In 1924, the musically inclined carpenter and occasional miner, Ernest Van Stoneman heard a recording by old time musician Hank Whittler, and decided he could do better.
At the encouragement of his wife, Hattie, he left his home in Carroll Country, Virginia, and headed for New York, where he would soon record his first single and biggest hit, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” for Okeh Records (and later for Edison Records on wax cylinder). This performance is famous for its use of autoharp, Stoneman’s signature instrument, and is thought to be the first ever recording to feature the instrument. Audiences across the country recognized the talent of the pioneering musician and over four million records of the single were sold.
Leveraging his success, Stoneman convinced Ralph Peter of Victor Records to visit the south to record the local talent, and in 1927 the famous “Big Bang of Country Music” occurred in Bristol, Tennesee. With Stoneman acting as a talent scout and a sort of celebrity draw (newspapers advertised his profits from the sales of his singles), Peter recorded nineteen performers and seventy-six songs. Among the artists were the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Stoneman himself, who recorded six songs with his family band, The Dixie Mountaineers. In addition to the six, Stoneman (and his wife, Hattie) can be heard on ten additional tracks under three different names.
Listening to the Dixie Mountaineer recordings, it is amazing to hear the progression of style from the lone autoharp and harmonica of “Titanic” to the fully-fledged string band and vocal accompaniment. This shift brings us closer to the familiar sound of bluegrass that would begin to emerge in the late 1930’s. (Another bluegrass parallel is the triple vocal arrangement in Stoneman’s 1927 “Dying Girl’s Farewell.”)
The Great Depression hit the Stoneman’s particularly hard, forcing them to move into a small shack in DC and Ernest to rely on occasional carpentry jobs. His final pre-war recordings return Stoneman to the solo path but keep the stringed backup. Several of the songs (“All I Got’s Gone,” “The Poor Tramp Has to Live,” etc.) deal with the issues facing the country at the time.
Over the course of their lives, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman had 23 children (13 of which made it to adulthood), each of which participated in their own musical careers to some degree. As the economy improved, the Stoneman’s found success by performing together in groups, including “The Stoneman Family” and “The Blue Grass Champs.” The later gained fame on ABC’s The Jimmy Dean Show, where “Pop” Stoneman would occasionally perform with them.
Ernest Stoneman’s own music is not what he is best remembered for, as evidenced by his frustratingly recent 2008 induction to the country music hall of fame. Rather, his legacy and the impact he made on the history of country music are among his greatest achievements. From his home in rural Virginia, to bluegrass and televisions across America, Ernest Stoneman and the burgeoning Stoneman family share a history that parallels that of country music itself.
For more information, check out the following sources:
Thomas Edison’s Attic Podcast:
Country Music Hall of Fame: http://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/ernest-stoneman
My Kind of Country Blog:
Country Music Discographies: