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Home - Musical Styles in America - 1800s and 1900s

Musical Styles in America - 1800s and 1900s

The use of musical instruments follows public tastes in musical styles. In order to understand the role of the guitar (and all other stringed instruments of our age) the following is a work-in-progress of short histories of recent American musical styles and musical venues. If you have corrections, clarifications, additional thoughts or information, please contact us.


© 1995 – 2012 Leonard Wyeth and AcousticMusic.Org
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New musical styles do not happen by accident.

Musical styles evolve. Beethoven could not have stumbled upon rock’n’roll any more than Hank Williams could have created urban rap. It would be a myth to believe that a musician, in a moment of enlightenment, could create a new style from the raw grit of their innate creativity. If one ever did, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate it. The new ‘sound’ would be entirely without precedent - utterly a-priori. Without understanding where the new musical arrangements came from, we would have no frame of reference. It would simply be strange and different. Imagine Picasso painting a cubist masterpiece in Rembrandt’s studio. Do you envision that it would be well received and fully appreciated?

New musical styles, paintings, poetry, sculpture, literature, film and all other forms of expression are about connections. We love to see things that we think we understood in new ways. Like humor, there is delight in an unexpected twist of a familiar truth. The premise, however, is always close by. New connections can only occur between the unexpected and the very well known. In order to take a step forward, you have to leave where you currently stand.

Changes come in small increments and with clear precedents. Each step forward has a family tree, a traceable genealogy. In a sense, every new work of art has a reason for being. It is the family tree that makes it understandable. Each step forward is a new articulation of some aspect of our current state of being. The clearer the statement, the better the work of art. If the art says something to us that feels utterly appropriate, identifiable and real, the better it stands as a work of our time.

There is, of course, a tribal aspect to art. Since most all forms of artistic expression say something about the current situation within our culture, it is easier to understand if you share the same cultural background. The subtleties of the metaphors in the American Indian’s Sun Dance are lost upon an old-money blue-blood raised on the upper East side of New York City. The blue-blood is simply from a different tribe. On the other hand: making an effort to learn something about other societies, we learn about ourselves. These are the same attributes that archeologists and anthropologists research to shed light on the cultures of lost civilizations. There is something common to the human experience that transcends time and cultural differences. Through Art we express ourselves and through Art, we learn about ourselves. Through Art, we also date ourselves.

If you ask an artist, poet or musician how they know something is truly a work of Art, the answer is usually something like: “You just know it”. When you can understand where it came from and how it got to where it is; when the message is current, real and appropriate: it is Art. You don’t have to be an intellectual; you only need to be a human being.

Musical styles are no different than any other form of human expression. They also have a family tree. Sometimes it helps to review the precedents to better understand what they are. Sometimes reviewing precedents helps us to better appreciate what we have now. One small example of this: In the current time of political and economic upheaval, where are the demonstrations? Where is the outrage? Where is the public display of political involvement that was so evident in the 1960s? Where are the protest songs? The songs of the 1960s were the voice of a decade – Why is it so silent now?

There was a lot of precedent to the songs of the 1960s. The music and lyrics evolved as a natural voice of dissent and concern. The ground was fertile for that particular artistic expression. The following condensed histories are intended to address some of those connections. Please also consider the entries in the ‘
Time-Line of American Musical Styles & Guitar History’ under ‘Research and History’ in this website. They help broaden the historical context of the various musical styles by placing them in relation to other significant historical events. After all, if you were alive (for example) at the time of the Great Depression, it would certainly affect your understanding of all other aspects of life during that period. The song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" has a special meaning.

There are many, many other connections. Feel free to send us your thoughts.

ⓒ 2008 Leonard Wyeth



1871 - Vaudeville

‘Vaudeville’ from the French "vaux de ville": ‘worth of the city’ or worthy of the city's patronage. Like everything else in Vaudeville, however, the name was probably selected for sounding quaintly foreign and exotic. No one needed to know what it really meant – it was intended to mean: Entertainment! The term ‘Vaudeville’ first appeared around 1871 with "Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company" of Louisville Kentucky.

Variety shows, for public entertainment, had been around forever in one form or another. The public tastes for entertainment shifted by region and influence. The Wild West Shows, for example, brought the mythology of the untamed West to Eastern urban audiences. Circuses brought exotic animals from all corners of the earth to insulated American communities. There were dime-museums, amusement parks, riverboats and town halls for family-friendly entertainment. There were traveling Medicine shows for comedy, music, acrobats, jugglers and novelties with their strange potions, tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs. For more adult oriented entertainment there were music halls, saloons, burlesque and whore houses. Minstrel shows offered variety entertainment in the 1840s. These are particularly noteworthy as being uniquely American. Vaudeville embodied bits and pieces of all of these itinerant amusements. It was fundamentally American: as wild and varied as the ‘melting pot’ of the great American experiment itself.

The 1840s, 50s and 60s brought an explosion of cultural upheaval: the gold rush, the Western expansion, the Civil War, the industrial revolution, mechanization, the railways, the discovery of how to make steel, Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” and so on. The culture and the economy were being fueled by waves of immigration, Italian, Irish (following the potato famine), Chinese, Jewish, etc. This was the land of opportunity. Urban areas began to swell with the steady flow of fresh arrivals feeding insatiable factories. People began to make money. Not just the rich, but ordinary workers began to have enough money to buy houses and furnishings. They seemed to want stuff and this created markets for more goods. More goods meant more factories and more jobs. The cycle created a middle class. These folks had some free time and spare cash. Leisure time means entertainment.

Around 1880 a former circus ringmaster turned theater manager named Tony Pastor saw the potential and spending power of the new middle class and offered "polite" variety programs in several of his New York City theaters. His shows were relatively clean and family oriented and he didn’t allow the sale of liquor in his theaters. The experiment worked.  It wasn’t long before other theater owners and promoters followed suit.

In 1887 The Bijou Theater was opened in Boston Massachusetts by Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward F. Albee. B.F. Keith began his show business career in the 1870s working as a grifter and barker with traveling circuses and for dime museums in New York City. In 1883 he moved to Boston Massachusetts and opened a museum of his own featuring "Baby Alice the Midget Wonder" and other acts. This generated enough income to allow B.F. Keith to build The Bijou Theatre. It was lavish and ‘fireproof’. Keith established a "fixed policy of cleanliness and order". There was to be no vulgar or coarse material in any of his acts". The entertainment was to appeal to women and children. He promised “a Sunday School dignitary to judge propriety at rehearsals”. This became the model for Vaudeville theater productions.
Keith reinforced a theater image of gentility by including famous acts from the "legitimate" stage. Not to be too ‘high brow’ he also maintained light comedy from previous variety acts. There was something for everybody. Boston's powerful Catholic Church took notice and supported the expansion of Keith’s enterprise on the promise of more clean entertainment. Keith and Albee went on to build more elaborate theaters in Boston and then expanded to other Northeastern cities.

Following any financially successful enterprise there are always imitators. They appeared quickly all over the country and included managers like Marcus Loew (of Loew’s Theaters). By the 1890's theatre circuits could be found in every major city and many minor locations.  There were comprehensive networks of booking offices that handled all the promotion and production. Keith and Albee consolidated their control of Vaudeville through ‘United Booking Artists’ and through the establishment of the Vaudeville Manager's Association. Keith and Albee held a monopoly that lasted well past Keith's death in 1914.

Wherever people gather, new ideas are exchanged. News travels and ideas are disseminated. It wasn’t only theatricals, culture, politics and humor but also music. The musical presentations on the Vaudeville stages brought new musical styles to urban areas all over the country. Successful acts traveled the Vaudeville circuits, hitting all the major cities. It was a massively effective way to expose large portions of the population to new musical trends. If it was popular in New York, it would find it’s way across country to audiences everywhere. The banjo, mandolin and guitar all played roles on the Vaudeville stage but the banjo was best suited to the task. It was small, loud and dependable.

The introduction of moving pictures began to change the face of vaudeville. They were low priced and could run all day long. The first public showing of movies projected on a screen took place at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in 1896. Lured by greater salaries and easier working conditions, many early film and old time radio performers, such as W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Edgar Bergen, and Jack Benny, used the prominence they gained in live performance to vault into movies. (By doing this, they often exhausted in a few moments of screen time the novelty of an act that might have kept them on tour for years.) Other vaudevillians who helped vaudeville's decline include: The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, and Rose Marie, who used vaudeville as a launch pad for movie careers.

During the teens, moving pictures steadily grew in popularity. By the late 1920s, almost all vaudeville bills included moving pictures. Earlier in the century, many vaudevillians, understanding the threat represented by movies, held out hope that the silent nature of the "flickering shadow sweethearts" would protect their place in the public's affection. With the introduction of talking pictures in 1926, the film studios removed the last argument in favor of live theatrical performance: spoken dialogue.

New York City's Palace Theatre, vaudeville's epicenter, changed exclusively to cinema on November 16th, 1932. This could be viewed as the end for vaudeville. In fairness, it was still alive and withered gradually.

Theater owners discovered that rental costs of films vs. the price of performers, newly unionized stagehands, booking fees, lighting, orchestra, etc. vastly increased their profits. Performers tried hanging on for a time in combination shows (often referred to as "vaudefilm") in which live performances accompanied a film presentation. Inevitably, managers further trimmed costs by eliminating costly live performances. Vaudeville also suffered in the rise of broadcast radio following the greater availability of inexpensive receiver sets later in the 1920s.

The 1930s saw the standardization of film distribution. By 1930, the vast majority of live theatres had been wired for sound and none of the major studios were producing silent pictures. For a time, the most luxurious theatres continued to offer live entertainment, but the majority of theatres were forced by the Great Depression to economize.

Though talk of its resurrection was heard throughout the 1930s and after, the demise of the supporting apparatus of the circuits and the higher cost of live performance made any large-scale renewal of vaudeville unrealistic. The times had changed an art form forever.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth




Carnegie Hall

The story of Carnegie Hall begins in the spring of 1887: A 25 year old Walter Damrosch (1862–1950) had attained the elevated position of conductor and musical director of the Symphony Society of New York and the Oratorio Society of New York. He had just finished his second season and took a sabbatical to Europe for a summer of study with conductor Hans von Bülow. Before air conditioning, New York summers were too hot for orchestral performances. It is not difficult to imagine the feel of ground floor theaters packed with people, burning gas lamps and no air circulation in the years before deodorant.

Damrosch inherited a vision for a grand concert hall for New York City from his father Leopold, who had founded the Oratorio Society in 1873 and the Symphony Society in 1878. The Symphony Society had a difficult time booking concerts into any of the available halls large enough to accommodate it. The Metropolitan Opera House was the best venue but it was controlled by the schedule of the resident opera company and the Philharmonic Society, considered New York’s primary orchestra at the time. The Oratorio Society was compelled to give its concerts in the showrooms of piano companies: Chickering, Steinway and Knabe, located on 14th Street.

In the spring of 1887, traveling by sail from New York to London aboard The Fulda, maestro Damrosch chanced to meet the celebrated Scottish-born American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie (1835 to 1919), then 52, was taking his bride, 30 year old Louise Whitfield on a honeymoon to Scotland. Louise Whitfield was the daughter of a well-to-do New York merchant and had sung in the soprano section of the Oratorio Society for several seasons. Carnegie took a liking to Damrosch and the three arranged a meeting at the end of the summer at estate Kilgraston in Scotland. It was there that the idea of Carnegie Hall was born.

Carnegie agreed to help build a grand hall to be the finest concert venue in New York. In 1889, he formed a stock company, The Music Hall Company of New York, Ltd., and acquired seven parcels of land along the block of Seventh Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets, which were not yet paved. The location, at the edge of Goat Hill was a short distance from Central Park and so far uptown that it was considered suburban. Carnegie assumed a seat on the board of both the Symphony Society of New York and the Oratorio Society of New York.

The Design and Construction of The Music Hall

William Burnet Tuthill, an architect who had served on the board of the Oratorio Society and had a fondness for music as a cello player, was appointed chief architect. Architects Adler and Sullivan and Richard Morris Hunt were retained as consultants. Isaac A. Hopper and Company assumed the responsibility of general contractor. On May 13th, 1890 Mrs. Carnegie cemented the cornerstone with a silver trowel from Tiffany’s. She kept this memento on her mantelpiece for the rest of her life. Carnegie’s contribution eventually reached $2 million; approximately 90 percent of the total cost.

The plans called for a rectangular six-story structure housing three performance spaces:

  1. The Main Hall, seating 2,800
  2. A recital hall (located below the Main Hall) seating 1,200
  3. A chamber music hall (adjacent to the Main Hall), seating 250

Above the chamber music hall were assembly rooms “suitable for lectures, readings, and receptions as well as chapter and lodge rooms for secret organizations.”

Carnegie Hall is one of the last large structures in New York City built entirely of masonry. The building was designed not to require steel support beams using the Guastavino process, with concrete and masonry walls several feet thick. This turned out to be a good choice, considering the acoustical properties of the chosen materials. The heavy masonry effectively acoustically isolated the halls while providing good reflective and diffractive surfaces to enhance musical performances. Several flights of additional studio spaces were added to the building around 1900. For these, a steel framework was erected around segments of the building. Studios above the Hall contained working spaces for artists in the performing and graphic arts including music, drama, dance, as well as architects, playwrights, literary agents, photographers, and painters.

The building was completed in the spring of 1891. The five-day opening festival attracted the cream of New York society: Whitneys, Sloans, Rockefellers, and Fricks – who paid $1 to $2 for performances by the Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society under the direction of maestro Walter Damrosch and Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Opening night, May 5th, 1891, Horse drawn carriages lined the streets for a quarter mile outside the Hall. The Music Hall was filled to capacity. After a dedication speech from Bishop Henry Codman Potter, Damrosch led the Symphony Society in a performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3.

Tchaikovsky stepped up to the podium to conduct his Marche Solennelle. The concert closed with the Berlioz Te Deum. Beyond the talent onstage and the glamour in the audience, the reviews of that inaugural night focused on the Hall. “Tonight, the most beautiful Music Hall in the world was consecrated to the loveliest of the arts. Possession of such a hall is in itself an incentive for culture.” proclaimed one newspaper and another: “It stood the test well!” The reviews were unanimous: The “Music Hall founded by Andrew Carnegie” was an overwhelming success.

The term “Music Hall” to many European artists, suggested a vaudeville palace rather than a serious concert hall. Initially Andrew Carnegie had no interest in having his name formally attached to the civic structure. After a period of negotiations and appeals to Carnegie to use his name, he relented. During the 1894–95 season the name of the Music Hall was officially changed to “Carnegie Hall”.

The prestige of a Carnegie Hall appearance has attracted most the world’s finest performers to its stages. Carnegie Hall has become the essential venue in the United States and a litmus test of greatness. The public appreciated from the earliest performances that these halls served as a showcase of American culture. As such, they were not limited to classical music, opera and dance but to all forms of public performance. In the days before radio and television, Carnegie Hall allowed a public forum to anyone with an articulate cause. Jack London spoke on communism in 1905; Emmeline Pankhurst lobbied for women’s suffrage, and Margaret Sanger for birth control. A young Winston Churchill spoke on the Boer War, and Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington shared the stage at a Lincoln Memorial Meeting. Clarence Darrow debated Ernest Howe on the merits of prohibition and found there were none. When a hall in the nation’s capital was closed to her because of her race, the great Marian Anderson found herself welcome on the Carnegie Hall stage.

In 1892 a fire gutted the Metropolitan Opera House. The Philharmonic Society seized the opportunity and joined the Symphony Society in making its home at Carnegie Hall. The move ignited a rivalry that continued until 1928 when the two organizations finally merged as the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, the official name of the New York Philharmonic.

In 1912, Carnegie Hall presented a concert of early jazz by James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra. It was the first of many jazz performances including Fats Waller, W. C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan, Mel Tormé, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. A 1938 concert by Benny Goodman and his band marked a turning point in the public acceptance of swing. Duke Ellington made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943 with the premiere of his tone poem Black, Brown and Beige, and when Norman Granz toured his legendary “Jazz at the Philharmonic” programs, featuring the greatest names in jazz, Carnegie Hall was the New York City base.

In 1933, John Jacob Niles was the first folksinger to perform at Carnegie Hall. He was followed by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Popular entertainers who have performed at Carnegie Hall include Josephine Baker, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Tony Bennett. In 1964, The Beatles made their New York City concert debut, their third live appearance in the US, at Carnegie Hall. They were followed by The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Elton John, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder, and many others.

Carnegie Hall has been the site of numerous television and radio productions including Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, the televised NBC Symphony concerts led by Arturo Toscanini, “Horowitz on Television,” “Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews at Carnegie Hall,” weekly radio broadcasts by the New York Philharmonic from the 1920s through 1962, and “AT&T Presents Carnegie Hall Tonight” in the 1980s. And “Live From Carnegie Hall” recordings by artists and entertainers including: Paul Robeson, Sviatoslav Richter, Edith Piaf, Glenn Miller, Ike and Tina Turner, Groucho Marx, and others.

The Difficult Years: 1955 –1960

Andrew Carnegie sold his industrial holdings to J. P. Morgan in 1900 for $400 million. He devoted the rest of his life to giving away this fortune. Carnegie funded the construction of 2,509 free public libraries at a cost of $56 million. Before he died, he managed to distribute $308 million to public works. When he died in 1919, however, he had not left an adequate endowment for Carnegie Hall. With him died the assurance of continued funding for the halls. In 1925 New York realtor Robert E. Simon bought Carnegie Hall. At the time of the purchase, Simon promised Mrs. Carnegie that he would not demolish the building for a period of five years, or use it for purposes other than those for which it had been originally intended. Simon held to his promise to his death in 1935 despite the steady financial drain of this type of cultural venue and the financial pressures of the depression. His son, Robert E. Simon, Jr. assumed management of the Halls and actually made it profitable for a short period. By the mid-1950s, however, the music business had evolved. It was no longer possible to continue to operate Carnegie Hall in the same fashion. Simon offered the New York Philharmonic an option to buy Carnegie Hall for $4 million.  The orchestra was the major tenant, renting the Hall for more than 100 nights a year.  Unfortunately, plans were under way for the Philharmonic to move to the new facilities at Lincoln Center. They declined the offer. Though Simon wanted to keep it running, he was forced to offer Carnegie Hall for sale in 1955, under the condition that if a way could be found to save it, the contract would be null and void. A deal was made with a group of developers planning to demolish Carnegie hall and build a 44-story office tower on the site. The deal fell through, but not before the September 9th, 1957 issue of Life magazine showed an artist’s rendering of the proposed fire-engine-red project the developers were contemplating. This helped raise the public awareness of the imminent loss of an institution.

By 1960, with the Philharmonic’s departure set, Simon ran out of options and could no longer afford to keep Carnegie Hall operating. The date of March 31st, 1960 was set for its demolition. At the eleventh hour, the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall, headed by concert violinist Isaac Stern with administrative and financial assistance from Jacob M. Kaplan and State Senator MacNeil Mitchell and others, developed a workable plan. On May 16th, 1960, by special State legislation, New York City was permitted to purchase Carnegie Hall for $5 million. The Carnegie Hall Corporation was chartered as a nonprofit organization and Stern was elected president.

The Future

Carnegie Hall was reborn as a public trust. The nonprofit corporation was to manage and rent the concert hall and could sponsor events as well. Since 1889, Carnegie Hall has had two distinct kinds of boards: The first was Andrew Carnegie’s handpicked advisory board, a largely ceremonial group depending on the generosity of its primary donor. The real philanthropy began in 1960, when The Carnegie Hall Corporation was formed and a board of directors pledged to ensure the Hall’s financial and physical health. To maintain economic viability, the original core mission of showcasing American culture helps ensure that the Hall will remain open to all forms of performance art.

© 2008 Leonard Wyeth & AcousticMusic.Org
Special thanks to The Carnegie Hall website for historical data:
Information also gathered from Wikipedia – edited and expanded.





1880 Estudiantina Figaro and the Mandolin Orchestra

In Spain, Bandurria ensembles had gained popularity. They were essentially traditional players performing new and old bandurria and guitar arrangements in an ensemble setting. They were upbeat, loud and entertaining. The genre became known in Europe as ‘Estudiantina Figaro’. An American Opera impresario by the name Henry Abbey heard one of these groups and convinced them to come to New York. In America ‘Estudiantina Figaro’, as a style, became known as ‘Spanish Students’.

In January of 1880 Henry Abbey’s new musical group performed a vaudeville revue called ‘Humpty Dumpty’. It was an immediate success. Bandurrias were traditional Spanish bowl-back folk instruments with 12 strings. They were not well known in America and not readily available.

One of the early audience members, however, was an accomplished Italian mandolin and violin player by the name: Carlo Curti (also spelled Carlos Curti). He could see the commercial possibilities of this popular new music form. He reckoned that the American public couldn’t tell the difference between mandolins and bandurrias. Mandolins and mandolin players were all over New York in the form of Italian immigrants. After all, the ubiquitous mandolin and violin were tuned the same (unlike the foreign bandurria) and very familiar to an eager public seeking new musical outlets.

Carlo Curti hastily assembled a fake ‘Spanish Students’ group (all Italians) and lined up performances all over New York to capitalize on the popularity of ‘Estudiantina Figaro’. The fraud worked like a charm. Carlo Curti’s mandolin and guitar ensemble became wildly successful. It was the birth of the mandolin orchestra: both a craze and a movement.

9 years later, a former ‘Curti Spanish Student’ Salvatore Pietro Factutar moved to Milwaukee Wisconsin and established himself as a performer and mandolin teacher. His introduction of this style and the mandolin orchestra concept to the Milwaukee community has endured. Milwaukee still has an active mandolin orchestra today.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth



Tin Pan Alley

The term ‘Tin Pan Alley’ refers to the physical location of the New York City-centered music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music of the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Tin Pan Alley was the popular music publishing center of the world between 1885 to the 1920's.

Tin Pan Alley was West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in New York City. There is a plaque on the sidewalk on 28th St between Broadway and Fifth with a dedication. This block is now considered part of Manhattan's Flatiron district.

In the mid-1800s, copyright control on melodies was poorly regulated in the United States. Many competing publishers would often print their own versions of whatever songs were popular at the time. Stephen Foster's songs, for example, probably generated millions of dollars in sheet music sales, but Foster saw little of it and died in poverty. With stronger copyright protection laws in the late 1800s, songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers started working together for mutual financial benefit.

Following the Civil War, more than 25,000 new pianos were sold each year and by 1887, over 500,000 youths were studying piano. The demand for sheet music indicated the size of the market for publishers. From 1885 through 1900 New York City began to emerge as the center of popular music publishing. New York had emerged as the center for the musical and performing arts. It was the incoming port for talent from overseas and the springboard for domestic talent headed overseas. It also had an established distribution network for the United States. In New York City, new trends were born, developed and exploited. During this period, the new generation of entrepreneurial music publishers grew and flourished.

Before 1885 there were important music publishers scattered throughout the country. Music publishing could be found in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Boston and Baltimore. Each publisher was involved in printing and distribution of sheet music for church music, music instruction books, study pieces and classical items for home and school use and many were successful. Small local publishers (often connected with commercial printers or music stores) continued to flourish. When a tune became a significant local hit, rights to it were usually purchased from the local publisher by one of the bigger New York firms. Examples of some of the most successful were Thomas B. Harms (Harms, Inc. started in 1881) and Isadore Whitmark (M. Whitmark & Sons first published music in 1885). These concentrated on popular music. They were also pioneers in the use of market research to select music and then use aggressive marketing techniques to sell it.

Song composers were hired under contract giving the publisher exclusive rights to popular composer's works. The market was then surveyed to determine what style of song was selling best. The composers were directed to compose more works in that style. Once written, a song was actually tested with both performers and listeners to determine which would be published and which would not. It was the music business: music had become an industry. Once published, song pluggers (performers who worked in music shops playing the latest releases) were hired to give the music exposure. Arrangements were made with popular performers of the day to use selected material for exposure (it was the birth of ‘Payola’). By the end of the century, a number of influential publishers had offices on 28th street between 5th Avenue and Broadway. This part of 28th street became known as "Tin Pan Alley".

The name "Tin Pan Alley" is attributed to a newspaper writer named Monroe Rosenfeld. While he was staying in New York, he coined the term to articulate the cacophony of dozens of pianos being pounded at once in publisher's demo rooms. He said it sounded like hundreds of people pounding on tin pans. During the years before air conditioning, New York City buildings had operable windows. The demonstration cubicles lined the front and alley walls of the buildings stretching for any natural daylight they could find. New York was hot in the summer and the windows would be wide open. The sounds would tumble to the street and bounce off the facing buildings. It must have sounded amazing. The term was used in a series of articles he wrote around 1900 - Like ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, the name eventually stuck and later came to describe the American music industry as a whole.

Vaudeville played an important role in the story of the American popular song. These shows were an effective showcase for new music. The publishing houses profited tremendously from the sale of songs made popular by these shows. The market potential for songs was enormous, even by today's standards. Charles K. Harris's ‘After The Ball’ (1892) sold over five million copies. Large numbers of songs from this period became widely known and remain popular in some circles today. Examples include: ‘In the Good Old Summertime’ (1902), ‘Give My Regards To Broadway’ (1904), ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ (1908), ‘Down by the Old Mill Stream’ (1910) and ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ (1910).

The music houses in lower Manhattan were lively places, with a steady stream of songwriters, vaudeville and Broadway performers, musicians, and song pluggers. Aspiring songwriters came to demonstrate tunes they hoped to sell. When tunes were purchased from unknowns with no previous hits, the name of someone with the firm was often added as co-composer (in order to keep a higher percentage of royalties within the firm), or all rights to the song were purchased outright for a flat fee (including rights to put someone else's name on the sheet music as the composer). Songwriters who became established producers of commercially successful songs were hired to be on the staff of the music houses. The most successful of them, like Harry Von Tilzer and Irving Berlin, founded their own publishing firms.

Song pluggers were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications.

When vaudeville performers played New York City, they would often visit various Tin Pan Alley firms to find new songs for their acts. 2nd and 3rd, rate performers often paid for rights to use a new song, while famous stars were given free copies of publisher's new numbers or were paid to perform them. This was valuable advertising.

Initially Tin Pan Alley specialized in melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs, but it embraced the newly popular styles of the cakewalk and ragtime music. Later, jazz and blues were incorporated, although less completely, as Tin Pan Alley’s primary orientation was producing songs that amateur singers or small town bands could perform from printed music. Since improvisation, blue notes, and other characteristics of jazz and blues could not be easily captured in conventional printed notation, Tin Pan Alley manufactured jazzy and bluesy pop-songs and dance numbers. Much of the public in the late 1910s and the 1920s did not know the difference between these commercial products and authentic jazz and blues.

Tin Pan Alley as the center of publishing activity began to dissipate around the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s when the phonograph and radio supplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music. Some consider Tin Pan Alley to have continued into the 1950s when earlier styles of American popular music were upstaged by the rise of rock’n’roll.

The rise of cinema and radio and the steady urbanization of the population contributed to the decline of Tin Pan Alley. As the airwaves brought the music directly into peoples homes, they had less need for printed sheet music. America’s use of free time was changing for good.

Music publishing, however, still had an important and profitable role in finding, creating, marketing and selling the American popular song. The business moved uptown with the new trends and changes in the business of music.

The Brill Building

In 1931 The 11 story, 175,000 square foot Brill Building was built as an office structure located at 1619 Broadway in New York City, just north of Times Square. It was named after the Brill Brothers who owned a clothing store on the street level and who later bought the entire building from its developer, A.E. Lefcourt. It was intended as a financial office space for brokers and bankers. In the midst of the Depression however, bankers and brokers were going out of business, and the owners resorted to renting space to music publishers, as there were few other takers.

Scores of music publishers had offices in the Brill Building. During the ASCAP strike of 1941, many of the composers, authors and publishers turned to pseudonyms in order to have their songs played on the air. Brill Building songs were constantly at the top of the Hit Parade and played by the leading bands of the day including:

  • The Benny Goodman Orchestra
  • The Glenn Miller Orchestra
  • The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra
  • The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

Publishers included:

  • Leo Feist Inc.
  • Lewis Music Publishing
  • Mills Music Publishing

Composers included:

  • Billy Rose
  • Buddy Feyne
  • Johnny Mercer
  • Irving Mills
  • Peter Tinturin

Racial Politics of Music Publishing

The music publishers at this time followed the racial codes of the day. They either had their own (typically white) contract writers composing songs or they opened their doors to publish songs of others, but hid the fact that songs were created by non-white or non-Christian artists. Jewish songwriters often adopted anglicized noms de plume in order for their songs to be published. This was necessary at a time when anti-semitism was widespread.

In the 1930s some publishers in the Brill Building specialized in publishing the songs of African American Swing composers. For example, Lewis Music published the songs of Erskine Hawkins and Avery Parrish, among others. These tunes were called "Race Music", the euphemism for songs written by black artists. If a composer wrote an instrumental (and even sometimes if there were already lyrics), the publishers provided their own lyricists. Top selling songs on the (white) Hit Parade, such as Tuxedo Junction and Jersey Bounce, were originally composed as instrumentals by black swing artists, but were not played by white bands on the radio until they had been published with lyrics, often by white writers.

The Brill Building was regarded as one of the most prestigious address’ in New York for music business professionals. By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: a musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. The creative culture of the independent music companies of Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the style of popular music.

Carole King described the atmosphere at the 'Brill Building' publishing houses of the period: "Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubbyhole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific — because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He'd say: 'We need a new smash hit' — and we'd all go back and write a song and the next day we'd each audition for Bobby Vee's producer."  quoted in The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith (1978, ISBN 0-09-460220-4).


Many of the best works in this diverse category were written by a loosely affiliated group of songwriter-producer teams — mostly duos — that enjoyed immense success and who collectively wrote some of the biggest hits of the period. Many in this group were close friends, as well as being creative and business associates — and both individually and as a duo, they often worked with each other and with other writers in a wide variety of combinations.

  • Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
  • Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman
  • Gerry Goffin and Carole King
  • Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry
  • Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
  • Burt Bacharach and Hal David
  • Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield
  • Hugo & Luigi
  • Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Other famous musicians who were headquartered in The Brill Building:

  • Laura Nyro
  • Claus Ogerman
  • Neil Diamond

Among the hundreds of hits written by this group are Leiber and Stoller's "Yakety Yak", Shuman and Pomus' "Save The Last Dance For Me", Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love", Sedaka and Greenfield's "Calendar Girl", King and Goffin's "The Loco-Motion", Mann and Weil's "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and Spector, Greenwich and Barry's "River Deep Mountain High".

Aldon Music — 1650 Broadway

Many of these writers came to prominence while under contract to Aldon Music, a publishing company founded ca. 1958 by aspiring music entrepreneur Don Kirshner and industry veteran Al Nevins. Aldon was not initially located in the Brill Building, but rather, a block away at 1650 Broadway (at 51st St.). In fact, 1650 was built to be a musician's headquarters, so much so that the laws at the time required that the "front" door be placed on the side of the building due to laws restricting musicians from entering buildings from the front. Most so-called 'Brill Building' writers began their careers at 1650, and the building continued to house many record labels throughout the decades.

Portions Edited and expanded from Wikipedia
Special thanks to Rick Reublin of the website Parlor Songs for historical insight.
© 2008 Leonard Wyeth



Music that makes you want to move: ‘Happy Feet’. The syncopated rhythms evolved in red-light districts from New Orleans and St. Louis marches and jigs. They were originally intended to be dance music to but eventually grew and developed in complexity and orchestration to be almost symphonic. Ragtime was instrumental in bringing the music of African Americans to the attention of the entire country.

In the later 1800s the cakewalk was finding its way into Minstrel Shows and Vaudeville. It was, unfortunately, presented along racial lines and profoundly derogatory. There was, however, a wide general appeal to the syncopations and upbeat simple orchestration of piano or banjo. Like everything else in art that resonates culturally or aesthetically, it caught on. It was irresistible and more and more musicians took it on as a style and helped push it forward. The more hands that interpreted it, the more it took on a life of its own. It grew and evolved into Ragtime.

The name implied ‘ragged’ rhythms, referring to its bounce and syncopation. While the term ‘ragged-time’ or ‘ragtime’ also carried the image of poor blacks in rags, it took on an implication of blacks being musical. This image would help the spread of ‘jass music’ or Jazz later.

The most popular marches of the day were published by John Phillip Sousa and performed by bands all over the country. It was only a matter of time before several composers began to experiment with adding the African American polyrhythms to the sophisticated orchestrations of the Sousa marches. Why not try to meld the two most popular forms of music of the day?

In the 1890s, there were only effectively two forms of music: published sheet music and piano roles. The sheet music was frequently performed by the composer – creating the definitive performance as intended by the author. It was a great way to demonstrate how the written pieces were supposed to sound. Pianos equipped to play the roles were common and the piano role industry was big business. In the years before radio (or any form of commonly available recorded music) most people were trained at a young age to read music. It was a primary form of polite interaction. Most houses of the day had a music room and were equipped with numerous instruments. The piano, violin, mandolin, guitar and banjo were among the most popular. Published sheet music was, therefore, very big business. People were keenly interested to get their hands on the latest popular music and be able to play it well for their friends. Playing it well meant playing it right – as it was intended to be played. Piano roles helped this concept as they demonstrated exactly what the author had in mind. 

Written music is not improvised. This may sound obvious, but we have entered a different age. Most people today are not classically trained, do not read music fluently and yet many still learn to play instruments by ear. We celebrate new interpretations of old melodies and our current mode of thinking supports improvisation as an art form. This was not the conception of the average American at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1895 black entertainer Ernest Hogan (Ernest Reuben Crowders 1865-1909) published 2 of the earliest rags captured on sheet music. Hogan was an actor and Broadway producer as well as a composer. One of the rags: ‘All Coons Look Alike To Me’ eventually sold millions of copies. What Hogan had actually done was to capture the rhythm of what the non-reading black musicians of the day were playing. The tune had a wonderful impact of bringing the polyrhythms to the broader American public but the downside of starting a genre that would come to be known as ‘Coon Songs’.

In1899 Scott Joplin (1867-1917) published the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. American music would never be the same.

Joplin was born in Texarkana Texas as a member of the first post-slavery generation. He was a gifted musician from a very young age with a passion for the piano. He absorbed all the musical influences around him including Gospel Hymns and Spirituals, plantation songs, dance hall music, blues, marches, jigs and choruses. A classically trained music teacher and German immigrant by the name: Julius Weiss discovered the boy at age 11 and was sufficiently impressed with his talent that he chose to train him free of charge. He brought Joplin an appreciation of classical keyboard technique and exposure to European musical styles from folk to opera.

Over the course of his brief life he composed 44 original ragtime works, 1 ragtime ballet and 2 operas. Joplin approached music as a discipline. Compositions were assembled as finished pieces – fully orchestrated and polished. They were not conceived as improvisational works with room for individual interpretation. Rags were, in their own way, equal in sophistication and compositional complexity to any other Classical work – and equally ridged in the intended performance technique. They did, however, beautifully capture the broad wave of American influences of the day. In all their compositional complexity, they still had the toe-tapping touch of the common man. They were wildly successful in sheet music form.

World War I had a profound impact on America. It changed the way we perceived ourselves and the world around us. More than 15 million people had died and the map of the world as we had known it was entirely redrawn. Old powers were gone and new ones emerged. Like other times of major change, the desire for a new art form rose from the ashes of the aftermath. The music from before the war did not feel appropriate as an expression of the times any more. The public had changed and looked for a new music to reflect those changes. Joplin died 1 year before the war ended and his music almost died with him.

Over the years there were a few revivals of ragtime, but nothing really stuck until the 1970s. Three events occurred that brought Ragtime back to the public consciousness:

  1. In 1971 Pianist Joshua Rifkin assembled a compilation of the works of Scott Joplin and released them in LP record form for Nonesuch Records. It was nominated for a Grammy award in the ‘Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist without Orchestra’ category. The performances were delivered true to Joplin’s intensions.
  2. The New York Public Library released a 2-volume set of ‘The Collected Works of Scott Joplin’. This work helped bring Joplin’s music to the attention of current musicians.
  3. In 1973, the film ‘The Sting’ was released with a soundtrack of Joplin’s tunes played by Marvin Hamlish. This brought the Joplin Rag: ‘The Entertainer’ to the widest audience yet as the tune ranked as a Top 40 hit in 1974. The film also received an Academy Award.

Ragtime is uniquely American.

© 2009 Leonard Wyeth


1912 - Hawaiian Music Craze

On January 8th, 1912  ‘The Bird of Paradise’ opened on Broadway in Daly’s Theatre. It was very well reviewed and moved on January 22nd to larger quarters at Maxine Elliott's Theatre to accommodate the appreciative New York crowds where it ran for over 100 performances. It would have run longer except for disagreements between its producer Oliver Morosco and theater owners. It went on the road and was seen all over the country making it one of the most profitable plays of its day.

‘The Bird of Paradise’ capitalized on America’s insatiable appetite for the foreign and exotic by telling the love story of an American scientist on the Hawaiian Islands falling in love with a local Princess. By 1912, Americans had some free time and cash in their pockets from a growing middle class in midst of the industrial revolution. This was good light entertainment dressed in uptown sophistication. It was a hit.

It was also a musical. The story unfolded surrounded by Hawaiian music. Ukuleles, slack-key guitar, slide guitar, mandolin and exotic vocal harmonies. It could be joyous, sad, emotional or ominous – the new music could express it all. There were several new concepts to the American listening public: Slack-key guitar with it’s exotic and moody feel of open chord tuning, ukulele with its small size and joyful rhythmic drive and the slide guitar: entirely new use of the instrument and resulting sounds. The new music caught on.

1915 - The Panama Pacific International Exposition

On February 20th, 1915 The Panama Pacific International Exposition opened in San Francisco. It had been under construction for 3 years and held the promise of revitalizing a city nearly destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. It was a Worlds Fair: a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal and a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the discovering of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer Balboa. Like all Worlds Fairs, exhibitors showed off their latest products and developments. This included wood and natural materials from distant lands.

Hawaii had been annexed as a United States Territory under William McKinley on July 6th, 1898 with a natural resource export economy (Hawaii didn’t become a State until 1959). Koa and other natural resources were on display for American import. To help sell their products were Hawaiian musicians and dancers playing native music on instruments made with koa wood. This was the first American close-up exposure to the Hawaiian culture. The crowds seemed to appreciate the dark skinned young ladies in grass skirts who knew how to move their hips. It was infectious and the American Hawaiian music craze followed.

Suddenly there was demand for Hawaiian instruments: guitars and ukuleles. The manufacturers responded quickly as it didn’t require a great deal of retooling to produce Hawaiian models of existing instruments. Ukuleles would become a symbol of the college crowd in the Roaring Twenties. Ukuleles were well suited to upbeat jazz renditions of current songs and dances, and well suited for vocal accompaniment. It was the natural evolution of the music that hit the shores only a few years before.

