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A barber came to Bristol...
July 29, 2008 1:25 AM   Subscribe

Eighty one years ago to the day, barber, banjoist and balladeer B.F. Shelton travelled from his home in Kentucky to take part in a recording session in Bristol Tennessee. Now referred to as the "Bristol Sessions", these recordings are widely viewed as some of the most important and influential in American music history. The four songs Shelton recorded that day, stark, simple and immensely powerful in their unadorned honesty, can all be heard here. After Bristol, Shelton never recorded again.

I'd like to note here that the Wiki page and the various articles linked to on the Bristol page (both linked under Bristol sessions of this FPP) offer some fascinating insights into the history of not only these particular recordings but also the early development of the record industry, and particularly the royalty system, which was, according to some, essentially inaugurated by Bristol recordist and entrepreneur Ralph Peer, working for Victor Records.

Here's a blog entry from a fellow who's thoughtfully included audio files of "Pretty Polly" by BF Shelton and the great Dock Boggs, for your listening and comparison pleasure.

Bare bones (ain't a whole lot known about the man, after all) bio of BF Shelton.

Though not in complete versions, the Bristol Sessions recordings are available to purchase, in this volume and/or this volume.
posted by flapjax at midnite (16 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and I guess I should note that BF Shelton appeared previously, here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:36 AM on July 29, 2008


Good post, it really is a shame that not more of Shelton's Bristol Session recordings have survived (that blog post claims that he supposedly recorded ten tracks).

Anyone who enjoyed the songs by Shelton really has to check out Dock Boggs (or at least Boggs' version of Pretty Polly), it is required by law. You might also want to check out archive.org's old-time Appalachian, acoustic country blues and banjo tune sections. Particularly Charley Patton and Clarence "Tom" Ashley.
posted by bjrn at 1:49 AM on July 29, 2008


these recordings are widely viewed as some of the most important and influential in American music history.

In a country that produced Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, this is a pretty bold statement.
posted by three blind mice at 4:18 AM on July 29, 2008


In a country that produced Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, this is a pretty bold statement.

This croaky dude with his banjo didn't get the chance to overreach and play himself out the way Davis and Zappa did. But hey, as far as important and influential go, Mr. Banjo Man here was recording his plain chants at the same time as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, and their not much less talented ilk were walking the earth, giving America a golden age of music worthy of comparison to the days of Handel, Gluck and Mozart, and Beethoven, Shubert, and Schumann. I like croaky Mr. Banjo man a lot, and can appreciate the stark, spare, terrifying beauty of his lone voice echoing amid the mountains, I also like the stern, po' faced harmonies of the Carter Family, and the whole "weird America" of hollering preachers, moaning choirs, and rollicking string bands rescued by the "Anthology of American Folk Music." But some really "important" was happening in musical history at the same time as all this simple flanging of string instruments was taking place among mountain folk. It was the incredible flowering of American song on Broadway, in movies, and Tin Pan Alley that produced the miraculous "standards" we all take for granted. Seen in the context of the near-total inability of American culture to have followed up on this great era, it would seem that Mr. croaky banjo man was probably way too damned influential for our own good. I mean, I like the fact that we have one Doc Boggs, on B.F.Shelton, and one of all these guys. Perhaps we didn't need 500,000 sparse, personal, barely musically literate singers expressing themselves with simple string accompaniment in crude untutored voices with two-note ranges. The dominance of the B.F. Sheltons has been a kind of tragedy.
posted by Faze at 4:47 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]




In a country that produced Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, this is a pretty bold statement.

Not at all. Apart from issues of personal taste (for example, you may like Frank Zappa more than, say, Merle Haggard), I'd say The Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers have been far, far more influential to the course of American music overall than Frank Zappa or Miles Davis. Zappa was pretty unique, really, quite the iconoclast, who has legions of devoted fans, but his direct influence on subsequent musicians? Sure, you could point me to a handful, but, there can't be that many, really. Miles was influential in the relatively small world of jazz that he inhabited, and was influential in (for better or worse) the Fusion Jazz (or Jazz Fusion, whichever you like) that he (unwittingly?) inspired, but this influence is still relatively small in comparison to the influence of early folk/country musicians like Rogers and the Carters on subsequent generations of folk and country (and offshoots into rock'n'roll) musicians. The sheer numbers of musicians directly inspired by and influenced by the Carters, Rogers et al dwarfs the number inspired by Zappa and Miles combined. And that's not a judgement call on the value or quality of Zappa's and Davis' music.

So I'd stand by my original statement, but I do wish I'd left out "important" and just gone with "influential", since, after all, one man's "important" is another man's "couldn't care less".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:49 AM on July 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


...at the same time as all this simple flanging of string instruments was taking place among mountain folk...

Actually, I think the mountain folk were more interested in phase shifting, tremolo and even pitch shift than flanging. Some scholars chalk this up to their inherent conservatism, but I think it has more to do with their "untutored" approach to electronic effects and studio techniques. Now, if some of those big-city sophisticates like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin had gone down into the hollows to show those ignorant moonshine swillin' coal miners how to properly use flanging, I reckon it would've caught on. Maybe.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:57 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


But damn, flapjax, this was the perfect music this morning. Thanks!
posted by not_on_display at 6:23 AM on July 29, 2008


thanks for the post.
posted by ms.jones at 6:26 AM on July 29, 2008


These are treasures. Thanks for posting this great find!
posted by RussHy at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2008


Ralph Peer, the producer for Victor who did these recordings, is a fascinating character on his own. And his company thrives today.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:43 AM on July 29, 2008


Great post, and don't mind Faze—he just feels the need to drop into every music thread to rave about the Great American Songbook and toss bile at everything more recent.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on July 29, 2008


um... woo-hoo hometown shout out... I grew up in Bristol, my HS buddy works for the museum. I dislike Country (except Johnny Cash, go figure...), but The Sessions are good listening, not that crap that gets played on the radio.

flapjax stole my FPP, grrr. Did it better, un-grrr.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:18 AM on July 29, 2008


So I'd stand by my original statement, but I do wish I'd left out "important" and just gone with "influential", since, after all, one man's "important" is another man's "couldn't care less".

It's cool flapjax. For you to say that certain recordings are widely viewed as among the most important and influential in music left me wondering why? It's only a matter of taste insofar that I'm not familar with the early roots of American country.

Now I know. Good stuff and nice post. As usual.

You're probably (and sadly) right about Zappa, but Miles Davis' ripples reach far outside the little pool to which you assign him.
posted by three blind mice at 12:26 PM on July 29, 2008


Speaking of Bristol every year they have a music fest that I go to called Bristol Rhythm and Roots. We ride our motorcycles from Cookeville, TN. and stay a day or two listening to all kinds of music. This year Doc Watson will be there so I'm looking forward to it.
posted by nola at 3:04 PM on July 29, 2008


The 1927 Bristol recordings *are* the roots of American country music. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the songs of Jimmy Rodgers the Singing Brakeman on popular music, white and black. Rodgers, who later recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Lani McIntire's Hawaiians, may have been the Father of Fusion as well of Country Music. And how Wild would a Wood Flower be without A.P., Sara, and Mother Maybelle, who also recorded for Peer that week in August of '27--with a lineage that went straight to Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash.

B.F. may never have made it to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but he and the lesser lights of the Bristol sessions are still pioneers of recorded American music. Generations of guitarists and banjo players learned their songs and instrumental styles by heart and passed the traditions on.
posted by rdone at 6:01 PM on July 29, 2008


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