Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s Bristol and Beyond: The Birth of Country Music

Bethpage Public Library, January 24, 2021

“Keep on the Sunny Side” (Carter Family, 1928)

Songwriters get their ideas from all over, but the best ones keep their ears open, knowing that any random phrase they hear might be the germ of a great song.  In the case of lyricist Ada Blenkhorn, she had a nephew who was disabled.  She would take him out for walks, pushing his wheelchair, but he was particular about which side of the street they walked on.  “Keep on the sunny side,” he told her … and a classic song was born.

If you visit A.P. Carter’s grave in Mace’s Spring, Virginia, you’ll notice that there’s a mock-up of a gold record embedded in the headstone.  A closer look reveals that it’s “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

Here’s the Carter Family’s immortal 1928 recording.  They recorded it many times thereafter, often with better sound quality, but the power of the original is unmatched.

(From left) Sara, A.P. and Maybelle Carter

“Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” (Carter Family, 1927)

This song was copyrighted as by A.P. Carter, but in fact it’s an old folk song that dates from well before 1927.  The Carters’ version (which you can hear right here) gives it more energy than you’ll find in most other versions, which are typically more plaintive. 

It’s a difficult song to sing, especially for a soloist, because the verses and the choruses are in different voices—the verses refer to the lover as “you” and the choruses as “he.”  It works most naturally if, as with the Carters, a soloist sings the verses and a chorus sings the choruses, commenting on the verses.

“The Soldier’s Sweetheart” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1927)

The most distinctive aspect of this song is that it’s sung by a male singer, but as a female character.  This wasn’t unusual for the era—in Carter Family songs, Sara Carter often sang songs in a male voice—but Rodgers wouldn’t do it for long.  Nor would other male country singers:  When Vince Gill covered the song in 2015, for example, the lyrics were rewritten in the third person.

Rodgers’ widow, Carrie, told an affecting tale about how a grieving friend inspired Rodgers to write this song, but it may well not be true.  The tune is lifted from a much earlier tune called “Where the River Shannon Flows,” first recorded in 1905, and I’ve heard that the original lyric referred to “that awful Spanish war,” though I’ve been unable to confirm this from any reliable source.

The Father of Country Music

Here’s Rodgers singing it—with a lugubrious tempo that wasn’t customary for him in later songs.  (I suspect that the problem was that he hadn’t expected to be singing this song for his audition, but had to prep it at the last minute to audition as a solo act—and he wasn’t a good enough guitarist to play it any faster.)  This tempo makes the record run long, which is why the lyrics are clearly fragmentary, with at least a half-verse omitted.  I’ve provided my best guess for the content, but can’t vouch for the exact words; the published version follows the recording.

“Can the Circle Be Unbroken”  (Carter Family, 1935)

The original hymn, by Ada R. Habershon (words) and Charles H. Gabriel (music), was called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and by the 1960s most performances of the song by country musicians had reverted to that name.  However, the Carters always sang it as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken”; the use of “Will” these days probably isn’t related to the original hymn, since all these recordings use the Carters’ lyrics—which were entirely different from Habershon’s, except in the chorus.

For a whole essay about this song, and why it’s so widely misunderstood, visit this page in my blog.  And here’s the original Carter Family version, still a classic.


“T for Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1)” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1928)

This was the song that made Jimmie Rodgers, selling more than a half-million copies, and defines a heaping handful of classic country themes and subthemes, from trifling women to gun fetishization, from man’s-gotta-be-a-man resolve to lonely despair.  Rodgers’ recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985 and the National Recording Registry in 2004.

It was the first of 13 Rodgers songs labeled as “blue yodels,” and rightly so in this case, since it’s basically a 12-bar blues spiked with athletic yodeling.  All were credited or co-credited to Rodgers, but it would be more accurate to say that he assembled the songs than that he wrote them.  “T for Texas” is filled with lines from other, earlier blues songs, and just because we don’t have sources for some other lines doesn’t mean that Rodgers actually wrote those lines.

