If you’ve read this week’s cover story, you know about The Knoxville Sessions: 1929-1930, the CD box set that’s the inspiration for the Knoxville Stomp festival this weekend. It’s a beautiful piece of work, four discs holding 102 recordings made in downtown Knoxville’s St. James hotel in 1929 and 1930, accompanied by a 156-page book by music scholars Ted Olson and Tony Russell. The set exists thanks to the German label Bear Family, which since 1975 has been peerless in producing high-quality reissues of American music.
Richard Weize, Bear Family’s founder, has been traveling to Knoxville since the 1970s, fascinated with much of the music that originated here. He befriended, among others, Red Rector and his wife, Parker, and his company has released numerous CDs of Knoxville artists such as Carl Story and Carl and Pearl Butler. It may seem peculiar that someone from the small German village of Holste-Oldendorf is more interested in aspects of our city’s culture than most Knoxvillians are, but Weize and his team are preserving this music and making it accessible to an extent that archives and universities could envy. And The Knoxville Sessions is far from Bear Family’s final word on the city’s music.
The Knoxville sessions recordings have had an interesting history. Released on the cusp of the Great Depression, they never sold well and were largely forgotten. There was some interest among hardcore 78 collectors in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until country music historian Charles Wolfe, in 1974, wrote an article in Russell’s U.K.-produced journal Old Time Music that wider attention was brought to the sessions. Wolfe’s article—and several related pieces that followed—and his interviews with artists from the sessions remain invaluable sources of information about the recordings.
In Knoxville, Jack Neely wrote about the sessions for Metro Pulse in the 1990s and ’00s, referring to them as the “St. James sessions.” That name still holds for a lot of people. Around the same time Jack started writing about the recordings, singer Nancy Brennan Strange became obsessed with the blues and gospel singer Leola Manning, a performer from the sessions, and tracked down her daughter. Manning’s song “Satan Is Busy in Knoxville,” which is among the few recordings from the sessions to circulate on CD compilations, is one of the more widely known records from the sessions. The title alone invites interest, but it’s Manning’s voice that keeps drawing in listeners.
Up in Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s, Knoxville expat Bradley Reeves, a recent graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, was working at the Library of Congress. One weekend he and some colleagues took a trip 50 miles north to Frederick, Md., to meet the eccentric, excitable 78 collector Joe Bussard, who would spend hours and hours playing old records for visitors in his basement. Reeves asked Bussard if he had anything from Knoxville; Bussard produced a disc by Ridgel’s Fountain Citians. He kept putting Knoxville records on the turntable. Reeves was floored.
A few years later Reeves moved back to Knoxville and started the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound with his wife, Louisa Trott, a fellow archivist. Bussard had made tapes of everything he had from the 1929-30 recordings—he doesn’t do CDs, much less digital files. Eventually, Reeves collected around 90 songs. When he digitized them, Jeff Bills posted dozens of the mp3s, along with Neely’s Metro Pulse articles, to his Lynn Point Records website. In 2008, New Jersey’s WFMU, considered by many music heads to be one of the best radio stations in the country, posted links to the recordings on its blog. Forgotten, rarely heard records from Knoxville, made more than 75 years earlier, could now be heard around the world.
In February 2014, Weize told Reeves that Bear Family was releasing The Knoxville Sessions. He asked if TAMIS had any relevant materials for the project. Quite a bit, as it turns out—Reeves had been contacting relatives of the recording artists and collecting photographs, letters, newspaper articles, and ephemera for years. There was still a good deal out there to be uncovered, though, and a few mysteries to be solved. By this time I was working at TAMIS, and Reeves and I got in touch with more family members and tracked down as much material as we could. Olson and Russell came to town, conducted more interviews, and looked beyond East Tennessee to solve further mysteries. Many other mysteries about the sessions remain unsolved.
But we now have an exhaustive, durable physical document of the St. James/Knoxville sessions. It’s difficult to imagine a better one. It should be considered a gift to the city and its people, from a longtime German admirer.
Inside the Vault features discoveries from the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, a collection of film, video, music, and other media from around East Tennessee.
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