On any given sultry summer day in the North Georgia towns and communities of Calhoun, Fairmount, Resaca, Redbud, Curryville, or Nicklesville, the sweet strains of fiddles, banjos, guitars, and other stringed instruments can be heard on the heavy air. The sounds okslighten hearts and cause feet to tap in time with the tunes.
Older folks remember when families sat out on porches in summer sipping homemade lemonade or Great Grandma’s secret recipe made with blackberries she picked on the ridge behind the old home place. Music was an intricate part of their lives. In the winter, caned back chairs were dragged around the old Warm Morning stove, and children were warned not to get too rowdy and kick over the spittoon can, which probably had a Campbell’s label.
Gordon County’s history of the type of music of the mountains, of simple blues and gospel melodies, songs about hard drinking men, heartache, lost loves, and tragedies, along with foot stompin’ melodies date back to the early 1900s, but especially during the 1920’s when a new kind of “hillbilly” music came on the scene.
Hard driving fiddle music was making its voice heard by record companies in bands such as the Skillet Lickers out of Atlanta. All manner of stringed bands with all kinds of elaborate names came out of the woodwork to make records and perform in live shows, but most quickly faded away. Strangely enough, guitars were considered “new-fangled” instruments, so most band member played fiddles and banjos.
One such band, however, did not fade away so quickly. The young musicians called themselves the Georgia Yellow Hammers and originated in Gordon County. Because of their distinct style and unique sound, they found success back in the late 1920s. Unlike such bands as the Skillet Lickers, the Georgia Yellow Hammers were more into singing. They had two formally trained musicians who could both read and compose music. And their music wasn’t just one kind of style. They were adept at every genre of music from gospel quartet to sacred harp to hard drivin’ fiddlin’. The Georgia Yellow Hammers surpassed the Skillet Lickers with their hit song, “Johnson’s Old Gray Mule.”
The first stirrings and beginnings of the Georgia Yellow Hammers began when banjo player Bud Landress and his partner, fiddler Bill Chitwood took a train out of Resaca, Georgia to travel to New York to record some songs. In all they recorded twelve tunes on the Brunswick label, including “Whoa Mule” and “Pa, Ma, and Me.”
While Landress and Chitwood were busy recording, two other future members of the Georgia Yellow Hammers were making their own kind of music. Charles Ernest Moody became the proud owner of a fiddle after a shotgun trade. He also played the banjo and harmonica. After attending singing school in Asheville, North Carolina where he learned harmony, voice, and directing, he began writing hymns. In the mid 1920s, he produced two of the most popular sacred songs of the 20th century, “Drifting Too Far from the Shore” and “Kneel at the Cross.”
Phil Reeve was a good friend of Moody’s, and was into music himself. He learned yodeling and his singing was compared to a cross between a Swiss yodeler and country singer Jimmy Rodgers. He became so interested in the music scene that by 1925 he was organizing radio programs for WSB in Atlanta and was able to get the Georgia Yellow Hammers air time for their music.
Reeve was instrumental in getting the Georgia Yellow Hammers their first recording contract and eventually became their business manager. He also was the manager of the Baxter Brothers, an African American-Cherokee fiddler/guitarist father and son team from Gordon County.
All of the different kinds of musical talents were brought together in a recording studio in Atlanta in 1927. It is said that a recording technician came up with the name of the Georgia Yellow Hammers. The Yellow Hammer, a yellow winged woodpecker, is said to be the state bird of Alabama. Although it isn’t exactly known how he came up with this name, perhaps he was from Alabama, but the recording group was from Georgia; hence, they became the Georgia Yellow Hammers. But this is pure speculation. The young musicians were soon performing at singing conventions and their popularity grew.
Their songs ranged from the raucous “Pass Around the Bottle and We’ll All Take a Drink” to the old spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Their most popular songs were recorded when they were in a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. The recordings of “My Carolina Girl” and “Picture on the Wall” sold well over 100,000 copies, quite a large number in those days.
Although the original group sang and recorded together on many occasions, at other times, different musicians were brought in. In later years guitarist Clyde Evans played with the group along with another guitarist from Rome, Ga., Melvin Dupree. Elias Meadows also ang with the group.
One interesting bit of history is that Andrew Baxter, an African American and highly talented fiddler and his son Jim, of African American and Cherokee descent and an equally astute guitar player, were asked to travel with the Georgia Yellow Hammers to Charlotte, North Carolina to a recording studio. Because of Jim Crow laws, the Baxter Brother had to sit several cars behind the Georgia Yellow Hammers. They recorded at separate sessions except that it is well known among older musicians that Andrew Baxter played fiddle on “G Rag” with the Georgia Yellow Hammers. This event must be noted as an important part of history as it is one of the earliest known integrated recordings, almost unheard of in 1927.
The Great Depression abruptly ended the budding careers of the Georgia Yellow Hammers, and they went on to get “real” jobs. The only exception was Bud Landress who played with musical groups well into the 1940s. Phil Reeve died in 1944 and Calhoun High School’s stadium is named for him. Bill Chitwood passed in 1962 and Bud Landress followed him in 1966. Clyde Evans died in 1975 and one of the last members of the group to pass away was Ernest Moody in 1977.
Andrew Baxter passed away in 1955 and his grave site is in the tiny cemetery at Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Gordon County. A source has said that the circumstances surrounding his son, Jim’s death and burial site is somewhat clouded.
The Georgia Yellow Hammers and the Baxter Brothers paved the wave for future groups who had and still have a great affinity to stringed instruments. In fact, The String Band Festival has become an annual spring event in Gordon County. The Georgia Yellow Hammers and the Baxter Brothers would have fit right in.
(The New Harmonies : Celebrating American Roots Music exhibit is on display at The Harris Arts Center, April 14 – May 24. Admission is free to the exhibit and to many live performances. Other events will be ticketed at affordable prices. Call 706-629-2599 for details.)