In 2007, the Document historical reissue label gave the world what appears to have been the first Vernon Dalhart collection on compact disc using noise reduction technology to minimize the hissing, crackling, and wheezing associated with time-worn gramophone recordings. Anyone accustomed to hearing Dalhart’s hoary old pressings played back on 78 rpm turntables will rejoice at the relative clarity achieved by the producers of this important release.
In 1914, while cast as Ralph Rackstraw in Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, he made his first test pressings for Thomas Alva Edison’s exclusive record label. Document’s survey of the Edison catalog covers a time period extending from December 22, 1916 to July 17, 1929, and includes four of this singer’s first electrically recorded Edisons. Legend has it Dalhart performed an audition for Edison himself; the elderly inventor was apparently impressed by the singer’s knack for concise enunciation. Although Dalhart would eventually utilize his East Texas dialect as a successful interpreter of rural favorites like She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, My Blue Ridge Mountain Home and Way Out [West] in Kansas, he rolled his R’s conspicuously on Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline? and warbled like a tenor in an operetta on Dardanella, an “oriental” marvel of affected whimsy sung in a delirium-inducing duet with soprano Gladys Rice and backed by a period pit orchestra. From time to time Dalhart dipped into the blackface minstrel repertoire for “c**n songs” like Razors in de Air (“Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” also belongs in this category). His first massive hit was The Prisoner’s Song, a mopey lament waxed in October 1924. The most popular of his approximately 200 Edison recordings were story-songs delivered with drawling precision and accompanied by fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and/or jaw harp. Some of these are simple waltzes; quite a few deal with alienation, misfortune, tragedy, or crime. Dalhart also had a penchant for disaster tunes; although this collection does not include his famous Wreck of the Old 97 (a Victor record), it does commemorate The Wreck of the Number Nine (a similarly constructed ode to train derailment), The Wreck of the Shenandoah (elegy for an ill-fated airship) and two dour diluvial ditties describing floodwaters in Mississippi and Alabama. The title track, Puttin’ on the Style comes across as comparatively light and lively — two words not usually associated with Vernon Dalhart.
This great collection has 18 whip crackin’ tracks from the pioneer of country music. The CD also has an eight page booklet with notes written by Jack Palmer (who wrote the first book-length biography of Vernon Dalhart, Mainspring Press ISBN 0977273504) and full discographical details.