The first country music star
September 2, 2014 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Vernon Dalhart (1881-1948), born Marion Try Slaughter, was the first star of country music. He sold so many records in the early 1920s he owned two Cadillacs. Gather round and have a listen to some of Vernon Dalhart's greatest hits.

Dalhart often wrote about current events. A journey through his songs is a sentimental folksy trip through history. He covered the Scopes monkey trial, Lindbergh's record flight, famous criminals, natural disasters, and other sensational topics for the common man. Known as "Event Songs", they differed from traditional ballads in that they weren't designed to spread the news of an event rather to recount what people already knew, to put it into perspective, and were partly a form of sensational journalism.

All the songs following are from this set.

"Calamity Jane" (1929) was recorded with fidler and vocalist Adelyne Hood. Calamity Jane was such a success that Hood and Dalhart would go on to record a number of duets profiling tough western women. Hood would take the lead in the songs, unusual for female artists at the time. Although much has been written about Calamity Jane, she wrote only one short memoir, The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, this well-read audiobook version is only 13 minutes.

"The Death of Floyd Collins" (1925) concerns one of the greatest media circus' of the 20th century, though few today know about it. In February 1925, a Kentucky hillbilly searching around Mammoth for a new cave became caught underground with only his head showing through in a tight passage. For two weeks a series of misguided moonshine fueled attempts were made to set Floyd free. It became front page news around the nation, one of the first live events broadcast on radio. The country was glued to newspaper and radio and it is considered the third biggest media event between the two world wars (next to Lindbergh's flight, and baby kidnapping). The song was the first of many books (Robert Penn Warren's The Cave), movies (Ace in the Hole), other songs, poems and plays about the legend of Floyd Collins. It helped inspire the creation of Mammoth Cave National Park.

"Golden Slippers" was a square-dance song first published in 1879 by African-American banjo player James A. Bland (freeborn from Flushing, New York). It was originally kown as "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers" and concerns going to heaven. American Western movies often played it, hammered out on a badly tuned rinky-tink piano or fiddle. It was even made into the iconic Golden Grahams theme song from the 1970s.[earworm]

"Putting On the Style" (1926) a folk song recorded by Dalhart and Carson Robinson. It melds together American folk song and English music hall. A low quality recording of the song performed by the Quarrymen, John Lennon's group live on July 6, 1957 exists although it has never been released officially. It was recorded the same day that Lennon met Paul McCartney, and is the earliest Beatles related recording that exists. Here's a later recording by the Quarrymen.

"The Prisoner's Song" (1924) followed close behind the Old 97, it was released on the B-side and also became a mega-hit. It was one of the best-selling records of the early 20th century. Around such riches arose battles over royalty rights. Such are the legends it's still not clear who really wrote Prisoner: Dalhart, his cousin, his cousin's brother, a studio man or even if the lyrics were found carved in the wall of a Georgia jail cell.

"The Sinking of the Titanic" (1924) - 12 years later the Titanic was still a potent subject. Although Dalhart wasn't the first to sing it, his version turned out to be the most popular. It has since become a standard sung by Cash, Statler Brothers and Hank Snow. It was sometimes used on the B-side of Old 97 (interchanged with Prisoner's Song) thus its popularity in the 20s.

"Wreck of the Old 97" (1924) was a runaway hit, it was the first million-selling country music release in the American record industry, eventually going on to sell 7 million copies in the 1920s. It concerns a spectacular train wreck near Danville, Virginia in 1903. The song was written a few months earlier by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter (1923) with Dalhart's version popularizing it. It would go on to become an American railroad standard recorded by countless artists over the 20th century, including Johny Cash, Hank Snow and others.

"When Your Hair Has Turned To Silver" (1931) - (mistaken inclusion, not by Dalhart)

"Wreck of the Shenandoah" (1925) concerns the airship USS Shenandoah which went down in a storm in Ohio in September 1925. Dalhart recorded it less than a week after. However some records were withdrawn in deference to the family of the deceased captain.


After 1933, Dalhart was out of the music industry. The Great Depression nearly wiped it out. He tried for a comeback at the end of the decade but failed. He ended up in Connecticut working menial desk jobs and as a night watchman. In 1948, he suffered a heart attack and died. Dalhart made southern folk music into a polished sound for those unfamiliar with it, making him one of the best known singers of the 20s and the most prolific recording artist of his time.

Recordings at Internet Archive. Partial discography. Country Music Hall of Fame.
posted by stbalbach (8 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
"He covered the Scopes monkey trial"

Song title: "The Old Religion's Better After All." The song's message: If you go against popular religion you will get fired. Look at what happened to Scopes and be warned, all y'all with fancy new ideas.

Anyhow, awesome post. Watching a youtube video of a phonograph spinning round is downright hypnotic.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:08 PM on September 2, 2014

Awesome. Gonna check this out tonight when I get home.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:39 PM on September 2, 2014

Fantastic, thanks!

I remember the song about Floyd Collins (and the media frenzy surrounding him, and the tragic aftermath) but can't say I'd ever heard of Vernon Dalhart.
posted by easily confused at 1:50 PM on September 2, 2014

Great post. I don't think there's a page of Gus Meade's fabulous Country Music Sources that Dalhart does not have at least one song listed on, and it's over 1000 pages.
posted by OmieWise at 2:44 PM on September 2, 2014

Interesting! good catch. The early decades of recorded music are full of tantalizing stories seldom told - before and right after electronic mikes came along. I guess the principals were just too busy raking it in to leave a trail.
posted by Twang at 4:09 PM on September 2, 2014

I came in to mention Carson Robison, but it looks like he's up there. Robison was an interesting dude as well. They were both stage and radio stars before becoming "country," although Robison was from Kansas so he gets a little bit of slack.
posted by sleepy pete at 4:15 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Robison is the uncredited second player on most of the early Dalhart hits, including "Wreck...".
posted by sleepy pete at 4:17 PM on September 2, 2014

(Not to be confused with me, but he was the inspiration for my userid)
posted by vernondalhart at 8:32 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older The evolution of credit card skimmers, and how to...   |   "Fun" was too mainstream. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments