Sunday, November 27, 2011

November 28, 1925-Start of the Grand Ole Opry?

WSM and the Grand Ole Opry officially recognize Saturday November 28, 1925 as the birth of the Grand Ole Opry. It was on that night at 8:00 that George D. Hay introduced Uncle Jimmy Thompson, with his niece Mrs. Eva Thompson Jones playing the piano, and the "WSM Barn Dance" was underway. Of course the Grand Ole Opry name would come later.

Here is George D. Hay's version of how the Opry got started, which he wrote in 1945:

"Because the Grand Ole Opry is a very simple program it started in a very simple way. Your reporter, who was the first program director of WSM, had considerable experience in the field of folk music when the station opened in October 1925. Realizing the wealth of folk music material and performers in the Tennessee Hills he welcomed the appearance of Uncle Jimmy Thompson and his blue ribbon fiddle who went on the air at eight o'clock, Saturday night, November 28, 1925. Uncle Jimmy told us that he had a thousand tunes. Past eighty years of age, he was given a comfortable chair in front of an old carbon microphone. While his niece, Mrs. Eva Thompson Jones, played his piano accompaniment your reporter presented Uncle Jimmy and announced that he would be glad to answer requests for old time tunes. Immediately telegrams started to our into WSM. One hour later at nine o'clock we asked Uncle Jimmy if he hadn't done enough fiddling to which he replied, 'Why shucks, a man don't get warmed up in an hour. I just won an eight-day fiddling contest down in Dallas, Texas, and here's my blue ribbon to prove it.' Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Mrs Jones and The Solemn Old Judge carried on for several weeks for an hour each Saturday night."

George D. Hay finished up by writing, "To the best of our recollection the first old time band we presented on the Saturday night show, which at that time we called the WSM Barn Dance, was headed by a very genial country physician from Sumner County, Tennessee, named Dr. Humprey Bate."

Like everything else with the Opry, nobody is sure exactly when the WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry exactly started. There is a difference of opinion regarding the November 28, 1925 date and one of the individuals who felt that the date was not correct was Dr. Bate's daughter, Mrs. Alcyone Bate Beasley, who at the time challenged George D. Hay's version of events. According to Mrs. Beasley, it was not George D. Hay that originated the first barn dance program on WSM, but that it was her father and he should have received the credit for starting what has become the Grand Ole Opry.

According to Mrs. Beasley, who at the time was a thirteen year old piano player in her father's group, they did the first Saturday night barn dance on WSM at the end of October 1925, within a month of WSM radio going on the air. Many years later, she was quoted by a reporter on her version of the events: "I remember that night after it was all over, we drove back home in the old Ford car and Daddy, who always called me 'Booger,' said, 'Booger, we might've started something down there tonight, you just don't know."

She then went on to say, "We played there for about four or five weeks before Mr. Hay came. We would drive into Nashville and perform on WDAD in the afternoon, then we would walk up the hill and play on WSM later in the evening. I remember we would give Jack Keefe, who was the WSM announcer then, a list of the numbers we were going to play during the hour we would be on the air. And within just two weeks or so, bands from everywhere began to come up to be put on the air. One of the first of them was Mr. Ed Poplin's band from Lewisburg, Tennessee. I never felt badly about it toward Mr. Hay, because he wasn't well, but the fact remains that nothing was ever said about Uncle Jimmy Thompson being the first one on the show until long after my Daddy died in 1936. How that came to be the story has been the puzzle of my life."

In the 1960s, Norm Cohen, a researcher with the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, a research center at UCLA devoted to the study of American folk music, did some research and examined records of the Nashville Tennessean, specifically looking for country music broadcasts on Nashville radio stations for a three-month period, from October 18, 1925 thru January 17, 1926. His research showed that Mrs. Beasley's story might be the right one.

In the Sunday October 18, 1925 edition of the Nashville Tennessean was an item under the heading "WSM Announces Week's Program": Saturday....10-11 (p.m.) Studio program featuring Dr. Humprey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians, from Castalian Springs." That would have meant they appeared on Saturday October 24, exactly when Mrs. Beasley said that had appeared. Cohen's research also showed that Dr. Bate and his group also made regular appearances on WDAD, and were also featured on WSM again on Saturday November 14.

Uncle Jimmy Thompson wasn't mentioned in the newspaper's radio listings until December 20, when it was reported, "Station WSM--Saturday (Dec. 26), 8:00 p.m.--Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the South's champion barn dance fiddler, and Eva Thompson Jones, controlto, will present programs of old-fashioned tunes."

