Country Music Pioneers on Edison
Compiled from unissued recordings left in a storeroom when the Edison company closed down its recorded music division in 1929, this set had mostly excellent quality old originals to process, free of frying-bacon noises. The sole lo-fi, undocumented item is Shirley Spalding's 1922 "Somewhere in Dixieland," a likeable, melodious cling-clang some might suppose was performed on an electric banjo with added reverb.
In 1923 a highly sophisticated pianist (unidentified) was recorded beautifully, accompanying Fred Van Eps, banjoist father of the great guitarist George, not on any of the dozens of rags Fred recorded, but in a "Medley of Southern Melodies" ("Golden Slippers"/ "Turkey in the Straw" etc.).
Further from ragtime, Jason Bixbee's fiddle with piano might be mistaken for Scottish or Irish; this set seldom comes near Grand Ole Opry. Vernon Dalhart's singing is uncanny. His high tenor voice let him deliver upward-stretching country singer phrases easily, so you might miss the strain every other performer exhibits. He is accompanied by Carson Robison's guitar and an unidentified harmonica player.
"Kaiser's Defeat Jig" (recorded 1925, presumably composed c. 1918) is delivered by Robert Allen Sisson from the North Georgia mountains with at most a transatlantic accent on fiddle. He recorded only ten tunes, I read, but wrote many others which his descendants still perform.
Gene Austin tried to sing everything, the 'world music' of 1925. His "Lonesome Road Blues" isn't a 'look down, look down' song but has a tune like Henry 'Ragtime Texas' Thomas's "Charmin Betsy." George Renau's harmonica is featured here, and, in a startling couple of 'fox chase' performances worthy of Sonny Terry, on Austin's strange "Railroad Blues" with George Reneau's nicely florid piano under Austin's pleasant vocal.
From Fiddlin Powers and Family come harmonies associated with "Goin' Home" and Dvorak. With Robison on guitar again, Dalhart's athletic lips whistle "Just a Melody," and so indeed do the strings of the fiddler. On "Kinnie Wagner's Surrender" the fiddle rather saws than whistles, tempting me to emit a few heownd dawg heowls.
Dixie Mountaineers' "Hop Light Ladies" is tremendous and fairly Irish, while Frank Luther with his Pards sings the familiar words of "Barbara Allen" to music such as can be heard on early Western films, featuring violin (I'd not dare call so refined a style 'fiddlin' - perhaps a personification of the chilly Ms. Allen?).
Frank Wallace performs an "Oklahoma Blues" - like lots of 1920s so-called blues, just a melancholy North American drawing room ballad - with, well, slide voice and yodelling guitar. Poset Rorer's NC Ramblers sing harmonies on "Down in a Georgia Jail," the Rail Splitters are gorgeous, and Carson Robison's 1929 Madcap Band is listed in Brian Rust's extensive discography of pre-1942 jazz, playing presumably the same tune another Robison-led band recorded for another company earlier in 1929. "Stuff" was on the other side of that disc from at least a performance with the same name as the stomping little masterpiece here, "Nonsense." - Robert R. Calder
Listen to an excerpt of "Rail Road Blues"