Cousins Tom and Dewey Cooper, along with their friend Clay Everhart, had only ever played music as a sideline. The Coopers were millworkers, and Everhart worked in factories in both Davidson and Guilford counties.
But in September of 1927, the three traveled to Winston-Salem to record six cuts for the national Okeh Record Company as the North Carolina Cooper Boys, with Tom on guitar, Dewey on fiddle, and Everhart on banjo.
The North Carolina Cooper Boys were just one of the rural string bands that recorded for Okeh Records in Winston-Salem that year. The company set up a makeshift studio in the old West End School, which stood on the corner of Fourth and Broad Streets in downtown Winston-Salem.
Okeh intended to record as many local artists as possible, and, in the process, held one of the first recording sessions ever outside of New York, according to Elizabeth Carlson of the Carolina Music Ways organization.
Richard Emmett, the Program Director for the Blue Ridge Music Center, has studied these early recordings.
“Winston-Salem was certainly not the first southern city that the record companies recorded in,” Emmett said. “But the music recorded in there in 1927 is certainly some of the earliest recording of American music.”
One of the recordings made by the North Carolina Cooper Boys at the 1927 Okeh Sessions.
In the 1920s, music companies began to record white southern string bands, known as “hillbilly” bands, in an attempt to appeal to the previously untapped market of white, rural southerners. Winston-Salem’s location in the Piedmont region of North Carolina meant there were a lot of rural stringband musicians to choose from, according to Carlson.
According to Emmett, talent scouts searched cities across the South for hillbilly musicians, including Asheville, Charlotte, and Atlanta.
One of the earliest hillbilly artists from Winston-Salem to be recorded was Ernest Thompson, a blind guitarist and street musician.
William S. Parks, a representative of the Columbia Phonograph Company, first heard Thompson sing on the steps of a humble home in Winston-Salem in 1924, according to an article published in the Winston-Salem Twin Sentinel.
“Sitting there in the warm April sunshine, Thompson played and sang a number of old southern melodies and folk songs,” wrote the Sentinel reporter. “The more he played and the more he sung, the more convinced was Mr. Parks that he had found the man he was looking for.”
Within a month, Thompson, known as “Forsyth County’s Favorite Musician,” had recorded 34 records for the Columbia label in New York. His records were not too successful, but his brief fame showed that hillbilly music could be profitable for the music industry.
According to Carlson, few of the musicians that performed at the 1927 Okeh sessions had any experience recording music. Most of them had other jobs, and played music only as a hobby.
Other hillbilly groups that played included Crockett Ward and his Boys, the Hickory Nuts, and a duo consisting of Matt Simmons and Frank Miller.
The company targeted solely white southern string players, leaving local African-American artists like Preston Fulp without a way to record their music.
Fulp, a black stringband player who descended from one of the oldest African-American families in the Piedmont region, would likely have been turned away from the session because of his race, according to Carlson. She writes on the Carolina Music Ways website that the music of black musicians at the time was “segregated into [its] own category of blues and gospel ‘race’ records.”
Some of the music of Preston Fulp, who did not record until later in his life.
The recordings made at the Okeh sessions remain the only documented recordings of many local Winston-Salem musicians, according to historian Bob Carlin in his book String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont.
“These sessions did more than just document the existence of musicians from Winston-Salem,” Emmett said. “They preserved an important part of the local culture and history.”