Country Music Recordings on Edison Discs

It is important to remember that during the early years of the recording industry, there was no musical genre named country music. The music of rural Americans was often referred to as being “old-time,” and it had remained largely unchanged for decades.

In the 1910s and 1920s, authentic old-time music was generally not found in cities and was not part of the prevalent popular repertoire. Rather, it existed in the countryside or in the hills. Watered-down renderings of old-time tunes had been popularly recorded since the early 1900s, but the far more primal and non-commercial product would not be considered commercially viable until the early 1920s.

Thomas Edison’s recording company, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., showed no timidity in its embrace of the music made by these populations – namely, rural folk and immigrants – that were previously invisible to the music industry. It can be noted that Edison recorded African American jazz and blues with much more hesitancy.

Like its competitors, Edison had been recording selections closely related to the old-time style from the very beginning. Selections of mountain fiddle tunes and old-fashioned dances (e.g., schottisches, lancers, etc.) were typical recorded products. Also prominently featured in the catalogs of Edison and its competitors were the sentimental and often maudlin ballads, such as “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen” and “In the baggage coach ahead.” It is ironic that such material, greatly favored by Edison and reviled by latter-day collectors and critics, formed an integral part of country music’s roots – laying the groundwork for the more authentic music recordings to come.

During the first decade of the 20th century, when the cylinder record format was still prevalent, Edison released recordings of Irish jigs and reels played by studio violinists, the most prolific being Charles D’Almaine, a regular Edison studio musician as well as a member of the Metropolitan Opera House orchestra. While performers such as D’Almaine and Eugene Jaudus (another Edison “house” man) could render such old-time dances with charm, the recordings were – for the most part – rather mechanical, the primary objective being that they were in strict tempo for dancing. Aficionados of early country music often find the performances commendable, if not compelling.

Edison struck a little closer to something more authentic with several 1909 recordings by Scottish violinist and dancer J. Scott Skinner (1843-1927) recorded in London. Skinner’s recordings, such as his own “Cradle song,” roll along in a natural, somewhat rustic way, despite his classical training.

Edison’s first “old-time” recordings that bear a significant lack of “city polish” were made in late 1923 by Jasper “Jep” Bisbee (1843-1935). Bisbee, who was from Ossian, New York, was a square dance fiddler, who coincidentally was born one week before J. Scott Skinner.

Edison lagged behind the competition when it came to artists’ name recognition or repertoire. However, in May 1924, the company distinguished itself by signing the then relatively unknown Vernon Dalhart (nee Marion Try Slaughter), from Jefferson, Texas. Dalhart, who was trained for the opera, probably had never entertained the idea of becoming a country music star, let alone a singer of typical popular songs. His recording of “The wreck on the Southern Old 97” began a new era of old-time recordings and led directly, almost instantly, to the demand for similarly styled performances. Even though Dalhart, who had been recording for Edison and other companies since 1914 – recording mostly popular repertoire – was classically trained, his Texas accent and good musical instincts made for a genuine performance – a performance that sounded authentic enough.

Violinist Allen Sisson (1873-1951), who was from Fanin County, Georgia, recorded ten sides for Edison in February 1925, of which eight were commercially issued. Where “fiddle” records by Charles D’Almaine and Eugen Jaudus had a certain charm amidst metronomic rigidity, Sisson’s renditions sway in the breeze.

Kentucky waggoners / Allen Sisson (Edison matrix 10220, recorded 2/25/1925)

But country music wasn’t all fiddle music. Perhaps Edison’s most significant old-time offerings were by vocalist Ernest V. Stoneman, many with harmonica and banjo accompaniment. Although both OKeh and Victor had the jump on Stoneman, recording him in August 1924 and September 1926, respectively, Edison did manage to record Stoneman in June 1927. There is a marked difference between Stoneman’s Edison and Victor recordings. While the Victors tend to be more ethereal and energetic, the Edison recordings are more staid and homespun. Also, Stoneman’s oddly appealing near-monotone dominated the proceedings.

When the work's all done this fall / Ernest V. Stoneman (Edison matrix 11054, recorded 6/21/1926)

Not all of Stoneman’s recordings lack a celebratory nature, however; “Sally Goodwin” conveys more of a barn dance than a moonlit back porch.

Sally Goodwin / Dixie Mountaineers ; Ernest V. Stoneman (Edison matrix 18437, recorded 4/24/1928)

Stoneman’s delivery may at first seem at odds with the subject matter of his songs. For example, “The orphan girl” is delivered without a trace of obvious emotion. Perhaps the appeal, in part, was his vocal clarity and also, through little expression, allowing the songs to tell their own stories.

The orphan girl / Ernest V. Stoneman (Edison matrix 1169, recorded 5/10/1927)

Edison recorded over 70 titles with Stoneman. These and the others mentioned above secure the company a place of significance in country music history.

Edison’s recording of old-time music seems to have been based on a core desire to present simple, uncomplicated tunes that reflected a slower-paced past, far removed from commercialized music. Henry Ford, who was a close friend of Edison’s, shared this yearning. His love for old-time dancing – polkas, waltzes, lancers, quadrilles, etc. – led to the creation of Henry Ford’s Old Time Dance Orchestra.

The Henry Ford orchestra’s instrumentation was varied. On some recordings it would be two violins, what sounds like a viola, and piano; this is heard on the recording of “Heel and toe polka” (from YouTube).

More often than not, a cimbalom was featured, as was a hand dulcimer; to supply the bass, a tuba was frequent employed. A similar combination is heard on the hearty waltz titled “Varsovienne” (from YouTube).  

Although these performances are not as rustic and raw as are the Stoneman and Bisbee recordings, they convey the homespun quality one might have found at a barn dance or husking bee back in the mid- to late-19th century.

Another reason for Edison’s recording of rustic old-time music may have been, in part, to keep up with the competition; by the mid-1920s, Victor, Columbia, and OKeh were all reaping benefits from this burgeoning market. However, Edison’s reasoning was also probably rooted in a symbiotic relationship he had developed with customers in the rural community. People in rural communities had largely kept their old-fashioned cylinder phonographs, and Edison continued suppling cylinders for these individuals right up to the end of his association with the phonograph record in 1929. Perhaps it was this faithfulness from the rural community that generated Edison’s interest in what would become “country music.”

Whatever his reasons, today’s music listeners can be grateful for his commitment to a slice of American life that was not easily accessed by urban Americans but was cherished – and created – by the largely invisible populace of the rural towns and highlands.

-David Sager

David Sager is a jazz historian and professional musician. He is also a three-time Grammy nominee.