Saturday, December 4, 2010

Old Time Holiday Train #1

Two things I like a lot: old-time music & trains.  I say, why not combine them?  Especially when you consider the fact that the most popular post all-time on Robert Frost’s Banjo was one of the segments from last year’s Blues Christmas Train series.

So you can understand why I’m returning to a similar series this year.  Except this time around, I’m not sticking simply to the blues—nor am I sticking to what generally falls under the rubric of “old-timey” music—namely, old-time country & fiddle tunes.  Instead, I’ll be looking at songs from the 1920s & 1930s, & in each post comparing & contrasting a selection from the “hillbilly” genre (as it was known at the time) with one from a “race” record—again, using the parlance of the day.  The fact is, even these early attempts at genre creation were to a large degree dictated by the biases & tastes of the recording companies & the field recorders.  In fact, the lines between “hillbilly” music & “race” music were often crossed by the musicians themselves—we need only look to Jimmie Rodgers, the “father of Country Music” to find a hillbilly musician who played the blues, while there’s documentary evidence that a number of African-American blues musicians—including such luminaries as Robert Johnson & a young Muddy Waters—crossed over into cowboy music in the 1930s when their audiences demanded it—see Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues.)

Today, we start with two classics!

Delmore Bros: Blue Railroad Train (1933)  What was there about brother acts in old-time country music?  In addition to the Delmore Brothers, there were the Blue Sky Boys, Bill & Charlie Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, & later on, Jim & Jesse McReynolds & the Louvin Brothers.  All of these acts had distinctive sounds, & the Delmores were no exception.  Alton & Rabon Delmore came out of Alabama to become early stars of the Grand Ol’ Opry.  In addition to their smooth harmonies, the Delmores were also notable for using the tenor guitar (played by Alton), a somewhat uncommon instrument, especially in country music.  The tenor guitar is tuned like a tenor banjo in fifths (C-G-D-A) & was a transitional instrument in some hot jazz bands as the sound began to steer away from banjos toward the more mellow guitar.

The more mellow sound of the Delmores’ certainly constrasted with the more strident sounds of mountain music recorded in the 1920s—think of Dock Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon or Charlie Poole.  But particularly like Boggs (in this way & perhaps no other), they did inject a blues feel into the music—flatted thirds, a certain “bent note” inflection in the vocals.  The Delmore’s had what Bill Monroe would late call “the high lonesome sound.”  It sure sounds good on “Blue Railroad Train.”


Tommy Johnson: Cool Drink of Water (1928)

Tommy Johnson was a singularly talented musician & one of the most memorable of the first generation of Delta bluesmen.  He recorded only 16 songs in two recording sessions, one in Memphis & one in Grafton, Wisconsin, but every one of those is a classic.  Johnson’s guitar playing is intricate & powerful—sometimes paired, as in this song, with Charlie McCoy’s mandolin playing—& then there’s his voice—

for my money, he had the most compelling falsetto in old-time blues—a sound that brings to mind the great “high lonesome” voices of Appalachian or “hillbilly” music—that tingling sense of existential despair that rings true whether it’s sung by a white banjoist from the mountains or an African-American guitar player from the Mississippi Delta.   Of course, the “high lonesome sound” was actually used by a number of blues singers: just think of Robert Johnson’s vocal on “Hellhound on My Trail,” or any number of vocals by Skip James, just to name to well-known bluesmen. 

“Cool Drink of Water” is one of the best old-time songs, whatever the genre.  Enjoy!


  1. Man, listening to the Delmore Brothers, you can certainly hear the influence of that high, lonesome sound throughout the history of country music. I'm especially reminded of Del McCoury and his sons (and as far as I'm concerned, Ronnie McCoury is the best damned mandolin player in the business!) by this number.

    And Tommy Johnson's sound certainly is heard in subsequent generations of blues singers. All around, this was a great way to start my Saturday morning. Thanks, John!

  2. Hi Roy: Yes, both the Delmores & Tommy Johnson were seminal figures for sure! Glad you enjoyed this.

  3. Excellent post, thank you John.

  4. Hi Scotty: Glad you liked it--there'll be a new one each Saturday this month!

  5. Fabulous, both. What genre-busters the Delmore Brothers were. And what is it about the name Johnson?!
    Loved the steam footage too. I'm a huge steam fan, although I tend to keep it quiet: over here railway buffs are seen as just one step up from birdwatchers. Terminally unhip, I'm afraid.

  6. Hi Dick: Ah well, it's probably considered a bit nerdy here too! The Delmores were great & yes, genre busters. Doc Watson has done some fine covers of their work. Of course, you definitely have a point about the name Johnson!


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