Hillbilly Music Straight Outta Compton

I would imagine most people know Compton as the epicenter of late ‘80s hip-hop and a city dominated by crime and gang violence. Smack in the middle between Long Beach and Los Angeles, just south of Watts, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s it became a suburban destination for middle class blacks attracted to both its location and the affordable single-family homes that were available after a Supreme Court case knocked out segregation laws. But with a small commercial area, a shrinking tax base, and a corrupt government, by 1969 Compton held the distinction of having the highest crime rate in California.


There’s another side of musical history from Compton that pre-dates local gansta rap and g-funk. Town Hall Party began in 1951 as a radio broadcast and eventually became a television show that lasted for almost ten years before going off the air. The old Town Hall building at 400 South Long Beach Boulevard was being booked occasionally for country-and-western “barn dances” when it was taken over by promoter William B. Wagnon Jr. It was his idea to get the dances broadcast live on local radio, and the success soon led to a television show concept that started and stopped, but didn’t really become cohesive until August 29, 1953.


The website Hillbilly-Music Dawt Com has done a great job in researching the history of Town Hall Party, which I would encourage you to check out, but here’s an excerpt:

“The lineup on that first show was to be Tex Ritter, Les (Carrot Top) Anderson, Wesley and Marilyn Tuttle, Jack Lloyd, Joe Maphis, Rose Lee Maphis and Texas Tiny (a disc jockey at KFOX who had a three hour a day show). Tex Williams and his band were to provide the musical backing for performers. Jay Stewart was to be the announcer.”

There were a number of country stars that either joined the cast for short periods or were simply guests, including Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Sons of the Pioneers, Smiley Burnette, Patsy Cline, Eddie Cochran, George Jones, Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins and Gene Autry. The Collins Kids, Larry and Lorrie, became show regulars with their rockabilly beat and harmonies. Just two years apart, by age ten Larry was a guitar whiz, playing a double-neck Mosrite guitar like his mentor, Joe Maphis.


According to Country Song Round-Up in August 1954, “the 10-piece Town Hall Party band featured Joe Maphis, Merle Travis, superb steel guitarist Marian Hall, Billy Hill and Fiddlin’ Kate on violins, PeeWee Adams on drums, Jimmy Pruitt on piano, and other excellent musicians who created a Town Hall Party sound also heard on many country sessions produced by Columbia Records in Hollywood in the 1950s.”


In 1957 Screen Gems filmed a series of 39 half-hour shows that they syndicated and re-named the Ranch Party. The Collins Kids were given co-star billing with host Tex Ritter. In his  book Reflections, country performer Johnny Bond, who was also involved in the program, wrote that “traditional country entertainers, singing cowboys and rock singers never shared the spotlight in a more harmonious manner than on the Town Hall Party and syndicated Ranch Party shows.”


Columbia Records released a Town Hall Party album in 1958 that included many of the regular cast members who soon departed the show because NBC decided to discontinue the Saturday night radio broadcasts. In late December 1958, the newly opened Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas began to put on Town Hall Party shows featuring Tex Ritter, The Collins Kids, and Town Hall regulars, thus drawing them away from the Saturday night telecasts on Los Angeles station KTTV. In December 1960 they were dropped from the lineup, and the final performance at the old Compton Town Hall was on Jan. 14, 1961.



Beginning in 2002, the Germany-based Bear Family Records began to release a series of Town Hall Party DVDs that now includes 25 titles. Most feature various artists, but they’ve also brought out an artist spotlight series that includes Joe Maphis, The Collins Kids, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Merle Travis, and others. There are a few dozen clips and also complete shows available to view on YouTube, with some posted from Bear Family and others from private collectors. It was a great time period for country music in California, and it came straight outta Compton.


This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.

80 Years of Sittin’ on Top of the World

Whether it’s listed on the record label as Sittin’ or Sitting, this 1930 country blues number has become an American standard over the years, which was acknowledged in 2008 when it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Although written by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon, and often credited to others, in typical folk music tradition it can originally be traced back to an instrumental a year prior from Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. Under the title of “You Got To Reap What You Sow,” it was recorded and released in 1929 by Tampa Red.


A year later The Mississippi Sheiks added lyrics and changed the title to what we all know it as now. The band stayed together, rotating several members throughout the early 1930s in addition to the above-mentioned Walter and Lonnie, and they recorded over 70 songs for three different record labels. The Chatmon family came from Bolton, Mississippi, and after a five-year run they went back home to work on the farm.


Through the years a number of cover versions have been recorded in various styles, this one by Ray Charles, the first under his own name, and it was his seventh single for Swing Time Records. Note the song credits.


Whether it’s true or not, I’ve read that Bob Wills was such a fan of the blues that he once walked 50 miles to see Bessie Smith. This particular performance was recorded in September 1951 in Hollywood, California. Cotton Whittington is the man playing his guitar upside down and Bobby Koeffer is doing the non-pedal steel.


Back in his home state of Mississippi, Chester Burnette (aka Howlin’ Wolf) used to check out the old blues musicians, including the Chatmons. In 1957 he moved north and cut a pure blues version, changing the beat and electrifying it Chicago-style. At about the same time, Bill Monroe turned the song upside down and inside out with this smokin’ bluegrass version. Note the mistake on the label: it confuses the song title and composers with that other song made famous by Al Jolson.


In the ’60s the song probably received its most exposure from both the Grateful Dead’s debut  album and Cream’s Wheels of Fire, with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. But it’s the Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley version that I have always been most enamored of. Paste magazine called their collaborations “classic old-timey folk music and blues that remains a primary inspiration to Americana roots musicians” and said “they possessed a unique musical chemistry that defied generational limitations and remains vital and fresh to the present day.”


In August of 1978, folklorist Alan Lomax, along with John Bishop and Worth Long, visited Sam Chatmon’s home in Hollandale, Mississippi, to record this version, 48 years after his family brought it to life. The list of people who’ve recorded it over the decades cover a large swath of styles, from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson, Richard Shindell to James Blood Ulmer.


For those interested in a bit more historical information, I’d like to suggest that you check out this transcription from NPR’s All Things Considered. This is an interview with musicologist Bruce Nemerov from 2006 that walks you through the decades, similar to what I’ve done here, but with more detail.

I’m going to close this out with a version I really like from the late Pinetop Perkins. This was his final studio recording, done a year before he passed in 2010, and the vocals are delivered by Emily Gimble. From Tampa to Pinetop, and most recently Jack White, this song goes on forever.


This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.