Friday, December 12, 2014

George Reneau: "The Blind Minstrel of the Smoky Mountains"

The following is the most complete biography and discography available online for old-time freelance country and blues artist, George Reneau. All other information about him only includes his work for Vocalion Records, however, as you will read, there is more to the story of George Reneau: "The Blind Minstrel of the Smoky Mountains." The only thing missing, other than probably a few song titles, is his photograph. If you have a copy of his photograph, please let me know. - The Notorious Meddler

George McKinney Reneau was born May 18, 1902 in Jefferson County, Tennessee, at Dandridge. Presumably blind at birth, not much else is known about his growing up years, except that at some point he learned to play the guitar and the harmonica. Just after World War I, George left Jefferson County, Tennessee to make a living on downtown Knoxville streets playing guitar and harmonica and singing his songs for whomever would stop to listen.

One man who stopped was Gus Nennsteil. He worked for Sterchi Brothers Furniture, regional purveyors of phonographs, and one of the most influential recording promoters in the South. At Nennsteil's encouraging, Sterchi's sent Reneau to New York in the spring of 1924 to record songs for Vocalion Records, which desired to enter into a new field of commercially recorded music known as Hillbilly music. George Reneau was the perfect artist to get it started. Between April 1924 and October 1925, he recorded more than 50 selections for Vocalion's new hillbilly catalog at the firm's New York City studio, on West 43rd Street. The first release was the beautifully done 'Lonesome Road Blues' (Vocalion 14809B) on April 18, 1924. Take a few moments and listen to this very fine recording...

The Aeolian Company of New York had started the Vocalion label in 1916 and it was a popular label for a while. Lots of big names or future stars recorded there at one time or another. The list includes Roy Acuff, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Carter Family, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Uncle Dave Macon, Glenn Miller, Roy Rogers, Sons of the Pioneers, Lawrence Welk and Bob Wills. The first known recording of "The House Of The Rising Sun" by Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster was on Vocalion. Later, Vocalion was sold to Brunswick Records, which sold to Warner Brothers. In 1931, the entire Vocalion operation was licensed to the American Record Corporation, which was later purchased by CBS. Finally, in 1938, Vocalion became a subsidiary of Columbia Records, only to be discontinued in 1940.

Behind the Scenes
I doubt that very people who bought Reneau's records suspected that another artist, not Reneau, was actually "ghost singing" on most of them. Reneau received all of the credit on his first 30 or so recordings, but the voice behind the records belonged to (at the time) a little-known vaudeville singer named Gene Austin, who would become the most successful pop vocalist of the late 1920s. There was hardly any cause for such suspicion, unless one might have wondered how Reneau could play the harmonica and sing at the same time, as was the case on a couple of recordings. Not that having Austin sing was a bad thing. It actually was a good thing. Go back and re-listen to "The Lonesome Road" and see just how great that recording is. Austin's vocals were perfect for that record.

Later, Vocalion let Reneau do the singing on several great recordings, including "The Prisoner's Song" (14991), "Wild Bill Jones" (14998A) and "Jesse James" (14897B).

A Pioneer
George Reneau's recordings are quite good. Some have suggested his works were minor classics. I contend they were much more than that. Before there was Roy Acuff and the Carter Family, there was George Reneau. Before there was Jimmie Rodgers, there was George Reneau. His career began and ended before the famous Bristol sessions which led to the discovery of those three stars and most everyone else. He was before the Grand Ole Opry. George Reneau recorded a whole stack of early blues, country and gospel songs. His selections were all of great material, so he had good taste.

Listen to Arkansas Traveler, which showcases George Reneau's fine harmonica playing. Also, notice the beautiful reddish brown vinyl record, an early trait that set Vocalion Records aside from all the other record labels...

’On Top of Old Smoky’ was recorded by George Reneau, as a solo (Vocalion 15366) and with Lester McFarland, as the Collins Brothers (Paramount 3030).

