In January 1926, a movie theater owner, county fair organizer and Missouri Pacific Railroad surgeon named Henry Harlin Smith hosted a fiddle contest in Calico Rock. By all accounts one of the most resourceful residents of Izard County, Smith attracted musicians from all the surrounding cities, and out of the winners he assembled a band, which he called Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. They performed locally and earned a spot on KTHS, a radio station out of Hot Springs, where they made such an impression that they were promptly invited back. "It is indeed gratifying," Smith said over the air, "to know our program has made so many minds and hearts drift back to the earlier days when all was well, when all the 'hoss hair pullers' of old were in due form and all parties concerned were in a receptive mood for tipping of the fantastic toe."
Ralph Peer, the talent scout and record producer who supervised the seminal "Bristol Sessions," which marked the earliest recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, took an interest in Smith's group, and in September 1928 he summoned them to Memphis on behalf of his label, Victor. Of the songs they recorded that day at the Memphis Auditorium, one dated back to 1904, "Just Give Me the Leavings," by James Weldon Johnson and Bob Cole. Wryly funny but not especially light-hearted, it's a kind of cynical nursery rhyme, a joke about what comes after despair. "I never had exactly what I'd like to have in life," it begins, "although I've had my share of troubles, sorrows and of strife."
Over 80 years later, the record has re-emerged along with 25 other old-time string band workouts and hillbilly country anthems on the compilation "Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers: Arkansas at 78 RPM," released in September by the Atlanta-based reissue label Dust-to-Digital. Here, Smith's band rubs shoulders with other long-forgotten icons of the Natural State once pressed on shellac: Pope's Arkansas Mountaineers, Luke Hignight's Ozark Strutters, A.E. Ward and His Plow Boys and Reaves White County Ramblers. There are songs about cider and turnip greens, rewritten minstrel songs, songs with no discernible origin, "what, for want of a better term, is called country," as the Ozark folklorist W.K. McNeil once wrote.
Dust-to-Digital, a family operation founded and managed by Lance and April Ledbetter, first emerged in 2003 with the six-disc collection "Goodbye, Babylon," which, as the New Yorker has noted, "many describe as the greatest gospel compilation ever made." Each box included a strand of raw cotton. Since then the label has won Grammys and been endorsed by the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. It has released field recordings from Florida, Yemen and Greece, anthologies of sacred harp and string bass, and overviews of the careers of the guitarist John Fahey and the Atlanta Baptist minister Rev. Johnny L. "Hurricane" Jones.
"Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers" was produced as the companion volume and sonic counterpart to another new Dust-to-Digital release, the photo book "Making Pictures: Three for a Dime," assembled by the photographer and Hendrix College professor Maxine Payne. Payne was given the plates reproduced in the book — small, refrigerator magnet-sized portraits of anonymous Arkansans in the 1930s — by a friend related to the Massengill family, who became amateur photographers to support themselves during the Great Depression. Like the protean country songs on the compilation, which only survived thanks to the blind and desperately profit-minded record companies of the era, the photographs are the remnants of a commercial endeavor, a business developed by entrepreneurs so poor they took to "sleeping in their workplace," Payne writes in the introduction, "with pungent photo chemicals and no bathroom."
The book includes remembrances and diary entries by the Massengills themselves, which are alternately fascinating and prosaic, or both ("June 12, 1939: Gee but it is hot today. We got a new freezer and made some pineapple ice cream and it made us sick."). Arranged in order of the portrait subjects' ages, from toddlers wearing sailor's outfits or clutching chickens to the elderly, with their severe looking expressions and oddly fitting hats, the photographs are as startling for their material strangeness — the haunting exposure effects and grotesque colorations, which were hand-painted and cost a nickel extra — as they are for their banal familiarity. Taken together, the compilation and the book provide a dense and multidimensional glimpse into a vanished Arkansan everyday, a rural culture rarely ever memorialized.
One of the project's greatest virtues is its balance between object and context. Tony Russell's liner notes are spare, sometimes beautiful profiles of musicians who made the slightest possible imprint on the historical record before disappearing back into the hills. "We were all just about broke when we got there and times were hard back then," Russell quotes one of them, Wisner Ward, as saying. "You took what they gave you and left."
Dr. Smith died in 1931, a few years after the session, and "lacking his organizing hand," Russell writes, "the Hoss Hair Pullers retired to everyday life." To listen to the compilation, though, is to re-summon his enthusiasm, to give him and his band their due. "So everybody come to the Arkansas Ozarks," he went on to say that day on KTHS. "Meet these men of the Missouri Pacific and natives, and you will then say, 'Yes, indeed, you have the most wonderful country in the world.' "