This 927-page tome is easily the most important research aid for the study of country music undertaken in our time. Along with Tony Russell’s discographic investigation of pre-World War II country music (scheduled for publication early next year by Oxford University Press), Country Music Sources will supply just about everything a serious student needs to begin an exploration of the music that made its way onto commercial phonograph recordings before 1942.
As the title suggests, the book attempts to document every known pre-1942 recording of American traditional country songs (religious and secular), along with the label, place, and date of recording, the songs’ composers, and sources where the songs originally appeared (songsters, folios, sheet music, and the like). Altogether, about 3400 separate songs, appearing on over 11,000 recordings, are listed.
The compilers have grouped and cross-referenced the songs in 52 categories or themes, such as “Mother And Home,” “Forsaken Love,” “Prison Songs,” “Southern Gospel,” and “Southern Breakdowns.” The reader, for example, is told that “Give My Love To Nell” (also known as “Jack And Joe”) was written by William Benson Gray in 1894, is informed of eight printed sources where the song was mentioned, and then is given a listing of nineteen recordings (beginning with Ernest Stoneman’s 1925 Okeh performance) where some version of the song can be found.
The next step, of course, is up to the researcher. Once a recording is identified, it then has to be found and heard in order to make sense of its contents and the manner in which the song was performed. I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to be granted access to the holdings of one of the greatest repositories of commercially performed traditional music in America, the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, built around the nucleus of American material originally collected by Australian John Edwards. There, I became immersed in the raw data painstakingly transcribed by Gus Meade on 5×7 cards that his co-authors ultimately reassembled into the volume reviewed here.
Country Music Sources stands as a tribute to Meade and other selfless and indefatigable collectors such as Edwards, Mike Seeger, Bob Pinson and Eugene Earle who have devoted lifetimes to the accumulation of songbooks, folios, sheet music, records, radio transcriptions, and other ephemera related to American vernacular music.
Meade had some training in folklore at Indiana University, but he worked most of his life as a computer programmer and systems analyst for various agencies of the federal government. His real passions, however, were Kentucky fiddle styles, American ballads and folk songs, and recorded variants of traditional music. Long before this book was completed, almost everyone who worked in the realm of pre-World War II country music scholarship had been befriended by Meade. Years ago, he supplied me with information on early radio barn dances and Texas fiddling.
A work as ambitious as this one can never be totally exhaustive, complete, nor error-free. When Meade died in 1991, he was still looking for the ultimate sources of the items he had collected, and I think he would want us to see the book as a work in progress. Consequently, every researcher probably will have some question about inclusions or omissions.
Meade’s usage of the term “traditional” could sometimes be impressionistic, and readers will therefore wonder why some songs were used and others ignored. For example, I wonder why “You Are My Sunshine”, “Hobo’s Lullaby” or “Pan American Blues” don’t appear. As the compilers point out, some songs, such as “When The Work’s All Done This Fall”, began their lives as poems in obscure or short-lived newspapers, books or magazines.
Somewhere out there, still another source is waiting to be discovered. For example, I’ve found a printed version of the great sentimental ballad, “Little Bessie”, that precedes the date given in Meade’s book by a good twenty years. I’m sure other researchers will find similar discrepancies.
But I think that’s what Gus Meade intended. He conceived this book as a practical compendium for devotees of traditional music, and as a stimulus to further research. He knew the historical documentation of traditional country music was an ongoing process that would probably never be completed. With this volume, though, he has given us an indispensable resource, a launching pad for conducting our search intelligently.