The slide guitar techniques were quickly noticed by the Southern Blues players and the Central American Country players. Each musical style quickly adapted the technique to their own particular styles. It is remarkable how the advancement of one technique can evolve in so many directions so differently.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth


Traditional Jazz

There is no better description or discussion of American Jazz than the documentary:

Jazz - A Film by Ken Burns

We heartily recommend you get the DVD set and view the whole thing.


Gospel Music

To make sense of Gospel Music, the starting point should be in Africa prior to the slave trade.  This would be required to gain an understanding of the many African musical cultures, rhythms, cadence and spiritual roots.  I have no good source material on this topic and admit to having no first-hand knowledge or experience to draw upon. Therefore, let's start on this side of the ocean following the first waves of slaves on American soil:

Despite slaves being viewed as property, their captors still appeared to feel that their souls were worthy of saving.  The missionaries of the day, perhaps by conflicted conscience, tried from the start to bring the slaves to Jesus.  On some level, the heathen souls needed to be redirected away from their pagan rituals and irrational fears.  On another (very conscious) level, their spiritual souls needed to be controlled like all other aspects of their lives.  God fearing and Master fearing had a synergistic coexistence in the same teachings.  On a practical level, slaves could not be allowed to gather without oversight.  Gathering for spiritual needs had to be under the watchful eye of the benevolent Master.  This was easy if all spiritual gatherings were together under the banner of Christianity.  The slaves were encouraged to worship with the Master.  The teachings of Christianity were quite clear: the next life will be a much better one.  Readings were favored from St. Paul who outlined the necessity of being good servants and loving, obeying and trusting one’s Master.

Music is the universal language.  It does not require the ability to read nor any special education the get the message.  Christian hymns are relatively easy to understand - the melodies are  simple and repetitive.  The harmonies can be quite complex but the melody is easily identified.  Spiritual music, if lifted by many voices can be inspirational and impressive.  It shows common purpose and encourages participation by all - a way to feel a part of something larger than the self.  Christianity had a special appeal to those enslaved: it speaks of the common interests of all men in this life and the next.  It is about how all people are the same - a rather hopeful message - if only in theory.

Music can be viewed as the symbolic bond: the universal appeal, the common ground.  Working in the fields, to pass the time, to maintain an identity as a group, a call-and-response type of musical cadence emerged.  You don't need to know the words if someone is providing them and waiting for a response.  Everyone can have a voice, every one can participate, a sense of common cause in every line.  The tunes could be simple and based on the melodies heard in the Masters services.  The themes could be the same or different.  Jesus could be applied to the life of the moment, right there in the field with you, working side-by-side.

Emerging from the 1700s was an oral tradition.  If you needed to say something, lay it between the lines and sing it in the form of praise.  This was publicly acceptable: a way to be heard by God and your Master - even if neither fully understood what you were trying to say.  Hymns created the melodic base to work from.  The rhythm of life and African traditions provided the structure to interpret the Christian melodies.  


Christian worship was changing throughout the South during the 1800s as new waves of white immigrants were flooding into urban and rural regions.  Catholic and Protestant congregations were under pressure by new Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups.  With each wave of immigration in the great melting pot that is the American Experiment, new traditions arrived and conflicted with existing traditions and local fashions.  With each disagreement between factions came the insecurity that souls were being lost.  Traveling Revival Meetings became popular.  Some were pointedly denominational, some entirely non-denominational.   The idea was to whip up the congregants into such a religious fervor that they would flock back to Christ and the church both in spirit and by financial proxy.  Tithing was the norm and needed to be maintained and encouraged.  To encourage a back-falling population required a high level of theatrics and startling entertainment.  Music was a big part:  the songs needed to be popular and immediately compelling.  They had to work on the spot and work with an illiterate crowd.  The way to do it: call-and-response with lots of repetition.  Loud, energetic and compelling choirs in matching flowing robes of theatrical impact.  The choirs needed to look like they really meant what they were singing.  They swayed and choreographed their works, starting slowly and working up to a fevered crescendo.  If they could engage all the voices in the revival tents, it must have felt as if they were raising the roof.  People were freely encouraged to participate physically - to show their commitment and
demonstrate involvement with the Lord.  To shout, scream, dance and even fall to floor and speak in tongues.   All for the Glory of the Lord.  To the simple lives of the rural working folk, these meetings must have impressed the hell out them - as they did seem to win many souls back to the Glory of the Lord!

During the reconstruction following the Civil War, most black churches were small.  It was safer that way since large gatherings of Blacks seemed to make the local white populace a tad nervous.  Most of the churches did not have musical instruments. There may be banjos or guitars and tambourines available from time to time. Church choirs hadn't formed yet, and pianos were far too expensive. Most singing was a cappella. This tradition actually continues in some fellowships such as the Church of Christ.


Revival meetings, or "Gospel Crusades", grew in popularity through the 1800s.  They were Christian religious services held to inspire active members of a church body, to raise funds and to gain new converts. These meetings were predominantly arranged by American Protestant churches. They were also involved with missionary works conducting revivals in Africa and India.

Revival meetings consist of several consecutive nights of services in a single location. They may be in an existing church or related meeting house unless more space was needed. If necessary, a secular assembly hall was rented to provide a comfortable setting for non-Christians.  To reach a community where there are no churches or large public spaces, tents were used and occasionally still are.

The length of meetings varied. They may last a week or more, especially in the Southern United States. 3 or 4 days is also normal; though some are still held, especially in Pentecostal groups, "according to Holy Spirit time": until the positive results seem to slow or attendance dwindles.

Most groups holding revival meetings tended to be conservative or fundamentalist, though mainline churches, referring to them as "crusades", were also common - especially when a noted speaker like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham or Oral Roberts was involved.  In the Churches of Christ events were referred to as Gospel Meetings rather than revival meetings. Aside from the spectacular "crusade" events, most American Protestant groups (other than Baptists and Pentecostals) have held fewer revival meetings in recent years, but there have still been similar activities hosted by nondenominational community churches, most of which are conservative in theology.  Many revivals are attempts to catch the flavor and fervor of the original camp meetings.

The events were intended to be fun and entertaining.  They needed to be grand in scale and the type of event that had a powerful impact on a town or county - they needed to be the kind of event that nobody could afford to miss.  There was excitement generated in advance of a revival: press coverage, pulpit announcements and encouragement, promises of music and entertainment.  In some ways, the advance press had been carefully borrowed from the circus industry.  Each event was billed to be the biggest event to ever come to town.  The Evangelist was billed to be a remarkable man (or women) of the Lord, with speaking abilities renowned throughout the world.  Wonderful mythology was spun around the spiritual status of the speakers and their remarkable abilities to touch the spiritual souls of the hardest hearts.  In some cases they were said to have the power of healing and the ability to channel the love and faith of Jesus Christ.  Who, in their right mind, would want to miss such an event?

Music played an important role.  Large choirs of powerful voices and ornate robes were equipped with sophisticated musical vocal arrangements from some of the best talents of the day.  The traveling groups were well rehearsed in the theatrical art of building tension and choreographing each piece of music to the timing and message of the Evangelist.  It was marvelous and inspirational musical theatre, on a scale seldom experienced in small towns and rural regions of the country.  If nothing else, a revival meeting made for a great evening of music and entertainment: memorable, catchy and easy to understand but delivered with the subtle sophistication of the New York Philharmonic.  

To be sure: anyone that hears that level of performance leaves with a new appreciation of what's musically possible.  After seeing and hearing those tunes and their delivery, the small church choir probably didn't sound quite the same.  The existing hymnal arrangements may have appeared a bit flat and in need of updating.  This would be especially true in parts of the country where other powerful musical traditions were growing - like the Mississippi delta and all the towns and regions along the mighty rivers banks (and tributaries) all the way to Chicago.  New Orleans had been the hot-bed of Jass music (to become known as Jazz) and the new forms of Jazz and Blues were cross-pollinating wherever they were heard. They were inspirational, meaningful and fundamentally spiritual in their raw ability to make a person want to move.  They were easy to orchestrate and were not tied to any prescribed instrumentation.  It worked with tambourines, banjos, guitars, mandolins, pianos, organ and whatever else was available.  Most importantly, it worked with voices.  The voices worked both as instruments and with lyrics.  The lyrics, in their repetition, raw truth & simplicity, could touch the very soul.

1920s and Radio

The advent of radio in the 1920s increased the audience for Gospel Music.  Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was the 1st women to broadcast Gospel Music and a radio sermon in the early 1920s.  Music publisher James D. Vaughan used radio as an integral part of his business model; which included traveling quartets to publicize the Gospel Music books he published several times a year.  Virgil O. Stamps and Jesse R. Baxter studied Vaughan’s method of doing business and by the late 1920s were competing. The 1920s also saw the emergence of gospel records by groups including the Carter Family.

The first person to introduce the ragtime influence to gospel accompaniment as well as to play the piano on a gospel recording was Ms. Arizona Dranes.


Gospel quartets developed an a cappella style in African-American music following the earlier success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The 1930s saw the Fairfield Four, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys, the Swan Silvertones, the Charioteers, and the Golden Gate Quartet. While racism divided the nation; these groups were best known in the African-American community, but some gained an appreciative audience among whites.  There were many other relatively unknown black gospel musicians performing at the same time.

During the 1930s, in Chicago, Thomas A. Dorsey (best known as author of: "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"), who had spent the 1920s writing secular music, turned full time to Gospel Music.  He established a publishing house and is credited with inventing the black gospel style of piano music. Dorsey, son of a Baptist minister, learned piano from his mother.  He gained an appreciation of the blues when he moved to Atlanta GA. Dorsey is credited with developing the musical careers of many African-American artists, including Mahalia Jackson.  

The National Baptist Convention first publicly endorsed the use of Gospel Music for worship at its 1930 meeting. Meanwhile, radio continued to develop the audience for Gospel Music. This notion was commemorated in Albert E. Brumley's 1937 song: "Turn Your Radio On".  


Following the 2nd World War, Gospel Music concerts became more elaborate. In 1950, black gospel was featured at Carnegie Hall when Joe Bostic produced the Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival.  He repeated it the next year with an expanded list of performing artists, and in 1959 moved to Madison Square Garden. Today, black gospel and white gospel are distinct genres, with distinct audiences. In white gospel, there is a large Gospel Music Association and a Gospel Music Hall of Fame, which includes a few black artists, such as Mahalia Jackson, but which ignores most black artists. In the black community, James Cleveland established the Gospel Music Workshop of America in 1969.

Gospel as Influence

Towns along the Mississippi like Memphis TN, whose life blood flowed from commerce on the river, were flooded with these new musical and cultural influences.  The Pentecostal churches swelled with Jazz and Blues infused Gospel music.  The choirs filled with the enthusiastic communities and the local musicians contributed their talents on guitar, bass, and percussion.  With the advent of electrical amplification, the instrumentation evolved to electric guitars and bass, drums, Hammond Organs and whatever other instruments were well played by willing parishioners.  In rural communities, it was something for the young to do to stay out of trouble.  Being a part of the church musical establishment was considered to be a grand and holy endeavor.  Parents could be proud of their children's participation and encouraged it.  This was true common cause: where the whole community came together.  The South was still deeply segregated but everyone could appreciate the musical contributions of all races and social backgrounds.  Talent was talent, and good music was understood by all.  If the music moved you, it was art.  It was full of soul and clearly spiritual in content then it must be Heavenly ordained.

On Tuesday, December 4th, 1956, Elvis Presley was home for Christmas. 13 months earlier, Sam Phillips of Sun Studios, Memphis TN, had sold his contract to RCA. Elvis dropped in, unannounced, to visit Sam at Sun Studios where his success had begun.  Carl Perkins was there that day, trying to work out something to follow the success he had with the release of "Blue Suede Shoes" earlier that year.  He was working with studio piano player Jerry Lee Lewis.  Lewis had released his 1st record just 3 days before and was pretty sure he would rise the to prominence of the other two.  The 3 had never worked together and had no real knowledge of each other.  There the 3 musicians were, in the 1 room studio with a variety of instruments.  They decided to try & jam for fun.  Sam Phillips knew he couldn't record the session as he didn't own Elvis' contract any more, but he secretly started the tape machine anyway, figuring he sit on the tape forever.  Who knew, he may find a use for it someday.

The 3 probed for common musical ground and randomly tried a few Christmas carols followed by a few of Elvis' hits.  Nothing special appeared to be happening until one of them started: "When The Saints Come Marching In".  The sparks began to fly as each had deep roots on the Gospel music.  They each grew up in the same region with similar church music, each sang and performed in church, each thoroughly understood Gospel music's structure and harmonic possibilities.  They suddenly had common ground and each individual talent shined.  Their musical roots were crystal clear. The new music they were playing: Rockabilly, had matching genetic origins: Gospel, Jazz & Blues.

The Evangelists

The following represents a few of the many traveling Evangelists of the 19th and 20th century in America. There were others and there are still some today.  These are outlined to help establish the feel or flavor of the times and their impact on the culture and music of the day.

Dwight L. Moody (February 5th, 1837 - December 22nd, 1899)

Following the American rural/frontier history of revival and camp meeting songs, the urban mass revival movement started with evangelist Dwight L. Moody and the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. Moody met musician Ira D. Sankey in 1870 and collaborated to make changes to the form of the gospel hymn. They reshaped it to suit Moody's vision of a more exciting music, better suited to the success of his revival meetings.  They employed popular singers and song leaders who used songs by writers such as George F. Root, P. P. Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, William Howard Doane, and Fanny Crosby. The 1st published use of the term “Gospel” to describe this kind of music was in the 1870s. In 1874, P. P. Bliss edited a collection titled 'Gospel Songs', and in 1875 P. P. Bliss and Ira Sankey expanded their collection by issuing 'Gospel Hymns, No’s. 1 to 6'.  Sankey is quoted as saying: "Before I sing I must feel".

Following successes of revivals in England, Moody brought his methods to American cities.  He was well received and ultimately expanded into the rural areas of America.  The efforts were Grand and profitable bringing wealth and notoriety to himself and spanning a crop of others who felt they could cash-in on these new methods of bringing souls to the Lord.

The popularity of revival singers and the openness of rural churches to this type of music led to the late 19th and early 20th century establishment of Gospel Music publishing houses including: Homer Rodeheaver, E. O. Excell, Charlie Tillman, and Charles Tindley. These publishers were in the market for large quantities of new music, providing an outlet for the creative work of many songwriters and composers.

The holiness-Pentecostal movement, or sanctified movement, appealed to common folk not attuned to more sophisticated or traditional church music.  Instrumentation was provided by whatever the congregants had at their disposal - notably, what they knew how to play. These included: tambourines, drums, banjos, mandolins, guitars, electric guitars (& bass), horns, etc.  Pentecostal churches readily adopted and contributed to the gospel music publications of the early 20th century. Late 20th century musicians such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch, and the Blackwood Brothers either were raised in a Pentecostal environment or have acknowledged the influence of that tradition.

Billy Sunday (November 19th, 1862 - November 6th, 1935)

William Ashley "Billy Sunday" Sonntag was a popular outfielder in the National Baseball League during the 1880s, who eventually became one of the most celebrated and influential American evangelists of the first 2 decades of the 20th century.

Billy Sunday was born near Ames, Iowa as the son of German immigrants, who anglicized their last name to "Sunday" when they settled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  His father died of disease 5 weeks after Billy's birth.  His mother: Mary Jane Sunday and her children moved in with her parents for a few years, and young Billy became close to his grandparents and especially his grandmother. Mary Jane Sunday later remarried, but her second husband soon deserted the family.  When Billy Sunday was 10 years old, his impoverished mother sent him and an older brother to the Soldiers' Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa, and later to the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home in Davenport, Iowa. At the orphanage, Sunday gained orderly habits, a decent primary education, and the realization that he was a good athlete.

By age 14, Sunday was fending for himself. In 1880, he relocated to Marshalltown, Iowa, where he was recruited for a fire brigade team. In Marshalltown, he worked at odd jobs, competed in fire brigade tournaments, and played for the town baseball team.  In 1882, with Sunday in left field, the Marshalltown team defeated the state champion Des Moines team 13-4. Sunday was an impressive runner and joined the Chicago White Stockings as a professional player on May 22nd, 1883.  As a professional player his stats were: Batting average: .248 over 499 games, Home runs: 12, Runs batted in: 170, Stolen bases: 246. Teams: Chicago White Stockings (1883-1887), Pittsburgh Alleghenys (1888-1890), Philadelphia Phillies (1890).  Career highlights and awards: National League Pennant: 1885 & 1886.

Sunday's speed was his greatest asset. In 1885, the White Stockings arranged a race between Sunday and Arlie Latham, the fastest runner in the American Association. Sunday won the 100 yard dash by about ten feet.  His personality, demeanor, and raw ability made him popular with the fans and teammates. Manager Cap Anson considered Sunday reliable enough to make him the team's business manager, which included such duties as handling the ticket receipts and paying the team's travel expenses.

Sunday remained a prominent baseball fan throughout his life. He frequently umpired minor league and amateur games in the cities where he held revivals and attended baseball games whenever he could, including a 1935 World Series game 2 months before he died.

Holy Conversion

On a Sunday afternoon in Chicago during either the 1886 or 1887 baseball season, Sunday and several of his teammates were out on the town for their day off. They stopped to listen to a gospel preaching team from the Pacific Garden Mission on a street corner.  Attracted by the hymns he had heard his mother sing, Sunday began attending services at the mission.  A former society matron who worked there eventually convinced Sunday that he should become a Christian.  He began attending the fashionable Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church which was convenient to both the ball park and his rented room.  Although he socialized with his teammates and sometimes gambled, Sunday was not a heavy drinker. In his autobiography, he said, "I never drank much. I was never drunk but four times in my life. ... I used to go to the saloons with the baseball players, and while they would drink highballs and gin fizzes and beer, I would take lemonade."  Following his conversion, Sunday denounced drinking, swearing, and gambling, and his changed behavior was recognized by both teammates and fans. Sunday shortly thereafter began speaking in churches and at YMCAs.

Taking a Wife

In 1886, Sunday was introduced to Helen Amelia "Nell" Thompson, daughter of the owner of one of Chicago's largest dairy products businesses. Her father strongly discouraged the courtship, viewing all professional baseball players as "transient ne'er-do-wells who were unstable and destined to be misfits once they were too old to play."  Nevertheless, Sunday pursued and eventually married her.  On several occasions, Sunday said, "She was a Presbyterian, so I am a Presbyterian. Had she been a Catholic, I would have been a Catholic — because I was hot on the trail of Nell".  Mrs. Thompson had liked Sunday from the start and supported him.  Mr. Thompson eventually relented. The couple was married on September 5th, 1888.

In the spring of 1891, Sunday turned down a baseball contract for $3,000 a year to accept a position with the Chicago YMCA at $83 per month. Sunday's job title was Assistant Secretary, yet the position involved a great deal of ministerial work.  It proved to be good training for his evangelistic career. For 3 years Sunday visited the sick, prayed with the troubled, counseled the suicidal and visited saloons to invite patrons to evangelistic meetings.

In 1893, Sunday became the full-time assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the best known evangelists in the United States at the time.  Chapman was well educated and was a meticulous dresser, "suave and urbane."  Personally shy, like Sunday, Chapman commanded respect in the pulpit both because of his strong voice and his sophisticated demeanor.  Sunday's job as Chapman's advance man was to precede the evangelist to cities in which he was scheduled to preach, organize prayer meetings and choirs, and in general take care of necessary details.  When tents were used, Sunday would often help erect them.  Sunday was methodically becoming well versed in all aspects of the evangelical business.

By listening to Chapman preach night after night, Sunday learned the art of homiletics.  Chapman took the time to critique Sunday's own attempts at evangelistic preaching and showed him how to assemble a good sermon.  Chapman also encouraged Sunday's theological development, especially by emphasizing the importance of prayer and by helping to "reinforce Billy's commitment to conservative biblical Christianity."

On His Own

In 1896 Sunday struck out on his own.  He began with meetings in the small town of Garner, Iowa.  For the next 12 years Sunday preached in approximately 70 communities, most of them in Iowa and Illinois.  Sunday referred to these meetings as the "kerosene circuit" because, unlike Chicago, most were not yet electrified.  

Sunday exploited his reputation as a professional baseball player to generate advertising for his meetings. For example: in 1907 in Fairfield, Iowa, he organized local businesses into 2 baseball teams and scheduled a game between them.  He came dressed in his professional uniform and played on both sides.  Although baseball was his primary means of publicity at the time, He once hired a circus giant to serve as an usher.

When Sunday began to attract crowds bigger than the rural churches or town halls could accommodate, he rented canvas tents.  Sunday did much of the physical work of putting them up himself, manipulating ropes during storms, and seeing to their security by sleeping in them at night. Not until 1905 was he doing well enough financially to hire advance man.

In 1906, an October snowstorm in Salida, Colorado destroyed his tent.  This was a financial disaster because revivalists were typically paid with a freewill offering at the end of their meetings.  From that point forward he insisted that towns build him temporary wooden tabernacles at their expense.  The tabernacles were comparatively costly to build (although most of the lumber could be salvaged and resold at the end of the meetings). Locals had to put up the money for them in advance.  This change in Sunday's operation brought more attention to the financial details of the campaigns.  In the beginning, raising tabernacles provided good public relations for the coming meetings as townspeople joined together in what was effectively a giant barn-raising.  Sunday built rapport by participating in the process.  The tabernacles also indicated a rise in status for Sunday: they had previously been built only for major evangelists such as Chapman.

Nell Sunday As Administrator

11 years into Sunday's evangelistic career, both he and his wife had been pushed to their emotional limits.  Long separations had exacerbated his innate feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.  Sunday was a product of a childhood that could be described as a series of losses - He was extremely dependent on his wife's love and encouragement.  Nell, meanwhile, found it increasingly difficult to handle household responsibilities, the needs of 4 children (including a newborn), and the long-distance emotional welfare of her husband.  Sunday's ministry was expanding and needed an administrator. Nell was ideally suited for the job.  In 1908, the Sundays decided to entrust their children to a nanny to free-up Nell to manage the revival campaigns.

Nell Sunday quickly transformed her husband's organization into a "nationally renowned phenomenon".  New personnel were hired, and by the New York campaign of 1917, the Sundays had a paid staff of 26.  There were professional musicians, custodians and advance men; Bible teachers of both sexes, who among other responsibilities, held daytime meetings at schools and shops and encouraged their audiences to attend the main tabernacle services in the evenings.  The most significant of these new staff members were Homer Rodeheaver, an exceptional song leader and music director who worked with the Sundays for almost 20 years.  Also added to the staff was Virginia Healey Asher, who regularly sang duets with Rodeheaver and directed the women's ministries, especially the evangelization of young working women.  Please remember that the suffrage movement was growing at the time and the ministries were instrumental in creating the environment for political change and gaining women the right to vote.

Larger Crowds and Bigger Events

Sunday was now free to do what he did best: compose and deliver moving sermons.  On a normal evening campaign, Homer Rodeheaver would warm up the crowd with congregational singing that alternated with numbers from gigantic choirs and music performed by the professional staff.  When Sunday felt the moment right, he would launch into his message.  Sunday gyrated, stood on the pulpit, ran from one end of the platform to the other, and dove across the stage, pretending to slide into home plate.  Sometimes chairs were smashed to emphasize his points.  His sermon notes had to be printed in very large letters so that he could glimpse them as he raced by the pulpit.  In messages attacking sexual sin to male-only crowds, Sunday could be quite graphic for the era. Some religious and social leaders criticized his exaggerated gestures as well as the slang and colloquialisms that filled his sermons, but the audiences clearly enjoyed them.

Crowd noise (coughing and crying babies) was a significant problem for Sunday as the wooden tabernacles were so acoustically live.  During his preliminaries, Rodeheaver often instructed audiences how to muffle their coughs.  Nurseries were provided, infants forbidden, and Sunday sometimes appeared rude in his haste to rid the hall of noisy children who somehow slipped past the ushers.  The wooden Tabernacle floors were covered with sawdust to dampen the noise of shuffling feet (and for the pleasant smell and sawdusts ability to hold down the dirt dust). Coming forward during the invitation became known as "hitting the sawdust trail".

The Big Cities

By 1910 Sunday began to conduct meetings (usually longer than a month) in small cities like Youngstown, Wilkes-Barre, South Bend, and Denver, and then finally (between 1915 and 1917) the major cities of Philadelphia, Syracuse, Kansas City, Detroit, Boston, Buffalo, and New York City.  During the 1910s, Sunday was front page news in the cities where he held campaigns. Newspapers often printed his sermons in full, and during World War I, local coverage of his campaigns sometimes surpassed news of the war.  Sunday was the subject of over 60 articles in major periodicals and a staple of the religious press.

Over the course of his long career, Sunday probably preached to more than 100,000,000 people (in person). The great majority of these were done without electronic amplification.  Vast numbers "hit the sawdust trail".  Although the usual total given for those who came forward at invitations is an even 1,000,000, estimates the true figure to be closer to 1,250,000.  In more realistic terms: Sunday did not preach to 100,000,000 different individuals, but to many of the same people repeatedly over the course of a campaign. Before his death, Sunday estimated that he had preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935.  During his heyday, when he was preaching more than 20 times each week, his crowds were often huge.  Even in 1923, well into the period of his decline, 479,300 people attended the 79 meetings of the 6-week 1923 Columbia, South Carolina, campaign — 23 times the white population of Columbia. "Trail hitters" were also not necessarily conversions to Christianity.  Sometimes whole groups of club members came forward en masse at Sunday's prodding.  By 1927, Rodeheaver was complaining that Sunday's invitations had become so general that they were meaningless.

The Cost of Success

An efficient organization and consistently large crowds meant that Sunday was netting hefty offerings.  The 1st questions about Sunday's income were apparently raised during the Columbus, Ohio, campaign at the turn of 1912-13.  During the Pittsburgh campaign a year later, Sunday spoke 4 times per day and effectively made $217 per sermon or $870 a day at a time when the average gainfully employed worker made $836 per year.  The major cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and New York City gave Sunday even larger offerings.  Sunday donated Chicago's offering of $58,000 to Pacific Garden Mission and the $120,500 New York offering to war charities.  Nevertheless, between 1908 and 1920, the Sundays earned over a $1,000,000; an average worker during the same period earned less than $14,000.

Sunday's notoriety allowed him to be welcomed into the inner circle of the social, economic, and political elite.  He included among his neighbors and acquaintances several prominent businessmen.  He dined with politicians including Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and counted both Herbert Hoover and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as friends.  During and after the 1917 Los Angeles campaign, the Sundays visited with Hollywood stars and members of Sunday's organization played a charity baseball game against a team of show-business personalities that included Douglas Fairbanks.

The Sunday family enjoyed dressing well and dressing their children well; they sported expensive but tasteful coats, boots, and jewelry.  Nell Sunday also bought land as an investment.  In 1909 the Sundays bought an apple orchard in Hood River, Oregon, where they vacationed for several years.  Although the property sported only a rustic cabin, reporters referred to it as a "ranch".  Sunday was a soft-touch with money and gave away much of his earnings.  Neither Billy nor Nell were extravagant spenders.  Although Sunday enjoyed driving, the couple never owned a car.  In 1911 the Sundays moved to Winona Lake, Indiana and built an American Craftsman-style bungalow which they called "Mount Hood".  This was probably a reminder of their Oregon vacation cabin.  The bungalow, furnished in the popular Arts and Crafts style, had 2 porches and a terraced garden but only 9 rooms, 2,500 square feet of living space and no garage.

Billy Sunday's Religious Views

Billy Sunday was a conservative evangelical who accepted fundamentalist doctrines.  He affirmed and preached the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, a literal devil and hell, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. At the turn of the 20th century, most Protestant church members, regardless of denomination, gave assent to these doctrines. Sunday refused to hold meetings in cities where he was not welcomed by the vast majority of the Protestant churches and their clergy.  Nevertheless, Sunday was not a separationist as were most orthodox Protestants of his era. He went out of his way to avoid criticizing the Roman Catholic Church and even met with Cardinal Gibbons during his 1916 Baltimore campaign.  Also, cards filled out by "trail hitters" were faithfully returned to the church or denomination that the writers had indicated as their choice—including Catholic and Unitarian.

Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1903, his ministry was nondenominational and he was not a strict Calvinist.  He preached that individuals were responsible for their own salvation.  "Trail hitters" were given a four-page tract that stated, "if you have done your part (i.e. believe that Christ died in your place, and receive Him as your Savior and Master) God has done HIS part and imparted to you His own nature.”  Sunday never attended seminary and made no pretense of being a theologian or an intellectual, but he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and he was well read on religious and social issues of his day. His surviving Winona Lake library of six hundred books gives evidence of heavy use, including underscoring and reader's notes in his characteristic all-caps printing. Some of Sunday's books were even those of religious opponents. He was later charged, probably correctly, with plagiarizing a Decoration Day speech given by the noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll.

Sunday's homespun preaching had a wide appeal to his audiences, who were "entertained, reproached, exhorted, and astonished." Sunday claimed to be "an old-fashioned preacher of the old-time religion," and his uncomplicated sermons spoke of a personal God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and following the moral lessons of the Bible. Sunday's theology, although sometimes denigrated as simplistic, was situated within mainstream Protestantism of his time.

Billy Sunday's Social and Political Views

Sunday was a lifelong Republican and he espoused the mainstream political and social views of his native Midwest: individualism, competitiveness, personal discipline, and opposition to government regulation.  Writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Henry M. Tichenor, and John Reed attacked Sunday as a tool of big business, and poet Carl Sandburg called him a "four-flusher" and a "bunk shooter".  Nevertheless, Sunday sided with Progressives on some issues: he denounced child labor and supported urban reform and women's suffrage.  Sunday condemned capitalists "whose private lives are good, but whose public lives are very bad" as well as those "who would not pick the pockets of one man with the fingers of their hand" but who would "without hesitation pick the pockets of 80,000,000 people with fingers of their monopoly or commercial advantage".  He never lost his sympathy for the poor and he sincerely tried to bridge the gulf between the races during the nadir of the Jim Crow era, although on at least 2 occasions in the mid-1920s Sunday received contributions from the Ku Klux Klan.

Sunday was a passionate supporter of World War I. In 1918 he said, "I tell you it is [Kaiser] Bill against Woodrow, Germany against America, Hell against Heaven."  Sunday raised large amounts of money for the troops, sold war bonds, and stumped for recruitment.

Sunday had been an ardent champion of temperance from his earliest days as an evangelist, and his ministry at the Chicago YMCA had given him first-hand experience with the destructive potential of alcohol.  Sunday's most famous sermon was "Get on the Water Wagon", which he preached on countless occasions with both histrionic emotion and a "mountain of economic and moral evidence".  Sunday said, "I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command."  Sunday played a significant role in arousing public interest in Prohibition and in the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919.  When the tide of public opinion turned against Prohibition, he continued to support it.  After its repeal in 1933, Sunday called for its reintroduction.

Sunday also opposed eugenics, recent immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and the teaching of evolution.  Further, he criticized such popular middle-class amusements as dancing, playing cards, attending the theatre, and reading novels.  However, he strongly believed baseball was a healthy and patriotic form of recreation, so long as it was not played on Sundays.

1935 - Final Days

Sunday's popularity waned after World War I when radio and movie theaters became his competitors for the public's interests.  The Sundays' health also declined as they continued to drive themselves through rounds of smaller revivals — but with ever fewer staff members for assistance.

Tragedy marred Sunday's final years. His three sons engaged in many of the activities he preached against, and the Sundays paid blackmail to several women to keep the scandals relatively quiet.  In 1930, their housekeeper and nanny, who had become a virtual member of the family, died.  Then the Sundays' daughter, the only child actually raised by Nell, died in 1932 of what appeared to have been multiple sclerosis.  Their oldest son: George, rescued from financial ruin by the Sundays, committed suicide in 1933.

Even as the crowds declined during the last 15 years of his life, Sunday soldiered on, accepting preaching invitations and speaking with effect.  In early 1935, he had a mild heart attack, and his doctor advised him to stay out of the pulpit.  Sunday ignored the advice.  He died on November 6th, a week after preaching his last sermon on the text "What must I do to be saved?"

Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9th, 1890 – September 27th, 1944)

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy was born on a farm in Salford, Ontario, Canada.  Young Aimee got her first exposure to religion through her mother, Mildred who regularly volunteered in the local Salvation Army soup kitchen.  As a child she played "Salvation Army" and would gather a congregation of her dolls and give them sermons.  As a teenager, McPherson strayed from her mother's teachings by reading novels and going to movies and dances, all of which were strongly disapproved by the Salvation Army. In high school, she was taught Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution and began to question local pastors about faith and science, but was not happy with the answers.  She sent a letter to a Canadian newspaper: the Family Herald and Weekly Star, asking why taxpayers supported public schools teaching evolution.  While still in high school, McPherson began a life-long crusade against evolution.


While attending a revival meeting in December 1907, Aimee met Robert James Semple, a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland.  After a short courtship, they were married on August 12th, 1908. The 2 then embarked on an evangelistic tour, 1st to Europe and then to China, where they arrived in June 1910. Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong, both contracted malaria.  Robert Semple died on August 19th, 1910, and was buried in Hong Kong Cemetery.  Aimee Semple recovered and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17th, 1910.  She and her child returned to the United States.

While recuperating, Semple joined her mother in New York City, working with the Salvation Army.  While there, she met Harold Stewart McPherson, an local accountant. They were married on May 5th, 1912, and had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson in March 1913.

1913 - As a Preacher

In 1913, McPherson began a preaching career.  In June 1915 she began evangelizing and holding tent revivals while touring Canada and the USA.  She started by traveling up and down the eastern US, then expanding to other parts of the country.  Her revivals were often standing-room only.  One such revival was held in a boxing ring, with the meeting before and after the match.  Throughout the boxing event she walked about with a sign reading "Knock Out the Devil".  In San Diego, California, the National Guard was needed to control a revival crowd of over 30,000.

McPherson practiced speaking in tongues but rarely emphasized it.  She was also known as a faith healer and there were claims of physical healing occurring during her meetings, although this became less important as her fame increased.

1918 - The Gospel Car

Around 1916, McPherson embarked on a tour of the Southern United States in what she called her "Gospel Car".  Traveling with her was her mother Mildred.  The vehicle was a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans.  Standing on the back seat of the convertible, McPherson preached sermons over a megaphone.  On the road between sermons, she would sit in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials.  By 1917 she had started her own magazine: 'The Bridal Call' for which she wrote articles about women’s roles in religion and the link she saw between Christians and Jesus as a marriage bond.  The magazine contributed to the rising women’s suffrage movement.

Despite her husbands efforts to join her on her religious travels; by 1918 he had filed for separation.  His petition for divorce was granted, citing abandonment, in 1921.

A battle between 'fundamentalists' and 'modernists' escalated following World War I, with many modernists seeking less conservative religious faiths.  Soldiers returning from overseas had been exposed to all manner of new cultural influences and generally believed in further expansion of their horizons. Fundamentalists generally believed their religious faith should govern every aspect of their lives.  McPherson sought to eradicate modernism and secularism in homes, churches, schools and communities and developed a strong following in what she called "the Foursquare Gospel" by blending contemporary culture with religious teachings.  The term "Foursquare Gospel" came about during an intense revival in the city of Oakland, California, in July 1922.  To a crowd of thousands, Aimee Semple McPherson explained Ezekiel's vision: chapter one of the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel saw God revealed as a being with four different faces: a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.  To Sister McPherson, those four faces were like the four phases of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the face of the man, she saw Jesus our Savior.  In the face of the lion, she saw Jesus the mighty Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and fire.  In the face of the ox, she saw Jesus the Great Burden-Bearer, who took our infirmities and carried our sicknesses.  In the face of the eagle, she saw Jesus the Coming King, who will return in power and victory for the church.   It was a perfect, complete Gospel.  It was a Gospel that faces squarely in every direction; it was the “Foursquare Gospel”.

From mid-1919 to 1922 McPherson expanded her influence in cities such as Baltimore by way of her impassioned revivals that sometimes lasted as long as 4 weeks.  In December 1919, she went to Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House to conduct 17 days of meetings.  Her appearance caught the attention of the Baltimore Sun, which ran a 1,000 word column on her in the December 6th, 1919, issue.  During the interview the Sun reporter asked McPherson how she arrived at the conclusion that Baltimore needed a revival.  “As soon as I entered the city I saw the need.  Women were sitting in the dining room smoking with the men,”  McPherson replied.  “I took up the newspapers and I saw card parties and dances advertised in connection with the churches.  There was a coldness.  Card parties, dances, theaters, all represent agencies of the devil to distract the attention of men and women away from spirituality . . .”   While McPherson had traveled extensively in her evangelical work prior to arriving in Baltimore, it was in Baltimore that she was first “discovered” by the newspapers while sitting with her mother in the red plush parlor of the Belvedere Hotel on December 5th, 1919, a day after conducting evangelistic services at the Lyric Opera House.

Around this time, Los Angeles had become a popular vacation spot.  Rather than touring the United States to preach her sermons, McPherson decided to stay in LA, drawing audiences from a population that had soared from 100,000 in 1900 to 575,000 in 1920 and was still growing.  She had understood the potential of the new media: Radio - and reckoned that there is no longer any need to actually travel when the magic of the radio can deliver your message throughout the country.

Wearied by constant travel and understanding the stress it places on trying to raise a family, McPherson envisioned settling in Los Angeles, where she could maintain both a house and a church.  McPherson believed that by creating her church in Los Angeles, her audience could consist of the many tourists and vacationers in the area.  This made it possible for people to hear her Gospel message and then the tourists would take it back to their home communities.  She was planting seeds that could geminate all over the country.  To fulfill this vision, she continued to travel for several years to raise the money for the construction of a large church building in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles.  The church would be named Angelus Temple.  Raising more money than she had hoped, McPherson altered the original plans, and built a "mega-church" that could draw many followers throughout the years.  The church was dedicated on January 1st, 1923.  The auditorium had a seating capacity of 5,300 people and was filled 3 times each day, 7 days a week. At first, McPherson preached every service, often in a dramatic theatrical presentation she assembled to attract audiences.  Eventually, the church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  The new denomination focused 1st on the nature of Christ's character, that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer and coming King.  There were 4 main beliefs: the 1st being Christ's ability to transform individuals' lives through the act of salvation; the 2nd focused on a holy baptism; the 3rd was divine healing; and the 4th was gospel-oriented heed to the premillennial return of Jesus Christ.

Pentecostalism was not popular in the U.S. during the 1920s, consequently, McPherson avoided the label.  She did, however, make demonstrations of speaking-in-tongues and faith healing in sermons.  She kept a museum of crutches, wheelchairs and other paraphernalia.  As evidence of her early influence by the Salvation Army, McPherson adopted a theme of "lighthouses" for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the "Salvation Navy".  This was the beginning of McPherson working to plant Foursquare Gospel churches around the country.  McPherson published the weekly 'Foursquare Crusader' along with her monthly magazine 'Bridal Call'.  She began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s.  McPherson was one of the first women to preach a radio sermon; and with the opening of Foursquare Gospel - owned KFSG on February 6th, 1924, she became the second woman granted a broadcast license by the Department of Commerce, the agency that supervised broadcasting in the early 1920s.

