- by Jack Palmer
Vernon Dalhart recorded often during the acoustic era of recording and was probably the most popular recording artist in America during the first couple of years of the electric era. He recorded over 1600 songs from 1916 to 1939, working at some point for nearly every record company in the United States. He started as a classical singer but eventually recorded almost every type of song and became best known for country, or "hillbilly," type songs. Today, his membership in the Country Music Hall Of Fame attests to his key role in popularizing country music on early recordings.
Vernon Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter, II, in Jefferson, Texas, the only child of Robert Marion and Mary Jane (Castleberry) Slaughter. He was probably born on April 6, 1883. The 1890 census indicates that Dalhart was born in 1881, but all other sources show the 1883 date.
In an interview for the May 1927 issue of Farm and Fireside, in an article titled "Two Men Who Sell New Songs For Old," Dalhart stated, "When I was only ten days old, Mother, having accomplished her mission in town, climbed aboard a range pony and carried me to the home ranch where I grew up." The ranch was a few miles outside Jefferson, which was the seat of Marion County and which began as a river town at the edge of east Texas over 70 years before. Slaughter family members were notorious for violent ways, and Marion's father was killed in an argument with his brother-in-law, Bob Castleberry, when Dalhart was 10 years old. On the wall of the former Kahn Saloon in Jefferson is a plaque stating that Marion often sang in the Kahn Saloon (scene of his father's death) before he left Jefferson. If it is true that he sang there, he was singing in public at a young age since he was living in Dallas before he was 17.
Marion grew up musical. He sang and also played the harmonica, jew's harp and kazoo, all of which he would later play on many of his recordings.
In Dallas, the young Slaughter was encouraged to develop his voice and he began studying music at the Dallas Conservatory of Music while working at various jobs to support himself and his growing family. He had married Sadie Lee Moore-Livingston in 1902 and by 1904 had a son, Marion Try, III, and a daughter, Janice. Sometime before 1910 he moved his family to New York to further his musical education. He supported his family by working in a piano warehouse and taking occasional singing jobs, mostly as a church soloist, while studying voice to prepare himself for opera and the concert stage, his eventual goal.
In 1912 he appeared on the stage in a minor role in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, using for the first time the name Vernon Dalhart, forming it from two west Texas towns, Vernon and Dalhart, where supposedly he had worked on a ranch during his teens. Although many pseudonyms would be used by record companies for the tenor, Vernon Dalhart was the name used by Slaughter for the rest of his life in his business dealings and in much of his personal correspondence.
In 1914 Dalhart had the leading tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, performing in New York and touring with various companies (in 1917 he recorded from Pinafore the "Nightingale's Song," issued as Blue Amberol 3385). In 1916 he saw a notice in a paper that the Edison company was auditioning for new recording artists. In a 1927 magazine article, Dalhart claimed that he had tried for seven years to get a chance to record with Edison. Having finally passed an audition, he was asked by Thomas A. Edison to sing directly into Edison's ear trumpet--an additional audition of a novel kind. Edison liked Dalhart's voice because he could understand every word when Dalhart sang.
A test recording was made, and although Dalhart's name appeared in a list of "Artists Who Have Made Or Will Make Edison Records" in the June 1915 Edison Diamond Disc Catalog, two years would pass before the company released the first Dalhart recording, by which time Dalhart had recorded for two other companies.
The first Dalhart records to be issued were Columbia A2108, which featured the Gus Kahn-Egbert Van Alstyne song "Just A Word Of Sympathy" (recorded on September 13, 1916), and two Emerson discs. Emerson 798 featured Turner's "The World Is Hungry For a Little Bit of Love" and Emerson 7104 featured "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin', Caroline?" The three discs were issued in December 1916.
