By Wayne Erbsen
No one ever stands up for Henry Whitter anymore. And they never did! Recent scholars have scoffed at his meager guitar skills and at his singing. He is given credit for little more than inspiring others to become recording artists because they knew they could sing and play rings around old Henry. And they were right!
Harry was no guitar virtuoso, and he was not endowed with a great voice. But he was clever, or persistent, enough to get himself a recording contract in New York. Among those who heard his 1924 recording of The Wreck of the Old 97 was Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, who complained that Henry “sang through his nose so bad…everybody’s going to think we all sing through the nose.” After hearing Henry, Stoneman set his sights on signing his own record deal.
Although Henry Whitter was no great shakes as a singer or a musician, he did do a number of things right. His 1924 recording of The Wreck of the Old 97, which he learned from a fellow mill worker in his hometown of Fries, Virginia, inspired Vernon Dalhart to copy down the words and record the song for Edison. On the other side, Dalhart sang The Prisoners Song, and this recording was the first million-seller in country music.
With the money that Whitter earned, he soon bought himself a brand new Model T Ford — not bad for someone with a mediocre voice who was limited on the guitar! In 1925, Whitter made records with Kelly Harrell and with Roba Stanley. Later he also recorded as a member of a group with one of the greatest names in old-time music: Fischer Hendley’s Aristocratic Pigs.
Perhaps Henry Whitter’s smartest move was teaming up with blind fiddler G.B. Grayson, from Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, which even today is but a wide spot in the road. Grayson was an expert fiddler and singer who could sing and play at the same time — no mean feat! Together, Grayson & Whitter started recording in 1927, and they produced a string of 40 recordings that have become an important part of the repertoire of bluegrass musicians.
Ralph Stanley, for one, has paid homage to Grayson & Whitter by recording an entire CD of their songs. The numbers waxed by Grayson & Whitter read like a set list for any one of hundreds of traditional bluegrass and old-time bands: Train 45, Short Life of Trouble, Handsome Molly, Little Maggie, Don’t Go Out Tonight My Darling, Rose Conley, Omie Wise, Nine-Pound Hammer, and Going Down the Lee Highway. Not bad for old Henry, whose fellow mill workers laughed at his first efforts to leave the mill and become a recording artist!
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.