I recently found a copy of Malone and McCulloch's Stars of Country Music at a used bookstore -- and bought it, after some hesitation, because of the section on early country music. But the most interesting part, in hindsight, was probably the chapter on Vernon Dalhart. It's curious to note how close to forgotten Dalhart is, given how important he was for the success of old-time country.
Eventually I decided that I wanted to hear Dalhart, so I went to the Homestead Pickin' Parlor and found a copy of the Old Homestead release Vernon Dalhart: The Wreck of the Old '97 And Other Early Country Hits. It's an incredibly lousy packaging job (misprints on the minuscule liner notes, no information about the release dates, a cheap blue dye CD-R that's already skipping on me instead of a real CD). But it's Dalhart.
I was actually not very impressed with the infamous Old 97 recording, or with several of the other cuts on the record; instrumentally, I would regard most of our "modern" old-time groups, such as Bob Bovee and Gail Heil, far superior. But the recording did have one very interesting song: Zeb Turney's Gal, which is not only one of the most enjoyable cuts on the recording but also the one where Carson J. Robison and Adelyne Hood did probably their best instrumental work.That set me looking for other copies of Zeb Tourney. And, looking at the version in Arthur Palmer Hudson's Folksongs of Mississippi, I was amazed at how like Dalhart's text it was.
Another "traditional" version actually came from Dalhart. And then I found the version in Warner's Traditional American Folksongs. Yes, it too is effectively Dalhart's version. Plus the notes have an interesting comment: The first known mention of Zeb Turney's Gal is a copyright notice in which it is credited to Marjorie Lamkin and Maggie Andrews. Lamkin is one of Carson Robison's known pseudonyms. That was 1925, and recurs on sheet music printed in 1933. (Lyle Lofgren kindly sent me a copy of that latter.) Dalhart recorded it in 1926. There were no field collections prior to that -- but Hudson had it by 1936, and the Warners picked it up in 1941, and other collections also date from that general period. And remember that, in the late Twenties, the name "Dalhart" was essentially another word for "big sales." It seems clear that the actual story of this song is that Robison wrote it, Dalhart recorded it, the folk picked it up -- and folklorists, with their curious disregard of recorded country, ignored the source. Well, I won't, and I won't disregard the song, either (though it seems to me that Dalhart's tune doesn't quite match the sheet music; this is how I hear it). So here is one of several songs that Vernon Dalhart made Folk.
Down in the Tennessee mountains,
Away from the sins of the world,
Old Dan Kelly's son there he leaned on his gun,
A-thinking of Zeb Turney's gal.
Dan was a hot-blooded youngster,
His pap raised him sturdy and right.
And he had him sworn from the day he was born
To shoot every Turney on sight.
"Powder and shot for the Turneys,
Don't save a hair on their heads!"
Old Dan Kelly cried as he laid down and died
With young Danny there by his bed.
Dan took the vow to his pappy
And swore he would kill every one.
His heart in a whirl with his love for the girl,
He loaded his double-barreled gun.
The moon shining down on the mountains,
The moon shining down on the still,
Young Dan took a sip, swung his gun to his hip,
And set out to slaughter and kill.
Over the mountains he wandered,
This son of a Tennessee man,
With fire in his eye and his gun on his thigh,
A-looking for Zeb Turney's clan.
Shots ringing out through the mountains,
Shots ringing out through the breeze.
Old Dan Kelly's son with the smoke in his gun,
The Turneys all down on their knees.
The story of Dan Kelly's moonshine
Has spread far and wide o 'er the world,
How Dan killed the clan, shot them down to a man
And brought back old Zeb Turney's girl.