Early Hillbilly & Old Time Music


The origins of country music are often traced to Victor’s 1927 Bristol sessions, during which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were discovered and made their first recordings. While this was indeed a watershed moment for the commercial country genre—as both artists quickly rose to national fame and contributed to the large-scale exposure of local, rural folk music—the foundations for this “Big Bang” were laid earlier in the 1920s. As radio emerged in the early '20s, record sales declined in the face of competition, and record producers searched for ways to expand their audiences. In various cities in the South, they began to record and release songs by popular local folk music artists, targeting lower-class, rural white audiences that recognized the featured local musicians and music styles. In 1924, light-opera-singer-turned-country-artist Vernon Dalhart’s double-sided single “The Wreck of the Old 97” b/w “The Prisoner’s Song,” became an unexpected hit, proving the commercial viability of “hillbilly” or “old-time” music beyond small local markets.

The rise of country music coincided with the decline of the cylinder, and consequently this playlist is composed almost exclusively of Edison cylinders, as they were nearly the only cylinder manufacturer that persisted into the 1920s. Accordingly, this playlist functions more as a grab bag of early hillbilly music styles and artists, and less as a comprehensive summary. However, despite this limited scope, these selections provide a fascinating glimpse into the amazing diversity of white American folk music before the codification of the commercial country music genre.

—Chris Warden, Reed College