McPherson preached a conservative gospel but in progressive ways, through radio, movies and stage acts.  Advocacy for women's rights was on the rise, including women's suffrage through the 19th Amendment.  McPherson gained support from women associated with modernism, despite the contradiction of her preaching about the evils of modernity.  By accepting and using these new media outlets, she helped integrate her message into people’s daily lives (this also contradicted her disapproval of the modern mass-media).

1925 - Never Miss an Opportunity

In August 1925 McPherson decided to charter a plane to return to Los Angeles so she would not miss delivering her Sunday sermon.  Aware of the opportunity for publicity, she arranged for at least 2,000 followers and members of the press to be present at the airport.  The plane failed after takeoff and the landing gear collapsed, sending the nose of the plane into the ground.  McPherson boarded another plane and used the experience as the narrative of an illustrated Sunday sermon called "The Heavenly Airplane".  The stage in Angelus Temple was set up with two miniature planes and a skyline that looked like Los Angeles.  In this sermon, McPherson described how the 1st plane had the devil for the pilot, sin for the engine and temptation as the propeller.  The other plane, however, was piloted by Jesus and would lead one to the Holy City (the skyline shown on stage).  The temple was filled to capacity.  

On another occasion, she described being pulled over by a police officer, calling the sermon "Arrested for Speeding".  McPherson employed a small group of artists, electricians, decorators and carpenters who built the sets for each Sunday's service.  Religious music was played by a full orchestra.  Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton wrote, "McPherson found no contradiction between her rejection of Hollywood values for her use of show-business techniques.  She would not hesitate to use the devil's tools to tear down the devil's house".  Collections were taken at every meeting, often with the admonishment: "no coins, please".

McPherson racially integrated her tent meetings and church services.  On one occasion, as a response to McPherson's ministry and Angelus Temple being integrated, Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park.  She is also credited with helping many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles.

During 1925 McPherson received several death threats and an alleged plot to kidnap her was foiled in September of the same year.

Education and Politics

By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic and influential women and ministers of her time. According to Carey McWilliams, she had become "more than just a household word: she was a folk hero and a civic institution; an honorary member of the fire and police departments; a patron saint of the service clubs; an official spokesman for the community on problems grave and frivolous".  She was influential in social, educational and political arenas.  McPherson made personal crusades against anything that she felt threatened her Christian ideals, including the drinking of alcohol and teaching evolution in schools.

McPherson became a strong supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes was tried for illegally teaching evolution at a Dayton, Tennessee school.  Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple and they believed social Darwinism had undermined students' morality.  According to McPherson, evolution "is the greatest triumph of Satanic intelligence in 5,931 years of devilish warfare, against the Hosts of Heaven.  It is poisoning the minds of the children of the nation."  She sent Bryan a telegram saying, "10,000 members of Angelus Temple with her millions of radio church membership send grateful appreciation of your lion-hearted championship of the Bible against evolution and throw our hats in the ring with you."  She organized "an all night prayer service, a massive church meeting preceded by a Bible parade through Los Angeles" in his support.

1926 - Kidnapping

On May 18th, 1926 McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim.  Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found.  It was thought she had drowned.

McPherson was scheduled to hold a service that day.  Her mother Minnie Kennedy preached the sermon instead, saying at the end, "Sister is with Jesus" sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy.  Mourners crowded Venice Beach and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner and a stirring poem by Upton Sinclair to commemorate the tragedy.  Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils.  One parishioner drowned while searching for the body, and another diver died of exposure.

Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for radio station KFSG, had also disappeared at about the same time.  Some believed McPherson and Ormiston, who was married, had become romantically involved and had run off together.  After about a month Minnie Kennedy received a ransom note - signed by "The Avengers" - which demanded a $500,000 or else the kidnappers would sell McPherson into "white slavery".  Kennedy later said that she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter was already dead.

On June 23rd, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona.  She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and held for ransom in a shack by a man and a woman: "Steve" and "Mexicali Rose".  Her story also claimed she had escaped from her captors and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.  McPherson seemed in unusually good health for her alleged ordeal and her clothes showed no signs of the long walk through the desert.  A grand jury convened on July 8th, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed.  Five witnesses then claimed to have seen McPherson at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea (the cottage having been rented by Ormiston under an assumed name).  Ormiston admitted to having rented the cottage but claimed that the woman who had been there with him — known in the press as Mrs. X — was not McPherson but another woman with whom he was engaging in an extramarital affair.

The grand jury reconvened on August 3rd and took further testimony along with documents from hotels, all said to be in McPherson's handwriting.  McPherson steadfastly stuck to her story, that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, and that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform.  When she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston, the judge charged McPherson and her mother with obstruction of justice.  To combat the bad newspaper publicity, McPherson spoke freely about the court trials on the air from her church owned radio station.

Surprisingly, the prosecution of Aimee Semple McPherson generated support for her from interesting sources:  Local flappers attended the trial in support of McPherson, whom they regarded as a modern woman similar to themselves, and whose prosecution they believed was motivated by issues of gender.  Newspaperman and cynic H.L. Mencken, previously a vocal critic of McPherson's, had been sent to cover the trial and came away impressed with McPherson and disdainful of the unseemly nature of the prosecution.

Theories and innuendo were rampant: that she had run off with a lover, she had gone off to have an abortion, she was taking time to heal from plastic surgery, or she had staged a publicity stunt. The Examiner newspaper then reported that Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes had dropped all charges on January 10th, 1927.

The tale was later satirized by Pete Seeger in a song called "The Ballad of Aimee McPherson," with lyrics claiming the kidnapping had been unlikely because a hotel love nest revealed "the dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose".

1930 - Milton Berle

In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, comedian Milton Berle claimed he had a brief affair with McPherson in 1930.  He claimed that he met McPherson at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where both were doing a charity show.  Upon seeing her for the first time, Berle recalled, "I was both impressed and very curious ... She was all dignity and class when it came her turn.  The house went wild when she walked out into the lights."  Backstage, she invited him to see Angelus Temple.  Instead, the two of them went to lunch in Santa Monica, then to an apartment of hers where McPherson changed into something "cooler: a very thin, pale blue negligee."  Berle said he could see she was wearing nothing underneath and that she only said, "Come in."  Berle said they met for the second and last time at the same apartment a few days later, writing, "This time, she just sent the chauffeur for me to bring me straight to the apartment.  We didn't even bother with lunch.  When I was dressing to leave, she stuck out her hand. 'Good luck with your show, Milton.' What the hell.  I couldn't resist it.  'Good luck with yours, Aimee.'  I never saw or heard from Aimee Semple McPherson again.  But whenever I hear 'Yes, Sir, That's My Baby,' I remember her."  Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton commented, "Berle, a notorious womanizer whose many tales of scandalous affairs were not always true, claimed to have had sex with McPherson on this and one other occasion" both during a year when McPherson was often ill and bedridden.  Sutton also wrote that Berle's story of a crucifix in her bedroom was not consistent with the coolness of Pentecostal-Catholic relations during that era.

1935 - The Later Years

Following her heyday in the 1920s, McPherson carried on with her ministry but fell out of favor with the press. She became caught up in power struggles for the church with her mother and daughter and suffered a nervous breakdown in August 1930.

On September 13th, 1931, McPherson married again, to actor and musician David Hutton; the marriage got off to a rocky start. 2 days after the wedding, Hutton was sued for alienation of affections by Hazel St. Pierre, although Hutton claimed he had never met her.  He eventually settled the case by paying St. Pierre $5,000.  While McPherson was away in Europe, she was angered to learn Hutton was billing himself as "Aimee's Man" in his cabaret singing act.  The marriage also caused an uproar within the church: The tenets of Foursquare Gospel, as put forth by McPherson herself, held that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive, as McPherson's second husband still was. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1st, 1934.

In 1936, drawing from her childhood experience with the Salvation Army, McPherson opened a commissary at Angelus Temple.  It was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and became active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics and other charitable activities as the Great Depression wore on.  With the later outbreak of World War II, McPherson became involved in war bond rallies, complete with sermons that linked the church and American patriotism.

1944 - The End

On September 26th, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals, planning to preach her popular "Story of My Life" sermon.  When her son went to her hotel room at 10:00 the next morning, he found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead by 11:15 am.

The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of McPherson's death.  She had been taking sleeping pills following numerous health problems — including 'tropical fever'. Among the pills found in the hotel room was the drug: Seconal, a strong sedative which had not been prescribed for her.  It was unknown how she got them.

The coroner stated the death was most likely an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure.  Some say Seconal has a hypnotizing effect which can make a person forgetful about how much medication has been taken and lead to an overdose.  The actual cause of death still officially listed as unknown.  

Aimee Semple McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Following her death, the Foursquare Gospel church was led for 44 years by her son Rolf McPherson. The church claims a membership of over 8.7 million, worldwide.

© 2011, L Wyeth
Original material and material compiled and edited from numerous sources including Wikipedia.
Sections of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson compiled and edited from Wikipedia and The FourSquare Gospel Church website.



Jug Band Music

Memphis Tennessee was ideally located to absorb bits of all the music and culture that flowed up and down the Mississippi river.  Jazz from New Orleans, Cajun from Southern Mississippi, Delta Blues and all manner of folk and roots music from the rural South.  Memphis existed to deal with the cotton trade and distribution by river or train.  Memphis sits at the corner of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee on the Mississippi river.  If it traveled by river boat, it lingered in Memphis.

The early jug bands were made up of African American vaudeville and medicine show musicians. Music for entertainment: street musicians without much money.  The term 'Jug Band' comes from building a band around some jug players.  The jugs could be earth-ware or glass - as long as you could get a variety of tone, including rich low notes.  There could be several jugs, played like tubas or trombones.  The swoop sounds that could be made gave the impression of sliding notes (like a trombone).  A good player could get 2 octaves out of a good sized jug.  The rhythm section could be made up of guitars and/or banjos.  If real guitars or banjos were not affordable: sometimes guitars and mandolins were made from the necks of discarded guitars fastened to large gourds. The gourds would be flattened for a soundhole on one side.  Banjos could be fashioned from a discarded guitar neck and a metal pie plate.  The percussion instruments might be a washboard, spoons, pots or anything homemade from common household articles.  A bass made from an upside-down washtub with a broomstick & 1 string could be used like a slap doghouse base fiddle.  Sometimes a stovepipe was used as a sound chamber or a kazoo fashioned from a comb & tissue paper.  All this was to set the stage for vocals: bawdy, funny or satirical, whatever got the best reaction from a crowd.

The music was upbeat with a strong backbeat.  It was performed on street corners, Vaudeville stages, saloons, brothels or any event where comic relief made sense.  It was supposed to be fun - the kind of music you just want to be able to play.  It might be where the term 'Slap-Stick' originated.  To be fair, 'Jug Bands' were not the only ones to incorporate all manor of home-made instruments.  Bands like these were common throughout the South.  The Jug Bands were built around the Jug players.  If there was no Jug player, the bands had other descriptions like: skiffle bands, spasm bands or juke (jook) bands (the later was used in the same sense of the origin of the term 'juke joint').  The type of music had a natural appeal: it was upbeat, fun, funny, danceable and often connected with intrigue: sex, savvy and alcohol.  What self-respecting youth could hear something like this and not want to be involved?  This may have had the wonderful effect of bringing many youths to music.

Skiffle, as a genre, had a fairly short life in the U.S. but went on to become quite influential in Britain during the 1950s.

The 1st published use of the term 'Skiffle' appeared in 1925: in the form of a band name: Jimmy O'Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers.  It started to be used to refer to records of country blues music.  There was a compilation called: "Hometown Skiffle" in 1929, and "Skiffle Blues" (1946) by Dan Burley & His Skiffle Boys.  Ma Rainey (April 26th, 1886 – December 22nd, 1939) used the term 'Skiffle' to describe her repertoire to rural audiences.  During World War II there wasn't much to support for light-hearted, frivolous music and the term disappeared.

Jug Bands began (as best anyone can figure) in the urban South.  They music was a mixture of Memphis blues (before it was known as the 'blues'), ragtime and jazz music.  The development of jug bands is closely related to the development of the blues. 

Some Original Jug Bands

The 1st jug bands to record were the Louisville and Birmingham jug bands. They used the jug for its novelty.  They played popular dance band jazz tunes.  America's blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers and Vaudeville-blues singer Sara Martin both used these groups on recordings.

Whistler's Jug Band - Foldin' Bed - example

Will Shade's: Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's: Jug Stompers recorded: 'Stealin'', 'Jug Band Music', 'On the Road Again', 'Whoa, Mule', 'Minglewood Blues', 'Walk Right In', and many others.  These were more in a Memphis blues style.

Other Memphis area bands included: Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band, Jed Davenport's: Beale Street Jug Band, and the Noah Lewis Jug Band.  Ma Rainey's: Tub-Jug Band featured the 1st recordings of Tampa Red on slide guitar.  He later formed his own: Hokum Jug Band.  Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie cut a few sides each backed up by their own jug bands; Memphis Minnie also sang and played with The Memphis Jug Band.

1930s - The Depression Years

The Depression and radio had a devastating impact on record sales, drastically reducing the output of jug band music.  The last recordings by Cannon and The Memphis Jug Band were from 1930 and 1934.  Will Shade and Cannon were recorded later in 1956 by Sam Charters for Folkways Records.  The use of the washboard and tub bass with its distinctive sounds lasted well into the 1940s.  It remained an integral part of the "Bluebird beat" in Chicago.  Bukka White's: 'Fixin' to Die' (recorded in Chicago in 1940) is driven by a syncopated washboard backup.

More Current Times

In 1958, one of the 1st recordings of the folk era jug band revival was by The Orange Blossom Jug Five for the Lyrichord label: 'Skiffle in Stereo'.  It was also the 1st recording by New York folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and featured Sam Charters, author of 'The Country Blues',and his wife Ann as well as Len Kunstadt, co-owner of the Spivey Records label.  Van Ronk would revisit the genre in 1964 with the album "Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers".  His ragtime guitar picking and choice of repertoire has influenced many subsequent jug bands.  Another early recording group was: Jolly Joe's Jug Band.  They were led by record collector: Joe Bussard, and released on his own Fonotone label as 78 rpm records.  These were eventually assembled on an LP by the Piedmont label.

The 1st and only time a jug band scored a number 1 hit was with Gus Cannon's 'Walk Right In' was in 1963 by The Rooftop Singers. They made an appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.  The song's success brought Cannon back into the Stax Records studios in Memphis for his last recording (at age 79) the same year.  The album, called 'Walk Right In', features Cannon on banjo and old friends Will Shade on jug and Milton Roby on washboard.

The national exposure of 'Walk Right In' contributed to the formation of several new jug bands: The Jim Kweskin Jug Band (Boston), featured the washtub bass and jug player Fritz Richmond, who later played jug on Warren Zevon's: 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead'.  New York based: Even Dozen Jug Band formed and featured Maria D'Amato, Joshua Rifkin, David Grisman, Stefan Grossman, John Sebastian and Steve Katz.  Maria D'Amato switched to The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, later marrying guitarist Geoff Muldaur.  In Austin Texas The 13th Floor Elevators formed as an electric jug band, featuring Tommy Hall as electric jug player.  More jug bands appeared in the late 60s (in addition to the skiffle bands) including the Anglo-American Ffilharmonious Jug Band.

The characters from many of these bands then went on to form other bands:  John Sebastian founded the pop music group The Lovin' Spoonful and later continued as a successful solo career.  Country Joe and the Fish evolved from The Instant Action Jug Band.  Mungo Jerry, who had morphed from an earlier blues group: Good Earth, was in effect a jug band on their 1st live performances and recordings.  Jesse Colin Young moved to the west coast and formed The Youngbloods, whose first hit was "Grizzly Bear," was a jug band standard.  Another group with jug band roots was the Grateful Dead.  Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan were in Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions before forming The Warlocks - which evolved into Grateful Dead.  A self-titled CD of Mother McCree's jug band music recorded in 1964 was released in 1999.  Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, David Grisman and Stefan Grossman all carried on with successful solo careers.

Pop-rock tributes to their jug band roots include: 'Willie and the Poor Boys' by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and 'Jug Band Music' by The Lovin' Spoonful.  On The Lovin' Spoonful's 1st album: "Do You Believe In Magic" (1965), versions of songs from the classic jug band repertoire included: 'Blues In The Bottle', 'Sportin' Life', 'My Gal', 'Fishin' Blues', and 'Wild About My Lovin''.  Sebastian's: 'Younger Girl' used the melody of Gus Cannon's 'Prison Wall Blues'.  The song 'Do You Believe In Magic' - a Top 10 hit - mentioned the genre in its lyrics: "If you believe in magic, don't bother to choose / If it's jug band music or rhythm and blues / Just go and listen, it'll start with a smile / That won't wipe off your face no matter how hard you try."

In 1977: The children's Christmas special, "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" aired; based on a book written by Lillian Hoban and Russell Hoban, features a jug band composed of woodland-creature Muppets and a soundtrack composed by Paul Williams.

A documentary by Todd Kwait about the history and influence of jug band music called: Chasin' Gus' Ghost, first screened at the 2007 San Francisco Jug Band Festival. The film features numerous well-known musicians in interviews and performances, including John Sebastian, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, David Grisman, Fritz Richmond, Maria Muldaur, and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, as well as Taj Mahal as the voice of Gus Cannon. Many of these musicians performed at a sold-out concert at the San Francisco Jug Band Festival. Chasin' Gus' Ghost will have its film festival premiere in October 2007 at the Woodstock Film Festival.

© 2011, Leonard Wyeth
Compiled, edited and expanded from Wikipedia and numerous sources.




Any description of Dixieland (sometimes referred to as Hot jazz or New Orleans jazz) is fraught with difficulty. The general public was first widely exposed to the term ‘Dixieland’ in the name of the musical group: ‘The Original Dixieland Jass Band’, who billed themselves "The Creators of Jazz". Nothing could be further from the truth. Nick La Rocca assembled the group of 5 musicians. There was a lot of member turn-over, but the groups recording career spanned 1917 through 1946.

The irony was that ‘The Original Dixieland Jass Band’ was all white. The music had originated on the streets and in the clubs and brothels of New Orleans. It’s roots were the origins of traditional jazz. New Orleans was essentially an open city and a port town. Influences poured in from all over the civilized world.  Local musical forces include: ‘jass’ (later ‘Jazz’), blues, ragtime, stride piano, street bands, brothel entertainers, street skat, etc. The music was predominantly black. ‘The Original Dixieland Jass Band’ had formed in New Orleans. All of the musicians had played in Papa Jack Laine's Reliance Brass Band at one time or another. They heard the real thing at it’s source.

In 1916 the band moved from New Orleans to Chicago, just like so many of the African-American and Creole musicians from that city. In Chicago, they continued to soak up the influences of the black jazz musicians and played a season at the Booster Club under the name of Stein's Dixie Jass Band. At the beginning of the following year the band ditched Stein and moved to New York where, on the recommendation of Al Jolson, they landed a gig at Reisenweber's Cafe on Columbus Circle and 58th Street, a fashionable restaurant and night-spot. The band created quite a stir and Columbia Records rushed to record the them only two weeks after they had arrived in the city. The first recording sessions for Columbia weren’t successful. Their first credible recording was released February 26th, 1917 for the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was wildly successful. They introduced the rest of the country to traditional jazz – the public loved it – white and black. Their record release signaled the beginning of the Jazz age and helped define the era we call the "Roaring Twenties".

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s stage presence included wacky antics, like wearing top hats that spelled out "Dixie", playing the trombone's slide with the foot, and so on. The band's slogan was "Untuneful Harmonists Playing Peppery Melodies", and their cornet playing leader Nick La Rocca delighted in stirring up the press, describing themselves as musical anarchists and coining fun statements like "Jazz is the assassination of the melody, it's the slaying of syncopation".

They were good, but it is easy to argue that the black source musicians that they were copying were better. It would be a number of years before the American public would get to hear the source. Examples of the original artists include King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, Clarence Williams, etc. The Ken Burns documentary on Jazz is a must-see for more detailed information and inspiration.

Having said all that: Dixieland has become known as a style of jazz developed at the start of the 20th century by New Orleans bands in the 1910s. Dixieland jazz combined brass band marches, French Quadrilles, ragtime and blues with collective, polyphonic improvisation by cornet, trombone, and clarinet over a "rhythm section" of piano, guitar, banjo, drums, and a double bass or tuba.

The Dixieland sound is created when one instrument (usually the cornet) plays the melody or a recognizable paraphrase or variation on it, and the other instruments of the "front line" improvise around that melody. This creates a more polyphonic sound than the extremely regimented big band sound or the unison melody of bebop. The swing era of the 1930s led to the end of many Dixieland Jazz musicians' careers. Only a few musicians were able to maintain popularity. Most retired.


While the term Dixieland is still in wide use, the term's appropriateness is still hotly debated. For some it is the preferred label (especially bands on the USA's West coast and those influenced by the 1940s revival bands), while others (especially New Orleans musicians, and those influenced by the African-American bands of the 1920s) would rather use terms like Classic Jazz or Traditional Jazz. Some of the latter consider Dixieland a derogatory term implying superficial hokum played without passion or deep understanding of the music. According to jazz writer Gary Giddins, the term Dixieland was widely understood in the early 20th century as a code for "black music." Frequent references to Dixieland were made in the lyrics of popular songs of this era, often written by songwriters of both races who had never been south of New Jersey.

Today, Dixieland is often applied to white bands playing in a traditional style. Some critics regard this labeling as incorrect. From the late 1930s on, black and mixed-race bands playing in a more traditional group-improvising style were referred to in the jazz press as playing "small-band Swing," while white and mixed-race bands such as those of Eddie Condon and Muggsy Spanier were tagged with the Dixieland label.

Edited and expanded from Wikipedia
Special thanks to H.O. Brunn, (Louisiana State University Press, 1960) for historical information on the Original Dixieland Jass Band.
ⓒ 2008
Leonard Wyeth



The Roaring Twenties

The Great War was over. It felt like victory. An entire generation had been exposed to foreign culture and returned with high expectations for a prosperous future. The industrial revolution had helped create a vast middle class that was ready to enjoy its leisure time and extra spending money. It was an era of prosperity and optimism.

Despite the efforts of the temperance movement to stop the evil influence of alcohol, there were no shortages. Speakeasies and bathtub gin were the order of the day. Without government regulation the drinks could be as strong as the public demanded. Before prohibition, it was rare to see a non-working girl in a bar. After prohibition, it appeared that everyone drank. It was much more exciting that way.

It was the "Roaring Twenties": the decade of the model T, the first transatlantic flight, the $5 work day and moving pictures. Anything was possible. The action and the money were in-town and the nation responded by flocking to urban areas. Calvin Coolidge declared that the business of America was business. For the first time in our history the average citizen could participate in the ups and downs of Wall Street.

It was the decade of the Flapper, the raccoon coat, ukuleles on college campus’, Jazz, Dixieland and urban nightlife. The music was raucous and danceable. Dance Halls flourished. Men and women just wanted to cut loose. The pre-marital birth rate rose to a level that wasn’t matched until the 1970s.

At the same time, the twenties can be seen as a period of growing intolerance and isolation. It witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the anti-radical hysteria of the Palmer raids, restrictive immigration laws and prohibition. Taken as a whole, the decade can be seen as a period of contradiction: of great hope and great despair, of increasing and decreasing faith, of rising optimism and falling into cynicism. In other words: a wild time of cultural turbulence.

Musical examples of the Twenties

The Charleston’, by composer/pianist James P. Johnson, originated in the Broadway show ‘Runnin' Wild’ in 1923.  It was a dance that became one of the most popular hits of the decade. The African-American jazz rhythm fit the tenor of the time and entered mainstream dance music.

Salvatore Massaro (October 25th, 1902 – March 26th, 1933), better known as:  Eddie Lange,  was considered by some to be the first modern Jazz guitar virtuoso.  He played a role in the development of the jazz sound on the 1920's that became 'mainstream' through movies, radio and recordings. He worked with the greats: Frankie Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Smith Ballew, Fred Rich, Red Nichols, Noel Taylor, Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, King Oliver, Hoagy Carmichael, Don Vorhees, Adrian Rollini, and Lonnie (J.C.) Johnson. His most famous association was with violinist Joe Venuti, with whom he recorded under many different titles. In 1933 a botched operation unexpectedly ended Lang's life.

Eddie Lang was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the son of an Italian-American banjo and guitar maker. He began studying violin and sight reading at age 7 and stuck with the lessons for 11 years. At age 9, his father fashioned a small guitar.  The boy eagerly took to the new instrument.  While in school he became friends with violinist Joe Venuti. The two hit it off musically and continued to work together throughout Lang's carrier.  Their work over the next decade as a jazz duet would set the stage for a young Django Reinhardt in France to team with English classical violinist Stephan Grappelli and reshape the sound of swing in both Europe and the US.

By 1918 Lang was playing violin, banjo, and guitar semi-professionally. His focus at the time was tenor banjo, but this expanded to a hybrid 6-string guitar-banjo (the same way Django Reinhardt started).  By 1922 he was easily finding musical work and by 1923 he fully made the transition to guitar.

He worked with various bands in the American North-East, and briefly in London (late 1924 to early 1925), finally settling in New York City.  He had no trouble finding work with the jazz bands and musicians of the day for accompaniment on recordings, radio and film - all new forms of public media.

On February 4th 1927, Lang was featured in the recording of "Singin' the Blues" by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. Lang traded guitar licks with Beiderbecke on cornet.  The session became a landmark jazz recording of the 1920s.

In 1928 & 1929 Lang played under the pseudonym: 'Blind Willie Dunn' on a number of blues records with New Orleans legendary guitarist: Lonnie Johnson.

In 1929 he joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra and appeared in the movie 'The King of Jazz' - the first color feature film.

In 1930 Lang played guitar on the original recording of the jazz and pop standard "Georgia On My Mind", recorded with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra. Joe Venuti and Bix Beiderbecke also played on these sessions.

In 1931, Bing Crosby became the nations top vocalist and decided to leave the Whitman organization and strike-out on his own.  Eddie Lang left with him as his accompanist. 

In 1932, Lang and can be seen with Crosby in the 1932 movie "Big Broadcast".

Lang died following a tonsillectomy in New York City in 1933 at the age of 30. He had been urged by Crosby to have the tonsillectomy so that he might have speaking parts in Crosby's films. Lang's voice was chronically hoarse, and it was hoped that the operation would remedy this. The operation did not go well and Lang died of excessive bleeding.

Eddie Lang played a Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitar.  The L-5 was new: an 'F' hole archtop redesigned by Lloyd Loar for Gibson to increase the instrument's volume and projection.  The guitar buying public hadn't yet come to appreciate the new developments until Eddie Lang gained prominence in film and recordings.  Suddenly, the new instrument design gained popularity as the Jazz instrument of choice: it was an ideal rhythm instrument (chording & comping) and a powerfully expressive solo instrument.  It worked equally well in an orchestral setting, as a combo instrument, as a duet rhythm and solo instrument and as single accompaniment to vocals.

Eddie Lang's compositions (based on the Red Hot Jazz database) included "Wild Cat" with Joe Venuti, "Perfect" with Frank Signorelli, "April Kisses" (1927), "Sunshine", "Melody Man's Dream", "Goin' Places", "Black and Blue Bottom", "Bull Frog Moan", "Rainbow Dreams", "Feelin' My Way", "Eddie's Twister", "Really Blue", "Penn Beach Blues", "Wild Dog", "Pretty Trix", "A Mug of Ale", "Apple Blossoms", "Beating the Dog", "To To Blues", "Running Ragged", "Kicking the Cat", "Cheese and Crackers", "Doin' Things", "Blue Guitars", "Guitar Blues" with Lonnie Johnson, "Hot Fingers", "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues", "A Handful of Riffs", "Blue Room", "Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp", "Two-Tone Stomp". "Midnight Call Blues", "Four String Joe", "Goin' Home", and "Pickin' My Way" (1932) with Carl Kress.

George Van Eps said of the legacy of Eddie Lang: "It's very fair to call Eddie Lang the father of jazz guitar".
Barney Kessel described him: "Eddie Lang first elevated the guitar and made it artistic in jazz."
Les Paul credited him: "Eddie Lang was the first and had a very modern technique."

In 1977, Lang's recording of "Singin' the Blues" with Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1986, Lang was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

It can be said that Eddie Lang was the first 'Jazz Guitar Star' and the single most important jazz guitarist in the world until the rise of Django Reinhardt in 1934 and Charlie Christian in 1939.  Before Lang, the banjo was the stringed instrument of Jazz.  His prominence on the guitar and exposure by movie, radio and recording was a strong influence on many banjo players of the age to switch to guitar.  After all: He was the epitome of 'cool' at the time: he made the guitar seem to be the natural jazz instrument of the age.

By recording with Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, King Oliver & Lonnie Johnson he helped expose the American public to the true roots of jazz and blues and helped diminish the race barrier of the day.

Nick Lucas (1897-1982) was also starting his career as a guitar man. Lucas would become the inspiration for players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Among his many contributions to the music of the day were some of the first recorded guitar instrumentals.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth


Stride Piano

Before World War I, the upbeat music of John Phillip Sousa and Scott Joplin were popular throughout the land thanks to 78-RPM records, record stores and readily available gramophones. But war changes people’s perspectives. All war is entered optimistically with patriotic fervor, clear determination and blind adherence to a cause. By the end of World War I, the population was sick of the bloodshed and profoundly shocked at the cost of modern warfare. It was no longer clear why we needed to give so many lives to solve other countries problems. By the end of the war on November 11th, 1918 over 15 million lives had been lost.

The average America had been involved and directly affected. Their perspective had changed. The time before World War I was part of a distant and troubled past. The music and art from before the war no longer felt appropriate – It felt naïve and detached from reality. The world map had been redrawn and represented an entirely new place, with new realities and a need for new expression. Music and art would never be the same.

New York City was teaming with cultural influences brought by foreigners from Italy, Ireland, Poland, Russian Jews and many, many others. Harlem was alive with newcomers from New Orleans, Mississippi, Chicago and the Western States. Each brought a bit of their own traditions and music. Their past lives may not have been easy but the creative influences were great.

There were jobs in Harlem and around New York during World War I but they didn’t pay well for African Americans. Waves of immigrants were flowing through Ellis Island and engulfing available jobs with people willing to work long hours for practically nothing. Nevertheless, there was some work and the beginnings of a Black middle class. A bit of money and free time leads to an active Harlem industry for after-hours entertainment. Bars, Inns, brothels and dance halls were everywhere and with the audiences came the demand for musicians and entertainers. Harlem gained a mystique  of hedonism that proved to be an irresistible draw for the well-to-do whites in lower Manhattan. By the dawn of the 1920s there was an air in Harlem that anything goes. One way to gage the feel of the times was to note that the pre-marital birth rate of the Roaring Twenties was not matched in America until the 1970s.

Prohibition began enforcement on January 16th, 1920. Unfortunately for its authors, it had the opposite of the intended effect: people didn’t drink less, they began to drink more. Before prohibition, relatively few women drank regularly. Once they were told by the government that they were not permitted to drink at all, they took to alcohol like a fish takes to water. It was pretty much the same way for teenagers. New words and ideas entered the lexicon of the day: bathtub gin, rumrunners, the Mob, Cosa Nostra, speakeasies, stills, etc. Distribution networks sprang up to meet the demands of the new underground liquid economy. Fortunes were made. Lives were lost. Harlem benefitted as nightlife exploded. The need for musicians exploded with speakeasies and brothels – the Roaring Twenties sprang to life.

The Ragtime works from before the war were no longer popular. They evolved to something new. Speakeasies and brothels needed steady musical entertainment and hired soloists or bands depending on the quality of the establishment. If they could afford a band, they’d have one. At the very least, however, they’d support a solo piano player. The music had to be upbeat, fun, danceable and entertaining. The roots of Jazz were beginning to be felt throughout America and finding their way into the darkened protected halls of the nightclubs of Harlem.

The piano players were expected to play for long hours. It was potentially boring work and challenging to keep the tempo upbeat. The style that began to emerge was visibly entertaining and athletic. The left hand might strike a steady 4 beat pulse; single notes or comping on the 2 and 4. Unlike the earlier piano players of St. Louis, stride was played faster with the left hand leaping greater distances. This freed the right hand for counterpoint improvisations. The improvisations could go on for long periods to help fill the long hours the player was expected to perform. The name ‘stride’ came from the left hand movement: striding up and down the keyboard. There were, of course, notable exceptions to the above: there have always been blue variations at slower tempos.

It was wild, hedonistic, creative, alive and unbridled. Naturally, it caught on. Soon, different piano players were trying to out-do each other in musical competition. Cutting sessions went on late into the night and included private parties with a cover charge to cover the rent.

Players in Harlem during World War I included Lucky Roberts and James P. Johnson, freely stealing piano riffs from their contemporaries. Stride players practiced a full jazz piano style that used not only blue notes and swing rhythms (not seen in Ragtime) but also Classical devices such as arpeggios, musical scales and flourishes as well. Other notable stride pianists included Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Donald Lambert, Cliff Jackson, Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, Claude Hopkins, Ralph Sutton, Hank Duncan, Dick Hyman, Don Ewell and Mike Lipskin.

The music spread to other cities and variation emerged. In New Orleans pianists were called ‘Professors’. The right hand style and regional repertoire were a bit simpler. For example: Jelly Roll Morton’s sound is distinguished by his use of 6ths by the left hand instead of single notes or 10ths. This was part of what gave his playing a New Orleans flavor.

Stride Piano flourished through the Roaring Twenties and began to fall from popular grace after the crash of 1929. Another national crisis was gripping the country and changing the American psyche once again. By 1933, the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, 12 percent unemployment, the dust bowl and the end of prohibition were conspiring to find expression in new forms of art and music. America was ready for something new and different.


ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth



Dance Halls

At the turn of the 20th century, Dance Halls were a widely appreciated urban form of entertainment. The structure of the dance halls was quite simple: A ballroom and supporting side areas including a bar and a stage for live music. Dance bands were sought-after gigs for professional musicians as they were steady work and helped assure an appreciative audience. Both single men and women could attend and found the dance halls to be an acceptable place to meet partners. There were paid staff dancers: men and women who could demonstrate and teach the latest dance steps. The more patrons they could enchant, the better the dance hall fared financially. Dance cards were used by popular female dancers to record who she would dance with and in what order. The hall management frequently seeded the crowd with professional dance couples to encourage the crowd and help elevate the quality of footwork on the floor.

During World War I, servicemen headed to the dance halls to meet local women and take their minds off their duty. The USO hired young ladies to assure there were plenty of potential dance partners.

The bands in the early years were predominantly wind, brass and banjo driven. Without amplification, instruments were chosen for their volume and rhythmic drive. Many forms of music could be represented: Polka, tango, ballroom, swing and traditional, for example. The region and the period mattered for musical styles. If the dance hall was in Texas or Tennessee in the 1940s, it might be country swing or waltz. If the dance hall was in New York or Chicago in the 1940s it might be Big Band swing or ballroom fox trot.

Instrumentation was determined by the region and the period. Dixieland was wonderful dance music and required brass, banjo and drums. Early tango required a string section, double bass, guitar and drums. After 1916: a standard tango sextet: two bandoneons, two violins, piano and double bass. There were no hard and fast rules to this and there were many exceptions: In France, Django Reinhardt, for example, had assembled a swing jazz quintet in the 1930s: Lead guitar, violin, 2 rhythm guitars and double bass. They managed to fill a dance hall with rhythm for dancing.

The rise of moving pictures, radio and other diversions contributed to a decline in the popularity of dance halls in the late 1920s but they didn’t disappear altogether. Inexpensive entertainment was needed during prohibition (1920-1933) and the depression following the crash of 1929. Dance halls seemed to make daily life a bit more bearable.  The rise of Big Band music in the 1930s contributed to a resurgence in dancing and dance halls. They were the perfect showcase for the Big Band music and new, larger indoor – outdoor dance halls were constructed in larger cities around the country.  The introduction of Rock and Roll followed World War II and by the 1960s dance halls were no longer viable as a business. American music had found several new outlets.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth


Musical Theater

Musicals, both theatrical, movie and video, have been a popular form of American entertainment for more than a century. Some people love it and others claim to hate it, but all agree that the emotional and entertainment content is high. Musicals have consistently been profitable forms of public entertainment demonstrating that Americans will financially support the arts that they like.

Musical theater, for the purposes of this article, does not include opera. Opera is generally built around a musical work requiring the primary talents of operatic singer(s). Furthermore, opera may or may not be performed in the language of the audience and depends more on the music than the story. The story line of an opera supports the musical vocal and orchestral masterwork.

The purpose of discussing musical theater has to do with its impact on popular music and musical tastes. For this article, musicals are defined by popular entertainment that combines a story with music, songs (lyrics), spoken dialog and dance. The emotional content of the piece – its humor, drama, pathos, love, anger – as well as the story itself, is communicated through the words, music, dance and theater as an integrated whole. We’ll call them simply: "musicals".

In concept, musicals attempt to tap into and seamlessly integrate emotion and fantasy into a story line. The musical's moments of drama can reach their greatest intensity when performed in song and dance. When the emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing. When the emotion becomes too strong for song, you dance. The songs are crafted to suit the characters and their roles inside the story. As New York Times critic Ben Brantley described the ideal of song in musical theater (reviewing the 2008 revival of Gypsy): "There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to achieve their ideal reasons to be.”

Structure and Purpose

The 3 primary components of a musical are: the music, the lyrics and the book. ‘The book’ of a musical is the story. In opera this would be the libretto (Italian for “little book”). The music and lyrics together form the score of the musical. The creative team, including a director, a musical director and a choreographer, determines how the musical is presented. The 20th century "book musical" might be defined as a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story, with serious dramatic goals, that is able to evoke genuine emotions (including laughter). The story lines suitable for musicals generally follow a pattern: An individual (outsider) finds a person, situation or community that they want to be part of. They struggle to be understood. There are usually several situational misunderstandings followed by an epiphany, understanding and resolution. The resolution usually involves a chorus and crescendo – fulfillment of the original dream. There are, of course, many exceptions - including historical drama.  The common thread appears to be the expression of love and understanding.

Musicals say something important about fantasy and community: Everyone wants to fit in. We all want to be members of a tribe of like-minded friends – a community of mutual understanding. One person singing to another (or to no one at all) is able to articulate what they are feeling with dramatic force. But, as story lines begin to resolve, the players reach some form of mutual understanding. This is usually expressed by the chorus – the full community. The voices and ideas become so unified that they can be expressed in harmony – the full community in agreement, singing and dancing as one, in perfect harmony. It’s fantasy – no resemblance to real life – but effectively strikes a familiar chord in most hearts. We all wish we could be that well understood, be that close to our communities, and live in that degree of harmony. Now, that’s entertainment!

