A History of Country Vol. 3: Pre-war years – 1937-41
The second article in the history of country music covered the trends and artists of the depression and pre-war years, 1930-41. Here we’ll look at some of the songs of the era. The photo on the cover comes from a superb series of colour photos from the US in the 1930s and ’40s.
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Rock ‘n’ roll grew out of R&B and various shades of country, especially rockabilly, a sub-genre that peaked in the 1950s. But what is widely regarded as the first rockabilly number dates back to 1939, Buddy Jones’ Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama. It’s a futile exercise to identify “the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll record”, but any list of contenders must include Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” features shockingly few early country songs. One that is included is Jimmie Rodgers Blue Yodel No. 9, recorded in 1930 with Louis Armstrong, marking the first instance of a white country singer collaborating with a black musician. As the title suggests, the collaboration with Satchmo was preceded by eight blue yodels, which introduced an Alpine musical form into the crazy stew that also included influences as diverse as Hawaiian sounds and 18th-century folk ballads from England. By collaborating with Armstrong, Rodgers also helped to introduce jazz to the mix, which would find fuller expression with the rise of western swing.
While Blue Yodel starts our 2-CD set, Red Foley’s Old Shep of 1941 almost bookends it. The maudlin ballad about a child’s dying dog is not really very good (and the sound quality here isn’t great), but it also merits consideration in the development of rock ‘n’ roll for helping to inspire a pre-pubescent Elvis Presley of Tupelo, Mississippi to take up music. In fact, Old Shep was the first song Elvis ever sang in public, at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo in October 1945 (he placed fifth in the talent show). After becoming a rock ‘n’ roll sensation, Elvis paid tribute to the song he once was obsessed with by recording it.
The terribly arbitrary and incomplete Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list also includes Roy Acuff’s Wabash Cannonball — one of the many train songs in country. A folk song from the late 19th century originally recorded by the Carter Family in 1929, it was Acuff’s breakthrough hit, launching a career that spanned four decades. In 1948 he reluctantly ran for governor of Tennessee on a Republican ticket (the idea initially was a publicity stunt), but lost to two-time governor Gordon Browning, who won 67% of the vote.
One country singer who did become a governor was Jimmie Davis, who governed Louisiana as a Democrat for two non-consecutive stints (1944–48, 1960–64). Davies’ signature tune, You Are My Sunshine, now is Louisiana’s state song. He even claimed to have written it as a school boy, but that is untrue (imagine that, a politician who tells lies). It was written by the Rice Brothers Gang of Shreveport, Louisiana but first recorded on 22 August 1939 by the Pine Ridge Boys of Atlanta. Davies, who recorded his version in 1940, put his co-composer credit on the song after buying the rights to it from the Rice brothers. At campaign rallies, Davies would sing the song while riding a horse called, of course, Sunshine.
Bob Wills had been co-inventing western swing for a few years before he scored his first national hit with New San Antonio Rose, a reworking of his 1938 instrumental song (his use of drums and horns when performing his hit at the Grand Ole Opry caused quite a bit of a stir in Nashville). Arguably the more influential Wills song, however, was 1936’s Steel Guitar Rag, written by Leon McAuliffe, which was pivotal in popularising the steel guitar, which gives country the Hawaiian sound (the steel refers to the slide held in the hand that holds the frets).
Roy Rogers is among Hollywood’s singing cowboys of the movies featured here (though songs by the original singing movie cowboy, Ken Maynard, are quite difficult to find). Rogers was a founder in 1933 of the Sons of the Pioneers. The original pioneers are long gone, but new generations of pioneers are keeping the name alive even now, led by Luther Nallie, who joined the group in 1968. But back in the ’30s, Rogers soon left for the big screen while the Sons of the Pioneers became both country staples and performers on the big screen, including the 1942 movie with Rogers named after the band. They recorded the first version of Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds — written by bandmember Bob Nolan, who first named it Tumbling Tumble Leaves — before Gene Autry made it famous. For his part, Autry was the first to record the standard That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine in 1931. A later compilation will feature the Sons’ other great original, 1946’s Cool Water (also written by Nolan).
Woody Guthrie (pictured) was regarded as a country singer before folk music went its own way. Guthrie of course influenced generations of folk singers; indeed, he spearheaded the folk movement with acolytes such as Pete Seeger. It arguably reached its zenith with the output of Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Dylan also owed a lot to the repository of blues and country. Other than Guthrie, it is evident that Dylan listened much to the original Carter Family. Their rendition of a traditional hymn, Can The Circle Be Unbroken, was covered by Dylan and many others (Carl Perkins also borrowed the chorus for his Daddy Sang Bass, later covered by Johnny Cash with the help of June Carter). Dylan adopted several traditional folk songs, including the Appalachian ballad Pretty Polly for Ballad Of Hollis Brown.
Lastly, Gid Tannen and his Skillet Lickers might have been the first disco musicians: in the introduction to Soldier’s Joy Breakdown, Tannen makes reference to shakin’ booties before his band launches into a remix of the song they first recorded in 1929.
1. Uncle Dave Macon – All In Down And Out Blues
2. Wade Mainer & Zeke Morris – Train Carry My Gal Back Home
3. Arthur Smith Trio – Indian Creek
4. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys – Mellow Mountain Moon
5. Hackberry Ramblers – Cajun Crawl
6. Hoosier Hot Shots – Breezin’ Along With The Breeze
7. Roy Rogers – Hi Ho Silver
8. Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers – Jig
9. Coon Creek Girls – Banjo Pickin’ Girl
10. Hank Penny’s Radio Cowboys – Cowboy’s Swing
11. The Tune Wranglers – Dixie Moon
12. Patsy Montana with the Prairie Ramblers – Big Moon
13. Light Crust Doughboys – Gin Mill Blues
14. Roy Acuff and the Crazy Tennesseans – Wabash Cannonball
15. Buddy Jones – Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama
16. Swift Jewel Cowboys – Willie The Weeper
17. Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers – Waiting At The End Of The Road
18. The Pine Ridge Boys – You Are My Sunshine
19. Jimmie Davis – Born To Be Blue
20. Delmore Brothers – Wabash Blues
21. Roy Acuff – Old Age Pension Check
22. Louise Massey and the Westerners – Put Your Little Foot Right Out
23. Bob Wills and his Texan Cowboys – New San Antonio Rose
24. Carter Family – My Home Among The Hills
25. Woody Guthrie – Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues
26. Blue Sky Boys – Brown Eyes
27. Tex Ritter – Good-Bye My Little Cherokee
28. Red Foley – Old Shep
29. Texas Jim Lewis – Old Fashioned Hoedown
(includes front and back covers. PW here)