In Bristol TN/VA there is a museum which bills itself as “The Birthplace of Country Music.” It’s claim to that billing resides in the fact that in 1927 and 1928 the producer Ralph S. Peer, working for the Victor Talking Machine Company, held a series of sessions to capture Southern Appalachian music and its makers in the Tri-Cities area (Bristol—Johnson City, TN—Kingsport, TN). These became known as “The Bristol Sessions” and served to introduce several soon-to-be famous country stars—among them: The Carter Family (Maybelle, Sara and A.P. Carter), Jimmie Rodgers (The Singing Brakeman}, Ernest Stoneman (The Stoneman Family), and many others. In all about 142 recordings (of which 116 were issued) were made over those two years.
One of these music makers was El Watson (Mr. El). He was a bones, harmonica and guitar player and the only African American involved in both the 1927 and 1928 sessions. As noted in “The Bristol Sessions, The Big Bang of Country Music” (the book which accompanies the 5 CD album) very little is known about him. He is the featured artist and composer on two songs: Narrow Gauge Blues (a train imitation on the harmonica) and Pot Licker Blues (harmonica and guitar). He also recorded with The Johnson Brothers—former vaudeville musicians— on at least four other songs: A Passing Policeman (bones), I Want To See My Mother (Ten Thousand Miles Away) (bones), Two Brothers Are We (bones) and The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy (harmonica). Two other African American musicians—Steven Tarter and Harry Gay (banjo, mandolin and guitar) recorded in the 1928 sessions.
Mr El went on to record for Victor and Columbia records in both Johnson City and New York.