Sunday, January 28, 2007

Pioneers: Darby & Tarlton

It is hard to pin-point a definitive starting point for any style of music, just as it is hard to define the point of birth of any invention. Any musical style, or invention, is the culmination of many ideas being blended and built upon.

An excellent example of this is the invention of the telephone. While most of us learned in grade school that the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875, we have come to learn that Elisha Gray submitted his patent application at roughly the same time as Bell. Some riders on the Bus may even know that an Italian immigrant by the name of Antonio Meucci had demonstrated a similar device in New York as early as 1854. (For more about the telephone, and the people who added to its development see this Wikipedia entry.)

John Donne’s observation that “No man is an island, entire of itself” is true for inventions and musical styles, as it is for everything else. One of the myths that I have tried to dispel here on the Bus is the notion that a particular artist “invented” any style of music. All music is the sharing and borrowing of what has come before, rearranged and built upon.

Such was the music of Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton. Tarlton was born in 1892 in Chesterfield County, South Carolina. His father was a sharecropper and mill worker who played fretless banjo at local events. Jimmie Tarlton was playing fretless banjo and French harp by the age of six. Later he picked up the guitar and learned to play bottleneck slide after the black blues musicians he met while playing on the street for change. He set off to make his living playing music and his talent took him far and wide. Playing at bars, on street corners and in medicine shows, he traveled to New England, down to Louisiana and Texas, and eventually to California. While in California in the early 1920s he heard the then popular Hawaiian style of slide guitar and added it to his repertoire.

By the mid-1920s Tarlton was back on the east coast, this time settling in Columbus, Georgia. This is where he met up with a talented local blues singer by the name of Tom Darby. Darby (born 1884 in Columbus, Georgia) was a relative of Riley Puckett and had learned his blue vocal style from the black blues singers as they passed through Columbus. The two teamed up and auditioned with Columbia Records. The duo was awarded a recording contract and their first record was released in 1927. The record, Birmingham Town / Down In Florida On A Hog (Columbia 15197) was an instant hit.

Darby & Tarlton continued to record with Columbia until 1933, when they had a falling out over the contract terms. They recorded one more record in 1936, this time with the Vocalion label, but shortly after parted ways.

Many consider their recordings to be some of the earliest examples of what would become known as Country music. In fact, over his career, Jimmie Tarlton played with some of the names we recognize as founders of Country music: Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and even Hank Williams. Tom Darby worked with the Georgia Wildcats and others.

So here we find two Southern white men. Both raised on Folk and Old-Time music and both heavily influenced by black blues musicians. Jimmie Tarlton was also influenced by the flowing Hawaiian lap style guitar as were many of the black blues musicians from the Delta to St. Louis and even up to Chicago.

Like the telephone example above, it was the preservation, blending, and building upon what had come before that would lead to something new.

Darby & Tarlton - Lonesome in the Pines.mp3

Darby & Tarlton - Down in Florida on a Hog.mp3

For many years the recordings of Darby & Tarlton were only available on the original 78s. In recent years several compillations have been released on cd, any of which would be fine additions to one's collection.

DARBY & TARLTON 'Complete Recordings' 3 cd set on Bear Family: available in North America from County Sales.

DARBY & TARLTON 'On the Banks of a Lonely River' on County Records: and also available from County Sales.

DARBY & TARLTON 3 cd box set on JSP Records: available in North America from


Blogger Greg said...

Great stuff, Ed, and excellent setup in your commentary!

January 31, 2007 9:38 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Aw shucks, Greg.

January 31, 2007 10:05 PM  

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