By Jack Palmer
Our thanks and appreciation to the author for letting us
use his writeup. If you have any questions, please
drop an email to Jack Palmer
Vernon Dalhart recorded often during the acoustic era of
recording and was probably the most popular recording artist in
America during the first couple of years of the electric era. He
recorded over 1600 songs from 1916 to 1939, working at some point
for nearly every record company in the United States. He started
as a classical singer but eventually recorded almost every type
of song and became best known for country, or
"hillbilly," type songs. Today, his membership in the
Country Music Hall Of Fame attests to his key role in
popularizing country music on early recordings.
Vernon Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter, II, in
Jefferson, Texas, the only child of Robert Marion and Mary Jane
(Castleberry) Slaughter. He was probably born on April 6, 1883.
The 1890 census indicates that Dalhart was born in 1881, but all
other sources show the 1883 date.
In an interview for the May 1927 issue of Farm and Fireside,
in an article titled "Two Men Who Sell New Songs For
Old," Dalhart stated, "When I was only ten days old,
Mother, having accomplished her mission in town, climbed aboard a
range pony and carried me to the home ranch where I grew
up." The ranch was a few miles outside Jefferson, which was
the seat of Marion County and which began as a river town at the
edge of east Texas over 70 years before. Slaughter family members
were notorious for violent ways, and Marion's father was killed
in an argument with his brother-in-law, Bob Castleberry, when
Dalhart was 10 years old. On the wall of the former Kahn Saloon
in Jefferson is a plaque stating that Marion often sang in the
Kahn Saloon (scene of his father's death) before he left
Jefferson. If it is true that he sang there, he was singing in
public at a young age since he was living in Dallas before he was
Marion grew up musical. He sang and also played the harmonica,
jew's harp and kazoo, all of which he would later play on many of
In Dallas, the young Slaughter was encouraged to develop his
voice and he began studying music at the Dallas Conservatory of
Music while working at various jobs to support himself and his
growing family. He had married Sadie Lee Moore-Livingston in 1902
and by 1904 had a son, Marion Try, III, and a daughter, Janice.
Sometime before 1910 he moved his family to New York to further
his musical education. He supported his family by working in a
piano warehouse and taking occasional singing jobs, mostly as a
church soloist, while studying voice to prepare himself for opera
and the concert stage, his eventual goal.
In 1912 he appeared on the stage in a minor role in Puccini's
Girl of the Golden West, using for the first time the name Vernon
Dalhart, forming it from two west Texas towns, Vernon and
Dalhart, where supposedly he had worked on a ranch during his
teens. Although many pseudonyms would be used by record companies
for the tenor, Vernon Dalhart was the name used by Slaughter for
the rest of his life in his business dealings and in much of his
In 1914 Dalhart had the leading tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw
in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, performing in New York
and touring with various companies (in 1917 he recorded from
Pinafore the "Nightingale's Song," issued as Blue
Amberol 3385). In 1916 he saw a notice in a paper that the Edison
company was auditioning for new recording artists. In a 1927
magazine article, Dalhart claimed that he had tried for seven
years to get a chance to record with Edison. Having finally
passed an audition, he was asked by Thomas A. Edison to sing
directly into Edison's ear trumpet--an additional audition of a
novel kind. Edison liked Dalhart's voice because he could
understand every word when Dalhart sang.
A test recording was made, and although Dalhart's name
appeared in a list of "Artists Who Have Made Or Will Make
Edison Records" in the June 1915 Edison Diamond Disc
Catalog, two years would pass before the company released the
first Dalhart recording, by which time Dalhart had recorded for
two other companies.
The first Dalhart records to be issued were Columbia A2108,
which featured the Gus Kahn-Egbert Van Alstyne song "Just A
Word Of Sympathy" (recorded on September 13, 1916), and two
Emerson discs. Emerson 798 featured Turner's "The World Is
Hungry For a Little Bit of Love" and Emerson 7104 featured
"Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin', Caroline?" The three discs
were issued in December 1916.
The tenor made only a few Columbias prior to 1924, one of
them, "When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band To France"
(A2541), issued in July 1918 under the name Bob White. The
pseudonym was used probably because this comic song was
uncharacteristic of Dalhart in these years (Bob White would be
used often for Dalhart in the 1920s). He recorded around this
time another song inspired by the war in Europe: "Paul
Revere, Won't You Ride For Us Again." It was issued under
Dalhart's name as Columbia A2567 in August 1918.
In June 1917, by which time several additional Dalhart
performances had been issued by Emerson (on 795, 7104, 7127,
7132, 7174 and 7176--followed in July by 7183 and 7192), his
first Edison record was released, Blue Amberol 3185, featuring
the same song issued on an Emerson disc, "Can't Yo' Heah Me
Callin', Caroline?" In September it was issued on Diamond
According to Dalhart, it was with the 1914 Caro Roma
composition "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin', Caroline?" that
he had made such an impression two years earlier during his
Edison audition. The song, performed in Dalhart's normal Southern
accent, became one of Edison's most popular recordings and
remained in the catalog until 1929. Though many have commented on
Dalhart's use of Negro dialect in singing this and other songs,
Dalhart claimed it was his normal east Texas accent.
