' style) or some other such tool; this became an important voice in the blues. Jefferson was only in his thirties when he froze to death in a Chicago snow storm. Guitarist and vocalist Big Bill Broonzy was an early urban blues artist, so active in the Chicago area, both as soloist and sideman, that he was one of the most widely recorded and best-selling black artists of the era. Broonzy again was more than a blues singer; when asked if he sang folksongs, he replied that he had never heard a horse sing them.
The alcoholic Leroy Carr, in Indianapolis, Indiana, accompanied himself on the piano, which was unusual for a male blues singer. His smoother, more urban style, along with such songs as 'How Long Blues' and 'In the Evening when the Sun Goes Down', was influential on the next generation. He made his classic records with Scrapper Blackwell, a guitarist who also sang and played piano. Another piano-playing bluesman was Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman), who wrote 'Alberta' (a Broonzy speciality), 'The Comeback' and 'Every Day (I Have the Blues)', made famous in 1955 by Count Basie and Joe Williams.
A genre of blues piano playing began in the lumber camps of the South: the barrelhouse piano style was so called because the room with the piano usually had a bar consisting of a barrel of whisky resting on two planks. These pianists taught themselves to play at the level required in such places; the pianism was less sophisticated than that of the ragtime-based stride pianists of the East Coast. They played a rolling rhythm in the left hand (eight notes to the bar) so that they could reach for a drink or a sandwich with the right hand. As their music reached places like Chicago it came to be called boogie-woogie, and it was a fad in the 1940s during the Swing Era.
The blues was already becoming urbanized, for the First World War had stimulated black emigration to northern cities. But up until the next war the greatest male blues singers were still to be found in rural areas, where they were often recorded on portable disc-cutting equipment. It is significant that nearly all of them accompanied themselves on the guitar. The black woman was not a threat to white male supremacy; she often worked indoors, and if she became a singer, she was accompanied by a pianist. The black male was not a threat either, if he could be kept itinerant, preferably illiterate and utterly poor, so he had to carry his music around with him. The history of the blues provides more evidence of the fractured family lives of black Americans, the result of which is that today black children are still far more likely than white ones to come from a broken home.
The more delicate and lyrical Piedmont blues tradition of the South-east was represented by musicians like Blind Boy Fuller, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (the last two of whom had a rock group named after them) and harmonica player Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Terry and McGhee were taken up by white liberals as a popular concert act, whereupon they lost their edge.
Like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Texas Alexander and Mance Lipscomb all came from Texas. Lipscomb did not record at all until 1961, when he was discovered by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records; another all-rounder, he played excellent ragtime, pop songs and children's songs on his guitar. Mississippi John Hurt, who herded cows in Avalon, Mississippi, was another versatile artist. After being discovered by Tommy Rockwell, he recorded in Memphis and New York in 1928, but was then washed away by the Depression; he was rediscovered by Tom Hoskins in 1963, his sly charm and unique guitar playing completely intact.
The purest, most powerful -- indeed, harrowing -- blues of all came from the Mississippi delta. Eddie 'Son' House, Nehemiah 'Skip' James and Bukka White lived long enough to be rediscovered; Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, Peetie Wheatstraw and many others survive only on old recordings. (Bracey had left the blues to become a clergyman.) Wheatstraw was known as 'the Devil's son-in-law'. Charley Patton regarded himself as an entertainer, and played an exceptionally interesting ragtime-based guitar; he was related to the Chatmon family of well-known Mississippi blues artists.
Booker T. Washington 'Bukka' White recorded for Victor in 1930, worked as a boxer and a baseball player and then made two sides for Vocalion in 1937: 'Pinebluff, Arkansas' and 'Shake 'Em On Down', the latter a blues classic which had many variants. He was sentenced to Parchman State Farm in Mississippi for assault, where he was recorded by John Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1939. After his release he made twelve sides in 1940 with Washboard Sam (Robert Brown) for Okeh and Vocalion, including 'Parchman Farm Blues', 'Where Can I Change My Clothes?' and 'District Attorney Blues'. The controlled passion of his rough-edged voice and his rhythmically inexorable guitar created some of the most beautiful and powerfully emotional music in the genre. The end of the classic blues era was already near; but White was rediscovered in 1963 by Ed Denson and guitarist John Fahey with much of his power still intact.
As these musicians were more or less self-taught, they invented their own ways of playing what they wanted, and each of the best was inspiring in his own way. Skip James's intensely lyrical style was said to have influenced Robert Johnson; he made twenty-six sides for Paramount in 1931, for which he was paid $40. Son House also served time at Parchman State Farm; he made eight or nine sides for Paramount in 1930 and test pressings for ARC (who decided on Patton instead), and recorded for the Library of Congress in 1941-2. Both House and James were rediscovered in time to perform at folk festivals and to make more recordings; both had tunes covered by rock groups.
Tommy Johnson's classic 'Cool Drink of Water Blues' begins with the famous line 'I asked her for water / She gave me gasoline', and his 'Canned Heat Blues' gave the white blues band of the 1960s its name. ('Canned heat' was used in cooking stoves; the best-known brand name was Sterno. It could be dissolved and used as a poisonous beverage by alcoholics.) Bracey was something of a Johnson sidekick; he played at almost exactly the same recording dates, and recorded a water and gasoline lyric the day after Tommy did. Johnson made few recordings, but through his unique guitar playing he was one of the most influential of all, along with Robert Johnson (to whom he was not related).
