Just over 100 years ago, on March 26, 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Livery Stable Blues,” backed with “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step,” was released. It’s generally regarded as the first jazz record, although its primacy has long been debated by scholars. What’s much less disputed is that “Livery Stable Blues” soon sold more than a million copies, eclipsing the sales of the era’s previous commercial giants, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and bandleader John Philip Sousa. (Keep in mind that the population of the United States was approximately 103 million in 1917, less than a third of what it is today, so selling a million of anything was pretty significant.) It was an early sign that the still-new medium of records would give a major boost to popular, non-classical styles of music. In so doing, that medium would shine a brighter spotlight on the instruments associated with those styles—such as the guitar.
The sound of a guitar had already graced many recordings by this time; you can hear guitarist M. Lloyd Wolfe duetting with mandolin virtuoso Samuel Siegel on a 1905 Edison cylinder, to name just one earlier example. One recording you wouldn’t hear guitar on was the aforementioned “Livery Stable Blues,” as the Original Dixieland Jass Band didn’t have a guitar player. Even so, the huge commercial success of their recorded debut, followed in short order by that of other jazz, blues, folk, and country records and coupled with continuing advances in recording technology, would open up multiple new dimensions for the music business, in which guitars and guitarists would play a central role. The major industry changes triggered by that success also prompted philosophical questions—about commercialism, authenticity, and the transmission of culture—that are still being argued about a century later.
The Gramophone Blues
All early audio recordings were made acoustically, without electricity. When, for instance, the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues” at the New York studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company (which also issued the record), their playing was captured by a funnel-like metal protuberance called a sound horn. Inside the smaller end of the horn was a thin glass diaphragm, which vibrated in response to the sound waves produced by the band. A needle attached to the diaphragm then cut the vibrational patterns directly onto a blank rotating disc. This was the essence of the “gramophone” system devised in the 1890s by Emile Berliner, with help from his business associate Eldridge Johnson. Victor used shellac as the principal material for its discs, which were cut to play back on a turntable running at 78 revolutions per minute.
Neither shellac nor the 78-rpm speed were industry standards in 1917; there were no industry standards. But as the sales potential of records like “Livery Stable Blues” became apparent, mass adoption of these and other features quickly took hold. Companies that made it their business to produce and sell popular music records appeared just as quickly. A few names familiar to modern readers, such as Columbia and Decca, got into the game early, but there were many others: Besttone, Crystalate, Homochord, Melotto, Pickofall. And every one of them was interested in the hottest pop craze of the 1910s, the blues—or at least songs with the word blues in the title.
The first record fitting this description, “The Memphis Blues” (written by W.C. Handy), had been released on the Victor label in 1914, as played by a military band. Three years later Columbia put out, arguably, the first blues recording to feature guitar, Helen Louise and Frank Ferera’s “Palakiko Blues.” It’s arguable because, despite the name, the song doesn’t sound very bluesy by current standards; for one thing, it’s got too many chord changes. Ferera, whose main instruments were steel guitar and ukulele, is best known as the first major star in Hawaiian music, though he has bragging rights in at least three genres; he also played guitar on the first million-selling country record, Vernon Dalhart’s “Wreck of the Old 97,” released by Victor in 1924. (In a strange twist, two years after “Palakiko Blues” was recorded, Ferera’s wife and guitar accompanist, Helen Louise, mysteriously vanished while she was on a steamboat from Los Angeles to Seattle and was never seen again.)
Before it became available on record, the blues in all its varieties was largely a regional style, ill-understood beyond the American South. Sheet music by composers like Handy had reached a far wider audience, but that was a filtered sort of blues—notation alone couldn’t get across what practitioners of the style really sounded like. The result was a lot of records like Ferera’s, which aimed to cash in on the blues trend but missed out on the music’s principal characteristics. At first, most “blues” songs on record had a conventionally theatrical tone, like something you might hear in a vaudeville house. Mamie Smith’s famous “Crazy Blues,” issued by the OKeh label in 1920, definitely fits that description, even though it’s rightly remembered as the first blues song to be recorded by an African American. But soon, much rawer forms of blues would appear on shellac.
A turning point came in 1923, when three seminal blues artists made their first recordings. The first two, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, were singers. The third, Sylvester Weaver, was a guitar player. His instrumental “Guitar Blues,” which the Louisville native recorded solo using a knife as a slide, is immediately recognizable as what we now call country blues. This was just the beginning; over the next decade, the deep blues of the Mississippi Delta would be documented definitively and would spread throughout the United States and the world.
The commercial success of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey confirmed what earlier hits by Mamie Smith and Alberta Hunter had already suggested: there was money to be made in producing records for the African American market. Record company proprietors needed no further incentive, and so-called “race records”—the counterpart to “hillbilly records” by white folk and country musicians—became a priority for labels such as OKeh, Emerson, Vocalion, Victor, and Paramount. The search for artists who might record the next big blues smash took talent scouts across the country, yielding musical treasures large and small. And the development of electrical recording by Henry Harrison, Joseph Maxfield, and others at Bell Laboratories in the mid-1920s—including the use of condenser microphones—meant that the subtle nuances of those treasures could now be heard in greater detail, with a sound quality much closer to life than crude acoustic recording methods had ever managed. (It would take future generations to note the irony of acoustic instruments being better served by electrical devices.)