The tenor made only a few Columbias prior to 1924, one of them, "When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band To France" (A2541), issued in July 1918 under the name Bob White. The pseudonym was used probably because this comic song was uncharacteristic of Dalhart in these years (Bob White would be used often for Dalhart in the 1920s). He recorded around this time another song inspired by the war in Europe: "Paul Revere, Won't You Ride For Us Again." It was issued under Dalhart's name as Columbia A2567 in August 1918.
In June 1917, by which time several additional Dalhart performances had been issued by Emerson (on 795, 7104, 7127, 7132, 7174 and 7176--followed in July by 7183 and 7192), his first Edison record was released, Blue Amberol 3185, featuring the same song issued on an Emerson disc, "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin', Caroline?" In September it was issued on Diamond Disc 80334.
According to Dalhart, it was with the 1914 Caro Roma composition "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin', Caroline?" that he had made such an impression two years earlier during his Edison audition. The song, performed in Dalhart's normal Southern accent, became one of Edison's most popular recordings and remained in the catalog until 1929. Though many have commented on Dalhart's use of Negro dialect in singing this and other songs, Dalhart claimed it was his normal east Texas accent.
He had an exclusive contract with Edison from May 1917 through May 1919 (he made two Columbia and two Victor recordings in 1918 and it is likely that he was given permission to make these). He would be come one of Edison's most prolific artists, recording over 200 songs for the company. No solo artist, duo or band had more recordings issued as Blue Amberol dubbings than Dalhart. He conducted many Edison Tone Test Recitals, the name given in the November 1915 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly for the marketing phenomenon of artists sharing a stage with Edison Diamond Disc phonographs. The artist would sing at times, the phonograph would be played at other times, and audiences were asked if they could distinguish "the re-creation" from live singing. The earliest references to Tone Test Recitals are in the September 1915 issue of the Edison trade publication, which notes that soprano Alice Verlet sang "in unison with her own records" to Edison dealers at the Edison plant on August 9, 1915, and Verdi E.B. Fuller explained to the dealers how to hold similar Recitals; one of the earliest public Tone Test Recitals was at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on September 13, 1915. The November 1918 issue of Talking Machine World includes a photograph of Dalhart, noting that he was one of 15 artists touring at that time. He continued conducting these recitals until the mid-1920s.
In August 1917, two Dalhart performances were issued on Blue Amberols: the love-song "Cora" (3231) and "There's Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes" (3244). Announcing the release of "There's Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes" on Blue Amberol 3244, the July 1917 issue of Edison Amberola Monthly stated, "Vernon Dalhart has certainly rendered this song in true Egyptian style." In that month, Starr issued Dalhart singing "Pull the Cork Out of Erin" (7598) on its new label.
In September, Dalhart's first recording with a singing partner was issued. He sang with Kathryn Irving on Kern's "Till the Clouds Roll By" on Starr 7607, the reverse side featuring another team, Ada Jones and Harry Dunne. More than a year would pass before Starr issued another Dalhart performance, which was "Rock-a-bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody)" on Gennett 8536, issued in March 1919.
Three Diamond Discs featuring Dalhart were issued in October 1917: "Tommy Lad!" (80348), "There's Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes" (80354), and "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin', Caroline" (80334). Also issued in October was Blue Amberol 3297 featuring Dalhart and Gladys Rice performing Richard Whiting's "Ain't You Coming Back to Dixieland?" Rice's partners around this time were Irving Kaufman, Walter Van Brunt, and Frederick Wheeler, but she would record more duets with Dalhart than with any other singer.
A Diamond Disc featuring Dalhart singing Jack Wells' "Joan of Arc (They Are Calling You)" (50444) was issued in November 1917 as was the Blue Amberol dubbing 3323. It was one of many war-ballads composed in mid-1917. A few more Blue Amberols and Diamond Discs featuring Dalhart were issued in late 1917 and early 1918.
In April 1918, an unusually high number of Dalhart performances--seven in all--were issued by Edison. Two Blue Amberol featuring him were issued, with "Hush-a-bye Ma Baby" (3454) being a duet with Marion Evelyn Cox. Four Diamond Discs featuring him were issued, two of them in Edison's popular 50,000 series and two in the more high-brow 80,000 series. On Diamond Disc 80384, Dalhart sings "That's Why My Heart Is Calling You" and "Will You Remember?" On Diamond Disc 80387 he is teamed with Gladys Rice for "My Hawaii You're Calling Me." That he was issued in both the 50,000 and 80,000 series indicates Edison executives in these early years recognized his versatility. For the Christmas season of 1917, Edison had even issued a Blue Amberol of Dalhart singing the traditional "Star of Bethlehem" (3333).
He began recording with Victor on November 6, 1918. His first Victor disc, featuring a song popularized by Al Jolson in Sinbad, "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" (18512), was issued in February 1919. Dalhart was one of the few new artists to record for Victor in 1918. He made slightly more than a dozen recordings for Victor prior to "The Prisoner's Song," but the early Victors sold only moderately well. Victor catalogs of the early 1920s describe him as "one of the best light opera tenors in America...There is no burlesquing in Mr. Dalhart's singing of negro songs. To quote his own words, he simply imagines he's 'back home' again and sings as the spirit and his home experiences dictate."
After Dalhart's recording contract with Edison expired in 1919, Dalhart was not under an exclusive contract with any company until 1928. By the early 1920s Dalhart was making records for several recording companies and had already started using the name Bob White for Columbia releases and Robert White for Edison. Diamond Disc 51206, issued in September 1923, features Hanley's "Stingo Stungo" as sung by tenor Robert White, really Vernon Dalhart.
Dalhart was versatile from the beginning, recording everything from light classical songs to popular songs, eventually singing vocal refrains for dance bands. His repertoire included hymns, comedy songs, and children's songs. He recorded solo and as a member of various duos, trios and quartets. Between 1916 and early 1924 he made well over 400 recordings which appeared on more than 800 sides in the United States and appeared on at least 200 sides outside the States. His was a respectable but not remarkable recording career up to this point. Then, due to one record, he enjoyed an almost unprecedented degree of popularity for a recording artist.
By early 1924 folk, hillbilly or mountain music (record companies used all three terms) had already been recorded and was selling fairly well, mostly in the rural South. One such recording was "The Wreck On The Southern Old 97," performed by guitarist and harmonica-player Henry Whitter on Okeh 40015 and issued in early 1924. Dalhart was convinced that he could make a superior recording of this and talked Edison executives into letting him record it early in 1924 (some sources say Edison's son, Charles, suggested that Dalhart record the song). In learning the words directly from the Whitter disc, Dalhart misunderstood some phrases, which resulted in slightly different lyrics. Sheet music would be issued only upon the success of Dalhart's Victor recording of the song.
The Edison recording was made in May 1924, issued as Diamond Disc 51361 in August, then issued as Blue Amberol 4898 in September. It sold reasonably well despite the Diamond Disc's reverse side featuring Ernest Hare singing a "coon" song titled "I Wasn't Scared But I Just Thought That I Had Better Go," which was a thoughtless match for the Dalhart side. Frank Ferera played guitar on "The Wreck On The Southern Old 97," and Dalhart sang and played harmonica.
Dalhart next asked Victor executives--most likely Eddie King-- to allow him to record it for the prestigious company. The response was that Victor would record it if Dalhart could suggest a suitable selection for the B side of the record. An old folk song was rearranged and titled "The Prisoner's Song." It was recorded with Carson Robison (1890 - 1957) playing guitar and L. Raderman playing viola. In November 1924, Victor record 19427 was released with "The Wreck Of The Old 97" (the title had changed slightly--"Southern" was dropped and the preposition "on" became "of") on side A and "The Prisoner's Song" on side B, both called "Mountaineer's Song" in the Victor catalog. The latter song became enormously popular.