The melodies and moods need to be simple, memorable and appropriate to the story. When the music and lyrics perfectly support the message, they become irresistibly memorable. They become tied to the message – tied to the story. The emotion of the full story becomes ingrained in the meaning of the song. Imagine the ability to imbue friendship, empathy, heartache and hope into a single song.

Musical theater uses the oldest tricks in the book to manipulate the human heart:

  • It begins with repetition: the musical opens with an overture; introducing and familiarizing the ear to the melodies and harmonies that will follow. The clues to the harmonic arrangements are freely revealed early making them easy to identify later.
  • Some version of the musicals predominant melody is used early on in the story to help reveal the character of the protagonist(s). Minor and secondary melodies are used to help develop the supporting characters and help build tension and emotion.
  • Bits and pieces of the predominant melody are interspersed to keep it fresh in the mind of the audience.
  • As the story develops toward a resolution, the harmonic complexity of the predominant melody builds and expands.
  • The resolution includes a full chorus and a fully developed predominant melody.

As the audience wanders out into the real world humming the predominant melody, it literally has become part of their consciousness: the melody and lyrics have taken on the full depth and breadth of the play. That is the type of music that stays with the audience forever. Like Pavlov’s dog, each time they hear the melody, they experience some portion of the emotional content of the play.

Brief History

Ancient Greece and The Middle Ages

Musical theater in Europe dates back to the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their stage comedies and tragedies in the 5th century BCE. Aeschylus and Sophocles composed their own music to accompany their plays and choreographed the dances of the chorus. The 3rd-century BCE Roman comedies of Plautus included song and dance routines performed with orchestrations. The Romans introduced technical innovations: including making the dance steps more audible in large open-air theaters. Roman actors attached metal chips called "sabilla" to their stage footwear – the first tap shoes.

By the Middle Ages, theater in Europe consisted mostly of traveling minstrels and small performing troupes of performers singing and offering slapstick comedy. In the 12th and 13th centuries, religious dramas, such as The Play of Herod and The Play of Daniel taught the liturgy, set to church chants. Later "Mystery plays" were created that told a biblical story in a sequence of entertaining parts. Several pageant wagons (stages on wheels) would move about the city, and a group of actors would tell their part of the story. Once finished, the group would move on with their wagon, and the next group would arrive to tell its part of the story. These plays developed into an autonomous form of musical theater, with poetic forms sometimes alternating with the prose dialogues and liturgical chants. The poetry was provided with modified or completely new melodies.

Renaissance to the 1700s

The Renaissance developed these forms into commedia Dell’Arte, an Italian tradition where raucous clowns improvised their way through familiar stories, and from there, opera buffa. Molière turned several of his farcical comedies into musical entertainments with songs (music provided by Jean Baptiste Lully) and dance in the late 1600s. Arts of all kinds became widely popular, including musical theater.

By the 1700s, two forms of musical theater were popular in Britain, France and Germany: ballad operas, like John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), that included lyrics written to the tunes of popular songs of the day (often spoofing opera), and comic operas, with original scores and mostly romantic plot lines, like Michael Balfe's ‘The Bohemian Girl’ (1845). Other musical theater forms developed by the 19th century, such as Vaudeville, British Music Hall, Melodrama and Burlesque. Melodramas and Burlettas, in particular, were popular in part because most London theaters were licensed only as music halls and not allowed to present plays without music. In any event, what a piece was called did not necessarily define what it was. The Broadway extravaganza ‘The Magic Deer’ (1852) advertised itself as "A Serio Comico Tragico Operatical Historical Extravaganzical Burletical Tale of Enchantment."

Current Musical Play Examples:

  • Wicked
  • Man of La Mancha
  • Hello, Dolly!
  • Camelot
  • Evita
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Finian's Rainbow
  • South Pacific
  • The King and I

Current Musical Movie Examples:

  • Wicked
  • Man of La Mancha
  • Hello, Dolly!
  • Camelot
  • The Sound of Music
  • West Side Story
  • My Fair Lady
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Chicago
  • Mamma Mia!
  • Grease
  • Evita
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • South Pacific
  • The King and I

Musical Videos:

  • MTV
  • VH-1
  • YouTube
  • MySpace
  • FaceBook
  • Internet websites

Movie Musicals

Musical plays are easily translated to film. Film offers the ability for special effects, rapid scene changes and flashbacks, carefully controlled natural landscapes and expansive choruses with studio orchestral arrangements. The genre allows greater possibilities of emotional manipulation – including levels of intimacy that the distance between stage actors and audience could never allow. As a consequence, many of the most successful stage musicals are translated to film. Occasionally the opposite is also true: good film non-musical stories are translated to stage musicals (like ‘The Lion King’).

Television Musicals

"Made for TV" movie musicals were popular in the 1990s (for example ‘Gypsy’ (1993), and ‘Cinderella’ (1997)). Several made-for-TV musical movies in the 2000s were actually adaptations of the stage version, such as ‘South Pacific’ (2001), ‘The Music Man’ (2003) and ‘Once Upon A Mattress’ (2005), and a televised version of the stage musical ‘Legally Blonde’ (2007). Several musicals were filmed on stage and broadcast on Public Television, for example: ‘Contact’ (2002) and ‘Kiss Me Kate’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ (2003).

Some recent television shows have set their episodes as musicals. Examples include episodes of ‘Ally McBeal’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (episode Once More, with Feeling), ‘That's So Raven’, Daria's episode ‘Daria!’, ‘Oz's Variety’, ‘Scrubs’ (one episode was written by the creators of Avenue Q), and the 100th episode of ‘That '70s Show’. Others have included scenes where characters suddenly begin singing and dancing in a musical-theater style during an episode, such as in several episodes of ‘The Simpsons’, ‘30 Rock’, ‘Hannah Montana’, ‘South Park’ and ‘Family Guy’.

"American Idol" and similar programs have spotlighted both talented and un-talented aspiring youth across America and delivered as entertainment. The audience appears to be equally entertained by the ridicule of those who believe they are talented and fall short, as well as the fearless and innocent raw talent of kids from all walks of American life. In either event, the central concept is that kids who can really deliver a traditional pop song in a dramatic (strictly formula) way, are to be idolized.

"Glee" has revived the television musical by cleverly introducing a wide variety of musical styles reinterpreted by emensly talented actors and delivered on a weekly basis. The soap opera style plots are as thin as they can be, since the core of the program is the music and talent. Regardless, the formula appears to work as the show is currently a hit.

Music Videos

Music Television (MTV) and VH-1 extended the musical concept to musical videos. The promotion of a popular band’s music becomes easier if there is a story or set of compelling imagery to help imbue meaning into the music. This also helped shape the image of the bands. The notion worked for a number of years until the intensity of market saturation and the disconnect between the striking imagery and the music appears to have lost appeal to the general public.

Post Script

According to the Broadway League (formerly "The League of American Theaters and Producers"): for the 2007–08 season: 12.27 million tickets were sold for Broadway shows with a gross sale amount of almost a billion dollars. During the 2006-07 season approximately 65% of Broadway tickets were purchased by tourists (16% of which were foreign). This does not include off-Broadway and small venues. The Society of London Theater reported that 2007 total attendees in the major commercial and grant-aided theaters in Central London were 13.6 million, with total ticket revenues of £469.7 million – setting a new record.

Stephen Sondheim, however, has the following view:

"You have two kinds of shows on Broadway – revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles. You get your tickets for The Lion King a year in advance, and essentially a family... pass on to their children the idea that that's what the theater is – a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar.... I don't think the theater will die per se, but it's never going to be what it was.... It's a tourist attraction."

For whatever reason, the numbers suggest that he is wrong.

© 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Expanded and edited from numerous sources including Wikipedia

Movie Music

Movie Songs
Movie Scores
Movie Compilations

See a list of List of Academy Awards for Songs & Music

In 1927, the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized audio dialogue sequences was released. The film was "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson who performed 6 songs. Directed by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. with a Vitaphone sound-on-disc system; it was the first of the "talkies" and heralded the decline of the silent film era. It also brought movie music into American culture.

Movies play a significant role as an arbiter of popular culture: they offer us beautiful people doing important things in wonderful situations.  The story telling is so carefully crafted and utterly controlled to tap into our common consciousness that we (the viewers) can only draw the conclusions that the creative staff intended. The formula is simple: get our attention, draw us into the lives of the characters (get us to care about them) and lead us through their story. They determine what we see, what we hear and what they want us to experience.

It is story telling at its finest. Once we care about the lives of the characters we are sympathetic to their outlook on life. It is as if we know them so well that we consider them friends and family. Movie characters always have a powerful impact on the people around them involving love, drama, war, murder, politics, saving the world, etc. Whatever the case, their lives are a bit more important than ours. If we like the way they deport themselves, we start to dress like them, talk like them, we even begin to imagine what they would do under different circumstances. Their imaginary characters and values are projected into our existence and we accept them as an extension of our lives. It has an impact on popular culture.

Imaginary lives have soundtracks (of course). The movie soundtracks always support and enhance the storyline with the appropriate emotion: suspense, passion, outrage, climax, uncertainty, tenderness, chaos, and so on. It might be by the use of a single instrument: a guitar, cello, oboe or simple percussion. It may also require a philharmonic orchestra and chorus. I believe the Columbia recording sessions of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and chorus) had approximately 600 musicians and vocalists.

Good stories stick with us. It is an emotional attachment that becomes part of our long-term memory of experience. It helps shape our world view and defines concepts like justice, fairness, conflict and conflict resolution. The supporting music becomes part of that experience. Like Pavlov's dog, the soundtrack draws out a predictable emotional response. Certain soundtracks can bring tears to some peoples eyes or cause us to tense right up. The simple theme to "Jaws" can cause many people discomfort and the desire to stay out of the water.

Common movie thematic categories include:

  • Action
  • Adventure
  • Animation
  • Comedy
  • Drama
  • Fantasy
  • Foreign
  • Horror
  • James Bond
  • Kids
  • Musicals
  • Classics
  • Historic Reenactments
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Sports
  • Suspense
  • War
  • Westerns

No mater what your cultural background, it is likely that you can think of soundtracks to films in some or many of the categories above and hum or sing them through. One popular web site offers 6,874 movie soundtracks for sale.

In some cases, popular musicians are used to score current films and in other cases movie studio teams are hired to create the supporting scores. Either way, the music becomes an integral part of our popular culture and helps shape musical trends.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth


WLS - The Role of AM Radio

American Radio has played a strong role in the distribution of music, culture, politics and information. Its role pushing or reflecting music trends is undeniable. At times, it is the mirror that reflects public sentiments by responding to the desires listeners and supporters of advertising. Other times it acts as an arbiter of tastes by steady and unrelenting repetition of music that one company or another is willing to subsidize to promote sales. Radio has been there in times of crisis to keep people informed and direct them to help and safety. Radio has also been there to mislead public opinion by obscuring truth or facts. It is also true that radio has been there to bring clarity and truth to complex public issues. Radio has been there to scare us, made us laugh, cry and listen in rapt silence from the edges of our seats.

Radio embodies, perhaps, exactly what separates us from most other animals: it communicates new ideas, culture, music and commentary. No matter how remote the listener, they are in the center of public discourse.

This discussion, however, is focused on the role of radio in spreading new music around the American countryside. Before radio, new music was generally heard in the urban centers where multiple public performances were economically feasible. If a musical group was well received in New York City, for example, they would head out on the road to tour all the other major cities. If well received nationwide, they may even travel into the smaller towns. As the audiences grow smaller though, the revenue also shrinks. The net effect: focus on the cities. If you worked a farm in the Midwest, you may or may not get a chance to hear the latest craze.

Music was big business. Tin Pan Alley churned out music sheets for national distribution. Most every child was schooled on some instrument. Being able to read music allowed the social activity of ensemble playing. Piano, violin, banjo, mandolin and guitar were common everywhere in America. Most houses had a music room with extra instruments and plenty of sheet music. Both women and men were expected to be able to play and participate.

New York City was the center for music publishing and Chicago became the center for instrument building and distribution. Major retail outlets, including Sears-Roebuck, circulated catalogs with everything and anything that the American public could want. You could even mail-order a house to be delivered in pieces by railroad to anywhere the rails ran. They offered a wide selection of instruments, music and accessories.

The advent of Radio opened a new frontier: It was a way to reach into every household in America. As if by magic, you could talk to everyone simultaneously and instantly. It didn’t take long for the major retailers to imagine ways to use this magnificent new tool.

Brief History of Radio

1906    AM radio began with the first, experimental broadcast in 1906 by Reginald Fessenden, and was used for small-scale voice and music broadcasts up until World War I.

1920    XWA of Montreal, Quebec (later CFCF) was the first commercial broadcaster in the world, with regular broadcasts commencing on May 20th, 1920. The first licensed American radio station was started by Frank Conrad, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Radio programming boomed during the "Golden Age of Radio" (1920s–1950s). Dramas, comedy and all other forms of entertainment were produced, as well as broadcasts of news and music.

AM Radio – How it Works

AM radio is simpler than FM. An AM receiver detects amplitude variations in the radio waves at a particular frequency. It then amplifies changes in the signal voltage to drive a loudspeaker or earphones. The earliest crystal radio receivers used a crystal diode detector with no amplifier.

In North America, transmitter power for commercial AM stations ranges from about 250 watts to 50,000 watts. Some experimental licenses were issued for up to 500,000 watts, for stations intended for wide-area communication during disasters, but no current commercial broadcaster in the US or Canada is authorized for such power levels. Other countries can authorize higher power operation. The Mexican station XERF, for example, used to operate at 250,000 watts. Antenna design considers the coverage and directs the signal to avoid interference with other stations operating on the similar frequencies.

Medium wave and short wave radio signals act differently during day and night. During the day, AM signals travel by groundwave, diffracting around the curvature of the earth over a distance up to a few hundred miles from the transmitter. After sunset, however, changes in the ionosphere cause AM signals to travel by skywave. This enables AM to be heard much farther from their antennae than is normal during the day. This phenomenon can be tested by scanning the AM radio dial at night. Because of this, many broadcast stations are required to reduce their broadcasting power (or use directional antennas) after sunset. In some cases they are required to suspend broadcasting entirely during nighttime hours. Such stations are commonly referred to as daytimers.

In the United States, some AM radio stations are granted clear channel status, meaning that they broadcast on frequencies where fewer other stations are allocated, allowing an extended coverage area. Few stations enjoy clear channel status. Commercial broadcasters generally rely only on the ground-wave coverage to reach their target market for advertising.

Because of its susceptibility to atmospheric and electrical interference, AM broadcasting now supports mainly talk radio and news programming. Music and public radio mostly shifted to FM broadcasting in the late 1960s and 1970s for less interference, wider frequency response and stereo broadcasting.

With special thanks to the WLS website for this historical information.

WLS was by no means the only clear channel AM radio station with tremendous impact on American culture. There are too many stations to mention and their contributions vary tremendously between markets and areas. We have decided to try to describe the impact of one very important station to give the flavor of what was going on during the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. One has to close their eyes and imagine young men like Chet Atkins with crystal sets late at night in rural Tennessee hearing music and entertainment that they never would have been exposed to except for the advent of radio. It was those men and women with open eyes and broadened horizons that went on to expand the American musical heritage that we take for granted today.


The early 1920's brought the birth of commercial radio as we know it. Sears-Roebuck and Company had bought time on radio stations to address and target the lucrative farming market. By 1923 it was apparent that they needed their own broadcast outlet.  The company started the Sears-Roebuck Agricultural Foundation, designed to be a clearinghouse for information and assistance through its Farm and Home Service Departments. In order to carry out the foundation, Sears originally did a farm program beginning on March 21st, 1924, with its first assigned call letters WBBX, from the studios of WMAQ Radio.

On April 9th, 1924 Sears signed on 500 watt WES (for World's Economy Store) from it's own studios in Chicago, Illinois.  The small studio was located next to the Agricultural Foundation offices on the 11th floor of the 14 story Sears-Roebuck tower.  The company's drafting room served as a control room, sending the signal to the transmitter site, located in Crete.  The initial night of testing featured singer Grace Wilson and the musical comedy team of Big Ford and Little Glenn. Ford Rush was both the first employee of the new Sears station and it's first announcer. Glenn Rowell became Studio Director and headed up the station's music department.  Over the next two evenings (April 10th & 11th) Sears aired more test programs.  The Sears switchboards "lit up like Christmas trees" with listeners calling in after hearing the broadcasts. The station officially went on-the-air on April 12th. Shortly after 6:00 pm, renowned dramatic actress Ethel Barrymore was introduced to begin the broadcast.  However, upon seeing the new-fangled microphone, she froze up and exclaimed "Turn that damned thing off!"  With those words, station WLS was off and running!

On the evening of the formal dedication, Sears changed the calls to WLS Radio.  The call letters stood for the ‘World's Largest Store’, a name the giant retailer and catalogue merchant had gained from their West Side Headquarters on Homan Avenue.

This was the dawn of radio era and Sears knew they could get in on the ground floor. Sears could not only sell radios, but provide programming and farm service. The 1925 Sears Catalogue stated: "WLS was conceived in your interests, is operated in your behalf and is dedicated to your service. It is your station." Broadcasting several hours a day, the station's slogan became: "Bringing The World To The Farm." According to accounts, in little more than four years, WLS went from being an obscure signal to a Midwestern powerhouse.  It was rumored that it could be heard as far away as New Zealand.  The station aired speeches from President Calvin Coolidge, Ralph Stockton's sermons, the comedy of Pie Plant Pete and the wit of Will Rogers.  WLS even hosted a reception for Colonel Charles Lindbergh.

While the main focus was farm and civic programming, several popular-music, comedies and radio serials could be heard as well.  Nearly 60 different bands called WLS home, while over 130 musical acts aired on the station for free.  On April 19th, 1924 the station aired the first National Barn Dance program, a four-hour cavalcade of music, comedy and down-home entertainment.  The program went on to become one of the most popular and longest running country-and-western shows in history, second only to The Grand Old Opry.  By 1932, the National Barn Dance program would be cut to two hours and broadcast live, originating from the Eighth Street Theater in the South Loop. One of the more popular acts on WLS and the National Barn Dance were LaPorte Indiana's Maple City Four.  The quartet, who joined the station in 1926, mixed barbershop harmonies with wildly popular comedy routines and minstrel sketches.

On March 19th, 1927, WLS made history by being the first radio station to broadcast Beethoven's entire 9th Symphony, which a station publication at the time called "...the only complete performance of the work ever given on the air in the U.S.".

By the end of the 1920's, Sears had realized that it was a retailer and not a broadcaster.  The International Harvester Company as well as WENR Radio, who shared the 870 frequency with WLS were interested in purchasing the station. On September 15th 1928, Sears Roebuck sold the station for $250,000 to ABC, The Agricultural Broadcasting Company, a newly formed holding corporation with capital stock of 2500 shares valued at $100 each.  Prairie Farmer Magazine was the majority stockholder with over 1200 shares. The terms also granted Sears the right to buy back WLS within 13 months if the station "... is not or cannot become self-supporting."  The Prairie Farmer eventually purchased the remaining shares. Sears was also granted up to 12 free broadcast hours a week for the duration of the original note.  On October 1st, an official on-air ceremony aired at 7:00pm to herald the change in management.  After the transaction, WLS' studios were moved from Sears on Homan Avenue to the Prairie Farmer Headquarters on Chicago's near west Side at 1230 West Washington Boulevard.

Since the stations main focus was farmers, much of WLS' broadcast day catered to the rural areas of the Midwest. Informing the farmers was as equally as important as entertainment. Market reports aired twice daily direct from the Union Stock Yards through remote broadcast lines.  WLS used these new remote lines extensively and promoted themselves as being on the cutting edge of this new medium.  State Fairs, corn husking contests and even live coverage from the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago were just a few of the many remote broadcasts that WLS aired.

As a part of "Farmer's Week" at the World's Fair, this WLS Barn Dance was the biggest ever put on. Nearly 35,000 spectators attended the show at the Court Of The States. The Barn Dance played at the fair for four successive weeks on Wednesday nights.

Entertainment programs included The Smile-A-While Show, The Dinner Bell Program which aired at noon, Everybody's Hour conducted by the WLS Orchestra and Old Kitchen Kettle. Red Foley, Gene Autry - the singing cowboy, George Goebel, Pat Buttram (who went on to star in movies and as "Mr. Haney" on the TV show Green Acres) and many others appeared on WLS and the National Barn Dance.  It also offered tips and advice during Homemakers Hour, and the news of the day.

Throughout the heyday of the Prairie Farmer, listeners were able to keep up with their favorite radio stars via several publications.  The Prairie Farmer Company mind you, was in publishing!  Listeners were treated to "Stand By!" magazine every other week, which featured interviews with the WLS stars, a gossip column called "Fanfare by Marjorie Gibson," a questions and answers section, as well as news of interest authored by Jack Holden and Check Stafford, cartoons and other features such as "Homemaker Tips and Recipes."   It also contained a schedule of upcoming WLS programming.  Then annually, WLS would release it's version of a yearbook called the "WLS Family Album," which not only published pictures of the station's performers, but also featured portraits of station personnel and their families.  Prairie Farmer owner/publisher Burridge Butler and Program Director Harold Safford went out of their way to portray WLS as being a part of the family!  The conservative and no-nonsense Butler even crafted a station code of ethics, known as "The WLS Creed."

History was made with the words of Herb Morrison on May 6th, 1937. His anguish was felt coast to coast as the German airship Hindenburg, filled with hydrogen, burst into flames before his eyes and was destroyed in a matter of seconds. Listeners in Chicago and across the country didn't hear Morrison's coverage of the disaster until the next day because his report wasn't broadcast live from Lakehurst. He and engineer Charley Nehlsen had been experimenting with field recordings on huge acetate discs.  They realized the gravity of their recordings as they found themselves being followed by German SS Officers!  After hiding out for a few hours, the two managed to make a clean getaway and get back across the country to WLS.  The chilling account aired the next day on the station and was the first recorded radio news report to be broadcast nationally by NBC.

In 1932, WLS was authorized to increase its power to 50,000 watts, first on an experimental, then on a permanent basis. It continued to share the 870 kHz frequency with WENR until 1954.  As a result, both stations had only part-time schedules. When one station would sign off, the other would sign on. Vacuum tubes were used to amplify the signal to a strength of 50,000 watts. The amount of electricity to do this is staggering. In any event, the waste electricity is released in the form of heat – tubes get very hot. The first result is tube failure. The tubes wore out relatively quickly so a dedicated staff member was always present to replace power tubes as they failed. If allowed to heat up, the tubes would simply melt. In order to keep them cool enough to operate reliably, long pools of water were used for cooling. The dedicated staff member was also responsible for keeping the cooling water flowing and plentiful.

In 1941 (to participate in the war effort) the station, in cooperation with the Great Lakes Naval Training Center aired a weekly 15-minute program called ‘Meet Your Navy’.  It was designed to keep listeners informed about the activities of Naval men and women. In addition to providing recruiting information, the Navy band and Great Lakes Choir would often play on the show, which was picked up nationally by the NBC Blue Network. The other armed services, such as the Army and WACS were also represented on other WLS programs.  Station employees and performers planted and maintained a victory garden in suburban Burr Ridge. Many of the produce items were used fresh, but plenty was also canned in the kitchen at the Prairie Farmer Building.

The National Barn Dance merrily rolled on from the Eighth Street Theatre every Saturday night, but the post-war world was quickly changing.  The American Broadcasting Company, which was spun off in 1945 by NBC (It was their less visible "Blue" Network, which owned WENR, the "other" station on the 890 frequency) and Paramount Theatres purchased a controlling share of WLS in 1954.  Faced with dwindling audiences, WLS reluctantly closed down the live version of the National Barn Dance.  The last audience filed into The Eighth Street Theatre on August 31st, 1957, although the program continued on-air in the WLS, and later WGN studios.  By 1959, it was clear that America was changing from a rural to an ever increasing urban and suburban society.  Movies and television had already made their inroads and the Prairie Farmer folks knew it was time to cash out. ABC, sensing that they could get their hands on the huge 50,000 watt clear channel signal from Chicago, was ready to buy.  They already had a television property in Chicago, WENR-TV, later WBKB Channel 7, and were beginning to pursue a license for the new radio band - FM.  As a result, The Prairie Farmer Publishing Company and WLS Radio became a wholly owned subsidiary of ABC. Farm programming was soon to be a thing of the past.

May 2nd, 1960. To some, radio history was made that day, while others would argue that's the day that radio took a turn for the worst. After 36 years of broadcasting farm information, various "polite" entertainment, country music and the National Barn Dance, the sounds of "Alley Oop" by The Hollywood Argyles crackled out of radios tuned to AM 890 that spring morning. WLS was transformed from the old, creaky Prairie Farmer outlet into a hip, urban-minded contemporary-hit station.

ⓒ 2008 Leonard Wyeth
(Large portions of historical information copied-edited-expanded from WLS website)



WSM and the Grand Ole Opry

In 1927, George Dewey Hay christened the show that would become radio’s longest-running musical program when he announced:

“You’ve been up in the clouds with Grand Opera; now get down to earth with us in a shindig of Grand Ole Opry!”

The Grand Ole Opry actually began 2 years earlier on November 28th, 1925 as The WSM Barn Dance (It had only been 5 years since the first commercial American radio station). The National Life and Accident Insurance Company installed a radio station on the 5th floor of their downtown Nashville office building. It was billed as a public service to the local community but financed assuming that the new medium could advertise insurance policies. The station's call letters, WSM, stood for the company's motto: "We Shield Millions".

It began as a 1-hour radio showcase for country music. The public loved the program. National Life saw the potential and hired one of the nation's most popular announcers, George D. Hay, as WSM's first program director. Hay was a former Memphis newspaper reporter who had started a successful barn dance show in Chicago on WLS (World’s Largest Store). Hay joined the station's staff 1 month after it went on the air. At 8 p.m. on November 28th, 1925, Hay pronounced himself "The Solemn Old Judge" (although he was only 30 years old) and launched the show that would become the WSM Barn Dance. To help set the flavor of the show, Hay employed the talents of 77-year-old championship fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson.

Examples of the bands featured on early shows include the Possum Hunters (with Dr. Humphrey Bate), the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers, the Binkley Brothers Clod Hoppers, Uncle Dave Macon, Sid Harkreader, Deford Bailey, Fiddling Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers. The first real star to emerge from the Grand Ole Opry was Uncle Dave Macon in 1926. Macon was a Tennessee banjo player who had toured the vaudeville circuit and recorded several songs.

‘Judge’ Hay seemed to favor the Fruit Jar Drinkers and asked them to appear last on each show. He adjusted the show’s line-up to always close with "red hot fiddle playing." When the Opry began featuring square dancers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers seemed to always play for them too.

The name Grand Ole Opry came about on December 10th, 1927. The Barn Dance followed NBC Radio Network's Music Appreciation Hour. The show consisted of classical music and selections from opera. Their final piece that night featured a musical interpretation of an onrushing railroad locomotive. As Barn Dance opened that evening, ‘Judge’ Hay quipped, "Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next 3 hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the 'earthy'." He then introduced the man he dubbed the Harmonica Wizard — DeFord Bailey who played his classic train song "The Pan American Blues". As Bailey finished Hay commented, "For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera… You’ve been up in the clouds with Grand Opera; now get down to earth with us in a shindig of Grand Ole Opry!” The name stuck.

Hay's weekly broadcasts proved enormously popular. The 5th floor radio studio became a problem due to music fans clogging the insurance company hallways to catch glimpses of their favorite performers. In 1932 National Life built an acoustically designed auditorium with seating for 500 fans and increased broadcasting power to 50,000 watts. This effectively expanded their audience to 30 states and parts of Canada. Due to the nighttime effect of AM radio, the Saturday night shows could sometimes be heard all over the country.

The new studio proved to be too small. It became clear that the crowds drawn by the radio show interfered with the insurance business and WSM needed to move away from the corporate offices. In October 1934, the Opry moved into the Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt), then on June 13th, 1936, to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville. As audiences continued to grow, the Opry then moved to the War Memorial Auditorium adjacent to the State Capitol. A twenty-five cent admission was charged, in part to discourage large crowds, but it didn’t work. On June 5th, 1943 the Opry found a home at the Ryman Auditorium.

The Ryman Auditorium had been built in 1892 by riverboat shipping magnate Captain Thomas Ryman as a home base for traveling evangelist, Reverend Samuel Jones. It was a religious meetinghouse just off the main street (Broadway) in downtown Nashville. The Opry would remain there for 31 years until March 16th, 1974 when it moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, located nine miles east of downtown Nashville on a former farm in the Pennington Bend of the Cumberland River. The Opry still returns for an annual winter run at the Ryman Auditorium.

Many country music legends debuted and became regulars on Grand Ole Opry, including singers Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and comedians Minnie Pearl and Archie Campbell. Pearl, with her trademark greeting of “How-Deee!” and a $1.98 price tag dangling from her hat, was an Opry regular for over 50 years.

The early shows featured instrumental performances. Singers were subordinate to the bands. It changed in 1938 when young Roy Acuff joined the cast. His first performance included "The Great Speckled Bird". A star was born and the show format permanently changed.

In 1939 the Grand Ole Opry began an affiliation with NBC that lasted until 1957. In October of 1943, with new sponsor Prince Albert Tobacco and hosted by Acuff, The Grand Ole Opry began airing nationally on more than 140 NBC affiliates.

Throughout the 1940s, Opry stars spent weekends performing in Nashville and weekdays traveling around the nation. Early traveling performances were tent shows that later expanded into auditoriums. Performers originally traveled by automobile and later by bus. They were ambassadors for country music and the Grand Ole Opry.

As an indication of national acceptance, New York's Carnegie Hall welcomed Ernest Tubb and a group of Opry stars in 1947. The same year another Opry group played Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. The Opry's first European tour in 1949 took Red Foley, Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Rod Brasfield, Little Jimmy Dickens, Hank Williams, and others to U.S. military bases in England, Germany, and the Azores. In 1961 an Opry troupe including Patsy Cline, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe and Jim Reeves played Carnegie Hall a 2nd time.

In 1991, the touring tradition was revived. The Opry conducted a 10-city Grand Ole Opry Tour to celebrate the show's 65th anniversary. Again in 2004, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Del McCoury, and others participated in an Opry tour. The plans for the Grand Ole Opry's 80th anniversary include a return to Carnegie Hall and a multi-city tour: "An Evening With the Grand Ole Opry".

On October 2nd, 1954 teenage Elvis Presley made his first and only performance on the Grand Ole Opry. The audience reacted politely to this new brand of rock‘n’roll. Following the show he was told by Opry manager Jim Denny that he should go back to Memphis and his truck-driving career. Elvis swore never to return. The Grand Ole Opry represented all that was country music. Audiences did not accept Elvis because of his infusion of rhythm and blues and his infamous body gyrations. It was viewed by many as inappropriate and vulgar. It certainly was NOT traditional country music.

In the 1960s, as the hippie counterculture movement evolved, the Opry maintained its conservative image; "longhairs" were seldom featured on the show. One notable exception was the Byrds. Gram Parsons had worked with The Byrds on a country album and was allowed to perform with the band at the Ryman in March 1968. The conservative audience was polite at best.

PBS Television aired the show on March 4th, 1978 and annually through 1981. In April 1985, a half-hour segment of the Opry began airing each Saturday night on TNN as Grand Ole Opry Live. This eventually expanded to the full hour and can now be seen each week on Great American Country (GAC).

The Grand Ole Opry was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1992.

Economic Impact of The Grand Ole Opry

The artists and repertoire of the Opry define American country music. The cast members past and present represent the stars, superstars and legends of the genre. Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry is being a member of the country music elite.

The Opry's status as an elite fraternity of country music performers has created confusion about membership, particularly the controversy surrounding Hank Williams' untimely death. Many people viewed the stripping of Hank Williams' Opry membership in 1952 related to his death soon afterward (It is more plausible that his death and his loss of membership were both due to alcoholism). Opry membership is earned and must be maintained throughout the artist's career. After artists die, they are no longer considered standing members of the Grand Ole Opry. However, they may be celebrated at special events. For example: the 50th anniversary commemorating the death of Hank Williams in 2003, featured performances from Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III.

In the mid1960s Opry management decided to enforce the requirement that members had to perform on at least twenty-six shows a year in order to keep their membership active. This imposed an unreasonable financial hardship on members who made most of their income from touring. Those members could not afford to be in Nashville every other weekend. Furthermore, the Opry's standard appearance fee remained $44 per appearance – purely a token. Though this requirement eased over the years, artists offered membership are still expected to show dedication to the Opry with frequent attendance.

The traditions of the Grand Ole Opry extended to instrumentation. The use of drums and electric instruments was discouraged. Purists believed in the traditional use of string bass for the rhythm section. Electric instruments and amplifiers were regarded as the province of rock’n’roll. It was these restrictions that reportedly kept Bob Wills from being invited into the Opry. For popular artists like Waylon Jennings, the restrictions were old fashioned, unreasonable and didn’t reflect the changing tastes of country music fans. They prevented new music from entering the hallowed halls. Restrictions were slowly eliminated. Not everyone was happy about the gradual changes but the long-term viability of the institution as a profitable enterprise required adjustments.

Management has been fastidious about enforcement of its name trademark. The Opry sued a small, now-defunct Nashville record label calling itself Opry Records. They ultimately lost the case. The record company's attorneys successfully argued that WSM's management did own the rights to the words: “Grand Ole Opry”, but only in that order and combination. They could not, however, own the word ‘Opry’ in isolation any more than they could own ‘Grand’ or ‘Ole’. This ruling opened the door to other small-time country music shows to brand themselves as ‘Opry’. Examples include: the Bell Witch Opry; Carolina Opry; Ozark Opry, Current River Opry, Kentucky Opry, etc.

Grand Ole Opry is still heard every week on WSM, presenting the best in country music from the past and present.

© 2008 Leonard Wyeth & Acoustic Music.Org
Special thanks to Wikipedia, Radio Hall of Fame website, Grand Ole Opry website.
Edited and expanded by Leonard Wyeth

1914 - 1929    Midway Gardens, Chicago IL

Midway Gardens was constructed as the first permanent home for outdoor summer music. The design accommodated both indoor and outdoor entertainment venues for year-round operation with dining, dancing, bars, and seating for thousands. The scale was immense and the expense attests to the commitment felt by the public at that time. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened to the public (before being entirely completed) in June of 1914. It was to be the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but was also intended for broad cultural use and regular public access. The outdoor orchestral stage had no problem accommodating the 60 person orchestra. 700 opera chairs were placed for optimal acoustical exposure and thousands more as table seating in an open garden with multiple dance floors.

The project was never fully realized or properly funded but still says something significant about the place of music in the American culture and community. Drinking and dining were an important part of the experience. The onset of prohibition (1920–1933) ended the drinking and seriously cut into business but the crash of 1929 put an end to large numbers of families dining out. The Midway Gardens were sold and resold and ultimately demolished in 1929.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth

1903 – Tango Craze

Somewhere between 1912 and 1914 a young couple arrived in New York City from Paris named Vernon and Irene Castle. They fancied themselves professional dancers and brought with them a new dance that had caught on in Europe called the Tango.

The tango was a dance and musical style that originated in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay. The word ‘tango’ was already in use in Andalusia describing a style of local music. It appears that the word was co-opted for the emerging Argentine trend.

The term Tango seems to have first been used in Argentina in connection with the dance in the 1890s. By 1902 the Teatro Opera had started including the tango in their balls. Initially tango was just one of the many available local dances, but it soon became popular throughout society. Theaters and street barrel organs spread it from the slums to the suburbs. Influences that contributed to the development of the tango came from multiple European and Indian ethnicities. For this reason Tango is often referred to as the music of the Argentine immigrants.

During the period 1903 - 1910 over a third of the 1,000 gramophone records released in America were tango music. Tango sheet music was also popular. In 1910 the bandoneon was introduced to Buenos Aires from Germany and it become linked inextricably with tango music. By 1912, Juan "Pacho" Maglio was very popular with his recorded tangos featuring the bandoneon accompanied by flute, violin and guitar. Between 1910 and 1920 tango was featured on 2,500 of the 5,500 records released.

It was in this setting that Vernon and Irene Castle arrived with their dance demonstrations. The music was already familiar – now there was an exciting physical demonstration of movement. It was exotic and sensuous. It caught on like wildfire.

The American Tango craze took over the dance halls of the nation. The craze initiated Dance Wars and Tango Battles. The more conservative elements of American society were appalled at the sexual innuendo and depravity and sought laws regulating all dancing.  In fairness, they believed most of the dances of the day were too suggestive but the tango was viewed as the most depraved. There were even federal laws proposed to have Tango banned altogether. It’s important to note that many years earlier the public had felt the same way about the waltz.

Although Tango had been in America since around 1907, it was relatively unknown until the Castles demonstrated how it should be done.  They must have been very good dancers as they were responsible for making many other dances popular. They invented a dance called the 'Castlewalk' which brought together many of the more popular dances of the time. The various dances that made up the Castlewalk were thought of as merely 'steps.' So the idea of a dance being many steps became a popular notion. This idea led in time to the Ballroom dances of today. It is interesting to note that one of the Castlewalk steps was called the Fox Trot. Eventually the Fox Trot became a separate dance. Tango continued to evolve (the Castles helped here) and eventually developed into the modern Ballroom Tango of today.

As the dance became more popular it gained credibility with middle and upper classes around the world. Argentine high society adopted the previously low-class dance form as their own. In 1913 tango began to move from the slums to elegant dance palaces. In 1916, Roberto Firpo, a successful bandleader of the period, revised the arrangements for sextet: two bandoneons, two violins, piano and double bass. Firpo heard a march by Uruguayan Gerardo Mattos Rodriguez and adapted it for tango, creating the popular and iconic La Cumparsita. In 1917 folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded his first tango song: ‘Mi Noche Triste’, forever associating tango with the feeling of tragic love.

Violinist Julio De Caro formed an orchestra of classically trained musicians in 1920 and recreated the tango as more elegant, complex and refined (and slowed the tempo). With Pedro Laurenz on bandoneon, De Caro's orchestra was famous for over a decade.

In Argentina, the onset in 1929 of the Great Depression, and restrictions introduced after the overthrow of the Hipólito Yrigoyen government in 1930 caused Tango to decline. Its fortunes were reversed, as tango again became widely fashionable and a matter of national pride under the government of dictator Juan Perón. Tango declined again in the 1950s with economic depression and as the military dictatorships banned public gatherings, followed by the popularity of Rock and Roll. The dance lived on in smaller venues until its revival in the 1980s following the opening in Paris of the show Tango Argentina and the Broadway musical Forever Tango.

 ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth


Western Swing

Music truly is a democratic ideal: the ultimate melting pot. The turbulent flow of immigrants into and around the country seeking opportunity and betterment brought together groups, tribes and families to circumstances that had never been imagined. The mix of cultural influences could not be avoided. It happened too fast. Wave upon wave of humanity blending together in cities, towns and rural settings. Though they may have tried to band together into neighborhoods of similar backgrounds and familiar surroundings, they could not avoid mixing in schools, markets and workplaces. With the advent of radio, the mix was expanded across the nation.