Here’s Rodgers’ iconic version, which is better than later versions by Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and any number of other people.

“Worried Man Blues” (Carter Family, 1930)

I have a theory about this song.  I’m struck by the lines “I went across the river and laid me down to sleep./When I woke up, I had shackles on my feet.”  Clearly the narrator has crossed a river and ended up in the wrong place, a place in which he is automatically a prisoner.  To me this sounds like a runaway slave who has made it across a river to freedom—perhaps the Ohio River, famously the border between slave-state Kentucky and free-state Ohio—but has strayed back across and been recaptured.  If that’s the case, the song can date from no later than the 1860s, and probably earlier.

This is not consistent with the later verses, but that’s not unusual in the folk process, in which multiple singers put in their own ideas through the years.  There’s a famous recorded interview with Maybelle Carter in which she talks about her signature song, “Wildwood Flower” (1928), and admits that she isn’t sure what it’s about and speculates that somebody got the words wrong somewhere along the way.  This feels like more of the same.

Here’s the Carter Family performing the song, with Sara the lead singer and Maybelle on guitar.

“Mississippi Moon” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1928)

This one may actually be by Rodgers and/or his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams; in any event, it sounds like a unitary song written by a single author, not a product of the folk process or a cobbled-together collection of lines from old blues songs.

What it does sound like, really, is a Tin Pan Alley ballad about the South (there were hundreds), dating from the 1900s or 1910s.  In this case, I’d vote for the 1910s, because its opening lines mark it as an obvious answer song to J. Will Callahan’s popular “Alabama Moon” (1917).  I suspect that this originated on or around West 28th Street in Manhattan, sometime in the later 1910s or early 1920s—but that’s just a guess.  For the moment, Rodgers and McWilliams can retain the credit.

Here’s Rodgers, a proud son of Mississippi (albeit a proud adopted son of Texas) singing the song.

“Single Girl, Married Girl” (The Carter Family, 1927)

This is another old folk song adapted by A.P. Carter; it had been recorded, in various forms, before the Carters and has been recorded by any number of great artists since. but their version is still my favorite—and, indeed, among my favorites of the Carter’s 15 years’ worth of recordings.

If you examine its content, this is a song not about being single or being married, but about being childless or having children—but, of course, in 1927 the two sets of topics were essentially the same.  That it was recorded at Bristol by a mother of three and a woman pregnant with her first child is an obvious irony.

And, no, we don’t know why A.P. didn’t participate.  He often wandered in and out of recording sessions, singing on some songs and not on others for no obvious reason.  He wasn’t there at all on August 4, 1927—the recording log notes “Mr. Carter not present”—and sang on neither “Single Girl, Married Girl” nor “The Wandering Boy.”  We’ll never know why he wasn’t there, but it didn’t stop his wife and sister-in-law from producing a masterpiece.

Here’s that recording, with Maybelle showing her guitar chops, and (for contrast) Ralph Stanley doing an interesting variant.  This is the version that he learned growing up in the 1930s, and it’s similar in some places and dissimilar in others.

“T.B. Blues” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1931)

A classic 12-bar blues song, this one is another that Rodgers and co-writer Ray Hall adapted from an older song—quite possibly several different old songs, as it survives in several variants. 

Tuberculosis was one of the plagues of the day, and the song has new immediacy in the age of COVID-19.  Every age has its plagues, though, and it’s worth remembering that, while tuberculosis is rare in America these days, it remains a killer throughout much of the world.

Here’s Rodgers, bringing a sharp edge to the most personal song he ever sang.

“The Wreck of the Virginian” (Blind Alfred Reed, 1927)

I always remember one detail about this story: its date.  The wreck coincidentally happened on my birthday, 34 years to the day before my birth.

