In 1928, just as their fellow musicians had a year before in Bristol, men and women came in from the farms and down from the mountains to Johnson City. The lure was money, a chance at fame, or, at the very least, an opportunity to have their voices recorded on a 78 rpm record for posterity. The Johnson City sessions of 1928-29 that resulted may not have been the big bang of country music, but they were a major aftershock.
Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, along with Bear Family Records of Germany, released the Grammy-nominated Bristol Sessions boxed set in 2011. This year, they will begin work on the lesser known, but important, Johnson City Sessions.
It is their hope the public will be able to help them compile the music, photos, stories and memorabilia that will make the boxed set complete.
“It is about time that the recordings will be re-issued,” said Richard Weize, owner of Bear Family Records. “With (the Johnson City Press’) help, we possibly can get more information on the artists.”
Many of the old 78s still may be in the hands of family members, Olson said. They’ve been stashed in attics, closets or trunks, thought to be of value only to the family. In fact, they are of great value to those involved with compiling the boxed set and to music fans around the world.
It will be Christopher King’s task to remaster the originals into digital form. “His challenge is to find the best possible recording in existence,” Olson said. “While we have a list of everything that was recorded in Johnson City in 1928-29, their whereabouts aren’t all known.”
King said he hopes to find “non-compromised” copies of each recording from the sessions. “Some are extremely rare and many have been compromised by wear and tear associated with the playing of these old records,” King said, adding another challenge will be to get a “lifelike” sound out of the handful of dubbed copies of these discs where the original master was destroyed.
In 1928, Frank Walker of Columbia Records was hoping lightning would strike twice in the Tri-Cities area. The Bristol Sessions recorded by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company were tremendously successful, making stars of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Walker put an ad in the Johnson City Chronicle asking “Can you sing or play Old-Time music?” “Musicians of unusual ability” were invited to “call upon Mr. Walker or Mr. Brown of the Columbia Phonograph Company at 334 East Main Street.” That address was the location of a defunct lumber company at what is now Colonial Way near WJHL.
“The Johnson City Sessions were better organized,” Olson said. “There was more advertising, more scouting, more capital put into promotions up front.”
The ad ran three times in late September and early October. Olson said that more singers and musicians participated in the Johnson City Sessions than in the Bristol Sessions.
“They saw the ads and made it to the tryouts on Oct. 13, 1928, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The recording sessions were held over four days, Monday, Oct. 15 to Thursday, Oct. 18. A few of the musicians who saw the ad and heard it was happening had already recorded for Ralph Peer,” he said, “but most of those who recorded in Johnson City were not part of the Bristol Sessions.”
Among them were the Roane County Ramblers from the Kingston-Harriman area outside of Knoxville, who became one of the biggest bands to emerge from the Johnson City Sessions of 1928. Charlie Bowman of Gray — who recorded for Walker along with his brothers and sisters — was “a real success story,” Olson said.
While many of the musicians who recorded in Johnson City lived in East Tennessee, he pointed out, some of the musicians probably traveled from the Greensboro-Burlington area of North Carolina or from the Corbin, Ky., area.
Admittedly, the Johnson City Sessions have been overlooked by history, but Olson has long recognized their importance.
“Those recordings are strong and dynamic, featuring a diverse range of material. They were well-received by record buyers of that generation and were talked about for years.”
Olson turns to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music to place the Johnson City Sessions in historical perspective. This 1952 anthology of 78 rpm recordings became a major anthology of American music, influencing artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia. It was reissued about 15 years ago on CD, becoming “ a cause for great attention,” Olson said. “It won Grammies and was widely discussed.”
Only the most powerful records made it on to the anthology. Among them were the Johnson City Sessions recordings of Bill and Belle Reed’s “Old Lady and the Devil,” the Bently Boys’ “Down on Penny’s Farm” and “The Coo Coo Bird” by Clarence “Tom” Ashley. (As a historical side note, it was on Ashley’s front porch that the young Doc Watson was first recorded.)
Like Walker, the crew behind the Johnson City Sessions boxed set, hopes lightning will strike twice. The Bristol Sessions boxed set has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, and it has been embraced by the music community worldwide.
There is no set date for completion of the Johnson City Sessions box set because, as Olson said, “Bear Family Records works very carefully.” Still, it is hoped the set will be released sometime next year.
Olson believes “the more the community can get involved, the better.” He wants the set to include a photographic representation of each of the artists, along with stories, letters and other documentation about the musicians who recorded during the Johnson City Sessions of 1928-1929.
Those who have material they would like to share, should call Olson at 439-4379 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.