At the recent Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association’s Pinnacle Awards, the The Johnson City Sessions 90th Anniversary Celebration was singled out as Festival or Event of the Year. The celebration had been held in October 2019, and timed to coincide with the release of Tell It to Me: Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929 by Bear Family Records.
The original recording sessions were inspired by the tremendous success of Ralph Peer’s cylinder recordings of early country singers in Bristol back in 1927. Those captured for the first time the music of Jimmie Rodgers, A.P. and Sara Carter, and The Stonemans. The following year Columbia Records sent Frank Buckley Walker to do the same in Johnson City, likewise placing an ad in the local newspaper requesting that traditional singers attend the session in October 1928.
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.
Ted Olson, ETSU professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU, who also served as chair of the organizing committee for the event, had been deeply involved in the production of the 90th anniversary album as well, which featured contemporary artists performing many of the songs that Walker recorded in ’28. He also wrote the 40-page booklet which accompanied the CD collection.
In recognition of having received the Pinnacle Award from the Association, Olson feels confident that the legacy of the important Columbia recordings will survive.
“This successful partnership between university-affiliated people, local government and business officials, and media ensured the success of ‘Tell It to Me’ in realizing its goals of fostering public awareness of the Johnson City Sessions’ historical significance, while drawing people to downtown Johnson City to immerse themselves in that history.
We recognized that observing the 90th anniversary of the Johnson City Sessions might provide the perfect opportunity to expand local and regional recognition for those recordings. The success of the ‘Tell It to Me’ festival in 2019 suggests that the Johnson City Sessions story has at last received the broad-based attention it so richly deserves.”
Congratulations to Johnson City, Dr. Olson, and all the fine people who worked to make the festival a success!