Bear Family Records Box Set: Get to Know Our Musical Pioneers

I was asked to give a brief address to the attendees at the Johnson City Sessions VIP celebration on Oct. 20 at the Venue in the downtown King Center. Subsequently, I was requested to repeat my speech in my Yesteryear column. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of it:

“My name is Bob Cox, a retired chemical engineer for Eastman Chemical Company, now writing local history articles for the Johnson City Press, something I have been doing for about 9 years.

Six of my family members participated in the 1928/29 Columbia Records sessions. Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman, my great uncle, was my grandmother's brother and leader of The Bowman Brothers, a string band comprised of three of his four brothers: Elbert, Walter and Argil. Charlie's two oldest teenage daughters, Pauline and Jennie, became known as “The Bowman Sisters” and traveled extensively with their father on Loews vaudeville circuit in the 1930s.

As an Appalachian historian, I stress to my readers the need to “capture and preserve” area history. It has been said that all of us represent a library. At birth, our libraries contain no books, but as we age and acquire knowledge and experience, we begin to add new “volumes,” to our “shelves.” Over time, our libraries become packed full of volumes. But as we approach old age, we start to lose books, sometimes at an alarming rate due to memory loss. When we die, our libraries go dark and shut down forever. Hang on to that thought; I will return to it.

Let me comment on the Bear Family Records project. The slick-page color book contains 8 chapters: 1. “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” (from a newspaper ad from 1928); 2. “Gathering Flowers from the Hillside” (critical prior planning and strategy for locating known and obscure musicians; 3. Frank Walker (A&R (artists and repertoire) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division); 4. Bill Brown (Frank Walker's assistant); 5. The  Artists (1928 sessions, 334 E. Main Street) 6. The  Artists (1929 sessions, 248 W. Main Street) 7. The Songs (100 selections); and 8. Discography of the Sessions (1928-29). Each recording gathering is identified in the book along with the artist(s) and the recording dates. The CDs were digitized from the original recordings and sound terrific.

When I learned of the upcoming Bear Family Records box set, I was delighted, being knowledgeable of the many high quality sets already in distribution, including the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

I wish to offer my readers a challenge. Purchase a box set and strive to “meet” the folks in the book and on the CDs. Take a three-dimensional journey back in time with photos, text and music. I began with selection 1 on CD 1 titled, “My Boyhood Days” by the Shell Creek Quartet and am progressing toward selection 100, “Smokey Blues” by Ellis Williams. As I listen to each song, I simultaneously read about them in the book and inspect their photos in minute detail, using a magnifying glass. I am interested in their clothing, their musical instruments, their facial expressions, the area around them, any animals present such as dogs or chickens and anything else I can find.

To accomplish my worthy goal, it will take a while, but hopefully I have a while. So far, I have listened to all of CD 1: Shell Creek Quartet, Grant Brothers & Their Music, Roane County Ramblers, Renus Rich & Carl Bradshaw, Clarence Greene, The Wise Brothers, Proximity String Quartet, Greensboro Boys Quartet and Richard Harold.

My favorite group name in the entire compilation is Ephraim Woodie and The Henpecked Husbands. As I read and listen, I try to remember that these were individuals who walked our streets, purchased items from our stores, attended our schools, joined our churches and played music all across our mountainous area. But eventually, these folks got old and went away, closing their libraries.

I have some great news. Because of Bear Family Records,  many of the “books” in their libraries have been reopened. Let me encourage you to garner the gold from this magnificent collection. This was a great week in the history of Johnson City. Our thanks go to Ted Olson, Tony Russell and Richard Weize (owner of Bear Family Records) for the box set and for honoring us with their presence.