Country Music History – Essential Songs from 1930
Although country music established a significant commercial niche during the 1920s, the Great Depression resulted in fewer releases during the early 1930s. Many of the songs listed below are from artists who became successful during the 1920s (Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Charlie Poole), reflecting the business wisdom that when dollars are tight, you go with the safe bet. Our journey through the history of country music continues.
1. “Blue Yodel #9 (Standing on the Corner),” Jimmie Rodgers. “Blue Yodel #9” was a collaboration between the two most prominent music legends of their era. Jimmy Rodgers was the first true household name in the field of country music. Louis Armstrong would become an icon in pop music history for his innovative performances and magnetic personality. Armstrong plays trumpet on “Standing on the Corner,” while his wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, provides piano accompaniment. Musically, its country blues meets uptown jazz number. Lyrically, it’s all about the downtown Memphis thug life.
2. “Bring it with You When You Come,” Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Gus Cannon was a traveling musician who settled in Memphis and formed his Cannon’s Jug Stompers in 1927. His unit recorded “Walk Right In” in 1929 – that song would go to #1 on the pop charts in 1963 for The Rooftop Singers, although Cannon received no songwriting credit/royalties from the hit. Cannon played a five sting banjo, an instrument that was widely used in the blackface and medicine show era, while singing and blowing into a homemade paraffin jug. “Bring It with You When You Come” has a slightly off-beat woozy quality, as though the gents might have passed a flask around before the session started. Cannon lived to the ripe old age of 96, passing away in 1979. He reportedly was destitute during his final years and lived as a beggar on Beale Street, the same famed location where his band regularly performed during the 1930s.
3. “Cocaine Habit Blues,” Memphis Jug Band. The energizing effects from coca leaves have been known for thousands of years, but the extracted cocaine drug wasn’t discovered until 1859. Sigmund Freud was a well-known proponent of cocaine and it was the active ingredient in the original Coca-Cola soft drink. Due to public health concerns, the stimulant was officially banned in the United States in 1922. The Memphis Jug Band, with Memphis Minnie on lead vocals, noted the unintended consequence of the disappearing powder, “Since cocaine went out of style/You can catch them shooting needles all the while.” Of course, Memphis Minnie is best known for recording “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929. A restructured version of her song was released by Led Zeppelin in 1971.
4. “The House Carpenter,” Carlence Ashley. Tennessee banjo specialist Clarence Ashley was a master of the haunting banjo sound, his version of “The Coo Coo Bird” is one of the strongest recordings of the 1920s. “The House Carpenter” is an adaptation of the Scottish ballad “The Daemon Lover,” in which Satan or a ghostly spirit exacts revenge on an unfaithful lover. The supernatural aspect of the song is lost in Ashley’s interpretation, but not the tragedy.
5. “If the River Was Whiskey,” Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Various versions of “Hesitation Blues” had been published in sheet music, including a 1915 version by W.C. Handy, prior to Poole’s recording. In Charlie Poole’s version of “Hesitation Blues,” titled “If the River Was Whiskey,” he incorporates the popular hobo fantasy theme of the era, stating, “If the whiskey was river and I was a duck/I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” Poole’s version of this country, blues, Western swing standard also might have had an impact on Steve Miller, who surely had heard the lyric “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree” before writing “The Joker.”
6. “It’s Movin’ Day,” Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. “It’s Movin’ Day” was a ragtime/Tin Pan Alley composition written by lyricist Andrew Sterling and pianist Harry Von Tilzer. It was originally written as a “coon song,” a racist genre of music written by white composers to perpetuate stereotypes against African-Americans. Poole removed the references to race and releasing a song about a rental eviction carried a different weight and tone during the Great Depression.
7. “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man,” The Carter Family. John Hardy, not to be confused with John Henry, was an African-American railroad worker who mixed alcohol and gambling in an episode that resulted in him killing a man named Thomas Drews. The hanging of Hardy was a big social event, drawing over 3,000 spectators in rural McDowell County, West Virginia. The origin of the song “John Hardy” is unknown, but The Carter Family salutes the murderer for getting baptized in a river before trying on the hangman’s noose.
8. “A Lazy Farmer Boy,” Buster Carter & Preston Young. Preston Young was a North Carolina contemporary of Charlie Poole and was inspired by him to form his own string band, which included banjo picker Buster Carter (who, despite the billing, does not perform on this recording) and uncredited fiddler Posey Rorer. This 19th Century composition narrates the tale of a slothful young man who fails to weed his corn crop and loses his potential bride in the process. In the end, the man vows to roam the world, if necessary, to find a new love. He does not, however, make any promises regarding his crops.
9. “Sitting on Top of the World,” Mississippi Sheiks. The Mississippi Sheiks were a country blues string band from the Mississippi Delta who not only toured the South, but also made appearances in Chicago and New York. They made dozens of recordings in the early 1930s, two of which have been covered by Bob Dylan (“The World is Going Wrong” and “I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes for You”). On “Sitting on Top of the World,” a tune the Sheiks wrote nabbing the title hook from a 1926 Tin Pan Alley record by Al Jolson, a woman lies to, cheats on, and leaves the narrator. He, however, remains on the top of the world. This is a genre busting composition. “Sitting on Top of the World” has been covered in Western swing (Bob Wills, The Light Crust Doughboys), blues (Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Robert Cray), rock music (Cream, Jack White) and as a country song (Willie Nelson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).
10. “Sweet Sixteen,” Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Revisiting the melodic structure of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” his best known recording, Poole sings about his young love’s chewing gum habit in “Sweet Sixteen.” During the courtship, Poole found the “chewing and chawing” distasteful, but after she left him, wads of gum were a reminder of his love. Poole had his last recording sessions in 1930. He went on what has been described as a “13-week drinking bender” and died of a heart attack in 1931 at the age of 39.