By Wayne Erbsen
His name was Marion Try Slaughter, but he took the name Vernon Dalhart from two Texas towns where he had worked as a cowhand when he was a boy. Born in Jefferson, Texas, on April 6, 1883, before he died on September 14, 1948, he had used at least 100 pseudonyms. His grandfather, Marion Try Slaughter I, had been a Confederate soldier who joined the KKK after the Civil War. Dalhart’s father was killed in a barroom knife fight with his brother-in-law, Bob Castleberry, while Dalhart was still a boy. By the time he was 12 or 13, Dalhart showed a strong interest in music and started singing and taking piano lessons. He soon became proficient on the harmonica, jews harp, and kazoo, and was an excellent whistler.
In 1910, Dalhart moved to New York, possibly with the hope of being part of the booming music industry there. At first he had to settle for working in a music store selling and moving pianos. Meanwhile, he studied opera and moonlighted as a featured vocalist in churches and sang for funerals. Eventually, he landed the part of vocalist on several light operas, including Girl of the Gold West and Madame Butterfly.
Down on his luck and nearly broke, Dalhart saw an ad in the newspaper: “Wanted: Singers For Recording Sessions.” He spent what little money he had getting to the audition in East Orange, New Jersey. When he arrived, the room was packed with some of the best-known opera singers in the area, and Dalhart figured he was outgunned.
When his turn finally came, he sang Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Carolina. At the end of the audition, all the singers were dismissed, but to his surprise, Dalhart was invited to a private audition with none other than Thomas Edison! By this time, Edison was nearly deaf, and asked Dalhart to sing the same song into his ear trumpet. When he finished singing, Edison told him, “You are the man for me.”
Dalhart’s recording career may have started with Edison, but he eventually went on to record with practically every record label in America. The material he recorded covered a wide range of material including light opera, fox trots, Hawaiian songs, coon songs, and World War I patriotic songs. By 1924, Dalhart’s popularity was on the decline and he approached RCA Victor with the idea of recording two country songs, The Wreck of the Old 97 and The Prisoner’s Song. With Victor’s national sales being in a slump, they initially resisted, but finally they gave in. The success of The Prisoner’s Song was stunning. It became the first million-seller in country music and it went on to sell almost six million copies. The song not only boosted RCA Victor out of the doldrums, it also helped make Vernon Dalhart a household name and showed the vast commercial potential for country music.
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.