In addition, the rise of field recordings (i.e., recordings made outside a studio) and the explosion of radio dramatically altered the musical landscape for both players and listeners in the ’20s. Field recordings meant that musicians no longer needed to go into a big city like New York or Chicago to make a record. And radio, which the labels viewed as a threat—the concept of the DJ had yet to be invented—prompted an important shift in musicians’ focus, toward exactly the kinds of music that would most benefit from field recordings. For although the technology necessary for electrical recording had been originally created with radio broadcasting in mind, there was a major difference between listening to the radio and listening to a phonograph record: The former required a source of electricity and the latter didn’t. As radio sales soared, record companies looked increasingly to the (literally) powerless people of the United States as their principal customer base. In an attempt to appeal to the country’s more rural regions, the “race” and “hillbilly” categories grew rapidly.
The roll call of guitarists who emerged during this period reads like a blues pantheon: Blind Lemon Jefferson (first recorded 1925), Freddie Spruell (first recorded 1926), Blind Willie McTell (first recorded 1927), Tommy Johnson (first recorded 1927), Charley Patton (first recorded 1929), Booker White (first recorded 1930), Son House (first recorded 1930). All were exposed to large audiences for the first time through records, and that exposure led to guitarists in one region of the country hearing, and in turn influencing, guitarists from other regions.
One slightly later-occurring name on the list of blues greats, Robert Johnson, now dwarfs the others in many listeners’ opinion. But this wasn’t the case when he made his small corpus of recordings in the mid-’30s, and it didn’t become the case until well after those recordings were reissued 25 years later. Part of what made Johnson so appealing to blues fans in the ’60s and beyond was the mystery of how he got to be such a skilled guitar player. Was there any truth to that legend about meeting the devil at the crossroads? While mulling that question, consider that Johnson belonged to the first generation of musicians who were able to listen to music on records with relative ease. If he heard something he liked on, say, a Tommy Johnson cut, he could play it over and over until he’d figured it out—a process that’s second nature for today’s guitarists but was completely new in the ’20s and ’30s.
Is this what Johnson actually did? No one will ever know. However, it’s worth noting that as a songwriter, he seemed from the start to be much more acutely aware of the ideal running time of a 78-rpm side—between three and four minutes—than most other Delta players of his era. And without a doubt, the 78s he made in 1936 and 1937 won him a kind of posthumous fame that would have been impossible in the days before recording. When the legendary producer and impresario John Hammond went looking for Johnson to book him for the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York, he found that the bluesman was already dead. So Hammond did the next best thing: He played one of Johnson’s records on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
As radio and records made popular music more widely available to all, some inevitable changes took place. Because any musician could easily hear and copy what other musicians were doing, regional styles gradually lost their uniqueness. There was a growing perception among cognoscenti that artists’ rough edges were being smoothed out to win greater commercial favor. Music fans began making the same argument that would arise again and again when, say, swing bands added string sections, or Nashville entered its “countrypolitan” phase, or rock went progressive: “authentic” music was under threat.
It was partly an anticipation of this turn of events—the homogenization of American culture leading to valuable musical traditions being lost—that prompted musicologist John Lomax and his son Alan to travel around the nation with a 315-pound aluminum disc recorder in the trunk of their Ford, gathering material for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song. (The sudden death of the elder Lomax’s wife in 1931 and the loss of his job at a Dallas bank due to the Great Depression were even greater motivating forces.) Between 1933 and 1942, the Lomaxes went to 33 states, plus the West Indies, the Bahamas, and Haiti; they recorded enough folk, blues, country, jazz, and gospel music to fill more than 10,000 discs. These include the first recordings of American guitar-playing icons Lead Belly (1933–34), Woody Guthrie (1940), and Muddy Waters (1941).
Ten years after the Lomaxes’ final field trip for the Library of Congress, the eccentric filmmaker Harry Smith offered a different take on the music of the ’20s and ’30s. Compiled by Smith from his own collection of 78s, the six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music was released by Folkways in 1952. It consisted solely of recordings made for commercial labels between 1926 and 1932. Unlike the Lomaxes’ recordings, which were intended as historical documentation and largely made during a period when the bottom had fallen out of the record business, the tracks Smith compiled were products of that business’ early peak, issued with the hope of being bought by consumers.
But since the business of making non-classical records was still in its infancy, no one was sure what would sell, so labels took a chance on just about anything. As Smith showed, that freewheeling approach regularly struck gold. Through the Anthology, a new generation was introduced to the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Ramblin’ Thomas, Clarence Ashley, and the Carter Family.
The work of Smith and the Lomaxes had an inestimable influence on the American folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, including guitarists like Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. By that time, however, the early recording era, typified by the shellac 78, had reached its end. A ban on shellac production during World War II temporarily crippled the record industry; the introduction of magnetic tape and vinyl discs a few years later forever transformed its practices. What happened next belongs in another article. But the big music-biz boom to come, far from being a standalone phenomenon, was inextricably rooted in the records of the ’20s and ’30s, that brief era when the recordings were electrical and the instruments were all acoustic.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.