Atlanta might have been called "Music City USA," and rightly so, if you're talking about the so-called "Country Music" of America. It was born in Atlanta. Before you start laughing, stay with me for a moment.
With all the excitement and music in city of entertainment and record production, who could say Nashville hasn't earned its name?
Visiting the new $15 million home of the Grand Ole Opry, which is equipped with the largest technical facilities for radio, television and stage production and the largest radio broadcast studio in the world, you'd expect to agree with almost anybody in saying that Nashville is Music City USA; it is.
But never mind that. Let's return to Atlanta. Country music really started in Georgia's capital city around the beginning of the last century with a musical phenomenon called "fiddling," a type of music produced on the violin. Now the difference between a violin and a fiddle is, according to some folks in north Georgia, the way you carry it. If the instrument is in a case, it's a violin; if it's in a flour sack, or just under your arm boldly displayed, it's a fiddle.
Music played on the fiddle became popular in Georgia during the last century; it was the only important folk music instrument known to our people, and it was used in dances and in work-related events like cane-grindings and corn-shuckings and other communal gatherings. "Straw-beating," used as a rhythm accompaniment, was another musical innovation which originated in southwest Georgia among the blacks.
In 1913, a man known as Fiddlin' John Carson dazzled a packed audience with the whizzing sounds of a "break-down" tune, with his wife providing rhythm with the tapping of the straws on her fiddle strings.
Fiddling conventions started in Atlanta around 1870, and the city became a prime location for what later developed into an annual competitive event.
By the way, classical music was prohibited at these conventions; only old-fashioned tunes were allowed, and prizes of $100 were offered to winning contestants. Fiddlin' John was always the front runner at these events which were held in the Municipal Auditorium-Armory on Courtland Street. Fiddlers would come from all over the southeast, and as many as 4,000 spectators attended the festive gatherings.
When someone told me that John Carson emerged was America's first country musician to have records marketed commercially, I couldn't believe it. But it is true. All this, and much more, I learned about Atlanta.
For musicians, Atlanta became in the 1920s and 1930s the favored place to be; it became the capital of a kind of music which would later be called "country."
But to return to the star of our story. Fiddlin' John was born in Fannin County, near Blue Ridge, Georgia. Like many famous musicians of the 1990s, such as Elton John, Atlanta was remarkably magnetic for aspiring entertainers. So John Carson brought his fiddle to Atlanta.
I had often wondered what might have been the motivation which led John to become such an accomplished fiddler and even about the musical instrument he might have used. It is generally known that some of the world's best violins were made by Antonio Stradivarius, an Italian craftsman, who spent 93 years in perfecting his art and producing the marvelous instruments which were to give his name everlasting fame. Only 600 of these masterpieces were known to have survived.
I found that John Carson was given a violin at age 10 by his father, and that the instrument was made in Italy by the son of Antonio Stradivarius. What a way to begin a fiddling career.
Trained at home through many years of disciplined practice, then challenged and toned in the heated competition of the Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention in Atlanta, John was now ready for something new; and that was the advent of radio.
John was standing by when, in 1922, WSB radio became the first radio station in the south. Not long afterwards, Fiddlin' John's music hit the airways to the delight of a spellbound listening audience.
Carson's live appearances on radio enabled WSB in Atlanta to become the first station in the world to give public performances of country music.
Radio enhanced Carson's career and the early growth of country music.
On June 14, 1923, in a makeshift studio in a vacant building on Nassau Street in Atlanta, Okeh Records of New York recorded two of John's songs -- "Little Old Log Cabin" and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow." With these, Fiddlin' John Carson was the first country musician to make phonograph recordings to be sold publicly.
Penniless at his death in 1949, Carson had recorded over 300 songs and had performed in every state in the Union and many foreign countries.
He left Georgia and the world a wealth of folk music and opened a gate that swings wider and wider as time goes by.