Blind Alfred Reed

The account provided by Blind Alfred is entirely accurate, though it leaves out an interesting detail:  Presumably because both engineers braked hard when each saw the oncoming train, the passenger train and the freight train ran into each other, but neither derailed.  The only deaths were those of Aldrich and O’Neill, who were scalded to death when their engine burst. 

Here’s Blind Alfred Reed, accompanying himself on the fiddle.

“I’m Bound for the Promised Land” (Alfred G. Karnes, 1927)

This is a hymn going back a couple of centuries, but Karnes (1891-1958) brings something to it which is different from the take of any other artist (other than myself) that I’ve heard: a driving beat which anticipates what will, 25 years later, become known as rockabilly.

Karnes was a Baptist minister (who started out as a Methodist minister, but then participated in a preaching contest against a Baptist who was so much better that he convinced Karnes to change his denomination), but he was also a gifted instrumentalist, who can be heard in that capacity on a couple of other songs from the Bristol sessions. 

His instrument was the harp-guitar, a truly unusual instrument whose modern descendant may be Junior Brown’s “git-steel,” which mounts a guitar and a steel guitar on the same body.  The harp-guitar is basically a big guitar with an extra set of strings, played unfretted like a harp.  Listen to the instrumental break after his second “promised land” in each chorus, and that’s the harp.  The overall effect is that of two instrumentalists (or three, counting Karnes as singer) when, in fact, he was a solo act.

Here’s Karnes, singing, playing and testifying with brio.

“I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue-Eyes” (The Carter Family, 1935)

Needless to say, A.P. Carter (who held the copyright on this song) didn’t write it.  The tune is as old as the hills, and the lyrics are as old as the foothills. 

As with “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” this song is better suited to a group rendition than to a straight solo, because the verses address the lover directly (“you told me once, dear, that you loved me”), while the chorus refers to him in the third person (“that he may know where I am sleeping”).

In my head this song is a fever dream, a woman on her deathbed giving instructions as to what should happen after she dies, but slipping back into memory on the verses.  This is especially effective (to me, anyway) because the verses seem to jump around in the relationship—the first verse might be from 20 years ago, the second one 30 years ago, the third one 10 years ago.

Here are the Carters, in good form (one of the amazing things about them is that they were virtually always in good form—the caliber of the songs is the only thing that distinguishes their performances), singing the song that destroyed them.

“When the World’s On Fire” (The Carter Family, 1930)

For the record, Woody Guthrie didn’t steal A.P. Carter’s tune.  This is an old, old country tune which received its most enduring incarnation in neither of these songs, but rather in “You Are My Sunshine” (1939).  And the words aren’t original to Carter either.  Nonetheless, Guthrie most likely encountered it through the Carter Family recording.

Here’s the Carter version; here’s the Guthrie version.  Any questions?

“Great Speckle Bird” (Roy Acuff, 1936)

This is a weird song, especially to those few of us who don’t spend most of our time pondering obscure theological disputes of the early 20th century.  Its dominant image comes from Jeremiah 12:9:  “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird; the birds round about are against her.”

Roy Acuff (right) talks music with songwriter Fred Rose, his partner in the pioneering Nashville publishing firm Acuff-Rose.

To a contemporary audience, it seems to be about the struggle of Christians in a world of nonbelievers.  That’s also what the Rev. Guy Smith (who wrote the words, which he set to a very old tune) was talking about … except that he included most people who think of themselves as Christians among the unbelievers.  Modern listeners miss this, because they hear the second verse as ending “representing the great church of God.”

In reality, Smith wrote “the great Church of God.”  He was a pastor in the Church of God, a fundamentalist sect which regarded most other Christian sects as heretics.  His original version of the song had at least eight verses, only five of which fit onto Acuff’s recording (though he often sang the others in live performance).  Smith’s third verse nails down the allusion: 

All the other churches are against her;
                They envy her glory and fame.
They hate her because she is chosen
                and has not denied Jesus’ name.

The song is sung in many of those other churches today, using only the recorded verses, which bears witness to the power of misunderstood lyrics!

