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He could talk as much as he could fiddle

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Photo above: Contestants at the annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention outside Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium, 1920.

It’s just one of the 180 tunes he recorded for the Okeh and Bluebird labels between 1923 and 1934. But it’s the first track he laid down, and the first song he played on the new radio station WSB in Atlanta. And it established him nationally as a Country Music Recording artist in an era when that was a new notion.

Fiddlin’ John Carson’s hit tune was his 1923 take on Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane. A minstrel song, it romanticized the antebellum South and the institution of slavery.

Carson wasn’t the first to record it. TWELVE artists had recorded it before him.Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from Browse Matrix Numbers – Discography of American Historical Recordings ('>1 But his version is the one history remembers first. Why? 

Part of the answer comes from John W. Carson’s tremendous ability as a storyteller. “They claim up around Gainesville that I’m about the best talker for a fiddler of anybody in the county,” he bragged to the Chattanooga Daily Times in 1927.Chattanooga Daily Times.">2“I expect I talk just about as much as I fiddle.”

Fiddlin' John in the New-York tribune (NYC), December 12, 1920
Fiddlin’ John in the New-York Tribune (NYC), December 12, 1920

Talk he did. Carson was not one to let the truth get in the way of a well told yarn, either. His origin story, full of holes though it was, was so heartwarming, and he presented it with such gusto, that the press repeatedly printed it without cross checking the facts. 

“Fiddlin’ John Carson will play ‘Little Old Log Cabin,’ dedicated to the memory of Bob Taylor, a former governor of Tennessee,” announced the Nashville Banner of a 1928 Carson concert,Nashville Banner, Nashville, TN.">3 “who bestowed upon the Georgian his title fifty years ago. When a boy 11 years old, young John Carson aspired to become a fiddler for country dances. Bob Taylor, himself a fiddler of no little fame, was running for governor at that time and was scheduled to speak near young Carson’s home. The youth came and played ‘Little Old Log Cabin’ for Gov. Taylor, and by him was called ‘Fiddlin’ John’.”

Carson represented himself to the world as having been born in 1868, right up to the end of his life. Using that date, then, he would have been 11 in 1879. Robert Love Taylor didn’t run for governor till 1886. 

In a 1924 version of this tale, the Middlesboro Daily News accepts Carson’s statement that Taylor was supposed to be speaking in Morgantown, GA, in Fannin County. Morgantown is near Blue Ridge, the town Carson told the public was his birthplace. “Bob Taylor took a kindly interest in the modest, shy lad from the mountains, and bought him his first suit of store clothes,” the paper continued. “Their friendship lasted for many a year.”Middlesboro Daily News, Middlesboro, KY.">4

By 1933 the political rally was located in Copperhill, TN, according to the Times of Shreveport, LA. “John was among the mountaineers who crossed the Georgia line to hear the fun. He had a fiddle wrapped in a homespun pillow case. His grandfather had given it to him and nearly 100 years before that one of the Carsons had fetched the fiddle from Ireland to the Blue Ridges of Georgia.” The tale kept growing and growing, like Pinnochio’s nose.

According to the 1880 United States Federal Census, our John W. Carson, age 6, was living in Marietta, GA.5

And he was likely born on a farm in Cobb County,Fiddlin’ John Carson (ca. 1868–1949). New Georgia Encyclopedia.">6 nowhere near the mountains of Fannin County. Why the fibs? Note that both the articles mentioned above ran after Carson started recording. He suddenly had a media image to polish. Carson fabricated his birthplace and birthdate so that he would appear older and more rural to his core listeners.

John Carson's 1918 draft card. Note that he puts birth date as 1873, not 1874.
John Carson’s 1918 draft card. Note that he puts birth date as 1873, not 1874.

Ok, so where’d the “Fiddlin’” nickname come from? ‘Fiddlin’ Bob Taylor was obviously a hero to Carson, as he was to many. He was remembered by Carson’s generation for defeating his older brother in the 1886 gubernatorial campaign, a campaign that involved storytelling, fiddle-playing, and practical jokes, standing in memorable contrast to Tennessee’s previous gubernatorial campaigns. 