Tommy's brother Ledell, who taught him some guitar, said that Tommy had acquired his final polish by selling his soul to the devil. Son House said the same thing about Robert Johnson, who was not at first thought to be a particularly good player, but disappeared for a while, and then turned up much improved. In the hands of the greatest masters, the blues guitar sang with intensity, and Robert Johnson was a complete master. 'Hellhound on My Trail' and 'Me and the Devil Blues' are perhaps his most apposite titles. In a San Antonio hotel room in 1936 and in the back room of a Dallas office building in 1937 he made a total of forty-one sides for ARC labels (including alternative takes). Only 'Terraplane Blues' was anything like a hit in the restricted race market of the time, but 'I Believe I'll Dust My Broom' was adapted by Elmore James and became a postwar anthem of electric blues, while 'Terraplane', 'Love in Vain', 'Stop Breakin' Down' and 'Crossroads' were covered by rock groups in the 1960s. (The crossroads was where you went at midnight to do a deal with the devil.) Johnson's death was violent and said to involve a woman; his acolyte Johnny Shines had heard that 'it was something to do with the black arts'. It is now suggested that Robert Johnson was a far more 'sophisticated' performer than was hitherto thought, which makes his legacy all the more interesting. Meticulous research on his life has not been published yet, it is said, because his killer is still alive.
John Hammond tried to find Johnson for his 1938 'From Spirituals to Swing' concert, but for once Hammond was too late. Hammond was the legendary producer of generations of great artists: coming from a wealthy family, he was financially independent enough to be able to work freelance during the Depression. He recorded Fletcher Henderson; he produced Billie Holiday's first recording session and Bessie Smith's last, both in 1933; he was an early champion of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Charlie Christian and many other jazz greats; later he was director of popular music at the Vanguard label in the 1950s, which resulted in excellent jazz and folk albums, and at Columbia in the 1960s helped to discover Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The concerts he produced in 1938-9 represented a turning point in American popular culture.
The concert on 23 December 1938 at Carnegie Hall began with boogie-woogie pianists Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade 'Lux' Lewis, imported from the Midwest (where Ammons and Lewis had made a living washing cars and driving taxis in Chicago). This touched off the fad for boogie-woogie mentioned earlier, and inspired the young German immigrant Alfred Lion to form his Blue Note label. Big Bill Broonzy sang about having a dream in which he had a chat with President Roosevelt. Sister Rosetta Tharpe had hardly sung anywhere other than in church, but demonstrated the connection between the music of the black churches and the passion of the blues; she soon became a leading attraction with the Lucky Millinder band in Harlem. Ruby Walker Smith sang the blues (she was thought to be Bessie's niece, but Hammond said not). Other performers included Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier and James P. Johnson, and the concert ended with the full Basie band; it was well received by the critics, and sophisticated fans found out where their favourite music had come from. Hammond was a man of strong views, some of them strange: he wrote in his autobiography that he thought Duke Ellington had compromised his music for success in a world dominated by whites; but he also admitted that his opinion of Ellington's music might tell the reader as much about John Hammond as about Ellington. In any case, few people have done as much for American music.
John Lomax, who began collecting songs as a child, later published such books as Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). He worked as a banker, but when jobs for bankers grew scarce during the Depression, he became a full-time folklorist: with the help of his son Alan, he made thousands of 78s using portable recording equipment provided by the Library of Congress. He recorded Leadbelly and Bukka White, among many others, and Alan made the Jelly Roll Morton sessions mentioned earlier. In Stovall, Mississippi, in 1941-2, McKinley Morganfield recorded for the Library of Congress; he soon went to Chicago, where he became the most important of post-war bluesmen, Muddy Waters.
There were other entrepreneurs, and other musics were being discovered. The blues, a black country music, did not depend upon a slick formula, a New York publisher or a big vaudeville name to perform it. It came unbidden out of the hearts of its practitioners, as did white country music, which also began to enter the mainstream of popular music in the acoustic era; both would revitalize jaded pop scenes in decades to come. How the music business regarded country music has been summed up by Nolan Porterfield in his biography of Jimmie Rodgers (1979): 'a sort of backward, ugly, show-biz stepchild that refused to go to school and learn from its betters but could not be locked up in the back room'.
Old-time fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliand had recorded for Victor in New York in 1922, but the record was not then released. The country market was discovered by Ralph Sylvester Peer. After working for his father, who sold sewing machines, Columbia phonographs and records, he worked for Columbia, then for Fred Hagar at Okeh; early in 1923 Peer recorded harmonica player Henry Whittier, but thought nothing of it. He was sent to Atlanta in June, where furniture dealer Polk Brockman wanted to record Fiddlin' John Carson: 'The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane' backed with 'The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow' did not even get an Okeh release number, but when the first pressing sold out, Peer paid more attention, and became the most important talent scout in a new industry, again and again in the right place at the right time. (Before it became a fiddle tune, 'The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane' was a parlour song, written by Will Shakespeare Hays in 1871; opera star Alma Gluck had recorded it for Victor.)
Peer discovered Ernest Van 'Pop' Stoneman, whose epic 'The Titanic' was one of the first big country hits in 1925 (and whose family are still folk and country artists today); and the same year he recorded a string band called Al Hopkins and the Hill Billies. They were the first country artists to make Washington, DC, their home base, broadcasting from there; they were also among the first to record in New York, the first to make a short film (for Warner Brothers), the first to play for a president (Coolidge) and the first to use a piano and a Hawaiian guitar. Hopkins told Peer he could call them anything he wanted, since they were 'nothing but a bunch of hillbillies anyway'. Peer liked that name, but the band was not sure until Pop Stoneman approved it.
In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, poorer British settlers had begun moving into the western parts of the colonies. They could not compete with plantation-owners, who had plenty of cheap black slave labour, and they wanted more freedom. They were escaping taxation on their farm produce by a Tory government in London which, unaware of the enormous potential of its most valuable colonies, persistently tried to placate English merchants. A hundred years earlier the Ulster rebels who had been cleared from land in northern Ireland were replaced by hard-working Scottish lowland people who were loyal to James I (who was James VI of Scotland). A good number of them were weavers, and produced cloth that competed with that of English factories, so eventually they too were driven off their land. Many of them went to Penn's Woods -- Pennsylvania -- where in 1750 the Cumberland Gap to the Appalachian Mountains was discovered; this barrier to the West encompassed the smaller Cumberland, Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges. As Pennsylvania began to fill up, the Cumberland Gap represented a gateway to cheap land in West Virginia and Kentucky (much of it purchased from Cherokee Indians by Daniel Boone and his business partners). Scots, Irish and runaway slaves (both black and white) poured into the mountains and beyond, bringing with them fiddles, lutes and other instruments, and their songs, ballads and attitudes, many traceable to Elizabethan England -- and probably a few copies of John Playford's Dancing Master. It was their music that Peer discovered.
String bands consisted of fiddles, guitars, a string bass and often a banjo and/or a mandolin (the most recent addition to the lute family). The music, which had been spreading across the USA for generations, was variously described by record companies and catalogues as old-time music, mountain music, 'familiar tunes' and so on, until Peer's 'hillbilly' stuck.
The most successful string band was Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, who began recording in 1926. James Gideon Tanner was a champion fiddler; George Riley Puckett, blind from childhood, was a vocalist and one of the most influential guitarists; Frank Walker, then an A&R man at Columbia, put them together with fiddler Clayton 'Pappy' McMichen and others to form the group. Puckett's baritone sold the recordings, and he also recorded as a soloist. McMichen was influenced by jazz and resented being called a hillbilly, while Tanner was strictly old-time. Perhaps because of the tension caused by these various strands, their music was hotter and more influential than the others. Comedy recordings were made, beginning with 'A Corn Likker Still in Georgia'; 'Turkey in the Straw' and 'John Henry' were hits in 1926-7. A hillbilly-style pop song, 'Down Yonder', had been published in 1921 and interpolated into the Broadway show Tip-top. Popular recordings of it included one by a barber-shop quartet; when the Skillet Lickers recorded it in 1934, it became one of the biggest country hits of the decade.
Another important string band was the North Carolina Ramblers, led by Charlie Poole, a banjo picker who had developed a unique three-fingered style as a result of a boyhood injury to his right hand. Their 'Don't Let Your Deal Go Down' (1925) sold 100,000 copies and remained a country standard.
There were also black string bands, which played much the same kind of music, but rarely recorded. A great many guitar pickers, fiddlers and singers had jammed with blacks. Mandolin player Bill Monroe, guitarist Sam McGee and banjo player Dock Boggs, three of the best in the business, are among those who admitted their debt to black music, while Ma Rainey often had requests for 'Heart Made of Stone', an Appalachian lament. Blues singer Yank Rachell, born in 1910 in Tennessee, also played guitar, harmonica and violin; when he was eight years old, he traded a pig for a mandolin, which added a unique rural flavour to his recording sessions, among them one with the original Sonny Boy Williamson on Bluebird (1938), and to Rachell's own more recent albums, such as Mandolin Blues (acoustic) and Chicago Style (electric) on Delmark. Brownie McGhee remembered 'jookin' ', or country quilting parties, and Bill Broonzy recalled 'two-way' picnics, at which blacks and whites swapped songs. Black guitar player Leslie Riddles accompanied A.P. Carter on song-collecting trips, and had a direct effect on Maybelle Carter's famous guitar style. Jimmie Tarlton, who performed in a well-known South Carolina duo with Tom Darby, said that he picked up bottleneck guitar from a black musician when he was ten years old, which would have been many years before Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded in that style. The great black Swing Era composer Edgar Sampson plays a violin solo on a recording of 'Hot-tempered Blues', by Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten, the house band at Smalls' Paradise in Harlem in 1928: loaded with double stops, it could have been played by Gid Tanner. Johnson's competition at the Cotton Club was Duke Ellington, who in 1936 recorded 'Lazy Man's Shuffle' (by 'Rex Stewart and his 52nd Street Stompers'). It includes Brick Fleagle (or possibly Ceele Burke) on what sounds like a Hawaiian guitar, which soon became country music's steel guitar. We will never know to what extent the colour bar in broadcasting and in the marketing of records prevented more fusions of black and white musics, but the degree of two-way influence has always been remarkable.
After Ralph Peer left Okeh, he offered to record for Victor in exchange for the song copyrights. He recorded Ishman Bracey and Tommy Johnson in Memphis in 1928, but before that, he went to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, because it seemed like a good location, near the Tennessee-Virginia border. There he recorded Stoneman and others, and advertised for players in local newspapers. In August he recorded a vocal and instrumental trio, the Carter Family, and a railway worker named Jimmie Rodgers: having recorded the first string band, he now found the rest of country music.
Jimmie Rodgers, also known as the Singing Brakeman and the Blue Yodeller, pulled together many strands to form the basis of mainstream country music, and became its first legend, recording 110 sides in less than five years, the last just two days before he died of tuberculosis. He had learned his music from hoboes and railway workers, black and white; he combined yodelling with the twelve-bar blues; the first of his thirteen 'blue yodels', 'T for Texas', sold a million copies and has been covered many times. Some of the blue yodels were simply numbered; others also had titles, such as 'Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues)'. When 'Blue Yodel No. 9' was recorded in Hollywood in 1930, Louis Armstrong was among the sidemen; Louis plays beautifully, but with unusual caution, as though he was not sure what was going to happen next: Rodgers's time was quirky. His nasal tenor voice and Mississippi drawl, and his transparent informality and good humour, brought sympathy to hoboes and hillbillies everywhere. As Nolan Porterheld put it, Rodgers 'couldn't read a note, keep time, play the "right" chords or write lyrics that fit. All he could do was reach the hearts of millions of people around the world, and lift them up. They listened, and understood.'
Rodgers often recorded solo, but also with what amounted to a dixieland band, and he was one of the first to use a Hawaiian guitar. The guitar had been introduced to Hawaii by Spanish and Portuguese cowboys in the mid-nineteenth century; the Hawaiians began playing it horizontally, in the lap, with the strings raised, and in the slide style, without frets. They invented 'slack' tuning (called ki ho alu), or open-chord tuning. Joseph Kekeku was the first to fret the Hawaiian guitar with a comb instead of his fingers; King Bennie Nawahi played jazz and blues as well as hulas; Hawaiian guitar became a fad in vaudeville, and was even occasionally inserted into a Broadway show. Rodgers recorded with a Hollywood group called Lani McIntire's Harmony Hawaiians, and with Joe Kaipo, a genuine Hawaiian guitarist (who claimed that his father was mayor of Honolulu). When the Hawaiian guitar was later electrified, it became the steel guitar as we have known it in country music ever since.
In May 1928 Rodgers's fourth record was released ('Blue Yodel No. 2' and 'Brakeman's Blues') and by midsummer his royalties were averaging more than $1,000 a month, at that time a fortune for a peripatetic railway worker. Rodgers helped Victor's profits to return almost to where they had been before radio had bitten deeply into the record business, and Peer was making so much money that he had to start new corporations to put it in.
A song called 'The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)', written by McIntire, was Rodgers's closest brush with pop fame. Peer did not issue it within the agreed year, so McIntire placed the song elsewhere; Bing Crosby and bandleaders Larry Clinton and Art Kassel all had national hits with it in 1937, while Rodgers's version, released several years after his death, looked like a cover. Among his other backing musicians were Pappy McMichen, who had left Tanner and was leading the first of several groups he called the Georgia Wildcats; he co-wrote 'Peach Pickin' Time Down in Georgia'.
Rodgers's most important collaborator was his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, who could read and write music and play the piano. Rodgers would worry a tune until it sounded as he wanted it to, 'wrong' chords and all; Elsie could help him polish it. The songs she had a hand in were the most completely composed, and set the style of his career: for example, 'Never No Mo' Blues', 'You and Me and My Old Guitar' and 'Daddy and Home'. They wrote 'Everybody Does It in Hawaii', on the recording of which Joe Kaipo played the Hawaiian guitar in 1929. It may have been Peer, seeking more royalties for his artist as well as for his own publishing company, who was behind King Oliver's instrumental version the next year, with Roy Smeck on Hawaiian-style guitar. Rodgers's repertory included sentimental songs ('My Old Pal', 'My Little Lady'), songs about tragedy and death ('T B Blues', 'Hobo Bill's Last Ride') and hard times ('Waitin' for a Train' and many of the blue yodels), and they displayed bravado and double entendre ('Pistol Packin' Papa', 'Mean Mama Blues'). 'Muleskinner Blues', 'In the Jailhouse Now' and others have been covered many times; 'Miss the Mississippi and You' was a country hit in 1981.
Rodgers was a happy-go-lucky man who enjoyed his stardom. He counted among his friends crooner Gene Austin, whose record of 'My Blue Heaven' was among the biggest hits of the 1920s (and was not in fact topped until Crosby's 'White Christmas'). Rodgers considered Austin a rival: although his live gigs were mostly in the South and often in tent shows, he thought of himself as an all-round entertainer. He probably sold about twelve million records during his lifetime, which was phenomenal for the Depression. (In later years many a country boy remembered being sent to the general store for 'a pound of butter, a slab of bacon and the latest Jimmie Rodgers record'.) Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow were just three of the giants in country music who began by imitating Rodgers, and nobody knows how many boys born in the 1930s were named after him.
Equally important was the other discovery Peer made in Bristol, Tennessee: the Carter Family. A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter sang bass or baritone harmony in an improvisatory way, coming in wherever he felt like it; he played some fiddle and collected mountain ballads. His wife, Sara, sang lead and Maybelle (Sara's cousin, who was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra) sang harmony. Both women played autoharp and guitar; Sara's autoharp became a component of the traditional style, while Maybelle played melody on the guitar's bass strings and harmony on the treble -- the influential 'Carter style' -- and she also played blues licks and occasionally even steel guitar. Their songs, many of ancient lineage, are still sung by folk groups today: 'Wabash Cannon Ball' was a hit for Roy Acuff (and 'I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes' was adapted for his 'Great Speckled Bird'); 'I Never Will Marry' was later recorded by the Weavers, 'Wildwood Flower' by Joan Baez, 'Jimmy Brown the Newsboy' by Flatt and Scruggs and 'Hello Stranger' by Emmylou Harris. 'Keep on the Sunny Side', a 1906 pop song, became their theme. 'Worried Man Blues', 'Will the Circle be Unbroken?' and many more became standards as Carter Family songs.
Peer preferred the sound of Sara's voice, while the beautiful harmony of the two women was more in evidence on their recordings for Decca and ARC labels after 1935 and Columbia in 1940; in 1941 the trio returned to Victor and brought their total to as many as three hundred sides. After 1938 the Carters broadcast on Mexican radio, as Rodgers had done earlier. (When broadcasting frequencies were assigned by international agreement, the Mexicans were left out, and so did as they pleased; one of their 100,000-watt transmitters was heard in Canada and Hawaii. Furthermore, Peer had musical interests in Mexico as early as 1930.)
