Reviewed by William Wade
Most Bristolians know Ralph Peer as the man who came to our city in August 1927 and recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in what is known today as the “Bristol Sessions.” Where Peer came from beforehand and what he did afterword is not generally known.
And this is the value of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,by Barry Mazor, a splendid new biography which reveals the full and fascinating life of its subject. And let it be said clearly and emphatically at the beginning: the “Bristol Sessions” was a landmark in the history of popular music in America. It would be hard to over-estimate its importance. It established the careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, it made Bristol what our museum proudly proclaims, the “birthplace of country music in America,” and it gave Ralph Peer the opportunity to become nationally and internationally known as a major figure in the music publishing business.
Peer recognized that the artists he was recording needed opportunities for their names to be put before the public, and he formed the Southern Music Publishing Company to see that their recordings became popular. An appendix to Mazor’s book has an incredibly long list of the artists who gained fame through his efforts. In addition to the Carters and Rodgers they included Fats Waller, Ernest Stoneman, Blind Willie McTell, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Memphis Minnie, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmie Davis, Desi Arnaz, and a slew of other country, blues, and jazz artists.
During the late 1930s and World War Peer traveled to Mexico and began introducing Latin music and their artists. During the entire time, working with Alan Lomax, he continued his search for the origins of some of the traditional songs that seemed to be a part of the American tradition. In November 1932 a group of reporters sang “Home on the Range” to newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt; soon afterward Bing Crosby launched it and it became immediately popular. No one seemed to know its origins, and it was thought to be in the public domain. With a little investigation Peer discovered that the Southern Music Publishing Company had bought the copyright a few years before.
After World War II Peer went international, traveling through Europe, collecting artists and songs for his ever-spreading musical repertory, On one occasion, traveling through Communist occupied East Germany, Russian agents seized his collection of music manuscripts, suspicious that they contained secret encoded messages. In later life he established the Ralph Peer Award to be given to an outstanding promoter of country music. Surely Bristolians must feel that the award had gone full circle when the 1955 recipient was Tennessee Ernie Ford. Mazor says of the event, “With his musical mixture of honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, folk balladry, gospel, and pop, Ford was a perfect exemplar of Peer’s notion of what a popular roots music star could be.”
Nashvillian Barry Mazor is an ideal author for this book. An experienced reporter in the field of music journalism, he has written for several magazines and newspapers and is the author of Meeting Jimmie Rogers, which won Belmont University’s “Best Book on Country Music Award.”