The Lonesome Road Blues
Credit for the first known recording of The Lonesome Road Blues is given to Henry Whitter of Fries, Virgina. He allegedly recorded the song in December of 1923. It was released on Okeh Records in January of 1924. Vocalion Records released George Reneau's version three months later, on April 18, 1924. Edison Records released the song by Reneau and Austin as The Blue Ridge Duo in May of 1925. They had recorded the song at Edison's studio on September 22, 1924. Down through the years, the song has been recorded by many artists, including Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and the Grateful Dead.

I'm going down this road feeling bad
I'm going down this road feeling bad
I'm going down this road feeling bad, Lord, lord
And I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way
And I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way

George Reneau's Vocalion Records Discography
Arkansas Traveler 14813B 4/24
Bad Companions 15150 10/25
Bald Headed End Of The Broom 14930B 9/17/24
Birmingham 14946B 9/12/24
Blue Ridge Blues 14815A 4/28/24
Casey Jones 14813A 4/21/24
Gambling On The Sabbath Day 15149 10/25
Here, Rattler, Here 14814 4/28/24
I'm Glad My Wife's In Europe 15194B 10/25
I've Got The Railroad Blues 14946A 9/17/24
Jack And Joe 15182 10/25
Jesse James 14897B 9/24
Letter Edged In Black 14998B 2/24/25
Life's Railway To Heaven 14811B 4/21/24
Little Brown Jug 14812B 4/18/24
Little Rosewood Casket 14997B 2/24/25
Lonesome Road Blues 14809B 4/18/24
Love Always Has Its Way 15347 10/25
May I Sleep In Your Barn 15149B 10/25
My Redeemer 15046A 9/17/24
Never Miss Your Mother Till She's Gone 14811 4/21/24
Old Man On The Hill 15347B 10/25
Old Rugged Cross 15348 10/25
On Top Of Old Smoky 15366B 10/25
Railroad Lover 15194 10/25
Red Wing 14896B 9/10/24
Rock All Our Babies To Sleep 14997A 2/24/25
Rovin' Gambler 15148A 10/25
Sinking Of The Titanic 15148B 10/25
Smoky Mountain Blues 14896A 9/15/24
Susie Ann 14815B 4/28/24
The C And O Wreck 14897A 9/16/24
The Hand Of Fate 15182B 10/25
The Lightning Express 14991B 2/24/25
The New Market Wreck 14930A 9/12/24
The Prisoner's Song 14991A 2/24/25
Two Orphans 15349 9/18/25
Turkey In The Straw 14812A 4/21/24
We're Floating Down The Stream Of Time 15046B 9/18/25
Weeping Willow Tree 15349 10/25
When I Shall Cross Over The Dark Rolling Tide 15348B 10/25
When The Work's All Done This Fall 1510B 10/25
When You And I Were Young, Maggie 14814 4/28/24
Wild And Reckless Hoboes 14999A 2/24/25
Wild Bill Jones 14998A 2/24/25
Woman"s Suffrage 14999B 2/24/25
Wreck Of The Southern 97 14809A 4/18/24

The Blue Ridge Duo on Edison Records
In addition to making records for Vocalion, Reneau and Austin were hired to records tracks for Thomas Edison's label, Edison Records. On that label, they were known as The Blue Ridge Duo. In 1924 and 1925, The Blue Ridge Duo recorded for Edison in both cylinder and record formats.

The Blue Ridge Duo sings "Little Brown Jug" on Edison Records:

Other songs recorded for Edison Records, cylinder and disc, include:
Lonesome Road Blues (51515-R)
Blue Ridge Blues (51515-L)
Turkey In The Straw - Breakdown (51502-R)
Susie Ann (51502-L)
Arkansas Traveler (4936: Blue Amberol/9732: Edison Record)
Little Brown Jug (4973: Blue Amberol/9730A: Edison Record)
You'll Never Miss Your Mother Till She's Gone (4961: Blue Amberol/9731: Edison Record)

This is probably an incomplete list. I haven't found any other Edison recordings by the Blue Ridge Duo. I will update this story as I find more.

