100 Greatest Men: The Complete List
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
Next: #92. Gene Watson
Previous: #94. Ricky Van Shelton
100 Greatest Men: The Complete List
Because the masters used in making records at the time were mechanical, rather than electrical, it was necessary to record additional masters after a certain number of copies were pressed. In effect, each master was a remake of the original recording – the artist would attempt to match the original recording but because these were whole new recordings (sometimes recorded within a few days of the original but sometimes weeks or months later, in the case of a multi-million seller) differences can be heard on different runs of a recording. The “Prisoners Song” is sometimes estimated to have sold as many as seven million copies (as well as one million copies of the sheet music) so these copies were recorded from a great many masters recorded with varying casts of musicians
I don’t know that Dalhart ever regarded himself as anything except a pop singer – he’s fairly fringe as far as country music is concerned. Also, he recorded under many pseudonyms,so you may have picked up a Vernon Dalhart 78 sometime and not even known it!
Dalhart also re-recorded the “Prisoners Song” for a wide array of record labels as well. Actual CDs of Vern Dalhart can be hard to find, but his recordings are largely out of copyright protection and you can find downloads of his music with a little effort
I thought about framing him as the first pop artist to cross over into country, but given that country didn’t really exist yet, I couldn’t make it work rhetorically.
But yeah, he was a pop singer who had a big hit with a folk song from the rural south, so he decided to make a few more. Or maybe it just helped him reconnect with his Texas roots. Or both.
Either way, influential and precedent-setting guy, but not overwhelmingly so.
This entry is exactly what I was looking forward to in this series. Of course, I want to see where my favorites rank, but I can’t wait to learn about all of the historical acts that are new to me.
Great write up, as usual.