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Johnson City's musical past honored with marker

Jennifer Sprouse • Apr 5, 2013 at 10:19 PM

A Tennessee Historic Marker was unveiled near the corner of East Main Street and Colonial Way Friday, commemorating a musical past long forgotten in Johnson City’s history.

Kicking off the months-long celebration of the Johnson City Sessions’ 85th anniversary, community members, representatives from the Washington County Economic Development Council, the Birthplace of Country Music, East Tennessee Old Time Pride Band, as well as some descendants of the 1928 recording sessions were present during a news conference that talked about the historic recordings in the city.

Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, said the first sessions occurred during a four-day period in October 1928, following what is referred to now as the “Big Bang of Country Music,” when the Bristol Sessions were recorded in 1927 in Bristol, Tenn.

“These Johnson City Sessions arguably constitute the second most important recording sessions ever conducted in Appalachia,” Olson said. “The most important being, of course, the Bristol Sessions.”

According to Olson, Frank Walker of Columbia Records held auditions at 334 E. Main St, in what used to be the Marshall Brother Lumber Co. building. The property where the Sessions occurred is where WJHL- News Channel 11 is located today.

“They made these recordings in the business office of the Marshall Lumber Co. in 1928. There was a small group from Kentucky that were not issued for legal reasons, but most of the ’28 recordings were issued and some of them became best-sellers nationally,” Olson said. “One of them sold as many as 75,000 copies. No superstars, technically, were discovered here. It didn’t matter to Frank Walker. He loved good music.”

Olson said Walker came back a following year in October 1929 for another four-day Session.

“In 1929, he did not set up here, he set up about four blocks down Main Street, onto West Main Street,” Olson said. “The 1929 Johnson City Sessions records are considered some of the most important recordings of southern, white, mountain music of the 1920s. The ’28 Sessions were very important, too, but the ’29 ones are considered particularly historically important, because several of the records made in ’29 influenced a whole new generation, the folk revival generation.”

Olson said some of the musicians that recorded during the two Sessions included Charlie Bowman, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Clarence Greene and the Roane County Ramblers.

Sisters Rebekah Hunt and Tonya Kay Woods, were direct descendants of musicians Eugene, Ira and Ancel Yates, all of whom were recorded in the Johnson City Sessions.

Eugene and Ira Yates recorded “Powder and Paint” and “Sarah Jane,” together during one of the Sessions, while their brother, Ancel Yates, was paired with Sam Blalock, and recorded under the name Blalock and Yates.

Hunt and Woods said they were very excited to be at the unveiling of the marker Friday.

“It’s amazing and it’s something you never dreamed of or ever (gave) thought to happening,” Woods said. “It’s really exciting to see ... how far it’ll go considering what the Bristol Sessions has done.”

The celebration of historical Johnson City Sessions will continue on through Oct. 18-20, as a CD box set, co-produced by Olson, will be released during “Johnson City Sessions Weekend.”

On Oct. 20, the Birthplace of Country Music, in partnership with ETSU, will host West Virginia Broadcasting’s “Mountain Stage with Larry Groce” at the D.P. Culp Center at ETSU.

Olson said it was rewarding to see the community come out and support the historical event Friday.

“Some of these people know something about it and some of the people maybe not, but everybody loves good music and everybody loves Appalachia,” he said. “These are important Appalachian musical recordings here, a great historical document. It’s just very rewarding to be able to make them a part of our everyday conversation. It’s wonderful to see people appreciating something that has been forgotten.”

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