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June 22, 2011

Root Hog or Die

Louisville Legends

On the afternoon of June 12, 1931, the two biggest acts in country music, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, magically visited each other in their respective homes of Kerrville, Texas, and Maces Springs, Va. — a feat accomplished by the wizardry of Ralph Peer and his Victor Talking Machine Company. These recorded “visits” were corny and awkward — the Singing Brakeman’s effortless entertainer’s charm made the demure Carters seem downright repressed — but they were a shrewd Depression-era marketing ploy by Peer, who unleashed the most extensive publicity blitz the stars of his hillbilly recording catalog had ever received. The records sold well, and, despite their hokiness, they remain a fascinating memento of those legendary artists in collaboration.
The visits took place 80 years ago this month in a mobile studio set up in an empty storefront on Main Street near Sixth Street in downtown Louisville. They were part of a week of recording sessions Ralph Peer had arranged not only for Rodgers and the Carters, but for a diversity of acts — country blues, holiness gospel, hillbilly string bands, Louisville’s native jug band music — that ran the gamut from the famous to the utterly obscure.
The lion’s share of the material recorded by Victor that week was for its catalog of “race” records — blues, gospel and rural black dance music marketed to African-American audiences. The city was, and had long been, a hub for performing bluesmen and jug bands, and the names that appeared in Victor’s Louisville ledgers were among the most gifted artists of the era. A stack of great sides were made, and made here, including some by Louisville’s own Whistler’s Jug Band. Buford “Whistler” Threlkeld and his band’s “Foldin’ Bed,” cut on June 15, 1931, remains one of the foremost jug band classics.
It wasn’t just Victor’s race catalog that was enlarged that week in Louisville. Northern Kentucky guitarist Elmer Bird brought his Kentucky Corn Crackers down to record two sides, one of which, “Crossed Old Jordan’s Stream,” has long been an essential entry in the canon of pre-war sacred hillbilly music. Unfortunately, two similarly holy-minded tunes cut by a string band called the Kentucky Coon Hunters were never issued, and the band’s provenance has been lost to history.
One of the most exciting products of the Louisville sessions from a purely musical perspective was that made by a black ensemble Victor dubbed the Louisville Sanctified Singers. Presumably a Pentecostal Holiness group, they made four sides of joyful noise with a gang of co-ed shouters, a brutally bashed guitar and an ecstatic tambourine. Their tunes are impossibly catchy; they’re also impossibly rare. Only several copies of their first record are extant, and no copies of their second are known to survive.
The star of the week, though, was Jimmie Rodgers. Tubercular, wracked with coughing fits, frequently spitting up between takes, the Blue Yodeler still managed to record a startling variety of tunes — from Tin Pan Alley schmaltz to innuendo-laden blues (in one instance with Clifford Gibson on second guitar). His time in Louisville is arguably the broadest recorded display of his versatility, with no take more illustrative than his collaboration with Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band. “My Good Gal’s Gone Blues” is the sound of sublimely competent and confident performers collaborating across lines drawn both by Jim Crow segregation and that of Victor’s marketing schema. It’s also one of the only places where you’ll hear a yodel and a jug sharing sonic space.
Cliff Carlisle had a particularly fond memory from the week. The great steel guitarist, alongside his partner Wilbur Ball (with whom he performed as the Lullaby Larkers on WHAS radio), had been tapped to accompany Rodgers on two of his Louisville sides. Carlisle recalled to Rodgers’ biographer Nolan Porterfield that after the session, he Rodgers graciously invited them to Cunningham’s for their famous frog legs.
It remains a mystery why Ralph Peer chose Louisville for the site of the sessions, but 80 years later, it’s hardly important. The Singing Brakeman, the Whistler, the Corn Crackers, our own Sanctified Singers, Cunningham’s frog legs — they’re all long gone. It’s a good time for us to remember them.

Nathan Salsburg is an archivist and producer for the Alan Lomax Foundation, curator of the Twos & Fews label and host of the “Root Hog or Die” program on East Village Radio.