Vaudeville capitalized on the cultural differences. While some performers would exploit stereotypes and prejudices, they would, at the same time, bring cultural exposure to new audiences. Musical parodies could spawn new styles. Mass entertainment was the common thread drawing together a wildly diverse and unique American social fabric. The fresh and growing middle class had some extra time and money and could not seem to get enough entertainment. It was all so new.

Music is fundamental. It is understood by all. For example: The roots of Traditional Jazz spread up the Mississippi fusing seamlessly with rural blues and Northern influences to be immediately accepted in Chicago, Kansas City and on to New York. Music based in the Black experience of the Deep South was readily accepted by white urban Northern audiences. It was amazing. Americans were ready for it. It was appropriate to the experience of the day. The turbulence, excitement and social upheaval had become the norm. The new music felt like the right expression of the times. It bridged cultural differences in favor of common experience. It was entertainment: open, optimistic, upbeat, danceable and fundamental to the American experience.


IIn the Southwest, in the 1920s, Western string bands were popular. They had been absorbing influences from all available sources: Jazz, Polka, Tango, Vaudeville, rural, blues, cowboy, folk, and Spanish influences from across the southern border. They could be found in dance halls, saloons and brothels of small towns throughout the Lower Great Plains. It was the early years of Jazz shifting into a swing beat: upbeat and danceable. The bands were made up of guitars, bass, drums, saxophones, accordions, pianos, violin and steel guitar with its distinctly emotive Western whine.

Western Swing evolved from old house parties and ranch dances where fiddlers and guitarists entertained dancers. According to guitarist Merle Travis: "Western Swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western Swing." Bands popped up from San Antonio to Shreveport to Oklahoma City playing different repertories with the same basic sound. It is probably fair to say that Western Swing formed as a 'genre' by a handful of bands playing predominantly in Southern Oklahoma and Northeastern Texas.

In the beginning, Western swing had no name. It was simply known as dance music. The term "Swing", referring to big band dance music, wasn't used until after the 1932 Duke Ellington hit: "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". The style names used by recording companies before World War II included: “Hillbilly", "Old Time Music", "Novelty Hot Dance", "Hot String Band", and "Texas Swing" (for music coming out of Texas and Louisiana). Most Western dance bandleaders simply called themselves: “Western bands” and their music as “Western dance music”. In general, they wanted nothing to do with the "hillbilly" label.

The Name: “Western Swing”

Around 1942, ‘Spade’ Cooley's promoter, Foreman Phillips, began using "Western Swing" to advertise his client. The first use in print was a 1944 Billboard item mentioning a forthcoming songbook by Spade Cooley titled “Western Swing”. The name stuck.


Western Swing’s popularity begun to grow in the Southwest as the devastating effects of the Depression set in. During the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Americans fled the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri to make their way West on Route 66 to California and the promise of a new start. The exodus was too large. The Golden State didn’t have the work and just plain didn’t want them.

Western Swing was a refuge: it was new and yet familiar. It was light, fun and built on the influences that the farmers had left behind. It was sophisticated but not high-brow. It was rich but still accessible. It was the right music for the time.

In the early 1930s, Bob Wills and Milton Brown co-founded the Light Crust Doughboys in Forth Worth TX, playing dancehalls and filling the radio airways with their particular brand of swing. Wills went on to assemble the Texas Playboys in Tulsa OK. The rest was history.

In 1935 Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies recorded W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" (Decca 5070) using a shortened arrangement of what they played for dances at the Crystal Palace outside of Fort Worth Texas. In the dance hall arrangement, the band would play a slow-drag tempo for 10 to 15 minutes (with accompanying vocals). The tempo would then increase to presto for the final choruses. The crowds of dancers appeared to love the arrangement and eagerly anticipated the tempo change. Waltzes and ballads were then interspersed for variety and to give the dancers a break if they were worn out by the faster numbers. Dancers would dance two-step or round dances, popular at the time.

Bob Wills recalled the early days of Western Swing music in a 1949 interview: "Here's the way I figure it: We sure not tryin' to take credit for swingin' it." Speaking of songs he'd learned from his father and others, working with Milt Brown - popular songs by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, and others. He said: "We'd ... pull these tunes down an set 'em in a dance category. ... They wouldn't be a runaway ... and just lay a real beat behind it an' the people would began to really like it. ... It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much".

Western Swing differed from the nationally popular horn driven Big Swing Bands of the same era. In Western bands - instruments and vocals followed the fiddle's lead. Additionally, most Western bands improvised freely, either by soloists or collectively. Popular horn bands were generally carefully arranged and scored. Western bands were quick to accept and exploit the new technology of amplifiers and instruments with pickups. The electric guitar and steel guitar were natural choices. They could rise to the power and projection of the horn section with ease. This made it possible for Western bands to serve very large dance halls. The electric string rhythm section and the use of the steel guitar gave the music a distinct, emotive and memorable sound.

As early as 1934 or 1935 Bob Dunn electrified a Martin O series acoustic guitar while playing with Milton Brown's Brownies. According to Jimmy Thomason: "It happened when Dunn was working at Coney Island in New York, he ran into this black guy who was playing a steel guitar with a homemade pickup attached to it - hooked up to this old radio or something and was playing blues licks - and he got this guy to show him how he was doing it. I never knew this black musician's name but both Bob and Avis talked to me about him often."

1940s: "Take Me Back to Oklahoma” – The Craze Begins

Some historians feel that the beginning of the Western Swing craze was the day that Bob Wills and his band arrived in Los Angeles in 1940 to appear in the film "Take Me Back to Oklahoma," starring Tex Ritter and Arkansas Slim. The film was a hit. Within a very short time cowboy hats, boots, string ties and rawhide vests were seen all over Southern California.

Some historians feel that the beginning of the Western Swing craze was the day that Bob Wills and his band arrived in Los Angeles in 1940 to appear in the film "Take Me Back to Oklahoma," starring Tex Ritter and Arkansas Slim. The film was a hit. Within a very short time cowboy hats, boots, string ties and rawhide vests were seen all over Southern California.

Western Swing reached its "golden age" in the years approaching and during World War II. It was extremely popular throughout the West. During the 1940s, the Light Crust Doughboys broadcasts could be heard on more than 170 radio stations concentrated in the South and Southwest. Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys played Western Swing nightly at the Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa from 1934 until 1943. Crowds at Cain's were said to reach 6,000. Daily shows were broadcast on KVOO radio, a 50,000 watt signal spreading over many states. Regular shows continued until 1958 with Johnnie Lee Wills as the bandleader.

Any listing of Western Swing should include such bands as:

Burt (aka Bert) "Foreman" Phillips developed a circuit of dance halls and bands for each of them. Included in the venues beginning in 1942 were: the Los Angeles County Barn Dance at Venice Pier Ballroom, the Town Hall Ballroom in Compton, the Plantation in Culver City, the Baldwin Park Ballroom, and the Riverside Rancho. These "Western" dances were very successful. According to Hank Penny, Phillips had said: "I don't want any of that Western Swing!" But that's what he got, and it got him huge eclectic crowds. Writer Gerald Vaughn wrote: "a Dance band hopes to make people move, not stand and listen, so the emphasis has to be on beat, rhythm, syncopation."

When Bob Wills played the Los Angeles Country Barn Dance at the Venice Pier for three nights shortly before he broke up his band to join the army during World War II, the attendance was said to exceed 15,000. Nothing is more dangerous to the structure of a building than a large crowd bouncing in time. Fearing that the dance floor would collapse, police stopped ticket sales at eleven o'clock. The line outside at that time was ten deep and stretched into the town of Venice. Another source (possibly more reliable and realistic) states that Wills attracted 8,600 fans that night.

Riverside Rancho, operated by Marty Landau, had a 10,000 square foot dance floor, three bars, and a restaurant. According to Merle Travis: "At that time "Western Swing" was a household word. Al Dexter had had a million seller on his "Pistol Packin' Mama" record. Bob Wills was heard on every jukebox with this "San Antonio Rose." T. Texas Tyler was doing well with his "Remember Me (When the Candlelights Are Gleaming)." It was practically impossible to wedge your way into the Palace Barn where Red Murrell and his band were playing. A mile down the hill was the Riverside Rancho. You were lucky to find a ticket on a Wednesday Night. Tex Williams and his Western Caravan were playing there".

Other Los Angeles CA "Country Nightclubs", (as opposed to ‘dives’ - There were plenty of those) included The Painted Post ("Where the sidewalk ends and the West begins"), Willow Lake, Cowtown, Valley Ballroom, Cowshed Club, Dick Ross's Ballroom, and Dave Ming's 97th Street Corral. In 1950 Hank Penny and Armand Gautier opened the Palomino in North Hollywood, "one of country music's most fabled venues, the commercial and social focal point of Hollywood's country set." "Western Jazz" brought in the customers.

Fred "Poppa" Calhoun, piano player for Milton Brown, remembered how people in Texas and Oklahoma danced when Bob Wills played: "They were pretty simple couples dances, two steps and the Lindy Hop with a few western twirls added for good measure. By 1937 the Jitterbug hit big in the West and allowed much greater freedom of movement. But the Jitterbug was different in the West. It wasn't all out boogie woogie; it was 'swingier' - more smooth and subdued".

Another orchestra from this era was The Deuce Spriggens Orchestra. They played nightly at the Western Palisades Ballroom, on Santa Monica Pier, then known as the largest ballroom on the West Coast. The music was broadcast as a radio show, The Cavalcade of Western Music, on station KFI. They also appeared on the Melody Roundup radio program.

In 1944 a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against "dancing" night clubs. It was during the final year of the war. Just about everyone had lost a family member or friend in the war effort. There was a general sense of loss and sadness. Many did not view the dance halls as a much-needed escape from the harsh realities of Americas continued involvement in the war. Although the tax was later reduced to 20 percent, "No Dancing Allowed" signs went up all over the country. Jazz drummer Max Roach argued that, "This tax is the real story why dancing - public dancing per se - were just out. Club owners, promoters, couldn't afford to pay the city, state, government taxes.

The returning soldiers brought with them new influences from far-away lands. They were ready for a new life. The Western Swing of the past was swept aside in favor of the new sounds of a new time.

Moon Mullican, who had performed with Western Swing bands, later found more success as a solo artist and his 1940s and 1950s hits often were done with a more western swing than pure country feel.

Western Swing was one of the many genres to influence rockabilly, and rock 'n' roll. Bill Haley's music from the late 1940s and early 1950s is often referred to as Western Swing. Haley's band from 1948 and 1949 was named Bill Haley and The 4 Aces of Western Swing.

1950’s and Beyond

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Asleep at the Wheel helped make Austin, Texas a major center of Western Swing beginning in the 1970s. The annual South by Southwest music festival and the Austin City Limits PBS TV show have contributed to this success.

Donnell Clyde 'Spade' Cooley (February 22nd, 1910 - November 23rd, 1969)

The story of ‘Spade’ Cooley helps define the flavor of the times:

Donnell Clyde 'Spade' Cooley was born in a  tornado cellar of a dusty ranch near the Canadian River in Western Oklahoma, a few years after the Indian Territory was granted statehood. His parents were part Native American, and Cooley attended the local Indian school. His father, John, was an amateur fiddler who played at local ranch dances and hoedowns.

Donnell took to the fiddle. His father recognized his talent and interest and saw that he was properly trained. Donnell took classical lessons on violin and cello from a teacher at his school. He learned to read music and the basics of musical arrangement.

The Great Depression arrived and the family ranch failed. The Cooley family moved West to Oregon's Cascade Range, near Packsaddle Creek. The opportunities for a young man were limited so at the age of 21, Donnell moved to Modesto California in 1931. He worked as a laborer by day and kept his music alive by playing the fiddle by night. During these years he developed a taste for cards and gambling. There is something about the makeup of a musician’s brain that enjoys the patterns and relationships of musical notes in the same way they develop a sense for the patterns and numbers of playing cards.

In a poker game in Modesto, Cooley is said to have drawn a straight flush three times – each time in spades. According to country music historian Richard Kienzle, that’s where he got the nickname ‘Spade’.


By age 25, Donnell had a wife and one son. His ambition was pulling him toward greater opportunity. The young family left Modesto and headed for Hollywood. His timing was perfect: Cowboy movies were big. He was a fine fiddle player that could read and arrange. He could sit in just about any type of band and adapt. Before long he was asked to sit in with the Sons of the Pioneers, the Country and Western group known for its smooth vocal harmonies. Its most famous member, Roy Rogers, had already graduated to movies by the time Cooley arrived in Hollywood. Cooley fit in well and was introduced to some of the finest players around.

There was a clear physical resemblance between Cooley and Rogers. Both had dark hair, thin eyebrows and narrow eyes. A meeting was arranged at Republic Pictures, where Rogers was under contract. Cooley & Rogers hit it off and ‘Spade’ was hired by Republic at $17 a day to work as Rogers' stand-in and occasional stunt double. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

At night, Cooley continued gigging with such western swing bands as Walt Shrum and the Colorado Hillbillies and the Rhythm Rangers. He began to develop personal relationships and the musical respect of all the best players as well as a broad network of promoters and potential venues.

In 1943 Cooley accepted a three-week engagement as a sideman for a cowboy-music trio appearing at Santa Monica's Venice Pier Ballroom. The audience at the time would have included Okies, men and woman from the military, blue-collar workers and dust bowl immigrant residents of Farm Security Administration camps. ‘Spade’ was a consummate professional and good soloist, but he stood out as the best showman on stage. He was a backslapper with a ready smile and a habit of calling everyone he met "son," like rooster Foghorn Leghorn from the Looney Tunes cartoon. The ballroom manager recognized Cooley's talents as a front man. He was hired to assemble a house band to meet the new demand for western swing. The engagement lasted 18 months—a Venice Pier record.

Front Man

Encouraged by his success at the Venice Pier, Cooley decided he was the man to assemble America’s best Western Swing band. He used his connections and personal relationships to steal some of the top players from the Los Angeles recording scene. These included Johnny Weis on guitar, Paul (Spike) Featherstone, Muddy Berry, and Gene Krupa, to name only a few.

The number of players would vary, but the band typically included 12 or more musicians and a girl singer. He arranged for L.A.'s top movie wardrobe designers to design western wear, costing as much as $500 per outfit. For publicity, Cooley gave his players southwestern nicknames: Deuce Spriggens, Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers, Pedro DePaul, Cactus Soldi, for example. He renamed Helen Hagström, his Arkansas-born blonde bombshell yodeler and singer as: Carolina Cotton.

In the world of the Big Bands, Benny Goodman was the “King of Swing”. Cooley reckoned that he should be known as the "King of Western Swing”. He used the time that he was booked as the house band for the Riverside Rancho Ballroom to refine his musical style. He emulated the sophisticated jazz swing styles of the successful Benny Goodman Orchestra and tightened up his arrangements to stand out from the more raw approach of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

On Dec. 4th, 1944, Cooley took his orchestra into a recording studio for the first time. The result was the hit single "Shame on You." Released on Columbia's OKeh label, it hit No. 1 on the folk music charts for two months. It was the first of six hit recordings for Cooley over the next two years.


Cooley went through sidemen and girl singers like a hot knife through butter. He had a temper, and he liked to drink. The drinking did not improve his temper. When drunk, just about anything could set him off. He might try to fire half the band and then beg them to return the next day. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't.

Bassist Deuce Spriggens and singer Carolina Cotton were married in 1945. They set off to start their own orchestra, taking some of Cooley’s players with them. Clearly, that is what Cooley had done to other bandleaders just a few years earlier, but now he didn’t see it that way.

Another singer, Ginny Jackson, gave notice during a rehearsal that she planned to quit the band. Cooley tried to throw her off the Santa Monica pier.

Capitol Records offered Cooley’s singer Tex Williams his own contract. Williams tried to finesse a financial arrangement that would have benefited both Cooley and himself: He proposed to continue singing with Cooley's band and hire the same orchestra to back him on his concerts and recordings. ‘Spade’ wanted no part of that arrangement. On stage before a full house at a San Diego ballroom, Cooley handed Williams notice that he was being fired. 11 of the 13 Cooley band members quit to support Williams. They went on to perform as Tex Williams and the Western Caravan, whose hits included "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)."

Ella Mae Evans

21 year old Ella Mae Evans auditioned to play clarinet for a gig at about the same time of the release of "Shame on You". She was a blonde, brown eyed, 5’-4”, 100 pound musician. She caught Cooley’s wandering eye.

Ella Mae came from a Missouri farm where she and her parents, Elmer and Ethel, had traveled the Depression trail West to the Promised Land. After Carolina Cotton left, Cooley chose to use Ella Mae as the featured girl singer. The only problem, according to Bobby Bennett, Cooley's longtime band manager, she had no voice. She was, however, very pretty.

Within a short time, Cooley divorced his wife Anna (their son, John, was 11 years old) and married Ella Mae. On stage, Cooley introduced his new wife as "the purtiest little filly in California." Ella Mae quickly became pregnant and Cooley insisted that she stay home to care for their 2 children: Melody, born in 1946, and Donnell Jr., born in 1948. This ended her brief vocal career.

Early in their marriage, they lived in his mansion on Ventura Boulevard. But ‘Spade’ said he wanted the children to grow up in the country. He bought a tract of land and built a house at the edge of the Mojave Desert in Willow Springs, an hour's drive north of Los Angeles.

This was a much more convenient arrangement for ‘Spade’. He could spend much of his time on the road or in Los Angeles and stay in the Ventura house. Ella Mae and the children were to stay in Willow Springs, a safe distance away. Cooley is said to have sampled and enjoyed scores of the romantic opportunities in the form of fans, girl singers, female musicians and wannabe starlets looking for a leg up in Hollywood.

Television and Radio

In 1946 the radio show: "Spade Cooley Time," debuted on Los Angeles’ KFVD. It featured the new, larger orchestra that added six horns and allowed for more sophisticated arrangements.

By 1947 the Riverside Rancho was no longer large enough to accommodate the crowds to see Cooley and his orchestra. He moved to and signed a 7 year lease on the Santa Monica Ballroom. It could accommodate crowds of 8,000.

In 1948 Cooley hosted a KTLA-TV variety show called "The Hoffman Hayride". The program, filmed at the ballroom every Saturday night, was a cross between "Hee-Haw" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." As a KTLA ad put it, "Spade Cooley's formula for a show with top musical entertainment, a dash of western flavor, and a good sprinkling of comedy has proven to be just what the viewers ordered." Guests included rising young stars like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Television spread Cooley’s name to a broad new audience. At the show's peak, 3 out of 4 television sets in greater Los Angeles were tuned to the "Hoffman Hayride" on Saturday nights.

He continued with his Hollywood projects and appeared in about 50 films, most of them westerns. Cooley starred in a few westerns, was featured in some “between-reel shorts" and he and his band performed in dozens of others. His credits include titles such as "The Kid from Gower Gulch," "The Silver Bandit," "Border Outlaws," "Singing Sheriff" and "Texas Panhandle."

East of the Rockies, Spade Cooley was just another western movie mug in chaps and spurs. But he was famous from Seattle to San Diego as one of the west coast's biggest stars. His band often toured up and down the coast Sunday through Friday, always returning to Santa Monica for the Saturday night TV show.

When lucrative potential bookings cropped up for dates that were already taken, Cooley would send a look-alike, sound-alike band. At his zenith, Cooley and his manager, Bobbie Bennett, were marshalling three or four western swing bands that performed under the Spade Cooley brand. He sometimes would dash from one gig to the next—lest someone notice that Spade Cooley was absent from a Spade Cooley show.

Between film work, recordings, TV, radio and concerts, Cooley was pulling down $10,000 a week. Even a heart attack in 1950 did not break Cooley's stride. Life was good.


Cooley made a series of records for Decca in the early 1950s but none produced a hit. The Western Swing craze was passing with the post war era. Western movies were also sinking in popularity as television began to grow. Serialized TV programs seemed to be the future. Roy Rogers had made a successful switch to the new medium but the public appeared to be tiring of the Western Band format.

Cooley's record contract expired, movie studios stopped calling, and concert bookings dried up. "The Hoffman Hayride" went off the air as crowds stopped turning out at the Santa Monica Ballroom. KTLA tried replacing that with the scaled-down "Spade Cooley Show," shot in a television studio.

Cooley's drinking had gotten worse. In 1956, KTLA fired him. They were no longer willing to put up with the alcoholic rages when he was no longer a star. Ironically, KTLA had a new hit musical program: "The Lawrence Welk Show". Times had changed.

Cooley made his final recording in 1959. He turned 50 in February 1960 and he announced his retirement. His final public concert was New Year's Eve 1960. He had $15 million in the bank.

Restless and not content with retirement, Cooley tried some new schemes:

He assembled an all female Western Swing novelty band. It featured Anita Aros, a 28 year old classically trained violinist who was a member of Cooley's last band - and lover. It didn’t catch on.

After the success of Disneyland, which opened in 1955 in Anaheim, Cooley envisioned a water theme park located on the edge of the desert. He hired planners to develop Water Wonderland on land (near his ranch in Willow Springs) in the Antelope Valley at the edge of the Mojave Desert. He reckoned that a water park would be an oasis in the desert, and a reasonable distance for day trip from the cities sprouting like mushrooms along L.A.'s northern fringe. It might have worked, but other issues got in the way.

It All Came Apart

Cooley had always been a jealous man with a temper. As alcoholism progressed and his fame declined, he became increasingly paranoid about his wife's sex life. Meanwhile, he continued his dalliances with Anita Aros and other paramours.

He began to see every man as a potential lover. She was rarely allowed to visit Los Angeles. Bobbie Bennett, Cooley's ex-manager noted that he virtually kept her as a prisoner at the remote Willow Springs ranch.

In the spring of 1961, ‘Spade’ spent more time at the ranch while working on his theme park project. By this time he was a full-fledged alcoholic and popping pills as chasers.

‘Spade’ began to believe that 2 of his business partners (that he believed to be gay) were luring Ella Mae into a free-love sex cult. The marital relationship became so bizarre that Ella Mae sent the children to live with a friend.

There was talk of divorce and reconciliation. The domestic situation wore on Ella Mae. In March of 1961, she was hospitalized for emotional problems. At about the same time, she made a peculiar confession to a nurse friend, Dorothy Davis, that she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953. Cooley badgered Ella Mae endlessly, insisting that she admit her infidelities. On March 31, as they argued in a moving car, Ella Mae either jumped or was pushed from the vehicle. She tumbled along the road but apparently did not seek any medical help.

On April 3rd, 1961, following another sexual interrogation by Cooley, Ella Mae told him she was leaving him, once and for all. He completely lost control. Their daughter, Melody, age 14, arrived home at about 6:20pm. She would later describe the scene in court:

“When I entered, he was on the phone. He was talking to his business partner and he said, 'Don't call the police.' He was real sweaty and he had blood spots on his pants. He put down the phone and said, 'Come in here. I want you to see your mother. She's going to tell you something.' He took hold of my arm and took me into the den. The shower was running in the bathroom. Mother was in the shower. He opened the door and said, 'Get up. Melody's here. Talk to her.' He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the den with both hands. She was undressed. He banged her head on the floor twice. He called her a slut. She couldn't move. She seemed unconscious. He turned back to mother and said, 'We'll see if you're dead.' Then he stomped her in the stomach with his left foot. He took a cigarette which he had been smoking and burned her twice.” Melody said her father picked (up) a pistol and menaced her with it, leveling its sights between her eyes. He told her, "You're going to watch me kill her, Melody. If you don't, I'll kill you, too. I'll kill us all."

Ella Mae Cooley, 37 years old, was declared dead on arrival at Tehachapi Hospital almost 6 hours after the beating. In the end, there was no direct evidence that Ella Mae had been unfaithful with anyone. According to Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans: They dismissed the 10 year old original allegation as "ridiculous”.

Trial and Conviction

Cooley was charged with murder and convicted on August 19th, 1961. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was a model inmate at the California State Prison at Vacaville, performing with a jailbird band and building fiddles in the prison hobby shop. He found religion and told fellow prisoners that he wanted to become a Billy Graham-style preacher.


Ronald Reagan became governor in 1966. Mutual friends in the B-movie business began lobbying for a pardon or parole for Cooley. Reagan agreed, and in August 1969 the state parole board unanimously recommended parole, effective Feb. 22nd, 1970 on his 60th birthday.

4 months before the release, Cooley was granted a three-day furlough to perform in Oakland at a benefit concert for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. He walked onstage to applause from an audience of 3,000 on November 23rd, 1969. He played 3 songs, including "San Antonio Rose," which he dedicated to Bob Wills, who had suffered a debilitating stroke. Cooley then left the stage and walked into the wings where he chatted with musician friends and reporters. He said he was looking forward to returning to work but was concerned about whether his fans would welcome him back. "I think it's gonna work out for me," he said. "I have the feeling that today is the first day of the rest of my life." The smile left his face. He dropped his fiddle, grimaced, clutched his chest and fell dead of a heart attack at 59 years of age. Cooley was buried at Chapel of the Chimes Memorial Park, in Alameda County.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Adapted, edited and expanded from:
Historical information drawn from Wikipedia
David Krajicek, for his biographical work on ‘Spade’ Cooley that can be found on
Spade Cooley Biography on
Spade Cooley – Filmography on:
Western Swing, from Roughstock’s History of Country Music -



Big Bands and the Swing Era


The term “Big Band”, referring to Jazz, is vague but popular. The term generally refers to the swing era starting around 1935 but there was no one event that kicked off a new form of music in 1935. It had evolved naturally from the blues and jazz of New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City.

Early Jazz developed in New Orleans where Buddy Bolden, King Oliver (a cornet player idolized by Louis Armstrong) and others performed at the turn of the century. Mississippi steamboats helped spread the new sound as many of the New Orleans’ jazz bands and musicians performed on the boats.

1917 saw the early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jass Band – white musicians playing the tunes and arrangements of black musicians. Despite the fact that they hadn’t invented anything, their recordings sold over a million copies and introduced jazz to all of America and the world.

In the 1920s the music of jazz began to evolve to bigger band formats combining elements of ragtime, black spirituals, blues, and European music. Duke Ellington, Ben Pollack, Don Redman, and Fletcher Henderson were some of the more popular early big bands. These groups nurtured young stars and future bandleaders like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, and John Kirby.

During the 1920s, while traveling musicians were playing and spreading big band jazz, hotel dance bands and resident dance hall bands were also playing a role in the evolution of the Big Band era. Paul Whiteman, The California Ramblers, Ted Lewis, Jean Goldkette, and Vincent Lopez were a few of the successful hotel dance bandleaders of the 1920s. They made their money playing for ballroom dance crowds and radio remote broadcasts into the early 1930s.

As the jazz orchestras grew in size, the arrangements had to be formalized to avoid mass confusion. The arranger became the focal point of the band. Improvisation during solos was written into the arrangements but their location and duration were controlled. The big band sounds of The Dorsey Brothers, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, The Casa Loma Orchestra, and Duke Ellington's orchestra as well as the vocal styling of The Mills Brothers, the Andrew Sisters and The Boswell Sisters were all carefully arranged and the easy flowing style of the evolving jazz was becoming known as ‘Swing’.

As the new swing style emerged in the mid 1930s it took the country by storm. The popularity of swing increased as people invented new dances to complement it’s driving rhythm. The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem opened its doors in 1926 and for the next 20 years became a hotbed for swing bands. It was at the Savoy that a dance style called the ‘Lindy Hop’ was invented and refined. Through the press, recordings, and live radio remote broadcasts the American public was introduced to the new music. The dance craze took off. 

The Big Band Era – The Swing Era

The Big Band era is generally regarded as having occurred between 1935 and 1945. It was the only time in American musical history that the popularity of jazz eclipsed all other forms of music. To many, the appearance of Benny Goodman and his Big Band at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August of 1935 was the start of the Swing Era.

America was still in the grips of a depression. "Black Thursday" had occurred on October 24th, 1929 followed by the collapse of The New York Bank of the United States on December 11th, 1931. The prosperity and carefree times of the roaring 20's were over. Money was in short supply. The average person wasn’t able to afford to go out for live music or to buy records. There was very little work, especially for non-essential musicians. Record sales dropped to an all time low. Some of the most talented or well-connected players got jobs at radio studios or with some of the few dance orchestras able to stay together.

In a strange convergence of politics and technology, radio became a household appliance in the 1930s. By 1935, the number of homes with radios was estimated at 23 million. That created an audience of approximately 91 million. It became known as the "Golden Age Of Radio" with shows like "The Shadow," "Amos & Andy," "Tarzan," "Fibber McGee And Molly," and "The Lone Ranger". Studio musicians made their money as background instrumentalists for both shows and commercials. Music shows were also successful. Before 1934, dance and "sweet" bands still dominated the airwaves. Benny Goodman's Let's Dance broadcasts, which aired regularly in 1934, were one of the first such weekly live radio broadcasts of hot jazz to be aired by a national network on a regular basis. Given the economic conditions of the time it may be surprising that during this period advances in recording technology, and in particular the microphone, were changing the way Americans could hear recorded music and radio broadcasts.

The advent of radio required advances in many related devices. The quality of broadcast sound depended upon the quality of the available microphones. The RCA model 44A ribbon or "velocity" microphone was introduced in 1931. It was remarkably efficient with a natural compression and became one of the most widely used microphones in recording and broadcast. In 1933 RCA raised the bar again and introduced the model 77A cardioid pattern dual ribbon microphone. Each advancement improved the sound quality and brought increasing subtlety and nuance to the broadcasts. As the microphones improved, the experience of radio became ever more intimate.

Simultaneously, there were advances in the recording discs as well. By the late 1930s, adding a bit of vinyl resin to shellac made quieter records. Lacquer-coated aluminum discs also came into use in the recording process. These had a quieter surface and for the first time allowed immediate playback in the studio for auditioning purposes. This made it possible for engineers and musicians to make immediate microphone and personnel placement adjustments further improving recordings. Live radio broadcasts of music with the new microphones were nearly as good as disc recordings. The price was right – free for the price of a radio set.

In 1933 Homer Capehart sold his Simplex record changer mechanism to the Wurlitzer Company. Wurlitzer used the invention to produce the jukebox. The jukebox changed the face of popular music by making new tunes available to all. Swing was the music of choice. The jukebox simply made it readily available in speakeasies, dance spots, ice cream parlors and even drugstores. The record companies of the time worried that the new device would cut into record sales but the opposite was true. Exposure to the music made it more desirable and record sales increased. Swing was everywhere.

By 1940 the number of radio stations had grown faster than the availability of live variety acts. The result was a greater need for recorded content. Radio stations responded with music programs based entirely on playing prerecorded discs with introductions and follow-up trivia to support the music and artists of the day. The role of the Disc Jockey was born, though the term would not be coined until around 1940. During the early 1930s radio stations had sternly held to a policy discouraging the use of recordings in network broadcasts. Priorities evolve with the reality of need and the marketplace. In Los Angeles, radioman Al Jarvis was playing records and talking about them on a successful program called "The World's Largest Make Believe Ballroom." Jarvis was popular on KFWB in the Los Angeles radio market in the early 1930s. In 1935 Martin Block, a junior assistant from KFWB, moved to New York and used the same format during breaks in the high profile Bruno-Hauptman trial. The trial was broadcast on network radio and the new format found an eager and appreciative audience. These record jockeys, as they were called, were soon entertaining listeners with discs all over the country.

The musician's union, authors and composers began to question the free medium. The stations had engineered a way to profit from advertising, but not much, if any, or the revenue was getting back to the musicians. These questions and disagreements would fester and grow over the next 10 years.

Swing jazz in the big band format was growing in popularity with college kids. The Casa Loma Orchestra was a favorite at Yale. In New York, the new dance called the Lindy Hop (named after Charles Lindbergh's Trans-Atlantic flight) had become a craze with teens in ballrooms like the Alhambra, the Renaissance and the Savoy. Kids were searching for an identity and excitement. Swing jazz felt like it belonged to them.

Benny Goodman's Let's Dance broadcasts first aired in December of 1934. His was the final of several music features of each night making it a late broadcast on the East Coast. They were too late for most high school and college students who needed to be up early for school. The U.S. tour by Benny Goodman and his orchestra was booked following the Let's Dance broadcasts. It was not terribly successful until he hit the West Coast. The 3-hour time difference of his live broadcasts, between New York and Los Angeles, had enabled school-aged kids out West to hear the nightly broadcasts. They were familiar with the music and eager to meet the band bringing them this new music.

In the summer of 1935, the tour culminated with Goodman's performance at the Palomar in Los Angeles. Although Oakland turnouts were good and the crowds enthusiastic, the band was not expecting what they found at the Palomar. What appeared to be the end of the tour for the Benny Goodman Big Band suddenly changed with the kids that night. When the kids heard the band launch into a hot swing number, they surged forward, crowding the bandstand and cheering.

The headlines and reviews trumpeted the success of the Benny Goodman Big Band in California. Magazines like Down Beat and Metronome printed more articles about their swing music. John Hammond, known for discovering artists like Count Basie and Billie Holiday, wrote about big bands in Down Beat as early as 1935. By 1936, when Benny Goodman was performing just blocks away from the magazine's Chicago offices, articles about the band filled its issues. Jazz in the form of big band swing was now beginning to sweep the nation. Radio remotes regularly featured the new swing music and most all the major hotels in large cities had a "wire" (a line for broadcast transmission). Jukeboxes were everywhere, kids were dancing, record jockeys were spinning discs and talking them up and the public appetite seemed inexhaustible.

By 1942, the tension between the radio industry and the musicians union had increased to the breaking point. The recording and radio industry were showing signs of extravagant wealth but the musicians were not. The musicians, authors and composers felt that they had created the wealth for the radio and recording industries and deserved a piece of the action.

The Recording Ban

The following is from “DownBeat”, Chicago August 1st, 1942, Vol 9-No.15

Disc Firms Sit Back, Public’s Next Move
Government may step in, Threat of CIO seen, several months’ record supply on-hand. (By Mike Levin)

“New York - From today on there will be no recording of music, classical or jazz, in this country by union musicians. Prexy Petrillo has not backed down by his claim that recording was ruining the jobs of 60 percent of the AFM membership and that he meant to do something about it. As a result only Soundies and Hollywood are exempted from the "no mechanical reproduction of any kind" order. Petrillo has shifted his position as to the sale of records. He had previously told the companies that they could record for home and Army use, but when it was pointed out to him that the companies would be violating the law if they tried to regulate who bought their records, Petrillo made the edict a complete stoppage.”…

The union, The "AF of M" (American Federation of Musicians), had the record labels and radio stations in a tough position. The AFM wanted higher royalty payments from the licensing organizations and when the record companies balked, union President, trumpeter James "Prexy" Petrillo, called a strike, demanding a portion of per-play royalties be returned, not to the musicians nor composers, but to the union for the benefit of out-of-work members and special projects. Even though this action was indeed a union strike, it is referred to in the music business and by devotees of big band and jazz music as "The Recording Ban".

The country was at war and needed the upbeat sounds of the big bands. Times were hard: there was a scarcity of shellac making it difficult to manufacture the discs. Rubber and gasoline rationing made it difficult for bands to travel. Curfews, blackouts and a 20% live entertainment tax ("Cabaret Tax") had a serious impact on live music, closing clubs and dance halls across the country. Records were more important to a music-loving public than ever.

Petrillo and the AFM were unprepared to articulate their rationale for why, especially at this particular point in time, they wanted more money. It was poor political timing. Between rationing and wartime hardships, the average American had tightened their belt and given up a bit of their quality of life to benefit the war effort. Who were the popular musicians, dressed in tuxedos, to reach for more money now? The union couldn’t even clearly define where the new revenue was supposed to go or how it was to be distributed. All they seemed to say was it should go to the union.

The AFM was made up of instrumentalists. Singers were exempt from union membership. In an attempt to bring new product to market during the strike, the record companies began recording a cappella singing groups and individuals. This effort laid the groundwork for some of the harmony groups of the 1950s. Even Frank Sinatra sang a couple of tunes without his usual big-band backup. These records sold reasonably well. One label even tried to market a recording of Shakespeare's Othello.

Capitol and Decca settled with the union by 1943. RCA Victor and Columbia counted on the support of the FCC and hoped for support from other government bodies as well. They held out for nearly two years more. Without the cooperation of the radio stations, however, the musicians stayed out of the recording studios for nearly two years.

When the strike was finally settled, the musical landscape had changed. The famous "sweet sound" of the World War II-era big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller and the like had competition: the new sound of bebop. The ballrooms and big dance halls that had closed stayed closed. It was 1945 and the decline of the Big Bands had begun.

With the decline of ballrooms, supper clubs and dance halls, small nightclubs sprung up. They began in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The music played there by "scab" musicians was combo style: typically piano, bass, drums and perhaps a saxophone. These small combos inevitably wandered back to the roots of improvisational jazz. They experimented with new forms of harmonic structure. Bebop emerged. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker experimented with this new form, hiding their performances from union watchdogs by performing in small clubs. These were similar to the speakeasies of Prohibition.

The "Lea Act" of 1947 reduced the AFM's powers regarding requirements of the broadcast industry. In United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, S.Ct. 1538 (1947), a Federal Court decided that a union can not use coercion to force a radio station to hire more employees (musicians) than needed. For example, a singer, pianist and bass player can't call the union and say "we need a guitarist, drummer and saxophone or we won't play". The Lea Act (repealed in 1980 and replaced with other legislation) essentially increased program directors and radio stations discretion regarding production for recording or broadcasting.

Mr. Petrillo remained AFM's President until 1958. The AFM website is silent regarding the Recording Ban. They do make a brief mention of "strikes against radio broadcasters." It goes on to describe how Petrillo "struggled to find ways to compensate the thousands of musicians who continued to lose work because of recording."

The end of World War II brought an end to the wartime material restrictions. America’s manufacturing infrastructure realigned itself to peacetime products. Records and record players were available and affordable again and a new market of returning soldiers had emerged. They were young and had some extra money to spend. The women had become accustomed to working, earning, participating and competing in the workplace. The young men had traveled abroad and heard new forms of music and recorded entertainment. New record labels responded with offerings of every form of recorded music possible. The Big Bands had the flavor of a past generation and more difficult times. The Big Band era was over.

Examples of Big Bands and Vocalists in front of Big Bands:

Andrews Sisters
Artie Shaw
Bob Crosby
Boswell Sisters
Cab Calloway
Charlie Spivak
Count Basie
Duke Ellington
Eddy Duchin
Fats Waller
Gene Krupa
George Shearing
Glen Gray
Glenn Miller
Hal Kemp
Harry James
Ink Spots
Isham Jones
Jack Teagarden
Jimmy Dorsey
Kay Kyser
King Sisters
Louis Armstrong
Louis Jordan
Mills Brothers
Ozzie Nelson
Perry Botkin
Tommy Dorsey

© 2008 Leonard Wyeth & Acoustic Music.Org
Special thanks to historical information from Jeff Parker on the Swing Music website:
Special thanks to shaogo from “Recording Ban of 1942”.