A.P. and Sara were divorced, but continued to work together until 1943; by then their children Joe and Jannette were performing, as well as Maybelle's daughters Anita, June and Helen. After 1943 Maybelle and her daughters formed a group and in 1948 joined the Grand Ole Opry. Maybelle became the much loved First Lady of Country Music. She and Ezra had faith in Johnny Cash, whom they helped through a troubled time, and June became his second wife. Maybelle gave Chet Atkins one of his first jobs, influenced the piano style of Floyd Cramer (who later played on Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel') and taught her granddaughter Carlene Carter to play guitar (June's daughter by her first husband, Carl Smith). Anita had solo hits until 1971.
Another Carter family began recording in 1936. D.P. 'Dad' Carter met his wife Carrie in singing school; having nine children, Carter formed a group to help make ends meet. He sang baritone, Ernest 'Jim' Carter bass, Rose soprano and Anna alto. They began broadcasting in Lubbock, Texas, as the Carter Quartet, and within a year had moved to KBAP in Forth Worth, one of the most powerful stations in Texas. They took the name of the Chuck Wagon Gang, a western band which had left the station, and sang gospel songs on the radio five days a week for fifteen years. Dad played mandolin on a few of their earliest recordings; thereafter Jim's acoustic guitar was their only accompaniment until 1954, when personnel changes began and a discreet electric guitar was played by Anna's husband. They recorded over four hundred sides; their recording of 'Church in the Wildwood', made in 1936, four years after that of the more famous Carter Family, is even more beautiful. No one knows how many records the Chuck Wagon Gang sold: country gospel music was not important to the compilers of charts, but poor people bought records by all these artists, and those of the Chuck Wagon Gang sold by the carload at revival meetings.
The broadcasting of country music began early. The first of the long-lasting radio shows was the Chicago Barn Dance in 1924, which soon became the National Barn Dance, on WLS, whose call letters stood for 'World's Largest Store': the station was owned by Sears and Roebuck, whose mail order catalogue was kept next to the Bible by many rural families. The show's most famous stars over the years included Gene Autry, Bob Atcher, Red Foley, Lulu Belle and Scotty, Rex Allen, comics Homer and Jethro and bandleader Pee Wee King. The programme transferred to WGN in 1960 (after WLS had become the Midwest's biggest pop station), where it continued until 1970. Its original announcer was George D. Hay, voted most popular announcer by Radio Digest magazine.
Hay went to a new station, WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1925. A broadcast in November featuring 85-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson was so successful that the WSM Barn Dance began in December with Hay (soon dubbed 'the solemn old judge', though he was just thirty) as MC. In 1927 the show was preceded by a classical concert whose programme included a train composition; conductor Walter Damrosch was patronizing about 'realism' in music on a programme which consisted mainly of grand opera: Hay came on the air promising the 'realest realism' on the 'Grand Ole Opry', and from that time the renamed show opened with a train tune, 'Pan-American Blues', played on the harmonica by Deford Bailey.
For years Hay would allow only string bands, with no drums or horns. The house band was Dr Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters. Bate, a physician, played Sousa marches along with country music, and enjoyed classical music as well; he had learned some of his songs as a boy from an ex-slave, and he accepted his hillbilly image with reluctance. (His daughter, Alcyone Bate, still played piano on the programme fifty years later.) Other Opry stars included banjo player and comic Uncle Dave Macon, who had turned professional when a pompous local farmer asked him to play at a party: he demanded $15 and to his surprise the farmer agreed. Kirk and Sam McGee played in Macon's Fruit Jar Drinkers; Sam was one of the best guitarists ever to pick up the instrument, and among the first in country music to play breaks and runs in the black style. The McGee brothers had learned their music from black railway workers who hung around the family's general store in Tennessee. But the only black to appear on the Opry for years was Deford Bailey, who was the Opry's mascot, and knew it.
Singer and mandolin player Bill Monroe and his guitarist brother Charlie worked with their brother Birch (on fiddle) from 1929 to 1934, then as a duo until 1938. After they split up, Charlie led his successful Kentucky Pardners, and Bill took his Blue Grass Boys to the Opry in 1939. His classic line-up in the mid-1940s included Chubby Wise on fiddle, Howard Watts (better known as Cedric Rainwater) on bass, Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs playing a five-string banjo in the three-fingered Appalachian style; Flatt and Scruggs left to form their own band in 1948. Bill Monroe was one of the best mandolin players of all time. His string band music came to be called bluegrass; while it was quickly regarded as old-fashioned, it was rediscovered by a new generation and became a staple of folk festivals, as well as a permanent ingredient of country music.
WWVA's Jamboree (Wheeling, West Virginia) and the National Barn Dance moved on to a national radio network in 1933, the Opry in 1939. The Opry had a live audience which outgrew the WSM studios, and in 1943 it took over the local Ryman Auditorium, which became a country music mecca. There were many regional shows; the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH Shreveport began in 1948 and became a stepping-stone to the Opry.Among the early country stars had been Vernon Dalhart, who sold millions of records on thirty labels under many pseudonyms; 'The Prisoner's Song' (1925) was one of the biggest hits of all time. But he was a light opera singer whose country material comprised mournful story songs; his work perhaps lacked the sincerity which is the essence of country music.
Ralph Peer had not only discovered the real stuff, but he also saw the value of copyrights and urged his artists to come up with original material. He saw too that it would be foolish to cheat them, and shared the royalties from the beginning. (But Russell Sanjek writes that it was Victor, protective of its reputation for paying its artists better than any other label, who required Peer to pay them $50 a side, as well as a royalty.) Peer was a good businessman. He formed Southern Music and sold it to Victor, the idea being that Victor would pass song copyrights his way in return, but all he got, apart from country music, was scraps (some of them rather fine, such as Hoagy Carmichael's 'Lazy Bones' and Don Redman's 'Cherry'). Victor employees, in particular A&R man Eli Oberstein, sent copyrights elsewhere because they were jealous.
