“Bristol…Again”

Written by:

It is that time of year again. Yeah, I know you are all thinking about IBMA and while it is a wonderful time, that is not what I was talking about. Starting about two weeks before IBMA is the Jam Camp in Bristol TN/VA in conjunction with the Rhythm & Roots Festival. I have written about it before, but I never grow tired of telling folks about it; hopefully you don’t grow bored reading about it. The camp seems to get better each year. Better in terms of people attending as well as better in the fun we all have playing and singing for the week. Of course, the festival is always great as is the beauty of Bristol.

This year we had nearly 50 students and 8 instructors for the camp. Although it is associated with Bristol and sponsored by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol where we used to conduct the camp, last year we had to move to a larger facility in Abingdon, VA, about 16 miles from Bristol, due to the number of students. This year we maxed out the Jubilee House as well with our students ranging in age from 8 to 88. Like most camps and workshops, we had plenty of returning students as well as a large group of first time jam campers. Although there are some breakout sessions directed at individual instrument techniques, the primary focus is to learn how to play music together with this wide array of background and abilities. This is where the fun begins in Bristol; folks getting together to play music similar to how folks might have done with neighbors and friends before recorded music was widely available. In many respects, this is how it all started.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many different versions of lyrics to common songs or tunes? Well, part of the reason for this goes back to the days before recorded music was affordable. Folks came from various places and they brought their music with them. The only way these tunes where heard and learned was sitting around with neighbors and friends playing on the front porch or at a barn dance. The melodies and lyrics were passed down by word of mouth. Sometimes the words were misunderstood, misspoke, or otherwise altered; sometimes they were changed on purpose to fit the person, place, or event they were singing about. Thus, you get a variety of versions for the same song. Once folks started getting paid to record music lyrics could be copywrited, but the melody of the tune could not. So you found many folks taking familiar melodies and providing new, copywritten lyrics to old, familiar melodies. So the next time you find yourself arguing the proper words to any particular song, remember that you both may be right and get on with having fun playing and singing the music however you see fit. Of course, while both may be right, it is the introduction of affordable recorded music that makes this argument possible today.

So let’s go back and think about what was going on in the world during the 1920’s; you know, the “Roaring 20’s. It is post WW I and “Normalcy” has returned and sustained economic prosperity followed. Prohibition was enacted. New York and Chicago along with other major cities across the globe became famous for the glamor associated with prosperity and the Speak Easy where one could still find a drink. Jazz and Big Band music became popular. There was baseball and Babe Ruth while technology and adventure provided new opportunities. One of those came in the form of recorded music. The first known recorded music was in the form of wax disks from around the 1870’s. These wax cylinders were fragile and expensive. The average person could not afford the cylinders, which had poor recording quality, nor could they afford the machine required to play them. Recorded music was reserved for the wealthy and recordings were limited. However, the Victor Talking Machine Company patented a new method of taking the wax cylinders and pressing the indentations onto a vinyl platter – a record. Bothe the record and the player were made more affordable in the process and Victor sold $1.5 million in these new record machines alone. To help the recording process further, Western Electric developed the electronic microphone that could more easily pick up and transmit sound to the recording device. Prior to this, folks had to sing into a big horn that captured the sound as best it could and transmitted it to the needle that was cutting the indentations into the wax cylinders. With all of these new record players flooding the market, there was a huge demand for new music. It was before the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression; records were affordable for most all; music could be recorded and preserved more easily; demand continued to soar.

Ralph Peer had been recording in New York for the Okeh Records before moving on to the Victor company for a salary of $1 per year plus royalty rights and all of his recordings. The first known “country” music recording had been done in 1922. Peer had recorded a couple of “Hillbilly” songs in 1925 by Ernest “Pops” Stoneman in New York that had been quite popular. Peer talked with Stoneman about finding some additional Hillbilly artists and recordings. Stoneman convinced Peer that he needed to come to Bristol because “these mountain folk aren’t coming to New York”. So Peer convinced Victor to provide him with a portable recording machine and an electronic microphone so that he could go get the recordings that would sell. He went to three locations, but the one that became most influential were the sessions in Bristol. 10 days, 19 artists or groups, 76 songs recorded (only 69 were released), at $50 per song and you have the “Big Bang of Country Music”.

Two of the best known names from these artists are the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. A.P, Sarah, and Maybelle Carter only had 23 miles to travel to get to Bristol, but it took them all day to get there. Peer, although he had corresponded with A.P. previously based on the recommendation from Stoneman, said he was quite surprised to see them, primarily because of there dress. He was surprised by A.P.’s overalls and described the women as being “country women from way back there; they looked like hillbillies”. However, once they started singing he knew he had some hit songs. The Carter Family recorded six songs during the Bristol Sessions.  Jimmy Rodgers was traveling through Bristol and heard about the recording sessions because they had stayed at a boarding house that was run by one of the band members. Ralph Peer extended the recording sessions into the night to accommodate the new talent. Jimmy and his band had a disagreement about what name they would record under so Jimmy recorded solo and his band recorded as the Tenneva Ramblers (Tenneva is the combination of Tennessee and Virginia; there was a movement in the 20’s for a portion of Tennessee, Virgina, and Kentucky to carve out a new territory where they joined to form a new state which after several iterations to include Tennevacky, decided the new state would be called Tenneva, however that is a different story; I suspect you know how it ends.) Jimmy Rodgers recorded two songs and the Tenneva Ramblers recorded three. However these first recordings of Jimmy Rodgers would launch him into super stardom making him the first inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame where he is known as the “Father of Country Music” while the Carter Family would go on to be the “First Family of Country Music”. 2017 marks the 90th Anniversary of the Bristol Sessions and I for one am thankful for them; I suspect you might be too.

So yes, I am rather fond of the beauty and history of Bristol. It is my favorite camp every year. It is a beautiful place, with nice people, and a wonderful history that continues today. The festival also continues to be one of the best. Where else can you go sit at one stage, next to a mural of Jimmy Rodgers, and here the full gamut of Bluegrass music in one sitting.  You can get the edgy uneasy-listening of the Steel Drivers at one end of the spectrum, followed by Billy Strings who can do both traditional and edgy at the same time, followed by the pure traditional sound of the Earls of Leicester all on one stage. Simultaneously you can go see Bill and the Belles at the monthly “Farm and Funtime” radio broadcast. This is a monthly show that was wildly popular during the 1940’s and 50’s that has been restarted in the traditional format. You don’t have to wait until the festival at Bristol as this broadcast is available on the radio and the internet every month, however the September Broadcast is during the festival. Further, there are plenty of other artists to choose from at the festival to suit your listening proclivities. My favorite is to simply meander around until I hear something good. You never know who you will find; this is how I first heard Billy Strings three years ago. In any case, there is something for everyone and don’t pass up the opportunity to see the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. I am already looking forward to next year and I hope to see you there.

Read about: