Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music - by Barry MazorStudents of bluegrass, country and old time music are generally agreed that the Bristol Sessions in 1927 served as the Big Bang of hillbilly music, the spark that ignited the popularity of what we now call the traditional mountain sound. In these sessions, held over the course of several days in Bristol, VA by Ralph Peer as a representative of the Victor company, the first commercial recordings were made of Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and The Stonemans, all of whom went on to achieve tremendous success in the burgeoning record industry.

It may be hard to picture today, when we all carry a small audio/video recorder in our pockets every day, but at the dawn of the industry, audio recording was a highly specialized, hardware dependent enterprise. There were no tapes or audio files to be brought into your computer for ready manipulation. What was captured by a microphone was made into a master on the spot, with no possibility for editing.

And Peer was a master of this new technology, with a vision for making hillbilly and race records available to the wider public in order to sell the home playback equipment as well as the records themselves. Neither poor rural whites nor black and Latin audiences were considered worthy of the attention of the record industry, but Ralph demonstrated that there was money to be made in both the sales of the recordings, and the legal publishing of the songs.

He went on to form one of the world’s largest music publishing companies, Peer International, now known as PeerMusic, who published music from every American genre from Flatt & Scruggs to Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael. Throughout he gave special attention to roots music, including early jazz and Gospel music as well.

Today, Chicago Review Press has released Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music by Barry Mazor, the first biography of Ralph Peer. In it are chronicled Peer’s dramatic success in Bristol, as well as similar sessions that introduced blues legend Mamie Smith to the commercial market, and generated a fascination with this other crucial American musical style.

Peer was involved in every aspect of popular music, introducing concepts like producer’s points, where instead of being paid for getting music recorded, he accepted a small royalty for every copy sold. He was a major factor in the creation of BMI in 1939, after a dispute within the ASCAP organization led to a split by having his catalog of songs represented by the new agency.

Mazor covers all this in his 320 page book, available now in both cloth and ebook editions. You should be able to find it wherever books are sold.

Here is a brief video with further details.


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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.