Peer had recruited Oberstein from Okeh and installed him at Victor to keep an eye on his interests, but they became enemies; Oberstein was underpaid by Victor, whose largesse did not extend to staff members, and Peer was making so much money he had to try to hide it from them. Having taken over Victor, RCA then acquired an interest in RKO Pictures in 1932, and RCA boss David Sarnoff realized that he was likely to get into anti-trust trouble, since Victor owned song copyrights and RKO licensed them for film soundtracks, so he sold Southern Music back to Peer, which also resolved the squabbling. Peer also became an expert on international copyright law.
Arthur Edward Satherley, born in Bristol, England, went to the USA in 1913 and worked in a factory in Wisconsin that made cabinets for Edison's phonographs. After working as a promoter for Ma Rainey's and Blind Lemon Jefferson's recordings on Paramount, he became a producer at ARC. He loved the music he recorded and promoted; although he regarded both white and black rural musics as equally valuable, he ended up recording mostly whites. Before he retired in 1952 he had helped the careers of Lefty Frizzell, Carl Smith, Marty Robbins and many others. During the classic era he recorded the Chuck Wagon Gang, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff and Molly O'Day (Acuff's female equivalent, who left music for religion in the late 1940s, but not before influencing people like Wilma Lee Cooper and Kitty Wells). O'Day was the first to record Hank Williams's religious songs, such as 'When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels'.
Singer and bandleader Roy Claxton Acuff, Satherley's favourite, became the grand old man of country music with a traditional style that never changed. He grew up on a tenant farm in the Smoky Mountains; he attended a New York Yankees summer camp, but sunstroke put an end to his athletic hopes. He first broadcast in 1933, first recorded in 1936 and first appeared on the Opry in 1937. He played the fiddle, though not often enough, for he lacked confidence. His band, the Smoky Mountain Boys, included string bass, five-string banjo, rhythm guitar, mandolin, accordion and harmonica, but its distinctive sound was contributed by the dobro.
The National Musical Instrument Company in California marketed a guitar with a metal body and three vibrating plates of metal behind the strings for mechanical amplification. Three of the Dopyera brothers, John (who had begun as a violin maker), Ed and Rudy, left National and formed their own company, which built an instrument with only one larger plate: this sounded less tinny and created a larger sound. They may have changed the spelling of their name at that stage, for it is often written as 'Dopera'. They began competing with National in the mid-1920s, and in 1934 the two companies merged.
The National guitar continued to be used by many bluesmen, but it was the dobro that began to help define the sound of country music. 'Dobro' stood for Dopyera brothers, but it is also a Slavic word meaning 'good'; the company's slogan was 'Dobro means good in any language'. Roy Acuff's first dobro player was James Clell Summey (who was later, with Pee Wee King, among the first to play steel guitar on the Opry, and still later famous as the comedian Cousin Jody); from 1938 it was Beecher 'Pete' Kirby (who also played banjo and sang high harmony, and later became the comedian Bashful Brother Oswald). Acuff and his band captured the 'high lonesome' sound of mountain music, to which the dobro contributed a passionate yet mellow weight.
With his transparent sincerity (he sometimes wept at his own performance) Acuff became the Opry's greatest star and established the vocalist at the centre of country music. Two of his biggest hits came from his first recording session. 'Wabash Cannon Ball' is a train song, but in the American 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' tradition: the train will take the hobo to the promised land. 'The Great Speckled Bird' is based on Jeremiah 12:9, and is still sung in southern churches. With Fred Rose he formed the Acuff-Rose publishing company in Nashville in 1943, and became wealthy; his other hits included 'Freight Train Blues', 'Fireball Mail', 'Pins and Needles', 'Wreck on the Highway', 'Low and Lonely' and 'Night Train to Memphis'. He continued to be successful throughout the 1940s, and in the late 1950s he and Rose formed the Hickory label.
Both country music and blues were used to sell products on the radio, especially flour, for many Americans still baked their own bread and biscuits. The black harmonica player Aleck Ford (also known as Rice Miller, and who later borrowed the name of Chicago legend Sonny Boy Williamson) was heard along with others on King Biscuit Time in the early 1940s. Ten years before that, fiddler Bob Wills was selling on the radio; with his Texas Playboys, he was the father of the dominant genre in the Southwest, western swing.
The fiddle, the instrument of frontier America, was played everywhere, by blacks and whites. Eileen Southern, in her book The Music of Black Americans, notes that eighteenth-century advertising of slaves for sale or runaway slaves often pointed out that they were musicians, usually fiddlers: 'RUN AWAY ... a Negro Man named Derby, about 25 years of age, a slim black fellow, and plays on the Fiddle with his Left Hand, which he took with him' (Virginia Gazette, 1772). The fiddle remained a favourite instrument of early black jazzmen in New Orleans, but became less common in later jazz, despite the success of Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, Eddie South (Chicago's 'Dark Angel' of the violin), Ray Nance (with Duke Ellington) and a few others. This was probably due to its lack of volume in the context of a jazz band, but the fiddle has held its own in country music to this day.
James Robert Wills came from a poor white family of Texas farmers, most of whom seem to have been fiddlers. He picked cotton as a boy alongside blacks, hearing the blues played on whatever instruments were available, and grew up without any prejudices against any kind of music. He recorded duets with guitarist Herman Arnspiger in 1929, but they were not released. He won a fiddle contest in 1930 and was already the best-known fiddler in Texas when he led a quartet on the radio called the Aladdin Laddies, for the Aladdin Mantle Lamp Company. In 1931 he went to work for Wilbert Lee 'Pappy' O'Daniel, president of the Burrus Mills and Elevator Company, on Fort Worth's KFJZ.
