Fiddlin' John Carson
|Fiddlin' John Carson|
|Birth name||John Carson|
|Born||March 23, 1868
Fannin County, Georgia, USA
|Died||December 11, 1949
|Genres||Old time music, Country|
|Years active||1920s – 1930s|
Carson was born in (or near) Fannin County, Georgia, and grew up on a farm there. His father worked as a section foreman for the W&A Railroad Company. In his teens, Carson learned to play the fiddle, using an old Stradivari-copy violin brought from Ireland in the early 18th century. When he was eleven years old he used to roam the streets of Copperhill playing for tips. In his teens, he worked as a racehorse jockey.
In 1894 he was married, and a couple of years later, in 1900, he began working for the Exposition Cotton Mill in Atlanta followed by work in other cotton mills of the Atlanta area for the next twenty years, eventually he was promoted to be a foreman. In 1911, Carson's family moved to Cabbagetown, Georgia and he and his children began working for the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. Three years later, in 1914, the workers of the cotton mill went on strike for their right to form a union, and Carson had nothing else to do but to perform for a living in the streets of North Atlanta. In these days, he wrote many songs and he used to print copies and sell them in the streets for a nickel or a dime. Some of the songs he wrote dealt with real life drama like the murder ballad "Mary Phagan". Because the governor of Georgia, John Marshall Slaton, commuted the death sentence of the condemned murderer of Mary Phagan to a life sentence, Carson, in outrage, wrote another version of "Mary Phagan" where he accused the governor of being paid a million dollars from a New York bank to change the verdict, causing him to be thrown in jail for slander. The convicted killer, Leo Frank, was lynched. (Decades later, a witness gave testimony indicating that the killer had probably been another man, Jim Conley, however, that was never proven, and the witness by then was a very elderly man with questionable recollections from his childhood, when he had testified differently at the original trial.)
On April 1, 1913 Carson performed at the first annual "Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention", held at the Municipal Auditorium in Atlanta, where he came in fourth. But between 1914 and 1922 he was proclaimed "Champion Fiddler of Georgia" seven times. The governor of Tennessee, Robert L. Taylor dubbed him "Fiddlin' John". In 1919, Carson began touring, mostly the areas north of Atlanta, with his newly formed band the Cronies. He became associated with many politicians of Georgia, like Tom Watson, Herman Talmadge and Eugene Talmadge, relations that gave rise to new songs like "Tom Watson Special". Carson and his daughter Rosa Lee began a series of performances for different political campaigns: for the Tom Watson U.S. Senate Campaign in 1920, for all of the Gene Talmadge's campaigns, and for the Herman Talmadge governor campaign. On September 9, 1922, Carson made his radio debut at Atlanta Journal's radio station WSB in Atlanta, It was reported by the Atlanta Journal that Carson's fame quickly spread all over the United States following his broadcast at WSB.
Career and aftermath
In early June 1923, Polk C. Brockman, an Atlanta furniture store owner, who had been instrumental in the distribution of records for Okeh, went to New York to work out a new business deal with Okeh Records. Later, in New York, he was asked if he knew of any artist in Atlanta that could justify a recording trip to Georgia. Brockman promised to return with an answer. A few days later, he was watching a movie followed by a silent newsreel at the Palace Theater in Times Square. The newsreel contained footage of Fiddlin' John Carson from an old time fiddler's contest in Virginia. Brockman wrote in his notebook: "Record Fiddlin' John Carson". At his next meeting with Okeh Records Board, he persuaded Ralph Peer to go ahead and record Carson.
On June 19, 1923, Carson made his recording debut in an empty building on Nassau Street in Atlanta, cutting two sides, "The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane" and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's going to Crow." Brockman told researchers in the 1960s that Peer had disliked the singing style of Carson and described it "pluperfect awful", but Peer was persuaded by Brockman to press five hundred for him to distribute. (Peer's biographer, Barry Mazor, argues that Peer's dissatisfaction concerned the technical quality of the recording, rather than the music, and that Peer was keen to make more recordings of Carson in New York.) The recording was immediately sold out from the stage of the next Fiddler's convention on July 13, 1923. Peer, realizing Carson's potential, immediately invited Carson to New York for another recording session.
Fiddlin' John Carson ceased recording temporarily in 1931 but resumed in 1934, now for the Victor label. Between 1923 and 1931, Carson recorded almost 150 songs, mostly together with the "Virginia Reelers" or his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, who performed with him as "Moonshine Kate". He wrote more than 150 songs in his life but only nine were ever copyrighted. Because Carson couldn't read sheet music he had his songs transferred to standard notation by the stepdaughter of preacher Andrew Jenkins, Irene Spain. Carson was involved in several copyright issues with both Okeh Records and other musicians during his active career.
In his later years, he worked for the local government as an elevator operator in Atlanta, a job he had obtained through his friendship with governor Herman Talmadge. He died in 1949 in Atlanta, Georgia, and is buried in Sylvester Cemetery in the East Atlanta neighborhood of Atlanta, where surviving friends and family play music at his grave each year around the anniversary of his birth.
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