As Taylor had died in 1912, and as John Carson’s first entry into the newly established Old Time Georgia Fiddler’s Convention was the following year, Taylor’s passing may have spurred Carson to pick up Taylor’s nickname. A masterstroke for a fiddler wishing to identify himself with widely loved old-time tunes, the good old days, simpler times.

Could Carson have pinched the nickname from one of his contemporaries? Well, Fiddlin’ Joe Collins of Raleigh, NC turns up in 1919, but by then Carson had been using the ‘Fiddlin’ John’ moniker to win followers at the fiddler’s convention for 6 years.The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC.">7 Once Carson’s Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane was a hit, competitors piled on with the tag: In 1924, one S.T. Siltreberg advertised as the ‘Fiddlin’ Fool.’The Atlanta Constitution.">8 Dave Macon’s son was Fiddlin’ Sid (1925).The Atlanta Constitution.">9 Fiddlin’ Powers and Family was a Tennessee based group of the 1920s.The Bristol Herald Courier, Bristol, TN.">10 And Oklahoma had a Fiddlin’ Sam Long by 1926.Hollis Post-Herald and Harmon County Review, Hollis, OK.">11

John Carson was 49 years old when he recorded Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane. He was perfectly placed to straddle two generations of potential listeners. “To the older generation,” explained the Chattanooga Daily Times,Chattanooga Daily Times.">12 “the fiddling of the old timers brings back memories of boyhood days and old-fashioned country dances, and to the younger generation it offers an insight into the manner in which the fathers and mothers of the present day flapper and lounge lizard ‘jazzed things up’ when they were in their youth.”

Long before he recorded Little Old Log Cabin, Carson was wowing live audiences with it. “Fiddlin’ John Carson, the John McCormack of the Blue Ridge,” gushed The Greeneville Daily Sun.The Greeneville Daily Sun, Greeneville, TN.">13 “His singing of ‘Little Old Cabin in the Lane’ is something long to be remembered.” The Atlanta Constitution felt Carson’s rendition of the song was ‘a marvel of melody.’The Atlanta Constitution.">14 The Chattanooga Daily Times claimed him as ‘the pride and the hope of the Blue Ridge mountains.’Chattanooga Daily Times.">15

Promotional photo of Fiddlin' John from the April 14, 1923 issue of Talking Machine World.
Promotional photo of Fiddlin’ John from the April 14, 1923 issue of Talking Machine World.

So. John Carson picked a widely known, previously recorded (and therefore proven) tune to record, he knew how to create a colorful media image for himself, he was at the correct age to position himself as a bard of old-time tunes and had picked the perfect moniker to let his audience know that, and he had 10 years of proven track record captivating live audiences. That brings us full circle back to Atlanta station WSB, mentioned at the beginning of this piece. 

“When WSB, the South’s first radio station, went on the air on March 16, 1922, Fiddlin’ John Carson took notice,” explains the New Georgia Encyclopedia.Fiddlin’ John Carson (ca. 1868–1949). New Georgia Encyclopedia.">16

“A week later, fiddle in hand, he visited the studios to inquire about being allowed to have a try at this latest marvel of entertainment technology. 

“Taking his place before the microphone, Carson launched into an impromptu concert of mountain music that lasted, according to one station official, until ‘exhaustion set in.’ 

“The response from listeners was instantaneous and profuse. Telephone calls, telegrams, and letters poured in for days afterward. Carson was a regular performer on WSB into the early 1930s and thereafter, intermittently, into the 1940s. 

“In those early days of radio, when the air was clear and broadcasting stations were few, WSB’s signal could be picked up as far away as the Rocky Mountains, New York, Cuba, and Canada. Carson, therefore, became a national radio personality.”

More articles on country music recording artists:

1927 Bristol Sessions –not the ‘Big Bang’ of country music? 1 of 2(Opens in a new browser tab)

Oh brother I am dying now(Opens in a new browser tab)

The Grandfather of Bluegrass(Opens in a new browser tab)

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He could talk as much as he could fiddle


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