If you listen to the recordings from the Bristol Sessions (and you should—the Bear Family collection, The Bristol Sessions: 1927-1928 is the definitive version, despite some unfortunate errors in its accompanying hardcover liner notes, but the Country Music Hall of Fame release The Bristol Sessions is also excellent) … if you listen to the recordings from the Bristol Sessions, I say, you’ll often have the sense that you’ve heard the song you’re listening to before, and recently.
That’s because the Bristol Sessions was, among other things, an exercise in genre and subgenre. The various artists who gathered for those 12 days in Bristol all came out of the same tradition, and there were certain types of songs that came up again and again in their work—and, accordingly, in their recordings for Ralph Peer and in future generations of country music.
There are many such subgenres. Here are three of them for your consideration.
Blind Alfred Reed’s “The Wreck of the Virginian” is, with the sole exception of the Carter Family’s six recordings, the most polished song to be heard at the Bristol Sessions. That’s not surprising: The other artists at the Sessions were amateurs or, at best, church musicians, performing on Sundays and returning to their everyday lives for the rest of the week. Reed was a professional, making his living primarily by street busking, augmented by gigs at parties and dances and the occasional music-teaching job. He sang every day, and it comes through in his performance of “The Wreck of the Virginian,” with his voice big and authoritative and his fiddle clean and assured.
Reed’s song is about a wreck that had occurred only two months before, on May 24, 1927. “The Newmarket Wreck,” sung by Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Baker, had taken place on September 24, 1904, almost 43 years before they recorded it. They lack Reed’s polish, and their singing has a frenetic quality, but the two songs are otherwise strikingly similar.
The railroads were the circulatory system of the prewar South. In the days before commercial air travel or interstate highways, the only other reliable mode of transportation was the rivers—and they insisted on going where they wanted to go, rather than in directions that would be useful to humans. One answer was canals, but the railroad was much cheaper and much easier to build and, by the time the age of recording began, life in the South (and, indeed, in all of America) was deeply interwoven with the railroads.
There were many kinds of train songs. Some were testimonials to the speed, power and dynamism of trains, notably “The Wabash Cannonball,” an 1880s classic recorded by the Carter Family in 1929. Some used the train as a metaphor for departure, even death, while others used it as a metaphor for progress, even for life itself, as in Jimmie Rodgers’ classic “Waiting for a Train” (1928).
The most alluring, though, was the train-wreck song, because it captured one of the most powerful truths underlying life in the countryside: It could end at any moment.
The classic train-wreck song begins by telling its audience that this is going to be a song about a wreck. Having established a foreboding tone, it then describes how happy and peaceful everything was until the moment of the crash. Then comes the wreck, with most affecting particulars, and its devastating consequences. Usually, as with “The Wreck of the Virginian,” it ends with an explicit moral: Remember, friends, that life is short.
Reed’s song, like many of them, pitches this closing message in religious terms: “All railroad men should live for God/and always faithful be./Like Dad and Frank, they soon may pass/into eternity.” The Bakers hint at this, but focus on the tragedy: “the little children cried aloud for mercy to their God,/but now they all are dead and gone, and under earthly sod.”
There were lots of ways to die in the countryside in 1927: disease, animal attacks, farm or factory accidents, murder, suicide and more. All of them turn up in country songs, but none so often as the train wreck. This is probably because of the implicit irony in a train wreck, the same irony that made the story of the Titanic so irresistible to songwriters (Ernest V. Stoneman’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” is essentially a train-wreck song on the water): The railroad represented a technological peak, a transcendent emblem of human accomplishment—and yet it was nothing in the face of fate, of destiny, of God.
Hearing a train-wreck song, people were reminded that life was short and happiness was transitory—a thought that doubtless recurred any time they themselves boarded a train.
The Johnson Brothers’ “The Jealous Sweetheart” is a pretty harrowing song to listen to, a graphic account of the murder of a young girl by the titular jealous sweetheart. It pulls the audience in, as we watch the tragedy unfold but are powerless to stop it—and then it delivers a vicious kick in the last verse, as we find that our seemingly impartial narrator is in fact the killer himself.
It’s a powerful song, and the Johnsons sing it well. The only person who might object is B.F. Shelton, who the very next day recorded “Pretty Polly,” a song with different words and a different tune—but essentially the same story, complete with the nasty revelation in the final verse.
Murder ballads had been a staple of popular songs for centuries. In the pre-newspaper era, one of the ways that people got the news of the day was through songs sung by traveling musicians—and, then as now, the news people wanted to hear was about blood and death, especially if the victim was young and attractive.
There were plenty of songs about shootouts between romantic rivals, about fights that got out of control, about murders for money or property. However, the songwriters kept coming back, again and again, to the idea of young women murdered by their lovers. Sometimes the songs were based on actual cases, sometimes they were made up out of whole cloth, but the fundamentals were the same: a sweet young girl, a boyfriend who is jealous, possessive and/or deranged, a knife or a rock or two strangling hands, and a body tossed into a river or buried in a shallow grave.
Beyond the lurid appeal of such stories, these songs had a moral point to deliver: Every one of them begins with the young man wheedling the girl to go off with him to some secluded spot, usually in the woods or up in the hills. She hesitates, but ultimately agrees … and dies for her mistake.
The songs don’t argue that any young man who wants to get his girl off somewhere private is planning to murder her; the songwriters know otherwise, and so does the audience. The implicit message, however, is the same one that was conveyed by many a 1970s slasher movie: Live clean, accompany your boyfriend only to public, well-lit areas, and you have a better chance of making it home alive.
The classic in this subgenre is “The Knoxville Girl,” dating back centuries (under other titles) in England and first recorded by the Skillet Lickers in 1924. The Carter Family did it in 1937, but the best recording is probably the 1956 version by the Louvin Brothers.
Far from My Dying Mother
Sentimental songs about mothers had been a staple of popular music, most likely, since the days of the cavemen. There were plenty of them in country music prior to the Bristol Sessions, and there have been plenty of them since. Even today’s poppified country knows that there’s good money in an “I love my mamma” song.
The Stoneman Family’s “Tell Mother I Will Meet Her,” however, is an example of a specific subgenre: a song about a young man who, having left his home far behind him, finds himself longing for his mother … who, unknown to him, is at that very moment dying.
The Stonemans’ version takes the most common approach to this theme: The young man reaches for reconciliation, but his letter/call/visit arrives too late. The Johnson Brothers’ “I Want to See My Mother,” better known as “Ten Thousand Miles Away,” follows the same model.
There were other approaches, some of which ended happily, with the son and mother reconciled. Some left the issue undecided, ending with the son turning his face toward home and setting off on a journey back where he belongs.
This was a theme that resonated for traveling musicians, whether minstrels in Elizabethan England or country singers in the 1970s. They spent their lives on the road, far from their homes and families … and, of course, from their mothers. Writing about it, especially during those lonely hours on the highway, was a natural.
Tomorrow: After the Bristol Sessions.