The Life and Music of Ralph Peer on Viking Twang
Written by Randy Black on May 30, 2015
We have a special show on Viking Twang this week, celebrating the life and work of Ralph Peer.
Ralph Peer was a pioneer in the recorded music business. Starting in 1919, when he started working at the Okeh label, he was a talent scout, recording engineer, producer and music publisher. He discovered countless artists, most famously the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers; made sure that the musicians and composers were fairly compensated; and, at a time when the recording industry was New York City-centric and highbrow, had the audacity to think that people would want to hear records from blues musicians, string bands, and from other cultures.
But he wasn’t a folklorist or preservationist. His philosophy was this: “People buying records were not especially interested in hearing standards of folkloric music. What they wanted was something new – built along the same lines.”
We’re going to hear music from the earlier days of his career, up until the 1930s, and we’ll start with one of his earliest recording sessions, August 10, 1920, with Mamie Smith and “Crazy Blues.”
1 – Turkey Red, W.C. Beck & the Portland Country Underground.
2 – Crazy Blues, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds. Peer discovered that this record was being bought by black Pullman porters in New York, who were taking it and other blues records South and reselling them there. He realized that this was an untapped market and started recording “Negro artists exclusively for sale to Negros.”
3 – Carolina Shout, James P. Johnson. From October, 1921, considered to be the first jazz piano recording.
4 – Longing for Daddy Blues, Sara Martin. From October, 1923. This was the first blues vocal recorded backed with a guitar, which was played by Sylvester Weaver. A few days later, Weaver recorded “Guitar Rag,” which has been recorded many times and evolved into “Steel Guitar Rag”.
5 – I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground, Bascom Lamar Lunsford. This was recorded in Asheville, N.C. in 1924 during one of the first remote recording sessions Peer produced. He had realized there was great commercial music being played in the South and started going on the road to record it.
6 – Gut Bucket Blues, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. From 1925. At the insistence of his wife and manager, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louie put together His Hot Five, which was Armstrong with Lil on piano, along with three New Orleans musicians: Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on guitar and banjo, and Kid Ory on trombone. It was Armstrong’s first band under his own name and considered a seminal recording in jazz history.
This set starts with three songs from the legendary recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee in July, 1927, often called the “Big Bang of Country Music.”
Peer had left Okeh records and signed a deal with Victor , where he didn’t take a salary but controlled the copyrights on any new songs he recorded. Because of this he pushed the people he recorded to have new or revamped songs that could be copyrighted.
Among the many people he recorded between July 25 and August 5 were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
7 – Oh, Lord, Remember Me, Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Quartet. The first of the acts Peer recorded on July 25, the session’s first day.
8 – The Storms Are One the Ocean, the Carter Family. Recorded Aug. 1. They made the long drive to Bristol while Maybelle was pregnant.
9 – The Soldier’s Sweetheart, Jimmie Rodgers. The only song Jimmie was prepared to record that he had written; from August 4.
10 – Stealin’, Stealin’, Memphis Jug Band. The “jug band national anthem”, from 1929.
11 – Walk Right In, Cannon’s Jug Stompers. From 1928, Gus Cannon lived to hear –and get paid for – the song when it became a hit in 1962 by the folk-scare band, the Rooftop Singers.
12 – Tom Dooley, G.B. Grayson and Henry Whittier. From 1929; this old true murder ballad has a long musical history. This is a pretty detailed version that later became the subject of a legal battle after the Kingston Trio had a hit with it in 1958.
13 – I’m Going to Stomp Mr. Henry. Eddie’s Hot Shots. Jazzman Eddie Condon approached Peer with the idea of recording him with an jazz combo he’d seen in Harlem. It was one of the first integrated popular music recordings. That’s Jack Teagarden on the trombone and vocals, with African-Americans Happy Caldwell on tenor sax and Leonard Davis on trumpet.
14 — Everybody Does It In Hawaii, King Oliver and His Orchestra. From 1929; this is a song written by Jimmie Rodgers’ chief songwriter, his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams. Peer was a master at placing songs his artists wrote with other musicians.
15 – Meningitis Blues, Memphis Minnie. From 1930. Minnie had written the song after being a victim of the meningitis epidemic. Peer was always looking for topical songs and encouraged her to record it. Jimmie Rodgers, who suffered from TB his entire career and eventually died from it, recorded his own TB Blues in 1931.
16 – Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standing on the Corner), Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong. They were both working on Hollywood in 1930; Peer suggested to Lil Armstrong that they get together, and this song is the result.
17 – T for Texas, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Jimmie’s only duet; it’s from 1931, a pairing that one of Peer’s aides suggested they record “before Jimmy quits this earth,” which he did during a recording session in May, 1933.
18 – Twang Theme, Countrypolitans.