Jazz Manouche – Gypsy Jazz

For examples of Selmer Style - Macafferri designed instruments - Click Here

The 1920s in Europe were alive with influences from all over the world. The Great War had ended and a sense of calm and prosperity could be felt throughout central Europe. One by-product of war is the cross-pollination of cultures and ideas. Young soldiers experience foreign places: apart from the experience of the worst of human nature and tragedy, they also experience new traditions, art, architecture and music. Upon returning to their home countries, they brought the new ideas with them. Politics and art were no longer local – they had become global. The urban areas were the centers for intellectual activity and Paris had become an artistic oasis for painters, poets and philosophers. The mode of communication and interaction was the street: cafes and night spots. Music was everywhere. It was exciting and new – uplifting and danceable.

The music of the dance halls and the street at that time had been ‘Bal-Musette’. It was a style of popular music beginning in Paris in the 1880s especially the 5th, 11th and 12th districts. In these districts Auvergnats settled in large numbers in the 1800s. They opened cafés and bars for dancing the bourrée to musette accompaniment (a bellows-powered bagpipe) and grelottière. The night spots had an air of intrigue and excitement and drew many Parisians and Italians. The Italians had settled in the 19th district of Paris and already played the diatonic accordion which was also used in the Auvergnat bars.

As Italian musicians appeared more frequently with new dances like the waltz and polka and a new hybrid accordion, disagreements began, and the Italian and Auvergnat musicians stopped working together. Performers of this era include Antoine Bouscatel, Émile Vacher, Martin Cayla, Charles Péguri and Gus Viseur.

By the end of the Great War there were three kinds of bals-musette:

  1. bal des familles - Auvergnat
  2. bal musette populaire' - Italian
  3. guinche - seedy hangout for questionable characters

The French upper-class, of course, began frequenting these establishments, looking for excitement among immigrant communities. Some night spots actually staged mock police raids to help maintain the illusion of intrigue.

Following the War, new musical forms were arriving in Paris like American jazz and the Argentine tango. These sexy new influences left their mark on bal-musette with dances like the waltz, tango, mazurka, pasodoble, beguine, foxtrot and java. Later, new instruments were added including the banjo, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, mandolin and bandoneon.

Oscar Marcelo Aleman 1909-1980

The tango also brought an awareness of other forms of Argentine dance music and musicians: Oscar Marcelo Aleman was born in Northern Argentina on February 20th, 1909. At the age of 6 he was dancing and singing with his family's folk ensemble, the Moreria Sextet. At the age of 10, following his mother’s death, his father committed suicide. Oscar was suddenly alone and worked sporadically as a dancer and musician on the streets of Santos.

In 1924 Oscar began working with Brazilian guitarist Gaston Bueno Lobo. The duo was signed to the Argentine Victor label and performed under the name ‘Los Lobos’. They would occasionally add violinist Eleven Verdure and record under the name ‘Trio Victor’.

During the late 1920s Oscar discovered American Jazz by hearing recordings of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. He was hooked. He had already been exposed to Louis Armstrong and the beginning of ‘Swing’ but hearing the music on guitar was new. Oscar developed his own style of swing jazz and caught on with the Argentine public. Oscar saw an opportunity to broaden his appeal and moved to Paris where he was immediately hired by Josephine Baker to lead her band: ‘the Baker Boys’ at the Cafe de Paris. This provided him the opportunity to play with American Jazz musicians who would come to see Josephine and sit in with her band.

Oscar later formed his own nine piece band and played nightly at the Le Chantilly, across town from where Django Reinhardt and his partner violinist Stephane Grapelli would soon be performing at The Hot Club of France with their Quintet. Although these two geniuses of the guitar never recorded together, they became friends.

Oscar relocated to Buenos Aires in the early 1940s and continued to record and perform with both a swing quintet and a nine piece orchestra. He continued to teach and perform until his death in 1980 at age 71.


In Paris during the 1920s many of the dance hall musicians were gypsies. They traveled most of central Europe without allegiance to any particular country. Some remained nomadic and some settled in and around were they could find work. They brought many musical influences with them and infused the regional popular music with their own styles. String and wind style playing included influences from Russia, Italy, Belgium, Spain, and the Middle East as well as the Balkans.

Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt  1910–1953

Jazz Manouche (Gypsy Jazz) is said to have begun with the nomadic Gypsy guitarists between Belgium and France in the late 1920s. Many of them were employed by Auverge-style bal musette ensembles that supplied music for public dances.

Django Reinhardt was born on January 24th, 1910 at Liberchies Belgium in an open Gypsy camp. At the age of 8, his mother's Manouche tribe settled near the belt of fortifications that surrounded the old Paris near the Choisy gate. He never wore a suit or lived in a real house until he was 20 years old. The Manouches were a world unto themselves, medieval in their beliefs and distrustful of modern science. Django grew up in this world of contradictions; one foot in the urban world of Paris and the other in the medieval life of the nomadic gypsy.

Music surrounded the Gypsy community; it was part of everyday life. At age 12 Django received a banjo-guitar from a neighbor who noticed his interest in music. He quickly learned to play. Before he turned 13 he had begun a musical career by playing with popular accordionist Guerino at a dance hall on the Rue Monge. He went on to play with numerous other bands and musicians and made his first recordings with accordionist Jean Vaissade for the Ideal Company. Since Django could not read or write, his name was spelled: "Jiango Renard" on these records.

The Caravan Fire

Django married young, as was the custom, to Naguine, another Manouche tribe member. On November 2nd, 1928 at one o'clock in the morning, the 18 year old Django returned to his caravan from a night of playing music at a new club "La Java". Naguine was pregnant with their 1st child and asleep inside. The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at the market. The highly flammable celluloid flowers caught fire by a candle accident. Django wrapped himself in a blanket to shield him from the flames. Somehow he and his wife made it across the blazing room to safety outside, but his left hand and his right side from knee to waist were badly burned. His fret hand was so badly burned that he only retained use of his forefinger and middle finger. The rest were useless.

Django was bedridden for 18 months. With great determination Django recreated a way to use the two functioning fingers on his left hand. The affected fingers were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire. He could use them on the first two strings of the guitar for chords and octaves but full extension was impossible.

Django, like Oscar Aleman, was exposed to recordings of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. By reinterpreting the American jazz and combining it with the wealth of Gypsy tradition and current dance hall influences, Django elevated Jazz Manouche to a wildly popular new dance music form.

In 1934 Django met a classically trained violin player who was equally enamored with the work of Eddie Lange and Joe Venuti: Stephane Grapelli. This was what Django had been looking for and together they assembled The Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The original lineup was Django (lead guitar), Stéphane (violin), Roger Chaput (rhythm guitar), Louis Vola (bass) and Django’s brother Joseph (rhythm guitar). Ultraphone was the first to record the group including: ‘Dinah’, ‘Tiger Rag’, ‘Oh Lady be Good’, and ‘I Saw Stars’. The records were a hit. The Quintet went on to record many more and found success on both sides of the ocean.

Jazz Manouche groups generally consisted of a lead guitar, violin, two rhythm guitars and bass. The rhythm guitars supply the percussive rhythm called la pompe, which, in conjunction with strongly syncopated bass lines make a percussion section redundant. The 2 rhythm guitars were necessary in the early 1930’s as there was no amplification available and dance halls were large and noisy. The use of Selmer guitars designed with Mario Maccaferri made it possible to generate the raw power needed to fill the hall with rhythmic drive. The solo guitar was also a Maccaferri design and had the loud cutting power to be heard over the rest of the band.  Extended improvised solos on guitar and/or violin (and occasionally clarinet and accordion) were the norm. Reinhardt's dusky, chromatic sound, with its melancholy undertones and swing articulation gave even light-weight songs weight and drive. His improvisations included ornamented arpeggios that were firmly anchored in rhythmic structures.

The second World War broke out in 1939 while the Quintet touring in England. Django returned to Paris while Stéphane remained in England. Django played and recorded throughout the war years substituting Hubert Rostaing's clarinet for Stephen's violin. His talent and willingness to remain outside the politics of war somehow allowed him to continue in Paris during the occupation. After the war he rejoined Stéphane and again played and recorded. He toured briefly with Duke Ellington in America and returned to Paris where he continued his career until 1951 when he retired to the small village of Samois Sur Seine. On May 16th 1953 Django suffered a massive stroke while chatting with friends at a local café. He died leaving behind his wife Sophie (Naguine) and son Babik.

 ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Special thanks to the AcousticDisc website, Charles Delaunay and Joseph Dinkins


Bluegrass Music
(The Mandolin & Banjo Rise Again) 

Before radio, records, CDs, amplifiers, movies, TV, video and Apple, there were acoustic instruments.  In America, at the turn of the twentieth century, music was part of societies language.  Most everyone (with means) was trained to read music and play at least one instrument.  It was a way to interact socially.  Most houses had a music room that housed a piano, violin and perhaps a parlor guitar.  Courtship included impressing the desired lover and their family with one's musical prowess.  It was both socially acceptable and a means of expressing affection publicly. Sheet music was the way popular music was circulated.  It was big business: new popular songs would regularly sell as sheet music in the millions of copies.

The most popular instruments of the day included pianos, violins, mandolins and parlor guitars.  Queen Victoria had made the piano an acceptable social instrument for young ladies (unlike the cello or bass fiddle that required straddling the instrument between one's legs).

Not everyone, however, was brought up in pleasant society - not everyone had the means.  Those without the money and education still had access to instruments.  Violins, mandolins, guitars and banjos were available at all price-points, all over the country - thanks to catalog distributors based in Chicago like the Sears & Roebuck Company.  The instruments were available to every cultural group in the cities and small towns. 

Each new wave of immigration brought new cultural influences that cross-pollinated other existing influences.  The Italian communities had their mandolin based indigenous music that had an impact on the black banjo playing communities,  The black blues playing guitar work of the Southern share-croppers had an impact on the Southern white working class communities with fiddle based European roots.  The Irish Great Hunger of the mid 19th century brought waves of Irish seeking opportunity and bringing celtic traditions on fiddle and mandolin.  The Jews fleeing persecution in Europe brought Russian fiddle based dance music to the mix.  The Spanish brought latin guitar music, the Moors brought middle Eastern music and so forth.

The industrial Revolution of the late 19th century contributed free time and small amounts of extra money to spend.  Those with industrial work found themselves with some spare time and spending money.  They appeared to enjoy spending that time and money on a night life that included music & dancing.  This increased the desire for new musical styles and entertainment.  In effect, the cultural times sped up the process of cross-pollination.  Musicians have traditionally welcomed new influences and the desire to play with other talented musicians.  If someone had an exciting new music that caused people to want to hear it (or dance to it), then everyone wanted to learn it.  This also contributed to greater interaction between cultures and classes.  The rich seemed to seek out the more exciting musical forms in the poorer parts of town.  The music was rowdier and bawdier - generally more intriguing and entertaining.  This process was amplified by prohibition between 1920 & 1933.  Apparently the consumption of alcohol elevates both the libido and the appreciation of music.

By the mid to late 1880s, the waves of Irish immigrants with their celtic musical roots had interacted with the Italian immigrants in urban areas and the popularity of the mandolin had grown.  The instrument was ideal for the expression of both cultures and even found it's way into classical music as mandolin orchestras developed and grew across the country.  The instruments were small, portable and equal in volume to the fiddle.  They were also tuned the same way and many musicians could manage quite well on either instrument.  They were well suited to supporting vocals and had a rich tradition of delivering the pulsating rhythm necessary for dancing. 

At the turn of the 20th century, Orville Gibson developed his archtop mandolin prototype and demonstrated that the instrument could get even smaller, louder and more comfortable to play.

World War I exposed many young Americans to additional European traditional music and the influences exploded into the Roaring Twenties.  Following the War, the general attitude shifted to optimism for a great future and a rejection of the traditions of the past.  Music found expression in this hopeful optimism and sprang forward embracing all American forms of music: shuffling them together and dealing out whatever emerged that was exciting and energetic.  The banjo and mandolin, representing older traditions, fell out of favor for a time.  They were never entirely lost, but temporarily pushed aside by the guitar and new rhythmic possibilities based largely in Jazz.  Ironically, Lloyd Loar, working as an acoustic consultant/technician for the Gibson Musical Instrument Company, was developing the refinements to the guitar and mandolin that included 'F' style sound holes that improved the character of the voice of the mandolin to the point that the 1925 Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5 mandolin is one of the most sought-after instrument of the vintage market.

As popular musical arrangements became more sophisticated and the bands grew bigger through the 1930s, the mandolin remained in the shadows, waiting for a new musical form to bring it back to light.  Big Bands had horn sections.  The guitar was largely used as a rhythm instrument until the amplifier (and Charlie Christian) helped elevate it to a Jazz solo instrument.  The banjo and mandolin were not in favor.  Movies and radio emerged as new methods to disseminate music and culture and they made it possible to deliver the best bands of the nation to households from coast to coast.

The 1930s were the depression years and, a 3 year draught on the mid-west helped create the dust bowl.  Farmers and workers were displaced and pushed to the fringes of the country seeking work and relief from disrupted and destroyed lives.  Their existence was not the same as what appeared on the silver screen.  They did, however, find a voice in Woody Guthrie and others that expressed what was going on in music & song.  The guitar, banjo and mandolin were small, portable and useful for entertainment and interaction in the many camps and population movements of the time.

In the Appalachian region of the United States, the folk traditions had been absorbing English, Irish, Scottish and German immigrant influences.  These were now expanding to include the blues and rural folk from displaced farmers and the impact of the country music available late at night from powerful radio stations in Nashville, Chicago, and other mid-western & southern sources.  The banjo & mandolin, never entirely forgotten, reemerged.

William Smith Monroe (September 13th, 1911 – September 9th, 1996) was born on his family's farm near Rosine, Kentucky, the youngest of eight children.  In 1929, Monroe moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery. Together with his brothers Birch, Charlie, and childhood friend & guitarist William "Old Hickory" Hardin and Larry Moore, they formed a musical group: the Monroe Brothers to play at local dances and house parties. Birch Monroe and Larry Moore soon left the group, and Bill and Charlie carried on as a duo.  They eventually performed live on radio — first in Indiana and then in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina and North Carolina (1934 - 1936).  RCA Victor signed the Monroe Brothers to a recording contract in 1936 where they scored an hit single with the gospel song "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?".  They ultimately recorded 60 tracks for Victor's Bluebird label between 1936 & 1938.

The Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938 and Monroe formed 'The Kentuckians' in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The group only lasted for 3 months.  Monroe left Little Rock for Atlanta, Georgia to form the 1st edition of the Blue Grass Boys with singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten and bassist Amos Garren.  The group name was derived from Monroe's Kentucky roots: the Blue Grass State.  The genre was not called: "Bluegrass" at the time - simply "Old Time Mountain Music" or "Hillbilly Music".  The name "Bluegrass" wasn't applied until the music's revival at the folk festivals of the 1960s. 

In October 1939, Monroe successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry.  Monroe recorded Jimmie Rodgers's "Mule Skinner Blues" along with 7 others at his 1st solo recording session for RCA Victor in 1940.  The Blue Grass Boys then consisted of singer/guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.


Monroe was still experimenting with the sound for his group.  He seldom sang lead vocals on his Victor recordings; preferring to contribute high tenor harmonies as he had in the Monroe Brothers.  A 1945 session for Columbia Records featured an accordion, a sound that was soon dropped from the band.  Monroe added banjo player David "'Stringbean" Akeman in 1942.  Akeman played the instrument in a relatively basic style and was rarely featured in instrumental solos.  Monroe's pre-1946 recordings consisted of a transitional style from his string-band roots and the musical innovations to come.

Sometime during 1945, Monroe found a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin for sale for $150 at a Florida barber shop.  The instrument had the right kind of sound and feel: it was loud and cutting.  It had a 'bark' to it and he liked the sound enough to buy the instrument.  He had no way of knowing that he would change  history with that mandolin.

In December 1945, at the end of World War II, Monroe added a North Carolina banjo prodigy named Earl Scruggs. Scruggs played the 5 string banjo with a distinctive three-finger picking style that quickly caused a sensation among Opry audiences.  The Blue Grass Boys lineup included singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts (who sometimes performed under the name "Cedric Rainwater").  That band has been dubbed the "Original Bluegrass Band" since the resulting music included all the elements that now characterize the genre: breakneck tempos, sophisticated vocal harmony arrangements and impressive instrumental abilities on the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle.  By that time, Monroe had acquired a 1923 Gibson F5 model "Lloyd Loar" signed 'F' hole mandolin which became his trademark instrument.

Between 1946 & 47, the Blue Grass Boys recorded 28 songs recorded for Columbia Records that became classics including "Toy Heart", "Blue Grass Breakdown", "Molly and Tenbrooks", "Wicked Path of Sin", "My Rose of Old Kentucky", "Little Cabin Home on the Hill", and Monroe's most famous song, "Blue Moon of Kentucky".  "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1954, appearing as the B-side of his 1st single for Sun Records. Monroe gave his blessing to Presley's rock-n-roll cover of the song and even re-recorded it himself with a faster arrangement after Presley's version became a hit.  Several gospel-themed numbers are credited to the "Blue Grass Quartet", which featured four-part vocal arrangements accompanied solely by mandolin and guitar — Monroe's usual practice when performing "sacred" songs.

In 1948 both Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe's band to form their own group: the Foggy Mountain Boys.  They found commercial success in the 1950s & 1960s with hits: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", "Cabin on the Hill", and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett".  In 1949, after signing with Decca Records, Monroe regrouped, entering the "golden age" of his career with what many consider the classic "high lonesome" version of the Blue Grass Boys, featuring the lead vocals and rhythm guitar of Jimmy Martin, the banjo of Rudy Lyle (replacing Don Reno), and fiddlers such as Merle "Red" Taylor, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements. This band recorded a number of bluegrass classics, including "My Little Georgia Rose," "On and On," "Memories of Mother and Dad," and "Uncle Pen," as well as instrumentals such as "Roanoke", "Big MaLonesomen", "Stoney Lonesome", "Get Up John" and the mandolin feature "Raw Hide".  Carter Stanley joined the Blue Grass Boys as guitarist for a short time in 1951 during a period when the Stanley Brothers had temporarily disbanded.


Once the music found it's audience on the Grand ol' Opry, the style caught on and other bands quickly formed.  The "Golden Age" of the new genre was during the 1950s.  The bands playing at that time included: Wade Mainer and his Mountaineers, the Stanley Brothers, Hylo Brown and The Timberliners, Ervin T. Rouse, who wrote the standard "Orange Blossom Special", Reno and Smiley, the Sauceman Brothers, Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, Red Allen (who also recorded with the Osborne Brothers for MGM in the mid-1950s), Mac Wiseman, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers, Buzz Busby, The Lilly Brothers and Jim Eanes.

Around 1951, Bill Monroe sent his Gibson F-5 mandolin back to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo Michigan for a neck re-set, new frets and refinishing.  Several months later, the instrument was returned with the neck properly reset, but the other requested work had not been done.  Monroe took out his pocket knife and gouged the inlayed name 'Gibson' off the headstock.  Monroe reckoned that his use of the Gibson had caused plenty of fans to buy Gibson mandolins and that he deserved better from the company.  It started a grudge that lasted 30 years or more.

On January 16th, 1953 Monroe was critically injured in a 2-car wreck.  He and "Bluegrass Boys" bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin, were returning home from a fox hunt north of Nashville.  On highway 31W, near White House, their car was struck by a drunken driver.  Monroe suffered injuries to his back, left arm and nose, and was rushed to Nashville General Hospital.  It took him almost 4 months to recover and resume touring.

By the late 1950s Monroe's commercial fortunes had begun to slip.  The rise of rock-and-roll and the development of the "Nashville sound" in mainstream country music were the predominant country music of the day.  While still a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe found diminishing success on the singles charts, and struggled to keep his band together.


A 2nd generation of Bluegrass musicians began performing, composing and recording in the mid-to-late 1960s.  These include: Doc Watson, J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Hartford, Jerry Douglas, Norman Blake, Frank Wakefield, Bill Keith, Del McCoury, Tony Trischka and Tony Rice. As they refined their craft, the New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels, and The Dillards developed progressive bluegrass. In one collaboration, 1st generation bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, progressive mandolin player David Grisman, Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia (on banjo), and Peter Rowan on lead vocals played in the band called: 'Old and in the Way'. Garcia, Chris Hillman, the Stanley Brothers and others in the 1960s and 1970s helped introduce rock music listeners to progressive and traditional bluegrass.  Bush, Grisman, and Clements developed strong jazz elements in most of their playing – Clements liked to refer to his music as "hillbilly jazz" – but each owes much to traditional bluegrass.


In the early 1960s, Bluegrass found a new audience thanks to television. The Andy Griffith Show (TV Series aired between 1960 & 1968) was the story of a widower Sheriff and his son Opie living in Mayberry NC with Andy's Aunt Bee.  Most of Andy's time was spent dealing small-town wisdom and core American values while calming-down his cousin & Deputy: Barney.  Griffith was (in real life) a guitar player and singer with a Gospel background.  He had a good ear for great music and helped the producers book 'The Country Boys' for 2 episodes of the 1st season of the wildly popular sitcom. Both episodes aired in 1961 (February & May).

The Country Boys were made up of founders: Brothers Clarence, Roland & Eric White (guitar, mandolin & bass respectively), Leroy Mack (guitar), and Billy Ray Latham on Banjo.  The music was so well received that the Country Boys were booked for a 2nd episode and featured even more.  The portrayal was of Southern hillbilly music, but the music got through to the audience on it's own merits.  In late 1961 the Country Boys changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels - A tip of the hat to the Bluegrass Boys - especially considering that the White brothers were born in Maine.

Other TV producers saw the potential of weaving the energetic music into their entertainment offerings.  Other TV shows included the 'new' country music:

  • Hootenanny (ABC 1963-1964): A musical variety show broadcast on ABC. In 2007 a set of 3 DVDs called "The Best of Hootenanny" was issued. It contained clips of performances by The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limeliters and The New Christy Minstrels, and even Woody Allen as a stand-up comedian.
  • The Hoot'nanny Show (BBC 1963-1964) recorded in Edinburgh. 2 albums with the same title have been released, with contributions from Archie Fisher, Barney McKenna (before he joined The Dubliners), and The Corries.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS 1962-1971) was a situation comedy starring Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas, and Max Baer, Jr.  The series was about a poor backwoods family transplanted to Beverly Hills, CA after striking oil on their country farm.  Created by writer Paul Henning, it is the first in a genre of "fish out of water" themed television shows.  The theme song: "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" provided the back story for the series. The song was written and composed by Paul Henning and sung by Jerry Scoggins. The accompaniment was provided by bluegrass musicians: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The song spent 20 weeks on the Billboard country singles charts, reaching a peak of number 1 for 3 weeks and reaching number 44 on the music charts in 1962. It is one of the better-known defining 5 string banjo bluegrass songs of the 1960s.
  • Petticoat Junction (CBS 1963-1970) followed the success of The Beverly Hillbillies.
  • Green Acres (CBS 1965-1971) was a sister show to Petticoat Junction starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as a couple who move from New York City to a country farm.


3rd generation Bluegrass developed in the mid-1980s. The original radio broadcasts of Bluegrass bands worked around a single microphone.  As each member soloed or sang, they would approach the mic and perform, then withdraw when their turn was through. The guitarist, for example, would approach the mic and hold his instrument up high to address the microphone to be clearly heard.  By the 1980s, this tradition was abandoned by some as utterly unnecessary.   High-quality sound reinforcement techniques allowed each band member to be miked separately; exemplified by Tony Rice Unit and The Bluegrass Album Band.  Tony Rice showcased his elaborate lead guitar solos, and other bands followed.  The electric bass became a alternative to the traditional stand-up 3/4 acoustic bass.  Nontraditional chords also became more widely accepted as Jazz progressions and new interpretations of familiar Jazz tunes were reinterpreted into Bluegrass (NewGrass).  On the other hand, this generation also saw a renaissance of more traditional songs, played in the newer style.

David Grisman emerged as a force of both the traditional art form of Bluegrass and new waves of similar instrumentation but to new forms of music.  He called his adventures 'Dawg' music and played with many of the old guard as well as many of the new players.  Older Masters of the fiddle like Stephan Grapelli and Vassar Clements, guitar Masters like Tony Rice and Jerry Garcia, Country players, Jazz players, Bluegrass players, Folk players:  all in an effort to expand the reach of the traditional genre as well as a new appreciation of the musical flexibility of the mandolin, banjo and fiddle.

On November 13th 1985 one of Bill Monroe's paramours, in a fit of rage, smashed his Gibson F-5 mandolin into splinters with a fireplace poker.  Gibson craftsman Charles Derrington was able to repair the instrument by gluing the 500 or so fragments together.  The mandolin now resides at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

1990s and Beyond

In recent decades some mainstream country music performers have recorded bluegrass albums including Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless. Since the late 1990s, Ricky Skaggs, who began as a bluegrass musician and crossed over to mainstream country in the 1980s, returned to bluegrass with his band Kentucky Thunder. The Coen Brothers' released the movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' in 2000, with an old-time and bluegrass soundtrack, and the Down from the Mountain music tour and resulting documentary.

Bluegrass Festivals have maintained popularity, like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rocky-Grass in Lyons, Colorado and the Nederland, Colorado based Yonder Mountain String Band in the United States, and Druhá Tráva in the Czech Republic attract large audiences while expanding the range of progressive bluegrass in the college-jam band atmospheres, often called "jamgrass".  Bluegrass fused with jazz in the music of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka and Skyline, Sam Bush, Doc Watson, multiple Grammy Award-winning bluegrass singer and fiddler Alison Krauss, and many others.

© 2011 Leonard Wyeth
Compiled from various sources including Wikipedia and primary sources.






The word "rockabilly" is a fusion of "rock" (from "rock'n'roll") and "hillbilly".  'Hillbilly' was a term used to describe some country music or mountain music.  The term morphed over time to acquire different meaning with new generations.  By the time the Beverly Hillbillies was a hit on TV, the word had grown to imply: 'Hick' or 'country' used as a derogatory.  In it's earlier form, there was a implication of a rich tradition of country music that embodied a variety of sources from the Blues to Cowboy, Western Swing and Boogie Woogie.


The first nationwide country hit was 'Wreck of the Old '97' followed by 'Lonesome Road Blues'.  Jimmie Rodgers, known as the 'Blue Yodeler', was perhaps the "first true country star".  The structure of most of his songs were blues-based chord progressions, although his blues had different instrumentation and sound from the recordings of his black blues contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith.

During the 1930s and 1940s two new country sounds emerged:

1) Western Swing by bands like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, which combined country singing and steel guitar with big band jazz influences with horn sections. These corresponded to the publics passion for Cowboy movies and the growing popularity of Big Bands.  Recordings of Wills's from the mid 40s to the early 50s include "two beat jazz" rhythms, "jazz choruses", and guitar work that preceded early rockabilly recordings.  Wills is quoted as saying "Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928! - But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time.  It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."

2) In 1938 blues artists like Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson launched a nationwide boogie craze. Country artists like Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose began recording what was known as "Hillbilly Boogie", consisting of "hillbilly" vocals and instrumentation with a boogie bass line.

The Maddox Brothers

Fred Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose discovered that he could get a dramatic percussive 'slap' by a combination of slapping and vertically plucking strings of the stand-up 3/4 bass fiddle.  Combined with a Boogie bass line, he could really drive the bottom end of the band and audiences couldn't keep still.  Maddox said: "You've got to have somethin' they can tap their foot or dance to, or to make 'em feel it."  After World War II the band kicked into high gear - pressing a more honky-tonk feel, with a heavy, manic bottom end. "They played hillbilly music but it sounded real hot. They played real loud for that time, too."  The Maddoxes were also known for their lively antics.  "We always put on a show - I mean it just wasn't us up there pickin' and singing.  There was something going on all the time." The Maddoxes helped release white bodies from traditional notions of decorum - they just couldn't keep from dancing.  Seeing how well this excited crowds, more and more younger white bands began to behave like the Maddoxes on stage. Some believe they were one of the first Rockabilly groups, if not the very first.

By the 1950s, it wasn't clear what direction popular music would take.  The recording ban had displaced Big Bands from the charts and smaller bands were emerging.  The soldiers who returned from WWII were settling down with wives and young families.  Restless teenagers were looking for change.  The South was still deeply segregated but new technologies were making it possible to experience music across cultures.  There were black radio stations that played 'race' music and white radio stations that played anything but 'race' music.  The air waves, however, were color blind.  Late at night, teens could dial in whatever stations they wanted.  The black stations were playing music with more rhythm & blues - more exciting music - stuff that made you really want to move.  To young whites it was off-limits, intriguing and helped the teens think they were getting away with something - rebelling.  The music was sexually expressive.  The romantic ballads of the 1930s were from the heart - these were from someplace a bit lower.

Memphis Tennessee

Memphis TN was located at the intersection of the States of Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee - on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river.  The city existed because of the cotton trade and river transportation routes to the rest of the country.  Every musician traveling from the birthplace of Jazz: New Orleans all the way to Chicago, every Mississippi Delta blues player, sharecroppers, Cajuns, river men, gamblers and thieves: they all passed through Memphis - leaving a little bit of their music behind.  There was a rich tradition of Gospel Music in the many Baptist, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches.  The churches held all-night Gospel sings that were popular with the young.  Beale Street was alive with black rhythm & blues.  There was black music, there was white music, and there was no effective way to keep them apart.  If you were a musician and played any kind of instrument in Memphis TN in the 1950s, you had to be aware of all these traditions.  They were everywhere. Like a good meal, they had to be tasted and were just too good to pass up.

Saturday Night Jamboree

The Saturday Night Jamboree was a local musical stage show held at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium in downtown Memphis Tennessee between 1953 & 1954.  The show may have been interesting but it was what was going on backstage that had more historical significance: the backstage dressing rooms were a gathering place where musicians could experiment with new sounds - mixing fast country, gospel, blues and boogie woogie. Guys were trading 'licks' and teaching them to each other.  Eventually these new sounds would make their way out onto the stage where they found a receptive audience.  The Goodwyn Institute Auditorium dressing rooms became a breeding ground for new electric guitar and bass riffs.

Johnny & Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison

Young musicians around Memphis Tennessee were beginning to play a mix of musical styles.  Paul Burlison, for example, was playing in nondescript hillbilly bands in the very early 1950s.  One of these early groups secured a 15 minute show on radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas.  The time slot was adjacent to Howlin' Wolf's and the music quickly became a curious blend of blues, country and what would later become known as rockabilly.  In 1951 and 1952 Burlison and the Burnettes (Johnny and Dorsey) played around Memphis (TN) and established a reputation for 'wild' music.  According to Burlison: "When we started playing in 1951, we played an uptempo-style country beat with gospel, blues, and a little swing mixed in."

They began playing their energetic brand of rockabilly to small and appreciative local audiences.  They wrote "Rock Billy Boogie," named after Johnny's new baby boy Rocky Burnette and Dorsey's new son Billy, who were both born in 1953. It wasn't until 1957 that the song was recorded.

The trio released "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in 1956. This song is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 500 rock songs of all time.  The song has also been covered by the Yardbirds, Aerosmith, and others.  Some consider this 1956 recording to be the 1st use of guitar distortion on a rock song (played by lead guitarist Paul Burlison).

Sun Studio

At 706 Union Avenue in Memphis was Sun Studio: a recording studio opened by Sam Phillips on January 3rd, 1950.  It was originally called the Memphis Recording Service, sharing the same building with the Sun Records (label) business.  Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats' recorded "Rocket 88" there in 1951 with song composer Ike Turner on keyboards, reputedly the first rock-and-roll single.  Many allow the studio to make the claim: the birthplace of rock & roll.  Blues and R&B artists like Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton, B.B. King, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, and Rosco Gordon all recorded there in the early 1950s.  Sam Phillips knew the music that the black community was playing was special - he loved it - but he couldn't get it played on the white stations.

Elvis Aaron Presley   (January 8th, 1935 - August 16th, 1977)

In August 1953, Elvis Presley walked into the office of Sun Records.  He wanted to buy a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc: "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin".  He apparently chose Sun Studio in the hope of being discovered.  The receptionist Marion Keisker was the only one there that day and after he finished the unremarkable recording she made a note of the young man's name along with the commentary: "Good ballad singer. Hold."  Presley cut a 2nd acetate in January 1954: "I'll Never Stand In Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You", but nothing came of it.

Shortly after, he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet: the Songfellows.  Songfellow Jim Hamill claimed that he didn't demonstrate an ear for harmony.  In April, Presley took a job as a truck driver for the Crown Electric company.  After playing a few local gigs, his friend Ronnie Smith suggested he contact Eddie Bond, the leader of Smith's band, which needed a vocalist.  Bond also rejected him, advising Presley to stick to truck driving "because you're never going to make it as a singer."

Sam Phillips was always on the lookout for someone who could bring the sound of the black musicians to a broader audience. Marion Keisker reported: "Over and over I remember Sam saying, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'"  In June, he acquired a demo recording of a ballad, "Without You", that he thought might suit the young singer.  Presley tried but was unable to do it justice.  Phillips asked Presley to sing some other numbers and started the tape machine.  He was sufficiently impressed by what he heard to invite 2 local musicians to work out some arrangements with Presley for a recording session.  They were: guitarist Winfield "Scotty" Moore and upright bass player Bill Black.

The July 5th 1954 session didn't appear to be going well.  Phillips wasn't getting the results that he wanted.  Frustrated, he stepped out of the control room into the back alley for a cigarette.  Presley, Moore & Black had been at it for hours and were a little punchy.  Presley started playing and singing a 1946 Arthur Crudup tune: 'That's All Right' while jiving to the music.  Bill Black picked right up with Maddox-style slap bass and was dancing around as well.  It sounded pretty good to Moore who jumped in with his distinctive fingerstyle boogie.  According to Scotty Moore: Phillips heard the jam from the alley and stuck his head back in saying: "What are you doing?" We said, "We don't know." "Well, back up," he said "Try to find a place to start, and do it again." Then Sam started the tape machine.

3 days later Sam delivered the demo to the one DJ he thought might play it: Dewey Phillips.  The popular Memphis DJ played "That's All Right" on his Red, Hot, and Blue show that evening.  Listeners began phoning in, wanting to know who the singer was.  The interest was so great that Phillips played the record 16 times during the last 2 hours of his show.  Dewey Phillips quickly requested an on-air interview and asked Presley what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black.  Sam Phillips called the trio back to record Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" for a 'B' side of a single.  Sam used a jerry-rigged echo effect that he dubbed: "slapback".  A single was pressed & released right away.  Popular music would never be the same.

By the end of 1954 Elvis had asked D.J. Fontana to join them.  Drums were not common in country music but they sure helped with this new dance music.  In the 1955 sessions shortly after Presley’s move from Sun Records to RCA, Presley back up band included: Moore, Black, Fontana, lap steel guitarist Jimmy Day and pianist Floyd Cramer.  In 1956 Elvis added vocal backup with the Jordanaires.

Carl Lee Perkins   (April 9th, 1932 – January 19th, 1998)

Carl Perkins and his brothers Jay Perkins and Clayton Perkins, along with drummer W. S. Holland, had been playing their style of music about 90 miles from Memphis TN.  The Perkins Brothers Band, featuring Carl and Jay on lead vocals, quickly established themselves as the hottest band on the cutthroat, "get-hot-or-go-home" Jackson, TN honky tonk circuit.  Most of the requests for songs were for hillbilly songs that were delivered as jived up versions - classic Hank Williams standards infused with a faster rhythm.  It was here that Carl started composing his first songs. He carefully watched the dance floor for crowd reactions, working out more rhythmically driving styles of music (neither country nor blues, but had elements of both).  Perkins kept reshaping the songs until he had something worth committing to paper.  Carl was sending demos to New York record companies, who kept rejecting him, explaining that this strange new style of country wasn't commercial. That would change on December 19th, 1955 when he recorded 'Blue Suede Shoes'.  Perkins' original version became a rock'n'roll standard.

Perkins has been called "the King of Rockabilly".  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll, the Rockabilly, and the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame; and has received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

William John Clifton "Bill" Haley   (July 6th, 1925 – February 9th, 1981)

In 1951 a 26 year old band leader named Bill Haley recorded a version of Ike Turner's: "Rocket 88" with his old Western Swing group, the Saddlemen.  Haley and his band crafted a 'rockabilly' sound and followed with versions of "Rock the Joint" in 1952 and original works such as "Real Rock Drive" and "Crazy Man, Crazy" which reached #12 on the American Billboard chart in 1953.

On April 12th 1954, the band's new name was: Bill Haley and His Comets.  They recorded: "Rock Around the Clock" for Decca Records.  When it was 1st released in May 1954, "Rock Around the Clock" made the charts for 1 week at #23, and sold 75,000 copies.  A year later it was featured in the film 'Blackboard Jungle'. "Rock Around the Clock" hit #1, held that position for 8 weeks, and was the #2 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 1955.  The recording was, until the late 1990s, recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest sales claim for a pop vinyl recording, with an "unaudited" claim of 25,000,000 copies sold.

1955 was also the year that Chuck Berry’s 'Maybellene' reached the charts as a crossover hit. 

1956 - Rockabilly Goes National

In January 1956, 3 new songs by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley were released: 'Folsom Prison Blues' by Cash, and 'Blue Suede Shoes' by Perkins, (both on Sun); and 'Heartbreak Hotel' by Presley on RCA.  Other rockabilly tunes released this month included 'See You Later Alligator' by Roy Hall and 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On' by the Commodores (no relation to the '70s Motown group).

Perkins's 'Blue Suede Shoes' for a short period sold 20,000 records a day, and it was the first 1,000,000 selling country song to cross-over to both rhythm & blues and pop charts.  On February 11th, Presley appeared on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show for the 3rd time, singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Heartbreak Hotel'.  He performed 'Blue Suede Shoes' 2 more times on national television, and 'Heartbreak Hotel' 3 times through 1956. 

Carl Perkins first performed 'Blue Suede Shoes' on television March 17th on Ozark Jubilee, a weekly ABC-TV program. 

From 1955 to 1960, the live national radio and TV show from Springfield, Missouri featured Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson and guests included Gene Vincent and other rockabilly artists.

In March Columbia Records tried to enter the rockabilly market with 'Honky Tonk Man' by Johnny Horton.   King put out 'Seven Nights to Rock' by Moon Mullican, Mercury Records released 'Rockin’ Daddy' by Eddie Bond, and Starday Records released Bill Mack's 'Fat Woman'.  Also in March 1956, Carl Perkins was injured in a major automobile accident on his way to appear on national television.

Texan: Charles Hardin 'Buddy' Holley (September 7th, 1936 – February 3rd, 1959) debuted on the Decca label in April and Roy Orbison (as a member of the Teen Kings) debuted with “Ooby Dooby" on the New Mexico/Texas based Je-wel label.  Holly's biggest hits would not be released until 1957.

