In the summer of 1929 and spring of 1930, a novelty came to Knoxville, Tennessee – a fully-equipped, modern recording studio, installed by the Brunswick record label at the St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue in the heart of downtown. The Chicago-based label put out a call for local and regional musicians to come in and cut records for national distribution.
The St. James Sessions produced 101 commercially released tracks, featuring artists representing a variety of ethnicities and musical genres including gospel, string bands, blues, jazz. Collectively, they provide a panoramic view of Southern Appalachian music and culture on the cusp of the Great Depression.
Many of those recordings were lost for years or available only in barely listenable transfers. Now, the prestigious international Bear Family record label is packaging them as a box-set – and Knoxville is throwing a party to celebrate!
The Knoxville Stomp festival will run May 5-8, 2016, and will include multiple concerts, historical walking tours, lectures, panel discussions and a 78rpm record show. The festival is being presented by the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, WDVX Radio, the East Tennessee Historical Society and Visit Knoxville.
The Knoxville Stomp will also serve as the official launch party for Bear Family Records’ Knox County Stomp box-set, named for one of the songs recorded at the St. James Hotel. The Germany-based Bear Family Records is the premiere label for archival releases of American music, including the Grammy-nominated Bristol Sessions box-set.
“The St. James recordings are, first of all, great music, says Bradley Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. “There’s a fantastic range of really talented performers, many of whom never recorded again. They also provide a visceral connection to history. They really bring to life an era when mass media was still new and technology was reshaping American culture.”
Among the artists who recorded at the St. James Hotel were country star Uncle Dave Macon, gospel-blues singer Leola Manning, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band featuring Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong. (Armstrong is the subject of the 1985 documentary Louie Bluie, directed by Terry Zwigoff, whose other films include Crumb and Ghost World.)
Highlights of the Knoxville Stomp festival will include:
- A concert by Dom Flemons, a musician, scholar and cofounder of the popular Carolina Chocolate Drops, named in tribute to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops
- A free concert on Market Square featuring current Knoxville musicians playing songs from the St. James Sessions
- A public talk and film screening with renowned record collector Joe Bussard, who maintains one of the world’s largest collections of American music from the 1920s and 1930s
- A reading by author Amanda Petrusich from her book Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (recently featured on Fresh Air)
- 78 record show, for collectors of vintage shellac sides
- With many more events to be announced
The Knoxville Stomp is part of Knoxville’s 225th Anniversary celebration, which will highlight the city’s history throughout 2016. For more information about the festival, see knoxstomp.com.