It seems that the recording industry’s habit of exaggerating the sound quality of their wares is as old as the recording industry itself. The claims made in this lovely ca. 1928 Edison Records catalog, found in the Eugene Earle Collection, make one wonder how further advances in audio technology could possibly have been made:
To the person who requires music in the most perfect obtainable form, Edison Records have a unique appeal… A special process of recording, developed by Thomas A. Edison, father of the phonograph, is so successful in catching every shade and inflection of the voice or instrument that it preserves ALL the characteristics of the original performance; then, when the record is played, it Re-Creates the music note-for-note and word-for-word with such uncanny fidelity to the original as to baffle skilled musicians and critics; they are unable to distinguish the Artist’s own performance from the Edison Re-Creation of it… Distinguished artists have sung or played in direct comparison to their Edison recordings, and have shown by actual test that “there is no difference”.
From the early 1960s until the early 1970s a student group known as the Campus Folksong Club, under the leadership of faculty advisor Archie Green, brought folk musicians from all over the country to perform on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the years, the Folksong Club hosted performances by the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Doc Watson, and in 1965, Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams.
The story of Robert Pete Williams is well known; while serving a life sentence for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the late 1950s, Williams’ songs and stories were recorded by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Harry Oster. Under considerable pressure from Oster and others in the academic community, Williams’ sentence was commuted, and by 1964 he was released from the terms of his parole and allowed to tour outside Louisiana for the first time. We are fortunate that some of these early performances were captured on tape, including the Campus Folksong Club concert featured here, tape number FT-4189/FT-4190 in the SFC’s Archie Green Collection.
Listen to a clip of Robert Pete Williams performing “I’ve Grown So Ugly”, live at the University of Illinois, Feb.12, 1965:
America is suffering a relapse of Beatlemania today, owing to the simultaneous release of a Beatles-themed video game and the latest (and presumably final) CD reissues of the original albums. As you are no doubt aware, the Beatles still consistently show up in surveys as one of the most popular bands in America, 40 years after they made their last record. This 1965 pamphlet, found in the SFC’s Artist Name Files, may help explain the secret to their success:
The Rev. David A. Noebel, Dean of the Christian Crusade Anti-Communist Summer University, explains:
The communists, through their scientists, educators and entertainers, have contrived an elaborate, calculating and scientific technique directed at rendering a generation of American youth useless through nerve-jamming, mental deterioration and retardation.”
This broadside, from the Guy Benton Johnson Papers, represents what is thought to be the oldest printed version of the ballad of John Henry. A note that accompanies the broadside reads:
This is a copy of the oldest known printed form of the John Henry ballad. It was obtained in 1927 by Dr. Guy B. Johnson from Mrs. C.L. Lynn of Rome, Georgia, who said ‘It is very old and has been in our family for many years’. This copy appears in Dr. Johnson’s book, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1929.
Sara Carter (banjo) and her cousin Maybelle (auto harp), ca. 1919, about eight years before the first recordings of the Carter Family.
From the Ed Kahn Collection.
Our friends downstairs at the North Carolina Collection’s A View to Hugh blog have a wonderful post up about singer/songwriter and North Carolina native John D. Loudermilk, featuring some fine candid photographs by Hugh Morton. Author David Meincke touches briefly on the dozens of artists who have recorded Loudermilk’s most famous composition, “Tobacco Road”, which inspired us to post a few additional “Tobacco Road” clips from our John D. Loudermilk Collection.
Allmusic.com lists over four dozen artists as having recorded the song, and even their database is missing a couple, including this unexpectedly funky 1978 version by Richie Lecea (SFC 45-5754): richie_lecea_tobacco_road
And this 1961 take from England’s Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys (SFC 45-5753): johnny_duncan_tobacco_road
Another English group, the misleadingly named Nashville Teens (pictured), made “Tobacco Road” a top-20 hit on both sides of the pond in 1964. You can watch them lip sync it on television here.
Loudermilk wrote other hit songs (“A Rose and a Baby Ruth”, “Indian Reservation”), but “Tobacco Road” will likely remain his most lasting contribution to American popular culture. If you have a favorite version, please share in the comments.
We at the SFC were deeply saddened to hear about Friday’s passing of musician, folklorist, and collector Mike Seeger. He was 75 years old.
Mike Seeger devoted his life to collecting and performing the music of the rural South. He began playing the guitar at the age of 18 and soon added almost a dozen instruments to his repertoire, including the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer, and autoharp.
In 1958 he formed the New Lost City Ramblers with Tom Paley and John Cohen. Modeling their sound after the old-time string bands of the 1920s and ’30s, the New Lost City Ramblers helped to bring the music of the Southern rural tradition to the forefront of the 1960s folk revival.
But Mike Seeger may be best remembered here as a collector, recording hundreds of performances and interviews with legendary old-time musicians including Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, and Ernest V. Stoneman. These tapes now reside in the SFC’s Mike Seeger Collection, currently being preserved as part of a two-year preservation and access grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities entitled Fiddles, Banjos and Mountain Music. The grant focuses on several interrelated collections including the collections of Paul Brown, Eugene Earle, Ralph Epperson, Fiddler’s Grove and Alice Gerrard.
Throughout his life Mike Seeger worked to make the music he loved accessible beyond it’s origins in the rural South. Through preservation projects like Fiddles, Banjos and Mountain Music, the Southern Folklife Collection seeks to honor his legacy and preserve his lifetime of research for future generations.
Mike Seeger performing Dock Boggs’ “Down South Blues” in 1963 : down_south_blues
And the following year, performing Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Bachelor’s Hall” : bachelors_hall
From tapes FT-5622 and FT-5635 in the Mike Seeger Collection.