In April and May 1956, The Rock and Roll Trio played on the Ted Mack’s TV talent show in New York City. They won all 3 times and guaranteed them a finalist position in the September supershow.

Vincent Eugene Craddock (February 11th, 1935 – October 12th, 1971), known as: Gene Vincent, with his band: Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps recorded of 'Be-Bop-A-Lula' which was released on June 2nd, 1956, backed by 'Woman Love'.  Within 21 days it sold over 200,000 records, staying at the top of national pop and country charts for 20 weeks, and sold more than 1,000,000 copies. These same musicians would have 2 more releases in 1956, followed by another in January 1957.

"Queen of Rockabilly" Wanda Jackson's 1st record: "I Gotta Know" on the Capitol label, came out in July followed by "Hot Dog That Made Him Mad" in November. Capitol would release 9 more records by Jackson, some with songs she had written herself, before the end of the 1950s.

Jerry Lee Lewis (September 29th, 1935 -  )  Jerry Lee Lewis' 1st record was released on December 22nd, 1956, and it featured the song: 'Crazy Arms' which had been a #1 hit for Ray Price for 20 weeks earlier in the year, along with: 'End of the Road'.  Lewis would have big hits in 1957 with his version of 'Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On' and 'Great Balls Of Fire' (both on the Sun label).

Although Ricky Nelson - Eric Hilliard Nelson (May 8th, 1940 – December 31st, 1985) - records were released beginning in April 1957, his 1st hit record (#8) was 'Believe What You Say' released in March 1958.  The guitarist was James Burton who signed with Nelson that year and lived in the Nelson home for 2 years.

Eddie Cochran (October 3rd, 1938 – April 17th, 1960)  In the summer of 1958, Eddie Cochran had a chart topping hit with 'Summertime Blues' followed by: 'Sitting in the Balcony' released in early 1957, 'C'mon Everybody' released in October 1958, and 'Somethin' Else' released in July 1959. Then in April 1960 while touring with Gene Vincent in the U.K.: their taxi crashed into a concrete lamp post.  Eddie was killed at age 21. The grim coincidence was that his posthumous UK number 1 hit was called: 'Three Steps to Heaven'.

Rockabilly enjoyed wide popularity in the U.S. during 1956 & 1957, but radio air-play began to decline after 1960.  Factors contributing to the decline include the induction of Elvis Presley into the army in 1958, the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, and a change in American musical tastes. The rockabilly style remained popular, however, in England where it attracted a strong following through the mid 1960s.

© 2011, L Wyeth
Compiled, edited & expanded from Wikipedia and numerous other sources including primary sources
Special thanks to fan web sites for Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Sun Studio, Gene Vincent, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash & Wanda Jackson


Skiffle on the British Isles

The term 'Skiffle' is an American term from the 1930s.  See the section on Jug Bands to get a feel for it's origins in the rural Southern blues.

In the United States, the term and the genre had all but disappeared in the 1940s.  Skiffle might have been entirely forgotten if not for a revival in Britain during the 1950s.

The post-war jazz scene in Britain saw a move away from the swing music of the Big Bands that had ruled the air-waves up to and during the War.  Cultural trends tend to change drastically following a war - people want to begin a new life - putting the horror and hardship of wartime existence behind them.  New lives usually mean new forms of art and entertainment.  The recording ban in the U.S. was very poorly timed.  It essentially killed any possibility that the Big Bands could continue their pre-war popularity.  With the Big Bands out of the picture, smaller groups filled the void.  Vocal groups and small combos popped up on both sides of the Atlantic.  Be-Bop began to replace traditional jazz.  Vocalists without fixed back-up bands also gained popularity.

Among the bands that emerged during the 1950s in Britain was Ken Colyer's Jazzmen.  They were essentially a traditional jazz band but their banjo player also performed skiffle music during the breaks between sets.  The banjo player was a talented multi-instrumentalist by the name Anthony James "Lonnie" Donegan (April 29th, 1931 – November 3rd, 2002).  He sang and played guitar and was accompanied by 2 other band members.  The usual instruments were guitar, washboard and tea-chest bass.  The music they chose was from the classic Jug Band repertoire as well as American folk and blues songs.  They particularly favored songs they had copied from recordings of Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20th, 1888 – December 6th, 1949), better known as: "Leadbelly".  Their style was lively & upbeat - like the old Jug Bands - and they were listed on the promotional posters as "Skiffle Breaks". Before long, the breaks were more popular than the headlining band.

Skiffle appeared on record for the 1st time by Colyer's new band in 1954: Chris Barber's Jazz Band.  2 of the tracks were distinctly 'skiffle' and were then released in late 1955 under the name: "The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group".  Donegan's up-tempo version of Leadbelly's 'Rock Island Line' (featuring a washboard) had 'John Henry' on the B-side.  It was a major hit in 1956 spending 8 months in the Top 20, peaking at #6 (and #8 in America). It was the 1st début record to go gold in Britain, selling over 1,000,000 copies worldwide.

Part of the beauty of this music was that it didn't require expensive instruments nor did it require a high level of musicianship.  It was fun, entertaining, danceable and felt very new.  The kids took to it.  It was the success of this single that set off the British skiffle craze.  A few professional bands enjoyed some chart success, including The Chas. McDevitt Group, Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys and The Vipers, but the biggest impact was at a grassroots level: amateurs could do this!  It was particularly popular among working class boys, who could buy cheap instruments, or even improvise and build their own instruments.  It was a clear reaction against the drab austerity of day-to-day life in financially depressed post-war Britain.  The craze reached its height with the broadcasting of the Six-Five Special from 1957 by BBC TV.  It was the 1st British youth music program, using a skiffle song as its title music and showcasing a variety of skiffle acts.

Among those caught in the craze was a young John Lennon and his Liverpool skiffle group: The Quarrymen.  Their 1st real gig was in 1957.

In the late 1950s it has been estimated that there were as many as 30-50,000 skiffle groups in Britain.  Sales of guitars went through the roof.  There were plenty of potential appreciative audiences in venues including church halls, cafes and coffee bars in any neighborhood.  The cultural center of action began to grow in and around the Soho district in London.  The audiences were very forgiving.  They did not require the musicians to be anywhere near professionals.  Since vocals were such an important part of the music, the bands worked out harmonies as best they could.  What emerged was remarkably fresh.  Many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle during this period.  Some became very well known: Van Morrison, blues pioneer Alexis Korner as well as Ronnie Wood, Alex Harvey and Mick Jagger; folk musicians Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham; rock musicians Roger Daltrey, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Robin Trower and David Gilmour; and popular beat music successes Graham Nash and Allan Clarke of The Hollies. And, of course: the Beatles evolved from John Lennon's skiffle group The Quarrymen.

Lonnie Donegan went on to make a number of popular records as "Lonnie Donegan's Skiffle Group".  His successes include: 'Cumberland Gap' (1957), 'Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour' (1958), and 'My Old Man's a Dustman' (1960). The popularity of skiffle began to ebb as it morphed into rock'n'roll and the blues.  It was largely over by 1958 and skiffle enthusiasts moved on to other forms of music: including folk, the blues and rock'n'roll.

 © 2011, Leonard Wyeth
Compiled, expanded and edited from Wikipedia and numerous other sources including primary sources


Rock ‘n’ Roll

In 1922, the words "rock" and "roll", which was black slang for sexual intercourse, appear on record for the first time in Trixie Smith's "My Baby Rocks Me With One Steady Roll".

The transition was steady and seamless. Big Band dance music and Western Swing had long since absorbed the 1/5/7 blues progression from Jazz players. The flatted 7th chords in major or minor keys had become an integral part of the tension and suspension of progressions in American music. The 2 to 4 minute song (or instrumental) had been refined for the prevailing recorded music format of the day: records. Radios from coast to coast had already settled on music program delivery formats for popular music. By the start of World War II, all the pieces were in place.

The recording ban, starting in 1942 and finally ending in 1945, turned out to be the death knell for Big Bands. They never fully recovered. This coupled with the wartime 20% live entertainment tax ("Cabaret Tax") had a profound impact on live music: closing nightclubs and dance halls across the country. Records became more important to a music-loving public than ever.

Soldiers returning from tours of duty in foreign lands and with some money in their pockets were ready to start new lives. Many quickly married and started families. Birth rates skyrocketed in 1946 and beyond. It was the start of the Baby Boom generation. The music was destined to change with the times.

Smaller musical ensembles made up of non-union musicians and singers (vocalists were exempt from the recording ban) jumped in to fill the void for popular music. Vocal groups flourished and trios and small band formats experimented with all forms of available music to meet popular demand. Former Western Swing bands paired down to minimal ensembles like Bill Haley and the Comets: 4 members: guitar, rhythm guitar, drums and bass. The guitarists also did the singing. The songs were similar to what had fitted the larger band format, just simpler.

In 1946, "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" by Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five becomes the biggest hit ever in the increasingly popular jump blues style. The new music was adapting to the smaller band format pretty well. This tune is barely different from the 1939 Big Band hit “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller – but the format was new and the ‘sound’ was updated.

Later that year Les Paul began experimenting with ways to make the guitar more musically expressive. It needed the power and sustain of a saxophone or clarinet, particularly if the smaller bands didn’t have a wind section. Amplification had solved half the problem – there was no difficulty in getting the instrument to be loud enough. It simply needed the sustain. He attached a guitar neck to a 4x4 and screwed some body pieces to the side to make it feel like a guitar. The experiment worked: the strings fastened to the solid wood had much more sustain. Les Paul took the experimental model to Gibson. They were not yet ready for this idea and didn’t see the potential yet.

Elsewhere in California the same year: Clarence Leonidas Fender ("Leo" Fender) had started a new business to build guitars and amplifiers. The business was called: "Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company". The 1st Spanish style design was the solid body, single pickup "Esquire", followed by a two pickup version called the "Broadcaster'. It embodied exactly what Les Paul had tried to sell to Gibson.

Early in 1947, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith was one of the first musicians to use a prototype Fender Broadcaster (later to be renamed the Telecaster) to record "Guitar Boogie". This changed everything. Arthur Smith took a simple jump-blues tune (very similar to “In the Mood” and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") and managed to capture the entire feel on a simple electric guitar. He distilled a decade of popular music into a simple instrumental - onto a single instrument. He had shown the way – now anything seemed possible.

West Coast musicians began to buy Leo Fender’s strange creations and form small bands. They could play to large venues and proved to be just as musically expressive as the Big Bands. They were young, the music seemed to be brand new and the horizon opened to Rock ‘n’ Roll. By 1952, Gibson saw the growing interest in Leo Fender’s creation and called Les Paul back to their offices to have another look at his experiment. The final product was the Les Paul model – the first Gibson solid body.

The rest of this story is best told by viewing the Time-Line of Musical Styles & History of Guitar starting in 1946.

Some historians feel that 1959 marked the decline of Rock & Roll:

  • Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens had died in a plane crash. 
  • Little Richard had retired from music to become a preacher.
  • Elvis Presley had joined the Army.
  • Both Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were being prosecuted.
  • Alan Freed and others were under indictment and scrutiny for bribery and corruption in the payola scandal.

The music industry was under siege - Change was inevitable.

Positive advances were also being made:  The music industry was slowly but steadily desegregating and the general (white) public had an increasing awareness of the roots of the Blues and Rock & Roll.  New trends and sounds were on the horizon at the turn of the decade: The Twist was a new dance craze, surf music and garage rock was on the rise and the electric solid body guitar was becoming identified as a legitimate musical instrument.  Folk music had become a both a legitimate art form and a powerful form of political of expression.


There is a simplicity to Rock ‘n’ Roll that appeals to just about everybody, regardless of cultural background. Some theorize that the basic back-beat of rock ‘n’ roll is similar to the syncopated rhythm of the beating of the human heart. For whatever reason, the believers claim that “Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die!”.

There is a raw simplicity to the music. The tunes are short and easy to understand. The arrangements and instrumentation are often ragged – without the complex harmonic intricacies and precision of the Big Band era that preceded it. Distortion is embraced and some of the greatest hits of the 1950s and 1960s have recorded mistakes and speed up or slow down during the two and one half minute pop tunes. As a musical genre, however, the emotion comes clearly through. Though the instrumentation may be spare and the players far from considered virtuosos, the music is full of motion and passion.

Suddenly it was possible for the average person to pick up an instrument and express themselves. You can get some pleasing sounds out of a guitar right away, unlike a violin or clarinet. During the 1950s, all sorts of new musical possibilities were available: rural blues, urban jazz, country, swing, classical (in all it’s forms), singing cowboys, movies, television, many radio stations, vocal groups, instrumental groups, the list goes on and on. What was new - what was different - was that the music did not have to be perfect to be profound. A garage band could motivate a dance crowd just as well as the Big Bands could. The possibilities are endless…

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth


Singing Cowboys

In 1933 there was a Lonestar / Monogram film: ‘Riders Of Destiny, Sandy Sanders’ staring a young John Wayne. He had been cast as a singing cowboy – light entertainment in a B movie. The only problem was that Wayne couldn’t carry a tune. His voice was dubbed by Hollywood balladeer named Smith Ballew. The film was mildly successful and fans would ask Wayne to sing them a tune. He quickly tired of the requests and refused to play any singing cowboy roles again.

Lonestar was owned by movie magnate Herbert John Yates (1880-1966) who saw tremendous potential in the singing cowboy concept. In 1935 he bought out Monogram and several other small independent production companies to form Republic Pictures. Under Yates' leadership between 1935 and 1959, Republic made 956 feature films and 849 serial chapters, many of which are classics still played today on television and DVD.

Yates’ assistant, Nat Levine, proposed a replacement for John Wayne for singing cowboy roles: a young telegrapher / singer in Oklahoma. He had a reputation and following by selling large numbers of records though the Sears and Roebuck catalog. His name was Gene Autry. Levine gave young Autry about 10 minutes in a Maynard western, “On Old Santa Fe” to sing a couple of tunes. Fans liked him and he was signed to a contract. The problem was that Autry could act about as well as Wayne could sing. They started the acting lessons right away. Levine cast Autry in a supporting role in a 12-part serial called “The Phantom Empire”. It was part western and part science fiction but assured Autry a 12-week exposure in any theater that booked serials. It worked, Autry sang many songs and the public appeared to like him. Autry’s next film, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was his first starring role and included his first hit record.

Traditional westerns had been a Hollywood staple for years. There were differences, however, between the new musical westerns and the traditional westerns. Beyond the emphasis on music: the usual trappings of the old west were shamelessly combined with automobiles, buses, telephones, electricity, radios, and crooked city slickers. Horses could even outrun motorcars. But the public didn’t seem to mind – they loved it.

Autry needed a suitable guitar for his stature on the silver screen. His cloths were flashy and the hat immense. He chose a Martin dreadnaught because any other guitar looked too small up there in the saddle. The instruments name derived from the largest class of battleships of World War I. To enhance the look, his name was inlayed in large letters down the fretboard.

In1937 Autry had done so well that he walked out on Republic thinking he wasn’t getting enough of the profits. Yates’ reaction was to get another singing cowboy. They found a young man from Ohio named Leonard Sly. He had formed a singing group with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer called (eventually) The Sons of the Pioneers. Sly had a fine singing voice and the trio had a following on Los Angeles radio and even sang some songs in Republic films. The timing was right. Sly underwent a name change to Roy Rogers. His first starring role was in the 1938 production: ‘Under Western Skies’.

Rogers rose to stardom quickly with the help of Dale Evans, his faithful dog Bullet and his trusty palomino stallion Trigger. Roy married Dale (in real life) in 1947. Gene Autry ultimately returned to Republic and Yates found himself with two of the country’s most popular signing cowboys under contract. This windfall would continue until Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the beginning of World War II.

The movies were only part of the picture. Record contracts and radio appearances were constant and relentless. The guitar accompanied music was heard everywhere. The appeal of the music crossed between Pop and Country and reached more households than any other form of music at the time. Singing cowboys were a merchandising industry. The most popular toys of the era were six-guns, holsters and cowboy hats.

Gene Autry was easily the most popular singer of the time. The list of hit records during the 1930s and 1940s includes: "Yellow Rose of Texas" (1933), "The Last Roundup" (1934), "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (1935), "Mexicali Rose" (1936), "Back In The Saddle Again" (1939), "South Of The Border" (1940), "You Are My Sunshine" (1941), "It Makes No Difference Now" (1941), "Be Honest With Me" (1941), "Tweedle-O-Twill" (1942), and "At Mail Call Today" (1945), "Here Comes Santa Claus" (1947), "Peter Cottontail" (1949), and nine million-seller "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (1948). In 1969 Autry was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (together and apart) were the foremost vocal and instrumental group in western music, and the definitive group for cowboy songs. They were also one of the longest surviving country music vocal groups in existence, covering six decades with remarkably consistent quality. Their intricate harmonies and subtle arrangements delighted 3 generations and inspired many performers. Their hits on the Country singles chart included "Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima" (1945), "No One to Cry To" (1946), "Baby Doll," "Cool Water," and "Tear Drops In My Heart" (all top five in 1947), "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water" (both 1948), "My Best To You" and "Room Full Of Roses" (both 1949).

There were other singing cowboys: Ray Whitely and Tex Ritter, for example, but the box office belonged to Republic through the early fifties. Tex Ritter made films for Grand National, Columbia and PRC, and rose to some prominence for his rendition of the title song of ‘High Noon’ in 1952. Smith Ballew, the performer who had dubbed John Wayne made a few films. Eddie Dean made a series of singing westerns as well.

Ray Whitley began his singing career in New York City in 1930. He worked in New York as a construction worker on the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge. He formed a western vocal group called "The Range Ramblers" broadcasting on WMCA. They later traveled with the World Championship Rodeo, renaming the band "The Six Bar Cowboys". Whitley was skilled with a bullwhip. It is said that he could remove a cigarette from a man's lips with a single stroke, using either hand. Whitley recorded for several record labels, including Okeh, Apollo Records and Decca.

In 1937, Whitley had some screen exposure and decided it would be appropriate to have a bigger and flashier guitar than anyone else on-screen. He approached Gibson and together they developed the Gibson Super Jumbo acoustic guitar. Whitley presented his design ideas to Gibson suggesting that this could really boost the Gibson name. As a result, Whitley was the first performer to own  a Gibson Super Jumbo. This instrument is on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The SJ-200 has since become an American icon.

In 1938, Whitley was signed to RKO Pictures and made 54 movies alongside other cowboy actors including Gene Autry. When Autry saw the Gibson Super Jumbo, he simply had to have one. There were a few specification changes requested including much flashier binding and, of course, his name inlayed in large letters down the fretboard.

Whitley wrote the original western tune "Back In the Saddle Again." The song was first heard in the western movie "Border G-Man" in which he played the part of "Luke Jones". Gene Autry heard the song and reportedly bought it for $200, making it his theme song. Whitley and Autry changed the order of chorus and verse, and made some slight changes to the melody. The present version is one of the most recognized and recorded Western songs in history.

Other than Autry and Rogers, the most successful of the singing cowboys were Jimmy Wakely and Rex Allen. Wakely was an Autry protégé. The star heard the group in Oklahoma and told Wakely if he ever got to California to look him up. Wakely almost beat Autry back to the coast. Autry was true to his word and the trio joined him on his weekly radio show “Melody Ranch”. They were a success. Wakely went on to make over 30 singing westerns.

Rex Allen was the last of the singing cowboys. By the early 1950s Republic was shifting its energies to television. The “B” western was dying. Autry had moved from Republic to Columbia and would make his last film in 1953. Rogers completed his last western for Republic in 1951 and was in production for a television series. The western was evolving to television and moviegoers were looking for fresh topics. The generation that could afford television had returned from the war and wanted new diversions. Allen made the last singing western in 1954.

Upon Trigger’s death at 33, Dale had him skinned and mounted for display at the Roy Rogers – Dale Evans museum.
Dale Evan’s horse Buttermilk was also mounted for the museum.
When Bullet died, he too was mounted and displayed at the museum.
Roy Rogers died on July 6th, 1998. He was 87 years old. (It’s assumed that his body is buried next to Dale).

Gene Autry died on October 2nd, 1998, 2 days after his 91st birthday.
Tex Ritter died January 2nd, 1974, aged 68.
Ray Whitley died on February 21st, 1979, aged 78.

Their music had been born during the depression in the heartland of America. It had a natural resonance from shared experience. It was optimistic and sentimental. For the Baby Boomer generation (the children of those returning from the Great War to End All Wars), movie and TV westerns left a lasting impression. Here were guys that could really make a difference – they could save their towns and promote justice throughout the land. They somehow managed to do it with determination, a guitar, a loyal horse and a good woman. It was a pleasant American view of the world. It also somehow tied the concept of a guitar to changing things for the better. This concept would grow through the late 1950s and well into the 1960s.

 ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth


Woody Guthrie

1912–1931 Okemah, Oklahoma

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14th, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the 2nd son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. Charles was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician. There was music in the Guthrie household. He learned western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes from his father and a love for singing to express himself from his mother.

His early years in Oklahoma could not be described as warm and nurturing.  Woody lost his older sister Clara to an accident. His mother suffered mental problems, was institutionalized and died young. The family ultimately went bankrupt. Woody witnessed the effects of stress and tragedy on his father and siblings and the ripple effects on those around them. If nothing else, he learned how to bear witness: to watch, to listen and to try to understand.

In 1920 oil was discovered nearby in Okemah. The area was transformed overnight into an "oil boom" town, bringing in thousands of workers, gamblers and hustlers. The oil flow only lasted a few years and as quickly as the town rose, it fell - leaving its inhabitants "busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted." Woody was there to see it all and to experience the wild array of characters. Apparently he liked it. He liked being with people, experiencing their differences, socializing and getting to know them. Woody began to formulate a language that could bridge their differences and express their common concerns. He headed out on the open road to experience more.

The Great Dust Bowl Years 1931–1937  Pampa, Texas

At age 19, Woody headed for Texas. He met Mary Jennings, the younger sister of a friend and musician, Matt Jennings. They lived in the panhandle town of Pampa. Following a reasonable courtship, Woody and Mary were married in 1933 and had three children, Gwen, Sue and Bill.

Woody joined Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker to form The Corn Cob Trio. The name changed shortly to The Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band.

Woody seemed to have a knack for landing in difficult circumstances. The crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression making it hard for anyone to support a family. To make matters worse, poor agricultural practices brought the dust storms to the Great Plains in 1935. Drought and dust forced thousands of farmers and workers in Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia to head west in search of work. Encouraging his family to stay in Pampa, Woody headed down Route 66 looking for some means of support.

Woody traveled by freight train, hitchhiking and walking to get to California. He took any job he could find for bed and food, Woody painted signs and played guitar and sang in saloons along the way. Strangely enough, the lifestyle agreed with him. It would not be the last time he took to the road.

KFVD Radio Years 1937–1940 Los Angeles, California

By the time he reached California in 1937, The people of California weren’t interested in absorbing any more refugees from the mid-west. A farmer who had lost everything and was trying to enter California at the time was likely to experience hatred, scorn and violence from residents. Woody was there.

Woody eventually landed a job in Los Angeles Woody on KFVD radio, singing “old-time” traditional songs as well as some his original works. Together with Maxine Crissman, aka “Lefty Lou,” Woody began to attract some public attention. His songs seemed to resonate with the thousands of Okies stuck in migrant camps. Woody’s radio program, in an entertaining way, provided them a nostalgic sense of home.

They weren’t just songs. They began to act as the voice of the disenfranchised. By his music, Woody discovered he could publicly raise awareness of social issues and acts of irony or injustice. Before too long, his songs spanned topics of corruption to the compassion and humanism of Jesus Christ. Songs measured the justice of banks taking away homes vs. the outlaws like Pretty Boy Floyd leaving stolen money to save people’s farms. Songs served union organizers fighting for the rights of migrant workers. Woody established himself as a voice for fairness, truth and justice.

Woody’s songs carefully maintained an outside observer’s point of view. This role was essential to the political and social structure of his lyrics: “I Ain't Got No Home”, “Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad”, “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”, “Tom Joad” and “Hard Travelin'”; He was watching from a distance: bearing witness.

1940-1941 New York City

In 1940 Woody found himself in New York City. War was brewing in Europe and New York was teaming with artists, painters and progressive intellectuals who quickly embraced him. Woody was easily viewed as genuine, down-home and experienced. He had witnessed first-hand some of the hardest living of the previous decade.

Folklorist Alan Lomax found and recorded Woody in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Woody also recorded “Dust Bowl Ballads” for RCA Victor, his first album of original songs. Throughout the 1940s he continued to record discs for Moses Asch (founder of Folkways Records). These recordings continue to be researched by songwriters in all forms of music today.

At that time: Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, and others were in New York City and became friends with Woody. Cross-pollination was inevitable. Forming a loosely knit group called The Almanac Singers, they took up social causes such as union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening the Communist Party, peace, and fighting for what they believed. Woody became one of the prominent songwriters for the Almanac Singers.

The Almanacs helped to spread folk music. As it became more widely known, it gained commercial viability as popular music. A decade later, original members of the Almanacs would re-form as the Weavers. It was through their popularity that Woody’s songs would become known to the larger public.

With increasing popularity, prosperity and critical success from public performances, recordings, and his own radio show, Woody could finally afford to bring his family to join him in New York.

Columbia River - 1941 - Portland, Oregon

Despite success, Woody became increasingly disillusioned with New York's radio and entertainment industry. He wrote: "I got disgusted with the whole sissified and nervous rules of censorship on all my songs and ballads, and drove off down the road across the Southern States again."

Woody headed to Portland, Oregon where a documentary film project about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam sought to use his songwriting talent. The Bonneville Power Authority placed Woody on the Federal payroll for a month and there he composed the Columbia River Songs, another remarkable collection of songs that include “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done.”

When his contract ran out, Woody moved his family back to Pampa, Texas but quickly began to yearn for the political and artistic environment of New York City and his radio work. The constant traveling, performing and growing interest with progressive politics helped bring about the end of his first marriage. He hitchhiked his way back to New York.

World War II 1942–1945 New York City, New York

In New York, Woody met a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company named Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia. They shared similar humanist ideals and activist politics. Woody and Marjorie were married in 1945 and had four children: Cathy, (who died at age 4 in a tragic home fire), Arlo, Joady, and Nora Lee.

This relationship provided Woody a level of domestic stability and encouragement which he had not known. He became even more productive as a song writer, painter, poet and author. His first novel, ‘Bound for Glory’, a semi-autobiographical account of his Dust Bowl years was published in 1943 to critical acclaim.

During World War II Woody served as a mess man and dish washer in both the Merchant Marine and the Army. He shipped out to sea on several occasions with his buddies Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi. Woody's tendency to write songs, tell stories and make drawings continued unabated. He composed hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war, and historic ballads to rally the troops, such as “All You Fascists Bound To Lose”, “Talking Merchant Marine,” and “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” He began to work on a second novel ‘Sea Porpoise’ and was enlisted by the army to write songs about the dangers of venereal diseases.

Coney Island 1946–1954 New York

In 1946 the Guthrie family settled in Coney Island. It was during this period that Woody composed and recorded ‘Songs to Grow On For Mother and Child’ and ‘Work Songs To Grow On’, considered children's classics.

Woody’s unique approach was to write songs that dealt with topics important to children written in language used by children such as; friendship: “Don’t You Push Me Down”, family: “Ship In The Sky”, community: “Howdy Doo”, chores: “Pick It Up”, personal responsibility: “Cleano” and just plain fun: “Riding In My Car”.

During these years, Woody was exposed to Coney Island’s Jewish community through his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet. Inspired by this new relationship, he wrote a remarkable series of songs reflecting Jewish culture, such as “Hanukah Dance,” “The Many and The Few” and “Mermaid’s Avenue.”

Toward the late 1940s, Woody’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic, moody and violent, creating tensions in his personal and professional life. He was beginning to show symptoms of a rare, neurological disease, Huntington's Chorea, a hereditary, degenerative disease that gradually robbed him of his health, talents and abilities. At the time, little was known about Huntington’s Chorea. It was later discovered to be the same disease which thirty years earlier had caused his mother's institutionalization and eventual death. Shaken by inexplicable volatile physical and emotional symptoms, Woody left his family once again, taking off for California with his young protégé, Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

In California, Guthrie lived in a compound owned by Will Geer with blacklisted singers and actors waiting out the political climate for better times. Woody met Anneke Van Kirk, a young woman who became his third wife and with whom they had a daughter, Lorina.

1954-1967 Huntington's Desease

The Cold War of the early 1950’s saw a rise in anti-Communist sentiments. Leftist and progressive-minded Americans were subjected to Red-scare tactics such as “blacklisting”. Many people, particularly in the arts and entertainment fields, either lost their jobs or were prevented from continuing to work in their chosen careers. The Weavers, along with Woody, Pete Seeger and others from their circle, were targeted for their activist stances on such issues as the right to unionize, equal rights, and free speech.

Woody headed south to Florida, where friend and fellow activist Stetson Kennedy offered blacklisted artists living space on his property. While in the South at Kennedy’s “Beluthahatchee”, Woody worked on a third novel: ‘Seeds of Man’ and composed songs inspired by a heightened awareness of racial and environmental issues.

Becoming more and more unpredictable during a final series of road trips, Woody eventually returned to New York with Anneke, where he was hospitalized several times. Mistakenly diagnosed and treated for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, his symptoms kept worsening and his physical condition deteriorated. Picked up for “vagrancy” in New Jersey in 1954, he was admitted into the nearby Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, where he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, the incurable degenerative nerve disorder now known as Huntington’s Disease or HD.

During these years, Marjorie Guthrie, family and friends continued to visit and care for him. A new generation of musicians took an interest in folk music bringing it into the mainstream as yet another folk music revival. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Ochs, and many other young folksingers visited Woody in the hospital, bringing along their guitars and their songs to play for him, perhaps even to thank him.

Woody Guthrie died on October 3rd, 1967 while at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York. His ashes were sprinkled into the waters off of Coney Island's shore.

A month later, on Thanksgiving 1967, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie released his first commercial recording of “Alice’s Restaurant”, which was to become the iconic anti-war anthem for the next generation.

In his lifetime, Woody Guthrie wrote nearly 3,000 song lyrics, published two novels, created artworks, authored numerous published and unpublished manuscripts, poems, prose, and plays and hundreds of letters and news article which are housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City. Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song "This Land Is Your Land".

Special thanks to the Woody Guthrie Web Site for biographical information
Edited and expanded by Leonard Wyeth
© 2008, Leonard Wyeth


The Lomax Family
Edited and expanded from research from Wikipedia and other sources by Leonard Wyeth

With the help and support of the Library of Congress; many (or most) of the collected recordings and images (including videos) of John and Alan Lomax are now available on-line.

The Lomax Family Cultural Equity Project

John Avery Lomax  1867-1948

John Avery Lomax (September 23rd, 1867 -  January 26th, 1948) was a pioneering musicologist and folklorist. Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi and grew up in central Texas. He was raised on a farm and lived the life of a Texas farmer for the first 28 years of his life. He was surrounded by the music of the rural Texan countryside. He became fascinated it the ability of the simple ballads to give voice to the stories of their lives.

In 1895, at age 28, Lomax entered the University of Texas at Austin to study English literature. He brought with him a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood. He showed them to an English professor, only to have them discounted as simple, cheap and unworthy, prompting him to take the bundle behind the men’s dormitory and burn it. Lomax focused his attentions on more mainstream academic pursuits. After graduation he worked as the University of Texas as registrar, manager of Brackenridge Hall (the men’s dormitory on campus), and personal secretary to the President of the University. In 1903 he accepted an offer to teach English at Texas A&M University and settled down with his new wife, Bess Brown Lomax.

His early interest in cowboy songs never really left him. He felt the depth of artistic expression but couldn’t find anyone interested in documenting it. English Literature was culture, cowboy songs were sentimental trivia.

In 1907 Lomax learned of two scholars at Harvard University, Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, who actively encouraged research into folklore. He moved to become a graduate student at Harvard for the chance to work with the scholars. Both Wendell and Kittredge continued to play an important advisory role in his career long after he returned to Texas the following year, Master of Arts degree in hand, to resume his teaching position at A&M. Encouraged by Wendell, he applied for, and was awarded, a Sheldon grant to research and collect cowboy songs. The resulting anthology, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, published in 1910, with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt, made him famous. Included were "The Buffalo Skinners," which George Lyman Kittredge called "one of the greatest western ballads" and which was praised for its Homeric quality by Carl Sandburg and Virgil Thompson. From the first, John Lomax insisted on the racial inclusiveness of American folklore. Some of the most famous songs in the book — “Get Along Little Doggies,” “Sam Bass,” and “Home on the Range” were credited to black cowboys.

1909 - Texas Folklore Society

Around the same time, Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas at Austin co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, following Kittredge’s suggestion that Lomax establish a Texas branch of the American Folklore Society. Lomax and Payne hoped that the society would further their own research while kindling an interest in folklore among like-minded Texans. On Thanksgiving Day, 1909, Lomax nominated Payne as president of the society, and Payne nominated Lomax as secretary. The two set out to marshal support, and a month later, Killis Campbell, an associate professor at the university, publicly proposed the formation of the society at a meeting of the Texas State Teachers Association in Dallas. By April 1910, there were ninety-two charter members (one of whom was Lomax's former student, John B. Jones). In the inaugural issue of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, John A. Lomax urged the collection of Texas folklore: “Two rich and practically unworked fields in Texas are found in the large Negro and Mexican populations of the state.” He adds, “Here are many problems of research that lie close at hand, not buried in musty tomes and incomplete records, but in vital human personalities.” These were oral traditions that changed with every new generation. Songs could be written down as one method of recording the works – and the music could be transcribed - but the flavor of the music was lost as the bards that sang them died off. The invention of the recording machine, however, created a way to capture the oral tradition for all time.

The society grew gradually over the next decade, with Lomax steering it forward. At his invitation, Kittredge and Wendell attended its meetings. Other early members were Stith Thompson and J. Frank Dobie, who both began teaching English at the university in 1914. At Lomax's recommendation, Thompson became the society’s secretary/treasurer in 1915. In 1916, Thompson edited the first volume of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, which Dobie reissued as Round the Levee in 1935. This publication exemplified the society’s express purpose, and the motivation behind Lomax's own work: to gather a body of folklore before it disappeared, and to preserve it for the analysis of later scholars. These early efforts foreshadowed what would become Lomax’s greatest achievement, the collection of more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

In June 1910, Lomax accepted an administrative job at the University of Texas. Throughout the next seven years, he continued his research, and also undertook lecture tours, assisted and encouraged by his wife and children. All this came to an end in 1917, however, when Lomax was fired along with six other faculty members as the result of a political battle between Governor James Ferguson and the university president, Dr. R. E. Vinson. Lomax moved to Chicago to accept a job as a banker. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson was impeached and the Board of Regents rescinded its dismissal of the faculty, but Lomax did not return to his former job. Instead, he divided the next fifteen years between banking (first in Chicago and later in Dallas) and working with various University of Texas alumni groups. He also continued to lecture at major universities and sometimes taught individual folk song classes for his former professors at Harvard, thus maintaining his valuable network of contacts. He also became close friends with poet Carl Sandburg, who frequently mentions him in his book, American Songbag (1927).

Archive of American Folk Song

In 1931, Bess Brown Lomax died at the age of 50, leaving four children (the youngest, Bess, only ten years old). In addition, the Dallas bank where Lomax worked failed: he had to phone his customers one by one to announce that their investments were worthless. In debt and unemployed at the height of the Great Depression and with two school-age children, the 65 year old slipped into his own depression. In hope of reviving his father's spirits, John Lomax Jr. encouraged him to begin a series of lecture tours. With no other options, they took to the road, camping to save money, with John Jr. (and later Alan Lomax) serving the senior Lomax as driver and personal assistant. In June 1932, they arrived at the offices of the Macmillan publishing company in New York. Here Lomax proposed his idea for an anthology of American ballads and folksongs, with a special emphasis on the contributions of African Americans. It was accepted. In preparation he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress.

By the time of Lomax’s arrival, the Archive already contained a collection of commercial phonograph recordings that straddled the boundaries between commercial and folk, and wax cylinder field recordings, built up under the leadership of Robert Winslow Gordon, Head of the Archive, and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division. Gordon had also experimented in the field with a portable disc recorder, but did not have the time nor resources to do much significant fieldwork. Lomax found the recorded holdings of the Archive woefully inadequate for his purposes. He made an arrangement with the Library to provide recording equipment (by grants), in exchange for which he would travel the country making field recordings for deposit into the Archive. John Lomax was paid a salary of one dollar per year for this work (which included fund raising for the Library) and was expected to support himself entirely through writing books and giving lectures.

Thus began a ten-year relationship with the Library of Congress that would involve not only John but the entire Lomax family, including his second wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, whom he married in 1934. All four of John’s children assisted with his folksong research and with the daily operations of the Archive: Shirley, who performed songs taught to her by her mother; John Jr., who encouraged his father's association with the Library; Alan Lomax who accompanied John on field trips and in 1937 and became the Archive’s first paid nominally employee as Assistant in Charge; and Bess, who spent her weekends and school vacations copying song text and doing comparative song research.

The Field recordings

Example of Lomax Field Recording

Through a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library’s auspices, with 18-year-old Alan Lomax in tow.  They recorded songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Then, as now, a disproportionate percentage of African American males were held as prisoners. Robert Winslow Gordon, Lomax's predecessor at the Library of Congress, had written (in an article in the New York Times, c. 1926) that, "Nearly every type of song is to be found in our prisons and penitentiaries" Folklorists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson also had observed that, "If one wishes to obtain anything like an accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situation of the ever-fleeing fugitive." John and Alan were able to put these ideas into practice. In their successful grant application they wrote, that prisoners, "Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies." They toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James "Iron Head" Baker, Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington. By no means were all of those whom the Lomaxes recorded imprisoned, however: in other communities, they recorded K.C. Gallaway and Henry Truvillion.

In July of 1933 they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate phonograph disk recorder. Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan, Lomax soon used it to record, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a twelve-string guitar player by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," whom they considered one of their most significant finds. During the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South.

It may seem ironic that Lomax used the most up-to-date technology in order to preserve traditional art forms that he saw as endangered by the new, commercial recording industry and by radio. Unlike, virtually all previous amateur collectors, however, Lomax was no mere antiquarian. For his books emphasized that folk music creation is a dynamic, artistic process that is still happening today. By making this music better known and appreciated by a broad public, he hoped to encourage its continuance. In contrast to earlier amateur collectors the Lomaxes were also among the first to attempt to apply a scholarly methodology in their work.

John A. Lomax has also been accused of paternalism and of tailoring Lead Belly's repertoire and clothing. "But," writes jazz historian Ted Gioia, "few would deny the instrumental role he played in the transformation of the one-time convict into a commercially successful performer of traditional African American music. The turnabout in his life was rapid and profound: Lead Belly was released from prison on August 1st, 1934; his schedule for the last week of December that year included performances for the MLA gathering in Philadelphia, for an afternoon tea in Bryn Mawr, and for an informal gathering of professors from Columbia and NYU. Even by the standards of the entertainment industry,… this was a remarkable transformation." Three months later Lomax and Lead Belly had a parting of the ways, never to be re-united, but Lead Belly went on to a fifteen-year career as an independent artist.