Here’s Acuff singing the song, which was his star-making hit (and which he always sang as “Great Speckle Bird”).

“The Wabash Cannonball” (J.A. Roff, 1882)

Train songs—which date back almost to the first train (the Baltimore & Ohio, chartered in 1827, was America’s first railroad)—are divided into two subgenres.  “The Wabash Cannonball” is a great example of the first, an encomium to the speed, power and dynamism of the railroad train.  It was an obvious reaction to people’s first impressions of the new invention: In 1789 it took George Washington more than a week to travel from Virginia to New York; a century later you could travel from New York to Los Angeles in less time—and in much greater comfort.

The other train-song subgenre, of course, consisted of gruesome accounts of train wrecks, which fascinated listeners at least as much.  It wasn’t until the 1940s that train wrecks became rare, and every one seemed to have inspired a song.  (I grew up listening to Vernon Dalhart singing “The Freight Wreck at Altoona” (1926) on an Edison record player in northern Michigan; the wreck in question took place in 1925.)

Both elements of railroading—the speed and power, and the danger—were integral to the railroads’ hold on the American imagination from the 1830s into the 1960s.  It was the coming of air travel and the interstate-highway system that changed the nature of travel and shunted the railroads onto a siding.

Here’s first the Carter Family singing “The Wabash Cannonball” in 1929 and then Roy Acuff’s 1936 version.  Acuff sang the song for the next half-century, but he’s not the singer here—that would be Dynamite Hatcher, not a famous name.  Acuff’s contribution is his uncanny vocal imitation of a train whistle, which is really quite impressive.  The Acuff version is the standard, and mine is based on it.

“The Wantagh Cannonball”  (Tennessee Walt, 2018)

In the years since the 1950s, of course, the railroad has been domesticated.  The romance of high-speed, long-distance travel has been replaced by the tedium of slow-moving mass transit.  There are still people who obsess over railroads and their paraphernalia, but they’re anomalies, historic oddities now.  Today people’s obsession over trains is mainly limited to why they can’t stick to their announced schedules.  Most people riding a train never look out the window.

That’s the contrast that drives this song, which has been one of my most popular since I introduced it two years ago.

“I’m Moving On” (Hank Snow, 1950)

I’ve been performing this song since 2017, but I haven’t really been happy with my version of it.  Recently, though, I’ve come up with an entirely new arrangement featuring, among other things, a return to the key of D, Snow’s original key for the song.  This is a hard song to perform on the piano, because the original recording’s swinging band arrangement is pivotal to the song’s success, but I think this gets closer to what the song should be.  (I’ve retained the opening imitation of a train, which is a classic challenge for any country instrumentalist.)

The arrangements for my songs (covers and originals alike) are almost always works in progress, because I’ve spent the past five or six years teaching myself to play the piano, working for three hours a day, five days a week.  As you would expect, this has produced considerable improvement, meaning that arrangements that were the best I could do four years ago now strike me as pathetic and aching for revision—which, sooner or later, they get.

A key change is usually part of this, because back in 2016 I couldn’t really play in any keys but the simplest C, F and G; nowadays no key can faze me, and I’m making much better choices.  (I prefer, when possible, to do the songs in their original keys.)

One aspect of my original arrangement for “I’m Moving On” that remains is my desire to set off the third and fourth verses from the rest of the song in some way.  They make sense to me only as a flashback:  The first two verses and the last three are denunciations of the singer’s unfaithful sweetheart as he prepares to get on a train and leave her, but the third and fourth find him aboard a train, urging first the fireman and then the engineer to get him home to his sweetheart as quickly as possible.  (Snow doesn’t give the whole story, but in my head he has rushed home to be with her, caught her with another man and rushed back to the train station, followed by his pleading sweetheart; the sight of the arriving train reminds him of the one he got off only an hour ago, and of how radically his mood has changed in that hour.)