O'Daniel did not like their music until he realized how popular they were, whereupon he bought them a car, appeared on their show and helped himself to songwriting credits. Vocalist Milton Brown sang on some Victor records as the Light Crust Doughboys. They worked in the mill during the day, but O'Daniel tried to keep them from playing at dances in the evenings, where they made more money. Brown left and formed his Musical Brownies, which were successful until he was killed in a car crash in 1936; Wills hired Tommy Duncan to replace him, and the group played at dances occasionally, but Wills mostly knuckled under to O'Daniel until he was fired for drinking, whereupon half the band left with him.
O'Daniel sued the band for advertising themselves as 'Formerly the Light Crust Doughboys', his object being to destroy them, but the Texas Supreme Court threw the case out; then he tried to get the band fired from their radio spot in Tulsa. He left Burrus Mills in 1935. (The band maintained he was fired for falsifying expenses, having paid the band very little and put the rest in his pocket.) O'Daniel started making his own Hillbilly flour and formed a band called the Hillbilly Boys; in spite of his crankiness, his folksy image and his promises to help poor people later got him elected governor of Texas; in a special election in 1941 he beat Lyndon Johnson to the US Senate, being the bigger crook.
Wills called his new band the Texas Playboys. They broadcast from Waco, then went to KVOO in Tulsa, where Bob or his brother Johnnie Lee Wills broadcast for General Mills five days a week for twenty-three years. (The new Light Crust Doughboys in Fort Worth, with changing line-ups, broadcast well into the television era.) Wills bought prime mid-day radio time and sold it to a sponsor himself; he talked a miller into making Play Boy flour and collected a royalty on every barrel. In 1935 the band was playing to packed dance halls and private parties six nights a week, and began recording. Among its members were Duncan (vocals), Al Stricklin (piano), William E. 'Smokey' Dacus (drums), Arnspiger and C. G. 'Sleepy' Johnson (guitars), Jesse Ashlock (second fiddle) and Leon McAuliffe (steel guitar). McAuliffe had been poached from the new Doughboys; his 'Steel Guitar Rag', recorded with Wills in 1936, was influential, as was his own 'Panhandle Rag' of 1949.
The Texas Playboys played jazz, blues, rags and stomps as well as ballads and sentimental songs. Satherley, a traditionalist, did not know what to make of them at first. He told Wills that he did not want any horns, but Wills said that he would have horns or Bob Wills would not make any recordings. Wills's patented holler ('Ahhaaa!') erupted whenever the band was playing particularly hot; he would shout, 'Take it away, Leon!', just as he did at dances. Satherley got used to it all.
Duncan was a good country crooner; on the marvellous informal Tiffany transcriptions he sometimes chuckles at Wills muttering in his ear while he sings. Wills sang on tunes like 'Corrine, Corrina' and added banter to McAuliffe's vocal on 'That's What I Like About the South'. The rhythm section played in a relentless two-beat style, which dancers in the Southwest liked. Charles R. Townsend's biography of Wills, San Antonio Rose, is full of anecdotes backed up by scholarship: a farmer who had hired Wills to play for a dance would push all the furniture to one side and roll up the rugs, as friends and neighbours arrived from miles around. The band was the most popular in a five-state area, and soon broke attendance records; Wills was generous, always paying his men well above scale.
As a bandleader Wills had one of the most valuable skills of all: watching his audience and calling just the right mixture of tunes. Once he almost got it wrong. At a dance at the University of Oklahoma, about which he had doubts to begin with, he was determined to concentrate on his big-band material, because he thought that was what the kids would want. They didn't seem to respond much at first, but then the president of the student union approached the bandstand to ask Wills politely if he had brought his fiddle, and in the end the usual good time was had by all.
Wills and his men did not regard their music as country music, and sometimes got down off the bandstand to remonstrate with ringsiders on this point. McAuliffe said years later that they gleaned none of their inspiration from other country artists, but listened to Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby. (The two-beat dixieland feel of Crosby's band was perhaps closest to the style of the Texas Playboys.) They were not prejudiced against hillbilly tunes, however, and recorded Jimmie Rodgers songs and numerous others that keep turning up: 'Sittin' on Top of the World' (sung by Wills) bears more than a passing resemblance to the tune of that name recorded twenty years later by Howlin' Wolf (though the composer credits are different).
Many regarded the band as a jazz band. Benny Strickler had played trumpet with Joe Venuti and turned down an offer from Artie Shaw to join Wills. Wills hired him on sight and then asked what instrument he played, saying later, 'I could tell by looking at him he was a good musician.' Clarinettist Woody Wood had played with Red Nichols; Alex Brashear had played trumpet with Jack Teagarden; Tubby Lewis's fine hot trumpet was heard on Wills's big-band number 'Big Beaver'. There is no doubt that Wills's music was a fusion which deserved wider acclaim; today it is stranger than it should be to hear the trombone playing the syrupy waltz 'Mexicali Rose', with Wills's fiddle playing harmony.