Everyone involved in the production of this recording has a different story on how "The Prisoner's Song" was written and recorded. Although today there is no doubt that the song was derived from an old folk song, Dalhart claimed his cousin, Guy Massey, had sung the song for years and Dalhart had simply rearranged it. Years later, Bobby Gregory, a protege of Dalhart's in the 1930's, stated that Dalhart told him he had only changed a few notes in Massey's song to make it better for his voice. Robison, who was a Victor contract musician at that time, later claimed he had written it. Nat Shilkret, the producer and also under Victor contract, claimed some responsibility for the music.
Dalhart copyrighted the song in 1924 under his cousin's name and Dalhart himself earned royalties when Guy Massey died the following year. Years later Dalhart turned all rights over to the Massey family.
That the song became a huge hit is remarkable given its simple melody and the fact that its lyrics make little sense:
Oh! I wish I had someone to love me,
Someone to call me their own.
Oh! I wish I had someone to live with
'cause I'm tired of living alone.
Oh! Please meet me tonight in the moonlight
Please meet me tonight all alone.
For I have a sad story to tell you,
It's a story that's never been told.
I'll be carried to the new jail tomorrow,
Leaving my poor darling alone.
With the cold prison bars all around me
And my head on a pillow of stone.
Now I have a grand ship on the ocean
All mounted with silver and gold.
And before my poor darling would suffer, Oh!
That ship would be anchored and sold.
Now if I had wings like an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly.
And I'd fly to the arms of my poor darlin'
And there I'd be willing to die.
Within a year, the song was being sung everywhere. Dalhart was paid $3500 for a two week stint at the Strand Theater in New York--he only had to sing this song. He performed it on radio and he recorded it for almost every American record company. His recordings of this one song appeared on over 50 labels in the United States alone. In addition, the song was recorded as a waltz and by dance and jazz bands. Even these recordings usually included a vocal refrain which was almost always performed by Dalhart though he was not always identified on the record. Nat Shilkret's International Novelty Orchestra recorded a dance band version on June 26, 1925 (Victor 19714), and Dalhart sang a vocal refrain. Ross Gorman and His Orchestra recorded it for Columbia on January 4, 1926 (563-D), and again Dalhart sang the vocal refrain.
The song was re-recorded electrically by Victor and was re-released using the original record number. It continued to sell until the late 1930's and became popular in every English speaking country in the world.
Although it is often stated that "The Prisoner's Song" was the biggest selling record of the acoustical era, this is difficult to substantiate. Since the song as re-recorded in the electric era sold well, many of the sales were not of the acoustical version. But it was probably the biggest selling song of the 1920's.
Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison had discovered a new career. Robison had already made some records for Victor, both whistling and playing the guitar. As soon as Robison's Victor contract expired, he teamed up full-time with Dalhart. He performed as singer, whistler and guitarist on Dalhart recordings and also became a prolific composer, writing many of Dalhart's hits. Over the next couple of years, Dalhart and Robison, usually accompanied by violinist Murray Kellner, made records for almost every company. Many of the records were very popular and a few sold at, or near, a million copies. Dalhart was so popular that over 100 of his songs appeared on 10 or more labels. Among the most popular were Robison's "My Blue Ridge Mountain Home" (on 46 different labels), Gussie L. Davis' "In The Baggage Coach Ahead" (on 42 labels), "Golden Slippers" (on 38 labels) and Hattie Nevada's "The Letter Edged In Black" (on 35 labels).
During this time various Dalhart pseudonyms were employed. Although Dalhart himself only used perhaps a half dozen names, the record companies used many others. When a company released the same recorded performance on several labels, it would often use a different name for each label. Because of the large number of Dalhart releases, at least a hundred pseudonyms have been verified as used by record companies on Dalhart recordings. There were more than eighty names used in the United States, including more than twenty names of groups in which Dalhart either sang or played the kazoo. Another thirty or more names were used in England, Australia and Canada. In addition, Dalhart sang with many musical groups and often was unidentified on the label.