A week later, in the Sunday December 27 edition of the Nashville Tennessean, under the heading "WSM To Feature Old-Time Tunes," the following was printed:

"Old tunes like old lovers are the best, at least judging from the applause which the new Saturday night feature at Station WSM receives from its listeners in all parts of the country: jazz has not completely turned the tables on such tunes as 'Pop Goes the Weasel' and 'Turkey In the Straw.' America may not be swinging its partners at a neighbor's barn dance but it seems to have the habit of clamping on its ear phones and patting its feet as gaily as it ever did when the old-time fiddlers got to swing. Because of this revival in the popularity of the old familiar tunes, WSM has arranged to have an hour or two every Saturday night, starting Saturday, December 26. Uncle Dave Macon, the oldest banjo picker in Dixie, and who comes from Readyville, Tennessee and Uncle Jimmy Thompson of Martha, Tennessee, will answer any requests for old-time melodies. Uncle Jimmy Thompson made his first appearance a month ago and telegrams were received from all parts of the United States, encouraging him in his task of furnishing barn dance music for million homes."

In those days, it was standard policy for many newspapers to print articles that had been sent in my publicists to promote their companies or programs, and many historians feel that the Tennessean article had actually been written by George D. Hay. Based on the article and the comments by George D. Hay and Mrs. Alcyone Bate Beasley, the following conclusions can be drawn:

First, it would appear that from a scheduling standpoint, WSM did not offically put the barn dance program on their schedule until December 26, 1925, so a case can be made that December 26 was the "official" start date of the WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry. 2nd, with the comment in the article that Uncle Jimmy Thompson made his first appearance on WSM a month before, a month before that article would have been November 28, which is the date that George D. Hay wrote in his 1945 memoirs as the start of the show. And finally, it also means that Dr. Humphrey Bate and his group were the first "country" musicians to play on WSM, appearing in October 1925, but not as part of any formal radio program.

While this can be debated, WSM and the Grand Ole Opry many years ago decided that November 28, 1925 was the official birth of what has become of the Grand Ole Opry. And so it is. At the time of the Opry's birth, it was one of many barn dance programs on the radio, some of which have included the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, the WLS Barn Dance, Renfro Valley, along with shows in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Richmond and just about every city in the country, big and small. But for various reasons, there is only one of the original barn dance programs left and that is the Grand Ole Opry. Time will only tell if the Opry continues to survive. Times have been tough and the world of country music has changed. I have talked to people who have told me that they will be surprised if the Opry makes it to it's 100th anniversary. I hope they are wrong. For all the reasons that we are concerned about the modern day Opry, we still listen and attend. The Opry is a one of a kind piece of American history. Enjoy it!!

(For those who want to know more about the early days of the Opry, a book that I highly recommend is Charles Wolfe's excellent book, "A Good-Natured Riot--The Birth of The Grand Ole Opry." It is probably the best book he has ever written and it covers in great detail the early days of the Opry, from its start, up until about 1940. I still use it as a reference tool today.)

11 comments:

  1. I've found that discussion fascinating, and you did a great job of analyzing it. I wouldn't be surprised if Alcyone Bate Beasley was correct, but I also think of Red Barber, the great sports broadcaster, who recalled in his autobiography that at WRUF, the college radio station where he started, a band just showed up and asked to go on the air, and they did--there was no other programming to compete with. The point being, I wonder how organized the "pre-Opry" was.

    I'd also like to mention that Earl White, the Opry Square Dance Band fiddler, lives in Castalian Springs, where Dr. Bate was living, and he and Charlie Collins, as the last performers with the Crook Brothers still on the Opry, are the last real link to the original Opry.

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  2. Fred in Bismarck here:

    Fascinating stuff ... and a reminder of how bolixed-up the reporting of human affairs can be, even with all the reporting tools and record-keeping available in the early days of radio and the Opry.

    Good thing to keep in the back of your mind to this day when evaluating current events: It ain't necessarily so!

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  3. The survival of the 'Opry depends on today's stars, as much as this senior citizen hates to admit it.
    While I love the old timers, the big crowds pack the place when Brad, Carrie, Taylor, Alan, Keith or some other superstar of today shows up.
    I also enjoyed Wolfe's book.
    Great article on the start of the 'Opry, Fayfare.

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  4. Fred in Bismarck here:

    Yes, Nat, but if too many of today's stars don't sing country music, does the surviving show deserve to be called the Grand Ole Opry?

    Do we have a stake in the music itself or only in the show?

    I for one am not willing to follow the Opry to just anyplace its money people want to take it. That's why I would like to see Gaylord ditch it as a bad investment and let somebody better atuned to the Opry tradition come in and try to pick up the pieces.

    Who cares if a new Opry was smaller if it was also better?

    The music and musicians and an audience for them are still out there, as demonstrated by the many country-music parks and festivals featuring bluegrass and oldtime.

    They're just in shorter and shorter supply at the Grand Ole Opry House.

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  5. Fred
    Your point is well taken. I much prefer traditional country music myself. My point is that for the cost of two or three songs in one show from a "hot artist," the 'Opry can do well financially and keep real country music alive in Nashville. The rest of the show introduces a lot of people to the country music we traditionalists enjoy.
    Most of the "hot artists" seem to understand the tradition, and don't mess up the show.

