Have you heard the one about the country artist who had the top-selling single for seventy years?
Vernon Dalhart is that country artist, and “The Prisoner’s Song” his record breaking hit. It was one of several classic singles that solidify him as one of the genre’s most significant founding fathers.
Dalhart was born in Jefferson, Texas in 1883. His birth name was Marion Try Slaughter. He was the son of a violent father, who died in a fight with his uncle when the boy was ten years old. His mother cultivated her son’s love of music, and by age thirteen, he was studying at the Dallas Conservatory, in addition to working to support his mother.
At age nineteen, he married, and he was already the father of two children in 1905. When his mother remarried, he felt free to further pursue his musical ambitions. Moving with his family to New York City, he studied opera while working at a piano warehouse.
As early as 1911, he made attempts at a recording career, and when he had the opportunity to record part of an opera for Edison Records, he chose to use a stage name. Vernon and Dalhart, two Texan towns he remembered from his childhood, were combined, and his professional career officially began.
Dalhart joined the Century Opera Company, and starred in a popular touring production of The H.M.S. Pinafore. Beginning in 1916, he released a series of singles on different labels, including Edison, Columbia, and Emerson, and over the next few years, he’d record over 100 singles, in all different musical styles. He became an established artist, popular enough to sell records overseas.
Then, in 1924, he went into the studio to record “The Wreck of the Southern Old 97,” an old railroad ballad popular in the rural south. Needing a B-side, he also recorded an old country folk tune, “The Prisoner’s Song.” Though his previous dabbles in other genres were successful, this single ended up a genuine phenomenon, estimated as having sold several million copies, a feat unmatched by any non-Christmas song until Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.”
Dalhart showed record executives that there could be a major market for what we now call country music, and an artist who had been freely switching between genres now focused solely on this style of music. He released several records in the same style, and remained popular until the Great Depression brought record sales to a screeching halt.
During the thirties, Dalhart relied on personal appearances and radio gigs, often teaming up with Adelyne Hood, who later used the stage name Betsy White. They even took their duo act to England for a time. When Delhart returned to the states, he released a few more sides in 1939, which weren’t commercially successful.
Dalhart took a security job to make ends meet, but soon had a heart attack while working. He died in 1948.
In retrospect, he has been acknowledged for his role in the formation of the genre, with inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His signature double-sided hit joined the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
- Can’t Yo’ Hear Me Callin’, Caroline?, 1916
- The Wreck of the Old 97/The Prisoner’s Song, 1924
- New River Train/The Sinking of the Titanic, 1925
- Billy the Kid, 1927
- Inducted into the Hall of Fame: 1981, 1999
- Puttin’ On the Style: The Edison Collection, 2007
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