That’s why those two “flashback” verses need to be sonically distinguished somehow, the way a cinematographer might shoot those verses in black-and-white.  In my original version I set off those two verses with instrumental solos, which is what Snow does, but I’m not a good enough pianist to be comfortable with two solos in the same song.  This time I’ve used a simpler, more direct accompaniment for those two verses, reflecting the not-yet-disillusioned passenger headed—though he doesn’t know it—for disappointment.

There may be some other way to make sense of these lyrics; if so, though, I haven’t found it.

Here’s Snow’s swinging original version—see what you think.

“Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash, 1955)

Discussion of this song’s history tends to focus on the unlikely fact that nobody except Cash—including Gordon Jenkins, who wrote “Crescent City Blues” (1953)—seems to have realized that “Folsom Prison Blues” was based so closely on the earlier song, despite it being a No. 4 country hit in 1955.  It wasn’t until the song resurfaced as a No. 1 hit in 1969 that Jenkins caught on and launched a plagiarism suit, eventually settled out of court in Jenkins’ favor.

(Cash later said that at the time he’d told Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records, that his new song was based on the earlier one, but that Phillips laughed it off, saying that the song was so little-known that it didn’t matter.  This may be so—Phillips knew a hit when he heard one, and Cash’s song definitely was a hit—but it’s hard to believe that the owner of even a small record company would deliberately set himself up for an almost-unwinnable lawsuit.  I think this is probably Cash’s later rationalization for a bad choice which somehow took 13 years to blow up in his face.)

To me, though, there are two more important points.  First of all, “Crescent City Blues”—and Beverly Maher’s performance of it—are remarkably good.  That it didn’t score a hit I can attribute only to the fact that Jenkins’ Seven Dreams was a concept album tied together with narration and sound effects that made it less likely to get radio play.  But it’s a terrific song, terrifically sung.

The other point is how brilliant a job Cash did of adapting this song about a small-town girl dreaming of the lights of the big city into a song about a prisoner longing for freedom.  He changed less than half of the lyrics and left the melody alone, and yet it really is an entirely different song.  Cash’s song has absolutely no sense that it’s a pastiche or a knockoff—it has an integrity all its own.  I like them both, and that’s not normally the case when someone rips off someone else’s song so thoroughly.

Synthesis is a form of creativity, and “Folsom Prison Blues” is a perfect proof of that.

“The Wild Side of Life”  (Hank Thompson, 1952)

A friend of mine once told me that she didn’t care for country because “there’s so many misogynistic ‘You’re such a slut’ songs.”

Hard to argue with that as a criticism, especially for the country of the 1920s through the mid-1950s, in which “trifling woman” songs were popular and there weren’t any female stars to offer a rebuttal.  Today, in an age when Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, the Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift have gotten their licks in repeatedly, it’s less egregious, but such songs have always existed and still do.

I’d argue that this isn’t actually one of those songs, because the singer is essentially blaming himself for looking at his woman and seeing something other than who she was.  This is fundamentally not so much a slut-shaming song as it is a self-shaming song about a man who, like many men, idealizes women and can’t make a relationship with a real woman work.

That said, it cries out for an answer song—and it definitely got one.

Here’s Thompson’s version, which was such a huge hit in 1952.  Note the strong, two-beat fiddle intro, which is a hallmark of Western Swing.  Many country bands included a fiddle at least occasionally, but Western Swing bands were typically bigger than classic-country combos, and often featured two fiddles.

Personally, I prefer Hank Williams’ cover version, from a radio performance.  It’s simpler and has more emotional pop—which you can say about almost any comparison between these two Hanks.  Note the occasional lyric tweaks, notably the replacement of “you gave up the only one who ever loved you” with “you cheated the only one … “  It doesn’t scan as well, but it’s sharper.

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” (Kitty Wells, 1952)

I’ve made the case that Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” (1928) is the most important song in the history of country music.  It made a breakout star of Rodgers, and his music was an overwhelming influence on any number of subsequent stars, including Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.  Country sounds like it does because of “Blue Yodel No. 1.”