The Freelance Artist
There is nothing written about why, in 1927, George Reneau started making records with Lester McFarland. Like Reneau, McFarland was a blind musician and singer who was living in the Knoxville area when the Vocalion scout making looking for talent. A champion fiddle player, he was one part of the duo, Mac & Bob, along with Robert Gardner. McFarland was originally from Gray, Kentucky and Gardner hailed from Oliver Springs, Tennessee. They met at the Kentucky School for the Blind in 1915 and soon began performing together on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit beginning in 1922, and on WNOX in Knoxville from 1925 on. Discovered by a Brunswick talent scout in 1926, Mac and Bob began a long and prolific recording career. Their biggest seller was “When the Roses Bloom Again.” In 1931, Brunswick was bought out by the American Record Corporation and Mac and Bob were retained on the Sears & Roebuck label, Conqueror. That same year, Mac and Bob became regulars on the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago. Their recording career ended when Sears decided to shut down Conqueror in 1941. Mac and Bob retired from the WLS Barn Dance in 1950. Robert Gardner died at age 81 in 1978, and Lester McFarland followed him in 1984, aged 82. George Reneau and Lester McFarland recorded several tracks, usually as the Smoky Mountain Twins, but also under nearly a dozen other names, such as The Cramer Brothers, The Collins Brothers and Lonesome Pine Twins. There songs were released on several different record labels, including Conquer, Regal, Domino, Banner and Challenge. Here is their (partial at best) discography.

Smoky Mountain Twins
A Picture From Life's Other Side 7316
Put My Little Shoes Away 7327 6/15/27
I Was Born 4,000 Years Ago 7323 6/15/27
There's No Disappointment In Heaven 7337 Sara Jane 7330 6/15
In The Good Old Summertime 7336 6/16
Where We'll Never Grow Old 7317
You'll Never Miss Your Mother Till She's Gone Catalog #: 7072

Collins Brothers
Love Always Has Its Way 7324
If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again Cat#: 3039
On Top of Old Smokey Cat#: 3040
Put My Little Shoes Away Cat#: 3040
Sara Jane Cat#: 3041
I Was Born Four Thousand Years Ago Cat#: 3041
In the Good Old Summertime Cat#: 3042
When the Work’s All Done This Fall Cat#: 3042

Lonesome Pine Twins
There's No Disappointment In Heaven 7318
In The Good Old Summertime 7336
A Picture From Life's Other Side 7316-2
Will The Circle Be Unbroken? E25595
When They Ring The Golden Bells Label: 2019
Dem Bones Gwin Rise Again E25677
Six Feet Of Earth E25512
Dollar And The Devil E32622
Bird With A Broken Pinion E27954
Bird In A Gilded Cage E28796
When The Saints Go Marching In Label: 2023
The Vacant Chair E27964
Silver Threads Among The Gold E25496
You'll Never Miss Your Mother Till She's Gone Label: 2164
Where We'll Never Grow Old 7317
Dollar And The Devil E32622
Good Lord Takin' Care Of The Poor Folks Label: 2021
Ring Dem Heavenly Bells E27928
Let Me Hear The Songs My Mother Used To Sing Label: 2024
When You And I Were Young, Maggie Label: 2025

Cramer Brothers
Sara Jane 7065
In The Good Old Summertime 7336-3
On Top Of Old Smoky 7326
There's No Disappointment in Heaven Label: 8127alt
If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again Label: 8058
Love Always Has It's Way 7324
I was Born Four Thousand Years Ago Label: 8059
Blue Ridge Mountain Blues 6124
Put My Little Shoes Away 7327

Unfortunately, Reneau's style of music did not fit in when the jazz era took over and by the time he turned 27, George's day as a recording artist had come and gone. Without a record contract, he was forced to once again take to the streets to make a living.

Sadly, George Reneau died of pneumonia on June 5, 1938. He was still a young man so one can just imagine what life for him would have been like had he lived and stayed in good health and continued to make records. I encourage you to take the time to listen to his recordings. I believe you will become a fan of George Reneau, 'The Blind Minstrel of the Smoky Mountains,' as I have.

1 comment:

  1. I have a record of George Reneau singing "Wild and Reckless Hoboes" and "Woman's Suffrage" on Vocalion Label dated 1921.


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