After the departure of Robert Gordon from the Library in 1934, Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song (salary: one dollar a year), and he secured grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, for continued field recordings. He and Alan recorded Spanish ballads and vaquero songs on the Rio Grande border and spent weeks among French-speaking Acadians in southern Louisiana.

The Legacy

Lomax’s contribution to the documentation of American folk traditions extended beyond the Library of Congress Music Division through his involvement with two agencies of the Works Progress Administration. In 1936, he was assigned to serve as an advisor on folklore collecting for both the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers' Project. As the Federal Writers' Project's first folklore editor, Lomax directed the gathering of ex-slave narratives and devised a questionnaire for project fieldworkers to use. This work was continued by Benjamin A. Botkin, who succeeded Lomax as the Project's folklore editor in 1938, and at the Library in 1939 resulting in the invaluable compendium of authentic slave narratives: Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery, edited by B. A. Botkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945)

John A. Lomax's autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (New York: Macmillan) was published in 1947 and immediately optioned to be made into a movie starring Bing Crosby in the title role, with Josh White as Lead Belly, but unfortunately it was never made. He died of a stroke in January 1948, age 79. On June 15th of that year, Lead Belly gave a concert at the University of Texas, performing children's songs such as "Skip to my Lou" and spirituals (performed with his wife Martha) that he had first sung years before for the late collector.

Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Lomax's grandson John Lomax III is a nationally published US music journalist, author of Nashville: Music City USA (1986), Red Desert Sky (2001) and co-author of The Country Music Book (1988). He is also an artist manager and has represented Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rocky Hill, David Schnaufer and The Cactus Brothers. He began representing the Dead Ringer Band in 1996.

Alan Lomax  1915-2002

Alan Lomax (January 15th, 1915 – July 19th, 2002), son of John A. Lomax, carried on in the tradition of his father as an American folklorist and musicologist. He attended The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut and went on to earn a degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. He continued his graduate studies with Melville J. Herskovits at Columbia and with Ray Birdwhistell at the University of Pennsylvania. To some, he is best known for his theories of Cantometrics, Choreometrics and Parlametrics, elaborated from 1960 until his death with the help of collaborators Victor Grauer, Conrad Arensberg, Forrestine Paulay, and Roswell Rudd.

From 1936 to 1942 Lomax was "Assistant in Charge" of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress to which he, his father and numerous collaborators contributed more than 10,000 field recordings. During his lifetime, he collected folk music from the United States, Haiti, the Caribbean, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy, assembling treasure trove of American and international culture.


A pioneering oral historian, he also recorded interviews with many legendary folk musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, Irish singer Margaret Barry, Scots ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, and Harry Cox of Norfolk, England, among many others. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor he took his recording machine into the streets to capture the reactions of everyday citizens. While serving in the army in World War II he made numerous radio programs in connection with the war effort. He also produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows, in the U.S and England, which played an important role in both the American folk music revival and British folk revivals of the 1940s and 50s.

In the late 1940s, he produced a series of folk music albums for Decca records and organized a series of concerts at New York's Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, featuring blues, Calypso, and Flamenco music. He also hosted a radio show, Your Ballad Man, from 1945-49 that was broadcast nationwide on the Mutual Radio Network and featured a highly eclectic program, from gamelan music, to Django Reinhardt, to Klezmer music, to Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davidson, to jazzy pop songs by Maxine Waters and Jo Stafford, to readings of the poetry of Carl Sandburg, to hillbilly music with electric guitars, to Finnish brass bands -- to name a few (See Matthew Barton and Andrew L. Kaye, in Ronald D. Cohen (ed), Alan Lomax Selected Writings, p. 98-99).

Examples of the recorded histories for the Library of Congress:


Lomax spent the 1950s based in London, from where he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, an anthology issued on newly invented LP records. For the British and Irish volumes, he worked with the BBC and folklorists Peter Douglas Kennedy, Scots poet Hamish Henderson, and with Séamus Ennis in Ireland, where they recorded Irish traditional musicians, including some of the songs in English and Irish of Elizabeth Cronin in 1951. He also hosted a folk music show on BBC's home service and organized a "skiffle" group, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers (who included Ewan Macoll, Peggy Seeger, and Shirley Collins, among others). His ballad opera Big Rock Candy Mountain premiered December 1955 at Joan Littlewood's Theater Workshop and featured Ramblin' Jack Elliot.

Lomax and Diego Carpitella's survey of Italian folk music for the Columbia World Library, conducted in 1953 and 1954, with the cooperation of the BBC and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, helped capture a snapshot of a multitude of important traditional folk styles shortly before they disappeared. The pair amassed one of the most representative folk song collections of any culture. From Lomax's Spanish and Italian recordings emerged one of the first theories explaining the types of folk singing that predominate in particular areas, a theory that incorporates work style, the environment, and the degrees of social and sexual freedom.

Upon his return to New York in 1959, Lomax produced a concert, "Folksong '59," in Carnegie Hall, featuring Arkansas singer Jimmy Driftwood; the Selah Jubilee Singers and Drexel Singers (gospel groups); Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim (blues); the Stony Mountain Boys (bluegrass); Pete and Mike Seeger (urban folk revival); and The Cadillacs (a rock and roll group). The occasion marked the first time rock and roll and bluegrass were performed on the Carnegie Hall Stage. "The time has come for Americans not to be ashamed of what we go for, musically, from primitive ballads to rock 'n' roll songs," Lomax told the audience. According to Izzy Young, the audience booed when he told them to lay down their prejudices and listen to rock 'n' roll. In Young's opinion, "Lomax put on what is probably the turning point in American folk music . . . . At that concert, the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing, and rock and roll was that thing" (quoted in Ronald D. Cohen's Rainbow Quest, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, p. 140).

Alan Lomax was married for 12 years to Elizabeth Harold Lomax, who assisted him in recording in Haiti, Alabama, Appalachia, and Mississippi, and who wrote radio scripts of folk operas featuring American music, broadcast over the BBC as part of the war effort, as well as conducting lengthy interviews with folk music personalities. He also did important field work with Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and the Bahamas; with John Work and Lewis Jones in Mississippi; with folksingers Robin Roberts and Jean Ritchie in Ireland; with his second wife Antoinette Marchand in the Caribbean; with Joan Halifax in Morocco; and with his daughter, Anna L. Chairetakis. All those who assisted and worked with him were accurately credited on the resultant Library of Congress, and other recordings, as well as in his many books and publications.

Alan Lomax met twenty-year-old English folk singer Shirley Collins while living in London. The two were romantically involved and lived together for some years. When Lomax obtained a contract from Atlantic Records to re-record some the U.S. artists he had recorded in the 1940s, using improved recording equipment, Collins accompanied him. Their folk song collecting trip to the Southern states lasted from July to November 1959 and resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, and Bessie Jones and culminated in the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued under the title Sounds of the South and some were also featured in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Lomax wanted to marry her but when their trip was over, Collins returned to England and instead married Austin John Marshall. In an interview in The Guardian newspaper, Friday March 21 2008, Collins was miffed that Alan Lomax's 1993 history of blues music, The Land Where The Blues Began, barely mentioned her. "All it said was, 'Shirley Collins was along for the trip'. It made me hopping mad. I wasn't just 'along for the trip'. I was part of the recording process, I made notes, I drafted contracts, I was involved in every part". Collins decided to rectify the perceived omission in her memoir America Over the Water, published in 2004.

1960s and Beyond

In 1962, Lomax and singer and Civil Rights Activist Guy Carawan, music director at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, produced the album, Freedom in the Air: Albany Georgia, 1961-62, on Vanguard Records for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft to represent the music of the earth. Music he helped choose included the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; a Sicilian sulfur miner’s lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska; in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more.

The 1944 "ballad opera," The Martins and the Coys broadcast in Britain (but not the USA) by the BBC, featuring Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, among others, was released on Rounder Records in 2000.

Lomax's 1993 Atlantic recording, Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey From the Georgia Sea Islands to the Mississippi Delta, features several songs sampled in Moby's album Play, including "Natural Blues" ("Trouble So Hard").

Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1986, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from Tulane University in 2001. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award in 1993 for his book ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’, connecting the story of the origins of Blues music with the prevalence of forced labor in the pre-World War II South (especially on the Mississippi levees). Lomax also received a posthumous Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 2003.’Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings’ by Alan Lomax (Rounder Records, 8 CDs boxed set) won in two categories at the 48th annual Grammy Awards ceremony held on Feb 8th, 2006.

John and Alan Lomax are largely responsible for keeping many of the rural oral traditions of folk music alive. The depth of their research and field recordings is almost immeasurable. It is fair to say, however, that the shape of American music from the 1960s forward is due in some part to the work of the Lomax family.

© 2008, Leonard Wyeth


Bossa Nova

1958 - Brazil

The music of Brazil in 1958 was alive with influences from within and without. The samba was well established both rhythmically and instrumentally as dance and vocal accompaniment. The nylon string guitar in Brazilian hands was equally comfortable with classical music and jazz. It was an instrument of the people and could be found in formal classical presentations and back street brothels. It was used to give life to the songs and rhythms of the ex-slaves as well as the voice of long-dead European composers of the Royal Courts.

Brazil’s Southern neighbor Argentina had contributed the sophisticated jazz styling’s of the Tango Orchestras from the 1940’s forward and the Spanish Latin rhythms from Mexico and Central America were everywhere. The clarinet, cornet and saxophone of the American Big Bands were found in all the major cities and woven into the local flavors of street music. The musical landscape was rich and fertile.

A young and fiercely talented young guitarist and composer: João Gilberto, with Elizete Cardoso, recorded “Chega de Saudade” on an LP titled ‘Canção do Amor Demais’, composed by Vinícius de Moraes (lyrics) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (music). The song was well received in Brazil. The fresh sounding recording included Gilberto’s fingerstyle playing on nylon string guitar and simple voice accompaniment. It wasn’t exactly samba but it wasn’t exactly folk either. It was rich without unnecessary embellishment. There was something about the composition that implied string accompaniment but simply focused upon the nylon string guitar. The music was simple, powerful and new.

French Director Marcel Camus was in Brazil at the time making a movie of the story of Orpheus & Eurydice; re-told in the context of a favela in current-day Rio De Janiero during Carnaval. The Brazilian title was “Orfeu Negro” - The American title was “Black Orpheus”. The new musical style had exactly the combination of street grit and timeless sophistication. The soundtrack was performed by guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim including ‘Manha de Carnaval’ by Lois Bonfa (m) and Antonio Maria (w) and ‘A Felicidade’ by Jobim (m) and Vinicius de Moraes (w). The film was released in December of 1959 and found its way to America - the soundtrack was a hit.

Popular new musical styles require a name. This one became known as ‘Bossa Nova’. ‘Bossa’ in Brazilian Portuguese was slang referring to an act (or trend) done with an innate charm and natural flair. The expression had lingered in musical circles from the early 1930’s. “Nova” is new. It is not clear who first coined the name, but it felt appropriate and stuck.

Nylon string jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd heard the new music and fell under its spell. He brought it to saxophonist Stan Getz and the resulting recordings helped the style circumnavigate the globe. Byrd befriended fellow guitarist João Gilberto and absorbed everything about the music he could. The first Bossa Nova single was possibly the most successful of all time: “The Girl from Ipanema”. During the process of making the recording they used Gilberto’s wife – Astrud Gilberto – to rough in the vocal track. They assumed they would get a professional singer later. The shy Astrud delivered the lyrics in a dry unassuming and gentle tone. After all, she assumed they would be erased later. Upon playback, Byrd and Getz knew immediately that they had stumbled upon something unique and delightful. They kept the rough takes and Astrud Gilberto became an international sensation overnight.

The new style ran its course over the next 5 years in the public limelight until being eclipsed by the British invasion around 1963. Numerous recordings by famous jazz performers including Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Abraça Jobim) and Frank Sinatra (Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim) helped the entrenchment of the Bossa Nova as a lasting influence in world music for several decades and even up to the present.
The gentle and sophisticated fingerstyle technique on nylon string guitar hit America at just the right time. Gilberto and Jobim had introduced a new dimension to the instrument that was also reaching broad audiences with Folk music. Here was the humble nylon string guitar: expressive in prisons in the deep South, rich with African-American blues, jazz, country, folk and equally at home at Carnegie Hall in the Hands of Andre Segovia before a philharmonic orchestra perfoming the vaulted works of the worlds most respected dead composers. The simple instrument appeared to have no artistic limitations.

Bossa Nova hits included:
Girl From Ipanema
O Barquinho
A Felicidade


ⓒ 2009, Leonard Wyeth



Edited and expanded from research from Wikipedia and other sources by Leonard Wyeth

Original run:                April 1963 to September 1964
Number of episodes:    43
Original channel:         ABC Television

Hootenanny was a musical variety show for television broadcast on ABC from April 1963 to September 1964. The program host was Jack Linkletter. It featured pop-oriented folk music acts, including The Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, The Brothers Four, Ian & Sylvia, Hoyt Axton, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, The Tarriers, Bud & Travis, and the Smothers Brothers. Although popular and influential, the program is remembered today for the controversy created when the producers blacklisted certain folk music acts which then led to a boycott by others.

Hootenanny was created in 1962 by Dan Melnick, Vice President of ABC-TV, and the Ashley-Steiner Talent Agency. The agency and network hired producer-director Gil Cates to oversee the initial production. It was Cates’ idea to tape the program at a college campus and to include the student audience on camera, singing and clapping along with the music. Cates staged the show as theater in the round with the students seated on the floor or in bleachers surrounding the performers. The pilot was video taped in the fall of 1962 at Syracuse University. Fred Weintraub, owner of The Bitter End, a folk music club in New York’s Greenwich Village, served as talent coordinator (and would continue to do so throughout the series’ run), ensuring that performers would not be limited to clients of the Ashley-Steiner agency.

New York radio personality Jean Shepherd was the original emcee, and four folk acts appeared in the pilot: The Limeliters, Mike Settle, Jo Mapes and Clara Ward’s Gospel Singers. Rather than showcase acts once per show, each performer or group would do a song, then yield the stage to another and return later in the program. Occasionally two otherwise unrelated acts would team up for a duet. The final result was so well received by network executives that the idea of airing the pilot as a stand-alone special was abandoned and production on the series began.

Producer Richard Lewine was put in charge and Garth Dietrick became the Director. The first thing Lewine did was to replace Shepherd with Jack Linkletter. (When the original pilot aired in June 1963, Shepherd's scenes had been removed and Linkletter was spliced in.) As Shepherd had done, Linkletter would discreetly provide information about the performer(s) and/or the song(s) as each act took the stage. Linkletter described his role as “an interpreter”. The people at home heard what he said, but not the performers. On February 26th, 1963, their first two Hootenanny programs were taped at George Washington University.

Between February 26th and April 30th, 12 Hootenanny shows were taped at six colleges. The production team would arrive at a campus on Monday to begin rehearsal and camera blocking. Taping of both half-hour programs would take place on Tuesday (later, when Hootenanny expanded to an hour, one program each would be taped on Tuesday and Wednesday). Students were permitted to attend the rehearsals, many of them volunteering to be runners for the various acts and production staff.

The first Hootenanny to air had been taped at the University of Michigan in March, and starred The Limeliters, Bob Gibson, Bud & Travis and Bonnie Dobson. The Limeliters would headline in seven of the first 13 episodes, appearing at least every other week. Overall, critical reaction was favorable, although Variety's reviewer felt it "lacked the spark and spirit that is found in 'live' college and concert dates" and predicted the series would do little to increase the popularity of folk music. They were proven wrong. Most critics agreed with the New York Times’ Jack Gould, who labeled Hootenanny “the hit of the spring.”

The Nielsen ratings justified ABC’s faith in the concept. The first program garnered a 26% share of the viewing audience. This increased to 32% for the second show. By the end of April, ABC announced that Hootenanny would return in the fall as a one-hour show. Hootenanny soon became the network’s second-most popular show, after Ben Casey, with a peak audience of 11 million viewers per week.

By the time Hootenanny concluded its first 13 weeks, a craze had been born. A front-page Variety story noted that “the big demand for the folk performers in virtually all areas of show biz (records, concerts, college dates, TV, pix) is stimulating a new folk form that can appeal to a mass audience. Among writers now contributing to the new-styled folk song are Bob Dylan, Mike Settle, Tom Paxton, Shel Silverstein, Bob Gibson, Malvina Reynolds, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie.” MGM’s Sam Katzman produced Hootenanny Hoot, a motion picture featuring The Brothers Four, Johnny Cash, Judy Henske, Joe and Eddie, Cathie Taylor, The Gateway Trio and Sheb Wooley – all of whom did or would appear on Hootenanny. Record labels from the independent Folkways and Elektra to the mainstream Columbia and RCA-Victor released folk music compilation albums with “Hootenanny” in the title. Two bi-monthly magazines appeared on newsstands: Hootenanny, edited by Robert Shelton and ABC-TV Hootenanny, edited by Linda Solomon. Mainstream magazines such as Time and Look reported on the folk craze, with the latter calling Hootenanny the “final proof that folk music has gone big-time.”

Despite the popular appeal - or maybe because of it - the overall reaction to Hootenanny by serious folk music critics was one of scorn. In an article for Shelton's Hootenanny magazine, Nat Hentoff savaged the program, writing "Aside from the fact that a sizable proportion of each week's cast has been fake, the 'Hootenanny Show' aura has also diluted the work of many of its performers with some credentials as folk singers." He also chided the students comprising the audience: "Be not deceived that the campus activists for social change are in the majority. If you want to see the average American college student, watch the TV 'Hootenanny' show." Editor Shelton eventually acknowledged that "some good performances did sneak through; some obscure musicians won recognition. The TV series probably led millions of its viewers toward quality song."

When the series resumed in the fall of 1963, it had been expanded to a full hour with a slightly altered format. Although the program continued to primarily showcase folk music, other genres were added to the mix: jazz (represented by such performers as Herbie Mann, Pete Fountain, Stan Getz and Stan Rubin's Tigertown Five), country (artists such as Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Flatt & Scruggs and Homer & Jethro) and gospel (The Staple Singers, Clara Ward, Bessie Griffin and Alex Bradford). The second season also added a spot for stand-up comedy; the best-know participants being Woody Allen, Bill Cosby (in his network TV debut), Jackie Vernon, Pat Harrington, Jr. and Stiller & Meara. Changes in the format continued as the season progressed. Commencing with episodes airing in January 1964, all the artists remained on stage throughout the show, seated behind whoever was performing; and Jack Linkletter no longer made all the introductions - many were handled by the artists themselves, one act introducing another.

The second season also saw the debut of Hootenanny's "home-grown" creation, The Serendipity Singers. "Discovered" by talent coordinator Fred Weintraub (whose sister, Lynne, was a charter member), the Serendipities were a nine-member folk chorale closely patterned after The New Christy Minstrels. The group appeared in eight of the 30 shows produced that season, and had a major hit in late 1963 with "Crooked Little Man (Don't Let the Rain Come Down)." The group, with various member changes, continued for decades after Hootenanny's demise.


Even before it reached the airwaves, Hootenanny created controversy in the folk music world. In mid-March, word circulated that the producers would not invite folk singer Pete Seeger, nor Seeger’s former group, The Weavers, to appear on the show. Both Seeger and the Weavers were alleged to have overly left-wing views; in Seeger’s case, he had been convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his political affiliations with HUAC in 1955 – although the conviction had been overturned on appeal in May 1962.

Variety broke the story in its March 20th, 1963, reporting that folksinger Joan Baez had refused to appear on the show because of the blacklisting. That same week, several folk artists gathered at The Village Gate in New York City to discuss forming an organized boycott, but opted instead to send telegrams of concern to ABC executives, producer Lewine and the FCC. Although Seeger and the Weavers were also banned from NBC and CBS variety shows, the Hootenanny issue rankled because Seeger and his long-time associate Woody Guthrie were the first to popularize the term ‘hootenanny’ as a gathering of folk musicians.

To his credit, Seeger encouraged his fellow artists not to boycott but to accept Hootenanny invitations, so as to promote the popularity of the folk genre. Nevertheless, by the end of March three other folk acts had joined Joan Baez in boycotting the show: Tom Paxton, Barbara Dane and The Greenbriar Boys, a bluegrass trio. Some weeks later, Guthrie disciple Ramblin' Jack Elliot announced he, too, was boycotting Hootenanny.

Over the years, other arguably better-known folk performers have been associated with the Hootenanny boycott; these include Dylan (who mentioned the show in his song "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"), Peter, Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs and The Kingston Trio.  The Greenbriar Boys would eventually relent and appear on the broadcast of October 19th, 1963, with their occasional singing partner Dian James. Some artists who had performed on the show would refuse future Hootenanny appearances for creative, rather than political, reasons; these include Judy Collins and Theodore Bikel.

With the expansion of Hootenanny to one hour weekly, effective with the broadcast of September 21st, 1963, the producers made overtures to Pete Seeger. However, there was a caveat, spelled out in a letter from network executives: “ABC will consider Mr. Seeger’s use on the program only if he furnishes a sworn affidavit as to his past and present affiliations, if any, with the Communist Party, and/or with the Communist front organizations. Upon so doing, the company will undertake to consider his statement in relation to all the objective data available to it, and will advise you promptly if it will approve the employment of Mr. Seeger.” Seeger, naturally, refused to provide anything that smacked of a loyalty oath, and his manager, Harold Leventhal, made the story public - which only encouraged others to refuse appearances.

The British Invasion

ABC scheduled Hootenanny for a third season, but a major shift in popular music brought about a last-minute reversal. The 1964 British Invasion eclipsed the folk music craze among younger viewers, resulting in a decline in Hootenanny’s viewer ship to about seven million by the end of April 1964, prior to the start of reruns. Not only viewers, but musicians were impacted by the Invasion; performers such as Gene Clark (The New Christy Minstrels), John Phillips (The Journeymen), Cass Elliot (The Big 3) and John Sebastian (The Even Dozen Jug Band) - all of whom had appeared on Hootenanny's second season - abandoned folk music to form very successful pop-rock groups including The Byrds (Clark), The Mamas & the Papas (Phillips and Elliott) and The Lovin' Spoonful (Sebastian).

There were other factors that contributed to Hootenanny's demise, not the least of which was repetition of both songs and artists. Eventually, it seemed that you were likely to see The Serendipity Singers, or The New Christy Minstrels, or The Brothers Four every time you tuned in; occasionally, you'd see two of the three. Faced with both a dwindling talent pool and growing viewer indifference, on June 8th ABC announced that Hootenanny would be cancelled. Another series with youth appeal, The Outer Limits, took over the timeslot; to replace that program on Wednesday evenings, ABC hastily scheduled a new music series: Shindig!

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Expanded and edited from Wikipedia and other web sources.



The Folk Boom

For those born immediately before or after World War II, the Folk Boom of the late 1950s was inevitable.

No American or Canadian child of that generation could avoid the influences around them. The film, television and radio brought the singing cowboys into our houses and wove their way into our lives. A guy with a guitar could articulate the highest aspirations of our hearts and minds; in a simple song. The girls appeared to melt under the spell of the music. Movie musicals used songs to expose the true thoughts of the players. It appeared that all things were best expressed in music and song.

The poetry of the beat generation found it’s voice in the rhythmic drive of Be Bop Jazz. There was room for the individual artist to soar in improvisational and ‘Free’ Jazz. Poetry readings were interspersed between musical acts in nightspots all over the country. They possessed a musical rhythm all their own: fingers clicking to the beat of cool jazz.

The 1942 Recording Ban had given birth to all manor of vocal groups as they were not affected by the musicians union and therefore exempt from the recording ban. At the top of the popular music trend were groups like the Andrew Sisters picking up where the Big Bands left off. At the bottom of the spectrum, but equally musically sophisticated were groups like the Limelighters and Lambert Hendricks & Ross. The tunes were generally simple and the harmonic arrangements fairly complex. The musical accompaniment was minimal (musicians were on strike). Groups like the Limelighters accompanied themselves with banjo, guitar and bass. It was simple, powerful and expressive. Above all, it was fun and entertaining. The songs evolved naturally: there was less fluff and more substance to the lyrics. They may be bawdy, adult or politically inclined, but always new and entertaining.

Through the 1950s, the country became increasingly aware of the recordings of the Lomax family for the Library of Congress. The songs and melodies were so inherently powerful that young players took up performing the music. It was worth hearing and seemed to capture the imagination of a public increasingly aware of the social problems facing the country. Desegregation, for example, brought public discussions and curiosity to understand the issues at hand. Rural Black songs and music helped bring some heart and humanity to the public discourse. Young urban white activists singing rural Black music implied some form of unity with a cause.

The long career of Woodie Guthrie, as a voice for social justice, found its way into New York City and groups of like-minded musicians including Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and many others. Here is another example of a man with a guitar that managed to make a difference. The music of the common folk (Folk Music) was gathering a growing following. Many musicians, seeking others with similar passions and beliefs, began to gather in Greenwich Village in New York City. There was a synergy with the Beat Generation in similar misanthropic feelings and common cause.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy actually helped propel the movement forward by giving credibility and relevance to the musical groups and individuals that they chose to investigate. The overwhelming sense of the American public of the injustice of the hearings helped label activists as local heroes. These included the Almanac Singers, The Weavers, the Limelighters and others.

The Weavers were asked to perform at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve of 1955. It was a come-back for the group following their inclusion on the entertainment industry blacklist. It was a metaphor for the freedom of expression, release from tyranny and a victory for music of the common man.

By 1960, one person with a guitar could be viewed as a true patriot and fighter for social justice. This was the stage as it had been set for the growth of the individual singer-songwriter. It was the explosion of the Folk Boom. New groups popped up all over the country: Bud & Travis, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ritchie Havens, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Rush, and dozens of others emerged. The music would eventually take many new directions into Rock ‘n’ Roll, Fusion, and beyond. The traditional Jug bands of the early 1960s evolved to the Greatful Dead and the Lovin’ Spoonful. The list is far too long to explore here.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Original material: Leonard Wyeth
Research compiled, expanded and edited from numerous web and print sources including Wikipedia and Ibanez USA. 


Influential Players


Eddie Lange

Salvatore Massaro (10/25/1902 – 3/26/1933), better known as:  Eddie Lange,  is considered by many to be the first modern Jazz guitar virtuoso. See the Roaring Twenties above for more information.  Eddie Lange played a role in the development of the jazz sound on the 1920's that became 'mainstream' through movies, radio and recordings. He worked with the greats: Frankie Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Smith Ballew, Fred Rich, Red Nichols, Noel Taylor, Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, King Oliver, Hoagy Carmichael, Don Vorhees, Adrian Rollini, and Lonnie (J.C.) Johnson. His most famous association was with violinist Joe Venuti, with whom he recorded under many different titles. In 1933 a botched operation unexpectedly ended Lang's life.

Eddie Lang was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the son of an Italian-American banjo and guitar maker. He began studying violin and sight reading at age 7 and stuck with the lessons for 11 years. At age 9, his father fashioned a small guitar.  The boy eagerly took to the new instrument.  While in school he became friends with violinist Joe Venuti. The two hit it off musically and continued to work together throughout Lang's carrier.  Their work over the next decade as a jazz duet would set the stage for a young Django Reinhardt in France to team with English classical violinist Stephan Grappelli and reshape the sound of swing in both Europe and the US.

By 1918 Lang was playing violin, banjo, and guitar semi-professionally. His focus at the time was tenor banjo, but this expanded to a hybrid 6-string guitar-banjo (the same way Django Reinhardt started).  By 1922 he was easily finding musical work and by 1923 he fully made the transition to guitar.

He worked with various bands in the American North-East, and briefly in London (late 1924 to early 1925), finally settling in New York City.  He worked steadily as accompaniment on recordings, radio and film - all new forms of public media.

On February 4th 1927, Lang was featured in the recording of "Singin' the Blues" by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. Lang traded guitar licks with Beiderbecke on cornet.  The session became a landmark jazz recording of the 1920s.  It brought credibility to the guitar as a jazz solo instrument, capable of holding its own with any other instrument.  This was before the days of amplification.

In 1928 & 1929 Lang also played under the pseudonym: 'Blind Willie Dunn' on a number of blues records with New Orleans legendary guitarist: Lonnie Johnson.

In 1929 he joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra and appeared in the movie 'The King of Jazz' (1930) - the first (two) color feature film.

In 1930 Lang played guitar on the original recording of the jazz and pop standard "Georgia On My Mind", recorded with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra. Joe Venuti and Bix Beiderbecke also played on these sessions.

In 1931, Bing Crosby became the nations top vocalist and decided to leave the Whitman organization and strike-out on his own.  Eddie Lang left with him as his accompanist.

In 1932, Lang and can be seen with Crosby in the 1932 movie "Big Broadcast".

Lang died following a tonsillectomy in New York City in 1933 at the age of 30. He had been urged by Crosby to have the tonsillectomy so that he might have speaking parts in Crosby's films. Lang's voice was chronically hoarse, and it was hoped that the operation would remedy this. The operation did not go well and Lang died of excessive bleeding.

Eddie Lang played a Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitar.  The L-5 was new: an 'F' hole archtop redesigned by Lloyd Loar for Gibson to increase the instrument's volume and projection.  The guitar buying public hadn't yet come to appreciate the new developments until Eddie Lang gained prominence in film and recordings.  Suddenly, the new instrument design gained popularity as the Jazz instrument of choice: it was an ideal rhythm instrument (chording & comping) and a powerfully expressive solo instrument.  It worked equally well in an orchestral setting, as a combo instrument, as a duet rhythm and solo instrument and as single accompaniment to vocals.

Eddie Lang's compositions (based on the Red Hot Jazz database) included "Wild Cat" with Joe Venuti, "Perfect" with Frank Signorelli, "April Kisses" (1927), "Sunshine", "Melody Man's Dream", "Goin' Places", "Black and Blue Bottom", "Bull Frog Moan", "Rainbow Dreams", "Feelin' My Way", "Eddie's Twister", "Really Blue", "Penn Beach Blues", "Wild Dog", "Pretty Trix", "A Mug of Ale", "Apple Blossoms", "Beating the Dog", "To To Blues", "Running Ragged", "Kicking the Cat", "Cheese and Crackers", "Doin' Things", "Blue Guitars", "Guitar Blues" with Lonnie Johnson, "Hot Fingers", "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues", "A Handful of Riffs", "Blue Room", "Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp", "Two-Tone Stomp". "Midnight Call Blues", "Four String Joe", "Goin' Home", and "Pickin' My Way" (1932) with Carl Kress.

George Van Eps said of the legacy of Eddie Lang: "It's very fair to call Eddie Lang the father of jazz guitar".
Barney Kessel described him: "Eddie Lang first elevated the guitar and made it artistic in jazz."
Les Paul credited him: "Eddie Lang was the first and had a very modern technique."

In 1977, Lang's recording of "Singin' the Blues" with Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1986, Lang was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

It can be said that Eddie Lang was the first 'Jazz Guitar Star' and the single most important jazz guitarist in the world until the rise of Django Reinhardt in 1934 and Charlie Christian in 1939.  Before Lang, the banjo was the stringed instrument of Jazz.  His prominence on the guitar and exposure by movie, radio and recording was a strong influence on many banjo players of the age to switch to guitar.  After all: He was the epitome of 'cool' at the time: he made the guitar seem to be the natural jazz instrument of the age.

By recording with Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, King Oliver & Lonnie Johnson he helped expose the American public to the true roots of jazz and blues and helped diminish the race barrier of the day.


ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Original material: Leonard Wyeth
Research compiled, expanded and edited from numerous web and print sources including Wikipedia.


Nick Lucus

Nick Lucas (8/22/1897 - 7/28/1982) started his career as a guitar player at about the same time as Eddie Lange.  Born: Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese, Nick Lucus was a singer and pioneer of jazz guitar. He has been remembered as "the grandfather of the jazz guitar" and experienced a peak of popularity from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s.

At the age of 25 in 1922, he became known for his renditions of "Picking the Guitar" and "Teasing the Frets" for Pathe Records. In 1923 the Gibson Company (looking for a professional endorser) worked with Lucus to detail a concert guitar with an extra deep body. Known as the "Nick Lucas Special", it has been a sought-after vintage model with guitar collectors since. In the same year, he began a successful career in recording phonograph records for Brunswick and remained one of their exclusive artists until 1932.

By the late 1920s, the Brunswick recordings had been successful and Lucas had become well known as "The Crooning Troubadour". In 1929, he co-starred in the Warner Brothers musical, 'Gold Diggers of Broadway', in which he introduced the two hit songs "Painting the Clouds with Sunshine" and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips". The latter became known as Lucas' official theme song. Lucas was also featured in 'The Show of Shows' (1929), the studio's all-star revue, . Lucas turned down a Warner Bros.' offer for a seven-year contract, which went instead to fellow crooner Dick Powell.

In April 1930, Warner Bros. bought Brunswick Records. Due to their appreciation of Nick Lucas, Warner Bros. provided him with his own orchestra: "The Crooning Troubadours". This arrangement lasted until December 1931, when Warner Bros. licensed Brunswick to the American Record Corporation. The new owners were not as extravagant as Warner Bros. and Lucas lost his orchestra. He eventually left Brunswick in 1932. He made 2 recordings for Durium Records in 1932 for their Hit of the Week series. These would prove to be his last major recordings.

Nick Lucas spent the rest of his career performing on radio, night clubs and dance halls. He made a number of recordings for various independent labels, including Cavalier Records, where he was billed as the "Cavalier Troubadour." In 1944 he reprised some of his old hits in 'Soundies' movie musicals, and filmed another group of songs for Snader Telescriptions in 1951. In 1974, his renditions of the songs, "I'm Gonna Charleston Back to Charleston", "When You and I Were Seventeen" and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" were featured on the soundtrack of Paramount Pictures' The Great Gatsby (1974) with Robert Redford.

An inspiration to Tiny Tim, who made Lucas' "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips" (written November 1929) his own theme song, Lucas became friends with the performer, and on December 17th, 1969, when Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Lucas was there to sing their trademark song.

Lucas would become the inspiration for players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Among his many contributions to the music of the 1920s were some of the first recorded guitar instrumentals.

Nick Lucas died in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1982 of double pneumonia, 3 weeks before his 85th birthday.


ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Original material: Leonard Wyeth
Research compiled, expanded and edited from numerous web and print sources including Wikipedia.


Oscar Marcelo Aleman   (1909 - 1980)
Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt   (1910 – 1953)

See:  Jazz Manouche – Gypsy Jazz above



Merle Travis

Merle Robert Travis (11/29/1917 – 10/20/1983) was an American musician born in Rosewood, Kentucky. The lyrics of his songs frequently delved into the life and exploitation of coal miners.  Among his many well-known songs are "Sixteen Tons", "Re-Enlistment Blues" and "Dark as a Dungeon".  He is best known, however, for his masterful guitar playing and his interpretations of the rich musical traditions of his native Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. He developed a syncopated style of finger picking that has become known as "Travis picking".

Merle Travis is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential American guitarists of the twentieth century. His unique guitar style inspired many guitarists who followed. Chet Atkins, who first heard Travis's radio broadcasts on Cincinnati's WLW Boone County Jamboree in 1939 while living with his father in rural Georgia, credits Travis as a prime inspiration. Among the many other guitarists influenced by Travis are Scotty Moore, Earl Hooker and Marcel Dadi (France). Today, his son: Thom Bresh continues his father's tradition of playing and entertaining in Travis's style.

Travis and his early tutors were among the first to use the thumb pick in guitar playing. It freed the fingers to pick melodies against the thumbs alternating bass line. Travis's style, according to Chet Atkins, went on in musical directions "never dreamt about" by his predecessors. His trademark mature style incorporated elements from ragtime, blues, boogie, jazz and Western swing, and was marked by rich chord progressions, harmonics, slides and bends, and rapid changes of key. He could shift quickly from finger-picking to flatpicking in the midst of a number by gripping his thumb pick like a flat pick. In his hands, the guitar substituted for a full band. As his son Thom Bresh puts it, on first hearing his father as a child "I thought it was just the coolest sound, because it sounded like a whole bunch of instruments coming from one guitar. In it, I heard rhythm parts, I heard melodies, I heard chords and all this wrapped up in one." Equally comfortable on acoustic and electric guitar, Travis was one of the first to exploit the full range of techniques and sound possibilities available on the electric guitar.

Though Chet Atkins was the most prominent guitarist to be inspired by Merle Travis, the two players' styles were significantly different. As Atkins explained, "While I play alternate bass strings which sounds more like a stride piano style, Merle played two bass strings simultaneously on the one and three beats, producing a more exciting solo rhythm, in my opinion. It was somewhat reminiscent of the great old black players." The resemblance was no coincidence; Travis himself acknowledged the influence of black guitarists such as Blind Blake, the foremost ragtime and blues guitarist of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Travis's style is well explained and exemplified by Marcel Dadi on the DVD: "The Guitar of Merle Travis", which includes live video performances by Travis of classics such as "John Henry" and "Nine Pound Hammer" as well as transcriptions of Travis solos in tablature.

Merle Travis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.  Merle died at the age of 65 on October 20th, 1983 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Original material: Leonard Wyeth
Research compiled, expanded and edited from numerous web and print sources including Wikipedia.



The Country Gentleman - Chet Atkins

Chester Burton Atkins (June 20th, 1924 – June 30th, 2001), better known as Chet Atkins, was an American fingerstyle guitarist and record producer for RCA who helped create the country music style known as the 'Nashville sound', which broadly expanded country music's national appeal.

Atkins's picking style, inspired by Merle Travis, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Les Paul, brought him respect and admiration from fans and musicians across the globe.  Atkins produced records for Perry Como, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith, Waylon Jennings and many others.

Among the many honors Atkins received in the course of his long career included 14 Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, nine Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year awards, and Atkins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.


C.G.P. stands for Certified Guitar Player.  The title was an honor created by Chet Atkins largely for his personal amusement: the letters were used to follow his name - used like: Phd, MA, AIA, MD or similar suffixes indicating earned degrees, membership or accomplishments.  "Chet Atkins C.G.P." certainly indicated a hard earned education in the music business and true life accomplishment.  Atkins bestowed the title - sparingly - as a show of affection and appreciation for other guitarists that he admired and that he felt contributed to the legacy of guitar playing.  He extended the honor in the form of a small oval gold pin with the letters "C.G.P." inscribed in script.  

C.G.P. was awarded during Chet Atkins' lifetime to Jerry Reed, Steve Wariner, John Knowles, Guy Van Duser and Tommy Emmanuel.  Following Atkins death, the Atkins family provided a pin to Paul Yandell (Chet's long-time accompanist and friend).  The estate of Chet Atkins then trademarked the designation and determined that there should be no other C.G.P. distinctions awarded.

ⓒ 2011, Leonard Wyeth

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