90th anniversary of the Johnson City Sessions this weekend

This weekend, on October 19, Johnson City, TN will be celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Johnson City Sessions, among the first commercial recordings of traditional mountain music ever made, captured by the Columbia Records company in October of 1928. Just as Ralph Peer had done in Bristol the year before, Frank Buckley Walker posted an advertisement in the local paper, asking musicians and singers to visit him on specific dates for a recording audition, using his then state-of-the-art, direct to wax cylinder equipment.

And again, like Peer, Walker found a number of artists whose interpretations of mountain folk songs struck a nerve with the newly-established record buying public. Included in those sessions, and a follow-up visit to Johnson City a year later, were Clarence Ashley’s original recording of The Coo-Coo Bird, Charlie Bowman’s Roll On, Buddy, Byrd Moore and His Hot Shots’ Three Men Went A Hunting, Bill and Belle Reed’s Old Lady And The Devil, and the Bentley Boys’ Down On Penny’s Farm, which are now considered to be among the most significant early recordings of the 1920s.

Known then simply as hillbilly music, this raw, unfocused sound was quite popular in other regions of the US, where it was completely unfamiliar. Music historians now see it as pure examples of the old time music of its day, and can trace direct line between what Peer and Walker recorded to the country and bluegrass styles that developed over the next 30 years.

To help mark the 90th anniversary, Bear Family Records has released a CD with 26 tracks from these sessions, Tell It To Me: Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929. The package also includes a 40 page booklet with track notes, artist information, and an essay by ETSU professor Ted Olson which details the importance of these recordings and how they were received at the time.

Ted shared this video so that readers could trace the connection to contemporary bluegrass in this first recording of the classic song, Roll On Buddy, by Charlie Bowman & His Brothers in 1928.

Tell It To Me is available now directly from Bear Family, and from other online record sellers.

Johnson City invites everyone to join them on Saturday for the 90th anniversary celebration. There will be live music downtown on Main Street from 11:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m., with square dancing, children’s activities, and a panel discussion about the recordings on site. And it’s all free and open to the public.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.