The only other candidate is “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” and not only because it was the first-ever No. 1 country hit by a female solo artist and opened the door to generations of iconic female stars.

The Queen of Country Music

It also established female country singing as a form of feminist expression (or, in the case of Wells, proto-feminism):  Female solo artists have always sung songs that weren’t gender-marked, as male artists do, but, when they do sing songs that are gender-marked, they tend to be songs of resistance to male oppression.  Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a-Drinking” (1967), the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” (1999) and Swift’s “Mean” (2010) are all linear descendants of Miller’s song.

Here’s Wells’ groundbreaking version, and also (just for fun) a quartet version featuring Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and, yes, Kitty Wells.  It’s from a 1993 trio album by Lynn, Parton and Wynette; that the album is called Honky-Tonk Angels tells you all you need to know about how important this song was and is.

“Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” (Johnny Cash, 1966).

One of the things I revere about Cash is his sense of humor.  I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll, Broadway and comic opera, so I’m used to songs that are willing to laugh.  Country has its share of comedians—Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones come to mind—but a lot of its biggest stars tend toward the earnest, even the somber. 

I believe that laughter is good for the soul, so hearing Johnny Cash singing this song always gives me a lift.

“Why Me?” (Kris Kristofferson, 1972)

In Kristofferson’s entire career as a recording artist, he’s had only one No. 1 country hit, and this is it.  It also spent 19 weeks in Billboard’s Top 40, peaking at No. 16.  I love Kristofferson’s performance of the song, which he’s used as the finale for every one of his shows that I’ve ever seen.

The best performance of it that I’ve heard, however, came in 2017 when I was in Nashville to visit the Grand Ole Opry.  Gospel singer CeCe Winans was a guest artist, and she had no business being there—not because she’s a Black woman, but because there’s nothing country about her.  She didn’t announce the song, just said that it was “one of my favorite songs I’ve ever heard,” but she kicked into this song and pretty much lit the house on fire—cowboy-hatted country lovers fans swaying back and forth, singing along and, when it was over, responded with the biggest roar of applause that I’ve ever heard outside of a Taylor Swift concert.  Truly a memorable night.

Here’s Kristofferson’s indispensable recording, and here’s Winans’ terrific cover.  (Sadly, that live performance isn’t online in a complete form, but this captures the music, if not the power of the moment.)  And, to put a bow on it, here’s Kristofferson telling the story of how he came to write the song.  (Yes, the bored-looking guitarist is Willie Nelson.)

“Daddy Sang Bass”  (Carl Perkins, 1968).

Of the five pioneer rockabilly stars, Buddy Holly died as he was only just reaching his prime; Elvis Presley moved into pop and stayed there, though he continued to sing country songs for the rest of his life, both for personal pleasure and on his records.  (The 2001 compilation album The Country Side of Elvis includes 51 songs, among them songs associated with Eddy Arnold, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, Bob Wills and others.)

The other three—Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins—had been left behind by rock ‘n’ roll by the early 1960s, and had returned to country.  They had never left it, really, and it didn’t take much for them to reconnect with the music with which they had grown up.

Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass,” which was originally recorded by Cash. is the most explicit statement of the link between country and rockabilly.  It’s an unabashedly rockabilly song, emblematic of Perkins’ alienation from the late-1960s rock of Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Sgt. Pepper, a song that is built around a sample—before the term was used—of the Carter Family’s signature song, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (1935).

It’s also deeply autobiographical, evoking Perkins’ beloved brother (and frequent musical partner) Jay Perkins, who had died in 1958 from injuries suffered in a catastrophic 1956 car crash, which had almost killed both brothers.  (To make the story more closely match Cash’s own background, which also included a lost brother, Perkins left out his brother Clayton, a bassist who lived until 1973.)

Here’s Perkins’ own recording of his song.

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