Styles & Forms | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country

‘The fiddle and guitar craze is sweeping northward!’ ran Columbia Records’ ad in Talking Machine World on 15 June 1924. ‘Columbia leads with records of old-fashioned southern songs and dances. [Our] novel fiddle and guitar records, by Tanner and Puckett, won instant and widespread popularity with their tuneful harmony and sprightliness… The records of these quaint musicians which are listed here need only to be heard to convince you that they will “go over big” with your trade.’

The Song Is The Thing

This was not mere adspeak. In December 1925 the Nashville Tennesseean spotted a ‘recent revival in the popularity of the old familiar tunes’ and observed: ‘America may not be swinging its partners at a neighbor’s barn dance but it seems to have the habit of clamping on its ear phones and patting its feet as gaily as it ever did when old-time fiddlers got to swing.’ In the same month Talking Machine World returned to the subject with an article headed ‘What The Popularity Of Hill-Billy Songs Means In Retail Profit Possibilities’, suggesting that the vogue for such material ‘shows the earmarks of a new phase of the popular music and record business’ and ‘may mark the initial move in the passing of jazz’. ‘The great American public,’ it concluded, ‘is returning to songs and after all “the song is the thing”.’

Talking Machine World was the trade paper of the American record industry, and its claim that there was, in the famous phrase of another magazine article, ‘gold in them thar hillbillies’ echoed a buzz running through the business. There had been a few random recordings in 1922–24, but over the next three years the leading labels of the day – Columbia, Victor, Brunswick and OKeh, followed by smaller rivals like Gennett and Paramount – got seriously into the business of marketing southern country music. (It would be many years, though, before they gave it that name. At this point it was called ‘Old Familiar Tunes’, or ‘Native American Melodies’, or ‘Songs From Dixie’.) In carefully organized ‘field trips’ – usually in spring and autumn – teams of producers and engineers travelled through the South, stopping off for a week or two in Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans and other cities, installing their equipment in hotel rooms or warehouses, and recording local talent by the bushel.

Old Familiar Tunes

What was that talent? What kind of music did they make? Historian and reader alike must take a deep breath here. A song might be an Old World ballad of knights and fair ladies, a cowboy’s tale of life on the trail, a yodel song, a Victorian narrative of lost love or an old home left behind, a comic piece from the blackface minstrel show, or a newly written story of a murder, shipwreck or train crash. A tune might be a reel, a waltz, a rag, blues or a medley. And the song might be accompanied – or the tune played – on fiddle, banjo,...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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