The city is nestled in the middle of one of the most musically robust regions in the country, and it even received acknowledgement in Old Crow Medicine Show’s famous “Wagon Wheel” — which is now probably more notorious than famous given its omnipresence on the radio and in popular culture.
But the city received recognition long before the release of “Wagon Wheel.”
North Carolina native Clarence Greene recorded a song called “Johnson City Blues” during the 1928 Johnson City sessions, an opportunity organized by Frank Walker from Columbia Records to highlight the talents of Appalachian musicians.
The song was originally reworked from an earlier single called “Chattanooga Blues,” which was recorded in 1923 by African-American blues singer Ida Cox.
“He kind of took ‘Chattanooga Blues,’ grafted it onto a Johnson City landscape, and added his own sensibility to it and his own feel for the blues,” said Ted Olson, a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. “It’s a very affecting song.”
Olson said Greene was one of the more successful musicians to come out of Johnson City during the ’20s and ’30s — as far as making a living was concerned.
Greene reportedly developed his signature guitar style after witnessing a performance by Blind Lemon Jefferson, another famous African-American blues musician at the time.
“I think this underscores that whites and blacks in that era often listened to each other’s music,” Olson said. “Despite the Jim Crow laws in the era, there was certainly a lot of interest among blacks and whites in each other’s cultural roots.”
Greene recorded “Johnson City Blues” on a 78 RPM plate, which could only record one three-minute song on each side. The flip side of the record contained a recording of a song called “99 Years in Jail.”
The album sold 5,791 copies the year it was released, a reasonable number at the time considering that the stock market crashed earlier that year.
Olson said Greene’s decision to release “Johnson City Blues” could have come from a desire to recognize the region and broaden his appeal among local music lovers.
“The blues were all the rage in the ’20s,” Olson said. “Audiences in the mountains as well as in the lowland South would have loved to have heard blues at any opportunity, so it might be said (‘Johnson City Blues’) was an opportunity for him to have a real strong blues number in his repertoire.”
The 1928 Johnson City sessions were the first recording sessions conducted by a large label in Johnson City.
“This would have been a source of some community pride,” Olson said, “and perhaps Clarence Greene being a professional musician might have realized that ... if these records from the Johnson City sessions were going to be promoted locally — which they were — why not have a local song?”
Four lines from the song’s final two stanzas are: “Down in Johnson City / For hospitality / Are the finest bunch of people / in the state of Tennessee.”