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  6. Fred again:

    Nat, that would be an outcome I could live with. I really don't have to have everything my way! And it's true that a lot of solid country fans started out chasing the latest hot act and stayed around to get deeper into the music.

    Also, I don't blame younger people for not getting all excited by the geriatric acts whose hits they can't remember and who sometimes don't even sing that well or put on much of a show anymore.

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  7. The Opry seems to be going overboard to keep in bringing in the new hot country stars at the expense of the older, traditional artists. I understand that the Opry would rather have Rascal Flatts sing 3 songs than have Ray Pillow sing 2, but there needs to continue to be a balance.

    There are not that many of the legends left so they have to have younger artists who will support the show. My problem, especially for a show charging over $50 for a prime ticket, is the number of unknown artists that they have been booking lately, many of whom most of us have never heard of.

    I know it is easy to say that Gaylord should sell, but I don't think that is going to happen anytime soon. And, you have to be concerned on who would buy the Opry. When you think about it, there really are not that many people or companies out there that are promoting traditional country music right now and have the deep pockets it would take to buy it. So for now, I think we have what we have, like it or not.

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  8. Fred again:

    I would say this, Byron: The future of whatever country music becomes rests with pickers and singers we have never heard of, some of them perhaps unborn as yet. (Country music should last so long!)

    When the Opry was strong, it MADE stars of people, from Roy Acuff to Stonewall Jackson, we had never heard of -- instead of signing stars made by country radio and then begging them to show up.

    I would love to be introduced, on the Opry, to genuine country acts I have never heard of. Indeed, I can thank the Opry for the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band music in my collection.

    The trouble with most of the unknowns the Opry books these days isn't that they are unknown but that they are rock or pop rather than country.

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  9. Fred you are right in your comments. And I have no issue seeing the new acts or hearing them on the Opry. Many of them are pretty good and will have a great future if they get a break or to.

    My problem is paying the big ticket price to see them. And based on some of the small crowds at the Opry on some nights, others have the same issue.

    I will take a Ray Pillow, Stonewall, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Connie Smith, etc, any day of the week over a Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, etc. And I do wish the Opry would go back to its roots.

    But to succeed, it think it has to move forward.

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  10. fayfare and Fred;
    We're all fans of the 'Opry, that much is clear.
    I personally would rather see a full house and the excitement it generates. If it takes a few songs by Taylor Swift or Rascall Flatts to get it done, so be it.
    Some of the new acts I hear on the 'Opry "get it" in terms of what the 'Opry is, some don't.
    I'm 63 years old and love traditional as much as the next guy. I personally enjoy the legends.
    But if only the legends show up every week, the show is doomed.
    The 'Opry, Cracker Barrel, WSM, and Willie's Place (who must get their stuff from WSM)are really all we have left. We have to support them.

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  11. The WWVA Wheeling Jamboree was not on the radio until 1939 - WWVA as a station did not exist in 1925. The National Barn Dance began in April, 1924 and that is where Geoprge D. Hay was hired from (although he was not instrumental in developing the show in Chicago). Renfro Valley Barn Dance also did not start until the 1930s - it also was an off-shoot of the WLS barn dance in Chicago created by John Lair in Renfro Valley, KY (I believe in 1934) and where Red Foley also went to in the later 1930s before he came to the Grand Ole opry from 1947-1953 and then to the Ozark Jubilee from 1954-1960. The only radio broadcasts giving any competition in the 1920s to the WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry would be the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta, GA, the very first barn dance, which was in Dallas, Texas on WBAP (which started in 1923 but did not survive past the 1930s), and that was about it. The WRVA Barn Dance in Richmond, VA also did not start until the early 1930s,and the other barn dances didn't start generating until the 1930s, with the louisiana Hayride being one of the latest, having started in 1948 and lasted until 1960 in it's original format. 1960 was a breaking point for most of the barn dance-type programs, with WLS changing to a rock format in April 1960 following the night of the 36th anniversery of the show (the performers were not told it was their last performance until they stepped out to do their performance for the WLS Barn Dance that night - I have that one on recording and it is sad to hear for sure). Rock N Roll had a death knell for most stations an dthe opery was the ONLY one who remained steadfast to its roots throughout the 1960s-1990s until Gaylord changed leadership and that person decided that Opryland wasn't good enough, the Opry had to be dismantled from within (and it was), and the rock solid culture of Nashville literally was changed overnight to something it would never have been dreamed of being by folks who loved the former Opry and the artists that mad eit great. Today it lives on it's past laurels while discriminating against those whomade it a great show and excluding them from advertising or anything else, as well as putting many unknown faces that make up the strength of the show now moreso than the members themselves. That, to me my friends, spells a future end to the Opry. It has outlasted all the rest for sure and was consistently so until the later 1990s/early 2000s when winter shows were canceled entirely for two weeks in a row during the Christmas season (something that had NEVER happened before in its history). Anyway, I am off topic. The Opry has lasted a long time for sure, outliving everything else that countered it.

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