He always shows up at the start of any history of country music—a slackjawed Georgia mountaineer who could sing and play his fiddle at the same time and who happened to make the recording that many people think of as the “first” country record.
It was June of 1923, we always read, and the place was Atlanta; the man was called Fiddlin’ John Carson, though his friends and cronies always called him simply Fiddler. He went into a portable studio that day and recorded two songs for the Okeh record label (technically the General Phonograph Corporation). One was “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and the other was one he called, “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster is Going to Crow.” Though the A&R man for Okeh, Ralph Peer, thought Carson’s singing was “pluperfect awful,” a local store owner agreed to buy five hundred copies of the record if the company would press it up. They did, and the disc soon became a best-seller. Within months, other companies were starting to go out and record this type of music they were calling “old time” or “hill country,” and the country music boom was under way. Somewhere along the way, Carson—like the Grand Ole Opry fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson—just droped out of sight. In the colorful world of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and Charlie Poole, we don’t hear much about old Fiddlin’ John. But he was there—there throughout the 1920s, a major presence on the early country music scene, and he was doing a lot of other things that he deserves credit for. Let’s hoist one to his immortal memory.
There are a few details that need to be added to the familiar story; it wasn’t just a case of Carson wandering in off the street with a hound dog at his heels asking to put his music on the newfangled machine. The idea started in the spring of 1923 when an Atlanta furniture store owner and record distributor named Polk C. Brockman made a business trip to New York. Brockman, a young white man with big round