Including foreign issues, discographers have listed nearly 3800 sides on more than 150 labels released in the United States, with another 1160 sides, or so, released outside the United States. Allowing for the records where Dalhart only appeared on one side, there were well over 3000 Dalhart records issued since 1916. Obviously he did not make this many recordings. Many of the masters were released on a dozen, or more, different labels.
No doubt because of the success of "The Wreck of the Old 97," Dalhart would record many songs about actual events. Soon after Charles A. Lindbergh's solo nonstop transatlantic flight on May 20- 21 1927, Dalhart entered many studios and recorded Johnson and Sherman's "Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)" and Baer and Gilbert's "Lucky Lindy." Victor's coupling (20674) and Columbia's coupling (1000-D) were issued in August 1927. He would record several other songs about Lindbergh.
Sometime around 1927, while Robison was on vacation, Dalhart sent for Adelyne (or Adelyn) Hood from Alabama to replace Kellner. Dalhart had met Hood years earlier. During his early Edison Tone Test Recitals, she was the violinist who accompanied the tenor. She was an accomplished violinist and also played the piano and sang. Although Robison respected Hood, he resented Dalhart making a change in their group without his approval. He had already been at odds with Dalhart since Dalhart collected a portion of the royalties on songs that Robison wrote and which Dalhart recorded (a common practice among singers at the time). Despite Robison's objections, the trio of Hood, Robison and Dalhart recorded together and some of Dalhart's most popular songs were released during this time. By mid-1928, Robison had found a new partner in Frank Luther and left Dalhart.
Dalhart managed to record over 200 songs after Robison left-- sometimes performing with Hood, sometimes without. They were issued on at least 800 sides, but Dalhart's popularity was waning. Robison's song-writing had helped Dalhart in the past--his departure contributed to a decline in Dalhart's popularity. Radio was increasingly hurting record sales. In addition, new country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family were now recording. By 1931 the record industry suffered heavily from the Depression, and performing artists came to rely on radio, not recording work, for their income.
Dalhart had earlier appeared on network radio, including at least one full hour show for Majestic Radio in 1929. Finally, in 1931, along with Adelyne Hood, he hosted a network show for Barbasol. The radio show was titled Barber Shop Chords and featured Dalhart as Barbasol Ben with Adelyne Hood as Barbara the manicurist, along with a barber shop quartet. The show was broadcast three times a week on Columbia but left the air in October 1931 after only six months. Apparently at least some of the shows were done by transcription since Dalhart and Hood were in England early in 1931. This may have contributed to the show's early demise.
Also in 1931 Dalhart had his only recording session for Durium Records. These flexible paper based records featured a song on one side and Dalhart's picture on the reverse. In the spring of 1931 Dalhart and Hood traveled to England, apparently for a few personal appearances. While there they did two recording sessions, recording eight songs with an English orchestra. Only four of the songs were released; two had been previously recorded in the United States and two were never recorded elsewhere. These two new songs, "River Stay Away From My Door" and "It's Time To Say Aloha To You" were issued on Regal Record MR-332, now one of Dalhart's rarest recordings.
Dalhart's next recording session was not until 1932 when he and Hood recorded six sides in two sessions for Crown Records. The same recordings were reissued on the Varsity label in 1939 using the name Bill Vernon. Two years later he and Hood did two sessions for Brunswick Finally in 1939, RCA signed him as an exclusive artist. He had only one recording session, during which he recorded six songs. All were released on the Bluebird label as Vernon Dalhart and His Big Cypress Boys, but they did not sell well. One of the recordings, "Lavender Cowboy" on Bluebird B-8229, appeared to refer to homosexuality, so radio considered it a "blue" song and banned it from the air. Although Dalhart wrote to a friend in the 1940's that his voice was as good as ever, there were no further recordings.
Dalhart had made a lot of money after the success of "The Prisoner's Song" and purchased a large estate in Mamaroneck, New York in the late 1920's. However, he had invested a lot of his money in the stock market just before the Crash of '29. By 1938 he was forced to sell his estate and move to a smaller Mamaroneck home. That year he made some personal appearances with Adelyne Hood (now using the name Betsy White) in upstate New York and even broadcast on a Schenectady radio station. In these broadcasts, Dalhart followed the custom of many country stars by appearing on the radio for free to advertise his personal appearances. In a letter to a friend a couple of years later, he stated, "I think I've had quite a belly full of that supporting radio stations with free entertainment. If I'm going to do that, I can stay home and do better". He did appear on radio at least once more, as a guest on We, The People, trying to resurrect his career.
By 1940, he had left New York and moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he was advertising as a voice teacher. During World War II he served as a guard at a local defense plant. After the war he worked as a night clerk at the Barnum Hotel in Bridgeport, and was still employed there when he died September 14, 1948 from a heart attack. He is buried along side his wife (who died two years later) and his son (who had passed away in 1942) in the family plot at Bridgeport's Mountain Grove Cemetery. A plain headstone marks his grave: MARION TRY SLAUGHTER, SR, 1883-1948. His daughter lies next to her husband in a nearby section.
Although several people, including Carson Robison, have stated Dalhart was a difficult man to work with, two of his later proteges had nothing but praise for him. Bobby Gregory and Red River Dave McEnery both credited him for helping them get started in the music business and always spoke of him with great affection.
The Country Music Foundation called Dalhart a one man recording industry when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1981. In 1995, during Vernon Dalhart Days in Jefferson, Texas, he was belatedly inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall Of Fame.
Special thanks to Robert Olson for suggestions and discographical information.
NEW BOOK published January 2003: "COUNTRY MUSIC ON 78s," compiled by country music historian Robert R. Olson. 310 pages. This UNIQUE book documents which record companies issued which "country" titles and "hillbilly" artists on original 78 rpm discs.
Olson spent decades studying country music on 78 rpm discs that were issued in the 1920s and 1930s. He studied primary sources, such as original company studio logs, and has gathered rare info from America's best-known 78 rpm collectors, country-western historians, and discographers. This book is not available in any store. Privately published.
As the title page suggests, here are lists of country music titles & artists found on old 78 rpm discs issued from the mid-1920s to World War II. These are numerical listings in the country "series" of 12 different 78 rpm labels, including Brunswick 100-600 series, Columbia's 15000-D series, Decca's 5000 series, Okeh's 45000 series, Victor's V-40000 & 23500 series, Vocalion's 5000 series, Broadway's 8000 series, the Grey Gull/Radiex 4000 series, Herwin's 75500 series, Paramount's 3000 series, and Romeo's 5000 series (the Romeo 5000 series is the same as the Oriole 8000 series and the Jewel 20000 series, as far as 20053). Columbia's 20000/21000 country series is not included because it is post-WWII. Book is 9 x 11 inches, spiral binding. Here are names of typical artists in the lists: Uncle Dave Macon, Ernest V. Stoneman, Fiddlin' John Carson & His Virginia Reelers, Jenkins Family, Blind Andy (Andrew Jenkins), Frank Hutchinson, Allen Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, Bud Billings (this is really Frank Luther), Carter Family, Grinnell Giggers, Kelly Harrell, Gunboat Billy & the Sparrow (on Victor 23698, this is really Arthur Fields & Fred Hall--not country artists at all!), George Reneau, Lester McFarland & Robert A. Gardner, Bradley Kincaid, Jimmie Wakely & His Rough Riders, Cliff Carlisle, Shelton Brothers, Texas Jim Lewis & His Lone Star Cowboys, and so on. In the book are RARE advertisements from Talking Machine World and other phonograph trade journals--Okeh ads for Fiddlin' John Carson, Henry Whitter, Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, Ernest Thompson, Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis (pioneers among female hillbilly artists--1924!), Cliff Bruner, McFarland and Gardner, the Tennessee Ramblers, and so on.