Wills wrote a great many songs, including 'My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You', a huge hit for Ray Price in 1957, but one of his tunes became an American classic, better known than all the rest put together. Wills had recorded an instrumental version of 'San Antonio Rose' in 1938 which did well; Venuti was among those who admired the tune and thought that more might be made of it. Irving Berlin's company offered to publish it if words were added, so Wills and a couple of others cobbled together some good lyrics. But the publishers altered the song, making it more orthodox and clearly not understanding what they were doing. Wills insisted that they publish the original version, which they now called 'New San Antonio Rose', and Wills recorded it with Duncan singing, at the same session as 'Big Beaver' in 1940; the eighteen-piece band was larger than Miller or Goodman had used on their biggest hits. In 1944 during the musicians' union strike against the record companies, just as Billboard began printing its first country music chart, 'New San Antonio Rose' became the first of eighteen consecutive top five hits for Wills. But before that, in 1941, Bing Crosby's recording of the song sold a million copies. (It was backed with Floyd Tillman's 'It Makes No Difference Now', another country classic; both sides used brother Bob Crosby's band, the one the Wills crew most admired.)
Among other western swing bandleaders were Hank Penny, who took up the style in Atlanta, was also recorded by Satherley and was described by one writer in the 1980s as 'the original Outlaw'; and Spade Cooley, who spent many years in prison for murdering his wife. In the 1950s Hank Thompson and Buck Owens kept the flame burning with fairly large bands. Asleep at the Wheel, formed in the 1960s and led by Ray Benson, released one of its best albums in 1988, Western Standard Time.
Bob Wills had made western films from 1940 to 1942 with several of his sidemen, combining music and horses. He may not have considered himself a hillbilly, but for a time he could not resist the lure of Hollywood, which brings us to the era of country and western music. Satherley had also recorded Gene Autry, who had begun by imitating Jimmie Rodgers. By the mid-1930s Autry's records were selling well, including 'That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine' (co-written and first recorded as a duet with Jimmy Long). Gene Autry guitars were advertised in mail-order catalogues; 'The Death of Mother Jones', a labour-movement song, was available on seven labels in various catalogues from the ARC conglomerate (the Sears label was called Conqueror). Then came Hollywood.
The cowboy movie had been a staple of the silent screen, but had fallen on hard times with the invention of talkies; meanwhile, many films had to be made to fill the second half of the double features (hence 'B' pictures). Ken Maynard was the first 'singing cowboy', in 1930; then in 1934 producer Nat Levine hired Autry, who was no actor, to make films appealing to the people who bought his records. (The owner of Republic Pictures, and Levine's boss, was the head of ARC, Herbert Yates.) Autry's first effort was a cowboy-cum-sci-fi serial in twelve parts called The Phantom Empire. He sang 'Silverhaired Daddy' in eight episodes, and went on to make over a hundred films for the Republic and Monogram studios; his comic associates were Smiley Burnette, then Pat Buttram. Champion, Autry's horse, became famous, and his visit to Dublin in 1939 allegedly brought a million people into the streets. Autry's songs became more western-flavoured -- for example 'South of the Border' and '(I've Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle' -- and country artists began to wear phoney cowboy clothes that became more and more vulgar (famously provided by Nudies of Hollywood). The cowboy pictures had interesting aspects, including a broad populist appeal; the bad guys (with the black hats) were frequently lawyers or bankers with pencil-thin moustaches. The kids who flocked to the cinema, black and white, were infected with country music. Otis Blackwell, who later wrote some of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, remembered his own reaction as a child: 'Hot Dog! Now we got us a singin' cowboy!'
Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond were among those who went to Hollywood as members of Autry's entourage, and the West Coast country music scene grew in strength. Other singing cowboys were Rex Allen, Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers, who became King of the Cowboys while Autry was flying in Burma during the Second World War. Rogers, born Leonard Slye, grew up on a farm; his father made guitars and mandolins. As Dick Weston he formed the Pioneer Trio, which appeared in Autry's sci-fi serial, then changed its name to the Sons of the Pioneers. He stayed in the Pioneers until he became a star: he made over ninety films with his palomino horse Trigger, the first being Under Western Skies (1938); among the films was a fairly realistic portrayal of the Pony Express. His wife, Dale Evans, who had sung with dance bands, joined Rogers in The Cowboy and the Señorita in 1944. Both Rogers and Autry became staples on Saturday morning television in the 1950s; both invested wisely and became very rich.
The Sons of the Pioneers had a successful career of their own. The classic line-up included original members Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan, Lloyd Perryman, who replaced Rogers, and Hugh Farr and Karl Farr, who had worked as cowboys. (When Spencer had left briefly in 1937, he was replaced by Pat Brady, who became Rogers's comic sidekick in his films.) Their close harmony was gentler and sweeter than that of the bluegrass groups; they appeared in Rhythm on the Range in 1936 with Bing Crosby, and in many other films. (Rhythm on the Range contained Johnny Mercer's 'I'm an Old Cowhand'.) Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers were the first to perform Cole Porter's 'Don't Fence Me In', apparently both in a film of that name and in Hollywood Canteen in 1944, where the reprise was sung by the Andrews Sisters. (The studio recording by Crosby and the Andrews Sisters was a number one hit that year.) Nolan and Spencer were fine songwriters, and together they wrote 'Blue Prairie'. Nolan's 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' was a hit for Autry, the Pioneers and Crosby, and 'Cool Water' was a hit for the Pioneers (1941) and Vaughn Monroe (1949). Spencer wrote 'The Timber Trail', 'Cowboy Camp Meetin' ', 'The Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma' and 'Careless Kisses' (a hit for Eddy Howard in 1948). There were no fewer than six hit recordings of Spencer's 'Roomful of Roses' in 1949, and it was revived by Mickey Gilley in 1974.
By the late 1940s the blues and hillbilly genres discovered in the mid-1920s had grown up, and the lines around the edges of all genres were becoming blurred; the Second World War effectively broke in half the history of the century's popular music. For the story of the dominant pre-war and wartime style, we have to go back to the 1920s, when the Big Band Era began.