Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Scotch-Irish tradition, Baptist hymns and old Appalachian songs" - Frank Hutchison (1897–1945), the first white man to record the blues

Logan County, West Virginia. It was a place where white Scotch-Irish and black African-Americans mixed and worked together. The music blended, and one of those to popularise the fusion of styles, which came to be known as ‘country blues’, was Frank Hutchison. He picked up some tunes from black men like Henry Vaughan and Bill Hunt – “a repertoire of 19th century traditional tunes that blacks and whites had shared before the blues became fashionable”. In later years Hank Williams and Bill Monroe had similar formative influences from black musicians.

Hutchison was born in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia (right in that region of mountains and valleys where West Virginia meets with Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina) on 20 March 1897. From school reports of the county in 1875 it seems to have been a pretty dysfunctional place (source here).

• Family Background
Frank’s ancestry is murky. His mother was 16 year old Louvina Hutchison and his father 18 year old Frank Mankin. There’s no evidence of a shotgun wedding. About 18 months later in some crazy debauch on 10 November 1899, Frank Mankin and Wood Hutchison died of poisoning while drinking 'cinnamon drops’ (probably mixed with home-brew alcohol) and two others who were with them – Jerry McGrady and E. L. Smith – were left in a critical condition ‘and will probably die’. Mankin’s death certificate gave his marital status as ‘unknown’. (There had been a similar incident at Mattoon, Illinois on 22 December 1896 when a group of young men died from drinking a cocktail of cinnamon drops and an industrial ‘wood alcohol’ which they had stolen from the local gas works).

This would explain Frank Hutchison using his mother’s surname. Frank and his teenage mother decided to make a new start and moved to Logan County where she married Robert Lee Deskins, with whom she would have 10 children. Frank grew up and like so many men in that region he took a job in the coal mines. He also became a celebrated local musician and developed a slide guitar style, with the guitar across his lap and a pocket knife for a slide. 

• Recording Career
He recorded 32 songs for Okeh Records in the 1920s, becoming the first white guitarist to record the blues - a year earlier than Jimmie Rodgers. Hutchison was marketed as ‘The Pride of West Virginia’. One of his contemporaries, Ernest Stoneman, described him as ”a big red-headed Irishman” (source here).

However, in 1969 the Register and Post Herald from Beckley published a long genealogy of the Hutchisons of Raleigh County - saying they were probably English or Scottish. The first to settle in the county was Charles Hutchison (1795–1867) who arrived in 1829, and was a clerk in Coal Marsh Baptist Church, the first church in the county. His son A.J. was a Confederate soldier and a song leader at revival campaigns in the area.

In a later interview with Hutchison’s one-time fiancée, Jennie Wilson, she was asked “Was Frank very much interested in the old ballads, the English and Scottish songs?”, to which she replied “That was a strong interest that he had. Everybody around loved those songs like ‘Barbary Allen’ and he could really play them. He sang those songs as well as the ones he wrote”.

When he married Minnie Garrett in 1917, Frank gave his grandparents' names on the wedding certificate rather than his own biological parents. He and Minnie had two daughters, Louise and Kathleen. Frank Hutchison died in 1945 of liver cancer, his two daughters passed away in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

(NB the description in the post title comes from this book)

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