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Mountain Music Roundup

By John Lilly

The Golden Era of old-time music, the late 1920’s through the 1930’s, was punctuated by some illustrious remote recording sessions sponsored by major commercial record labels and run by legendary producers. Ralph Peer and the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions loom large, due primarily to the discoveries of singing stars Jimmie Rodgers and the original Carter Family for the Victor label. [See “Mountain Music Roundup,” by John Lilly; Winter 2011.]

But there were others. Ralph Peer went to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1925. OKeh Records conducted field recordings in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in September 1927. The Brunswick label did likewise in Ashland, Kentucky, and Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1928, ’29, and ’30. Among the most significant and eclectic of these expeditions, however, were two that took place in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928 and 1929 for Columbia Records with producer Frank Walker.

The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” is a new boxed set from Bear Family Records that documents these Johnson City Sessions in grand style. Featuring 100 tracks on four CDs and a 135-page book, the collection is detailed, well-designed, and substantial. Produced by Ted Olson and Tony Russell, this attractive package includes informative notes, biographies of all of the musicians, lyrics to all of the songs, discography, chronology, bibliography, and vintage photographs along with digitally remastered tracks from 37 recording artists from across the Appalachian region.

West Virginia is very well represented. While at the earlier Bristol Sessions only two West Virginia acts participated (fiddler/singer Blind Alfred Reed and the West Virginia Coon Hunters string band), there were six at Johnson City. They included singer Richard Harold, guitar duo Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland, vocal and yodeling duo Earl Shirkey and Roy Harper, guitar/mandolin duo Robert Hoke and Vernal Vest, and string bands the Weaver Brothers and the Moatsville String Ticklers. All but one of these came from the Beckley area; the Moatsville group hailed from Barbour County. Eighteen of the 28 tunes or songs they cumulatively recorded included the talented, ubiquitous Roy Harvey – Roy recorded as both Harvey and Harper, and as a member of the Weaver Brothers.

Richard Harold, the first of these to record, was a blind street singer from the Princeton area, who was often associated with Blind Alfred Reed. [See “The Blind Man’s Song: Recalling Alfred Reed,” by John Lilly; Winter 2008.] On one song, “Sweet Bird,” an uncredited fiddler is presumed by Olson and Russell to be Mercer County fiddler Fred Pendleton – to my ear it could just as likely have been Alfred Reed, though Pendleton is an equally strong possibility.

Roy Harvey recorded more than 200 songs in a five-year period for a variety of labels and in any number of bands. [See “’Daddy Loved Music’: Recalling Guitarist Roy Harvey,” by Matt Meacham; Winter 2007.] In Johnson City he recorded with guitarist Leonard Copeland, yodeler Earl Shirley, and the Weaver Brothers band. The four guitar instrumentals with Leonard Copeland were spirited and precise – “Beckley Rag” is a highlight. Using the thinly veiled pseudonym Roy Harper, Harvey recorded 10 songs with yodeler Earl Shirkey – far more than any other artist. Yodeling was all the rage at the time, and Shirkey possessed the skill and the tonality to yodel full choruses between Harvey’s verses. Their collaboration resulted in the runaway best-seller of the two Johnson City Sessions – “When the Roses Bloom for the Bootlegger,” a 1928 parody of a popular sentimental song that sold an amazing 72,545 copies, eclipsing the next best-seller four fold. Invited back in 1929, the pair cut six more songs, including another parody, this time a swipe at West Virginia’s beloved anthem, “The West Virginia Hills” – a comic take-off called “We Have Moonshine in the West Virginia Hills.”

A straight-ahead reading of “The West Virginia Hills” was recorded later the same day by the Moatsville String Ticklers – one of the highlights of the collection for any West Virginian and among the most satisfying recordings of that song ever made. The flip side, “Moatsville Blues,” is also well worth a listen. Two other titles recorded that day went unreleased. The Moatsville String Ticklers were guitarists Floyd Frye, Doyle Shaffer, and Marshall Summers; banjo players Brooks Ritter and Zel Frye; fiddlers Cecil Frye, Gordon Frye, and Harold Ritter; and an unnamed vocal chorus.

Roy Harvey joined Vance and Wiley Weaver and fiddler Odell Smith to record two numbers each as the Weaver Brothers and the Weaver Brothers String Band. Only two of their four songs were released.

Neither of the two songs recorded by Robert Hoke and Vernal Vest was released. None of the unreleased titles are included in this collection, unfortunately, and are presumed to be lost.

For fans of early country music, especially those interested in early country music from West Virginia, The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: "Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?" is a trove of little-known and seldom-heard recordings. The boxed set is available through County Sales; phone (540)745-2001 or on-line at

Appalachian culture, particularly Appalachian music, has long been considered to have deep roots in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A new book from the University of North Carolina Press takes a detailed look at this topic and makes a strong case for that argument.

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia is written by radio host Fiona Ritchie and former college president Doug Orr, with a foreword by country music star Dolly Parton. Ritchie, host of National Public Radio’s The Thistle and Shamrock, is deeply familiar with traditional music on both sides of the “pond,” having crafted hundreds of hours of syndicated radio broadcasts during the past 30 years. Coauthor Doug Orr served as president of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and is founder of the Swannanoa Gathering traditional arts workshops, which regularly features workshops and performances of Celtic and Celtic-American music.

Wayfaring Strangers is a comprehensive volume that follows vocal and instrumental traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and Great Britain from ancient times up to the present, from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and from the hearthside to the recording studio. Ambitious as it is, the book does a credible job of connecting relevant history with musical trends dating back to Medieval times. Appreciating the political and social history of Scotland is key to understanding the migration of large numbers of lowland Scots to Northern Ireland (Ulster) - the so-called Scots Irish - and ultimately to the Appalachian Mountains. These hardworking, long-suffering, tenacious people formed the backbone of Appalachian America and gave this region an inestimable part of its musical heritage.

While the emphasis of Wayfaring Strangers is on traditional song, instrumental music is considered as well. The authors highlight specific songs and tunes and follow their transitions from European to American folk music. Sidebars are used to concentrate on particular topics and add the voices of other authors and scholars, such as Pete Seeger, David Holt, Jean Ritchie, and others. To the book’s credit, the musical discussion is consistently kept within its cultural and historical context. Illustrations are generous and evocative.

Wayfaring Strangers will be especially helpful for those with a general interest in American folk, old-time, bluegrass, and country music but who wish to gain a fuller understanding of where this music began and why it sounds the way it sounds. A companion CD includes 20 recorded examples of primarily vocal music and featuring mostly well-known artists such as Dolly Parton, Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Pete Seeger, and others.

The 384-page hardbound volume includes 60 color and 64 black-and-white illustrations, maps, artist profiles, glossary, timeline, discography, bibliography, index, audio CD, and CD notes. It sells for $39.95, and is available from the publisher at; phone 1-800-848-6224.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.