By Wayne Erbsen
It wasn’t the popcorn in the New York’s Palace Theater that spring day of 1923 that got Atlanta businessman Polk Brockman thinking. Instead, it was the newsreel he watched of a Virginia fiddler’s convention that made him scribble this note on a piece of paper: “Record Fiddlin’ John Carson.” Seconds before he had reached in his pocket for his pen and something to write on, Brockman recalled why he came to New York on this most recent trip.
As the owner of a number of furniture stores in the Atlanta area, Brockman also sold what were then called “race” records, as well as the phonographs to play them on. He came to New York to work out the details with Okeh records to distribute their recordings. While he was in the Okeh offices, the manager asked if there was enough talent in the Atlanta area to justify bringing down a mobile recording unit. For the moment, Brockman couldn’t think of anyone but promised to think about it. When he saw the rolling footage of the fiddler’s convention, things clicked in Brockman’s mind and he remembered Atlanta’s well-known fiddler, Fiddlin’ John Carson.
Fiddlin’ John was certainly an unforgettable character. By the time he was 11 years old he was fiddling for tips on the streets of Coppertown, Tennessee. As an adult, you could always count on seeing Fiddlin’ John at the big Atlanta fiddler’s convention that was held once a year. In 1922, Fiddlin’ John added to his regional fame when he started to broadcast over the South’s first radio station, WBS in Atlanta.
On the strength of Brockman’s suggestion, in June of 1923, Okeh records sent Ralph Peer and several engineers to Atlanta and transformed a vacant building on Nassau Street into an impromptu recording studio. During an audition before Peer, Carson did his trick of playing fiddle and singing at the same time. Peer was not impressed. He liked Fiddlin’ John’s fiddling well enough, but thought his singing was “pluperfect awful.” Brockman knew better, and persuaded Peer that his singing would go over just as well on record as it did in person, if not better.
The clincher that persuaded Peer was when Brockman ordered 500 records on the spot, even before Carson struck a lick. For his recording, Carson chose Will S. Hays’ tune, Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane along with The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow. Still having his doubts, Peer had the 500 records shipped to Brockman without even bothering to give them a catalog number.
The day the records arrived, Fiddlin’ John was to attend a local fiddler’s convention. In a stroke of genius, Brockman loaded the records in his car, and with Fiddlin’ John hawking records from the stage, he managed to sell the entire box in short order. When Brockman placed another order for records the next day, Peer saw the error in his ways and promptly gave the releases a number and invited Fiddlin’ John to record more songs in their New York studio that coming November. Fiddlin’ John was now on his way.
The success of Fiddlin’ John’s initial release was a milestone in country music. Up until that point, it was possible to purchase a phonograph of light classical, marching bands, minstrel performers. and comedy. What you could not buy were records of down-to-earth, old-time music. It remained for Fiddlin’ John to demonstrate the potential market for that. Once the floodgates were open, there was no shutting them. For this, Fiddlin’ John’s legacy is assured.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.