He had an exclusive contract with Edison from May 1917 through
May 1919 (he made two Columbia and two Victor recordings in 1918
and it is likely that he was given permission to make these). He
would be come one of Edison's most prolific artists, recording
over 200 songs for the company. No solo artist, duo or band had
more recordings issued as Blue Amberol dubbings than Dalhart. He
conducted many Edison Tone Test Recitals, the name given in the
November 1915 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly for the
marketing phenomenon of artists sharing a stage with Edison
Diamond Disc phonographs. The artist would sing at times, the
phonograph would be played at other times, and audiences were
asked if they could distinguish "the re-creation" from
live singing. The earliest references to Tone Test Recitals are
in the September 1915 issue of the Edison trade publication,
which notes that soprano Alice Verlet sang "in unison with
her own records" to Edison dealers at the Edison plant on
August 9, 1915, and Verdi E.B. Fuller explained to the dealers
how to hold similar Recitals; one of the earliest public Tone
Test Recitals was at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on September 13,
1915. The November 1918 issue of Talking Machine World includes a
photograph of Dalhart, noting that he was one of 15 artists
touring at that time. He continued conducting these recitals
until the mid-1920s.
In August 1917, two Dalhart performances were issued on Blue
Amberols: the love-song "Cora" (3231) and "There's
Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes" (3244). Announcing the release of
"There's Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes" on Blue Amberol
3244, the July 1917 issue of Edison Amberola Monthly stated,
"Vernon Dalhart has certainly rendered this song in true
Egyptian style." In that month, Starr issued Dalhart singing
"Pull the Cork Out of Erin" (7598) on its new label.
In September, Dalhart's first recording with a singing partner
was issued. He sang with Kathryn Irving on Kern's "Till the
Clouds Roll By" on Starr 7607, the reverse side featuring
another team, Ada Jones and Harry Dunne. More than a year would
pass before Starr issued another Dalhart performance, which was
"Rock-a-bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody)" on Gennett
8536, issued in March 1919.
Three Diamond Discs featuring Dalhart were issued in October
1917: "Tommy Lad!" (80348), "There's Egypt in Your
Dreamy Eyes" (80354), and "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin',
Caroline" (80334). Also issued in October was Blue Amberol
3297 featuring Dalhart and Gladys Rice performing Richard
Whiting's "Ain't You Coming Back to Dixieland?" Rice's
partners around this time were Irving Kaufman, Walter Van Brunt,
and Frederick Wheeler, but she would record more duets with
Dalhart than with any other singer.
A Diamond Disc featuring Dalhart singing Jack Wells'
"Joan of Arc (They Are Calling You)" (50444) was issued
in November 1917 as was the Blue Amberol dubbing 3323. It was one
of many war-ballads composed in mid-1917. A few more Blue
Amberols and Diamond Discs featuring Dalhart were issued in late
1917 and early 1918.
In April 1918, an unusually high number of Dalhart
performancesseven in allwere issued by Edison. Two Blue
Amberol featuring him were issued, with "Hush-a-bye Ma
Baby" (3454) being a duet with Marion Evelyn Cox. Four
Diamond Discs featuring him were issued, two of them in Edison's
popular 50,000 series and two in the more high-brow 80,000
series. On Diamond Disc 80384, Dalhart sings "That's Why My
Heart Is Calling You" and "Will You Remember?" On
Diamond Disc 80387 he is teamed with Gladys Rice for "My
Hawaii You're Calling Me." That he was issued in both the
50,000 and 80,000 series indicates Edison executives in these
early years recognized his versatility. For the Christmas season
of 1917, Edison had even issued a Blue Amberol of Dalhart singing
the traditional "Star of Bethlehem" (3333).
He began recording with Victor on November 6, 1918. His first
Victor disc, featuring a song popularized by Al Jolson in Sinbad,
"Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" (18512), was
issued in February 1919. Dalhart was one of the few new artists
to record for Victor in 1918. He made slightly more than a dozen
recordings for Victor prior to "The Prisoner's Song,"
but the early Victors sold only moderately well. Victor catalogs
of the early 1920s describe him as "one of the best light
opera tenors in America...There is no burlesquing in Mr.
Dalhart's singing of negro songs. To quote his own words, he
simply imagines he's 'back home' again and sings as the spirit
and his home experiences dictate."
After Dalhart's recording contract with Edison expired in
1919, Dalhart was not under an exclusive contract with any
company until 1928. By the early 1920s Dalhart was making records
for several recording companies and had already started using the
name Bob White for Columbia releases and Robert White for Edison.
Diamond Disc 51206, issued in September 1923, features Hanley's
"Stingo Stungo" as sung by tenor Robert White, really
Dalhart was versatile from the beginning, recording everything
from light classical songs to popular songs, eventually singing
vocal refrains for dance bands. His repertoire included hymns,
comedy songs, and children's songs. He recorded solo and as a
member of various duos, trios and quartets. Between 1916 and
early 1924 he made well over 400 recordings which appeared on
more than 800 sides in the United States and appeared on at least
200 sides outside the States. His was a respectable but not
remarkable recording career up to this point. Then, due to one
record, he enjoyed an almost unprecedented degree of popularity
for a recording artist.
By early 1924 folk, hillbilly or mountain music (record
companies used all three terms) had already been recorded and was
selling fairly well, mostly in the rural South. One such
recording was "The Wreck On The Southern Old 97,"
performed by guitarist and harmonica-player Henry Whitter on Okeh
40015 and issued in early 1924. Dalhart was convinced that he
could make a superior recording of this and talked Edison
executives into letting him record it early in 1924 (some sources
say Edison's son, Charles, suggested that Dalhart record the
song). In learning the words directly from the Whitter disc,
Dalhart misunderstood some phrases, which resulted in slightly
different lyrics. Sheet music would be issued only upon the
success of Dalhart's Victor recording of the song.
The Edison recording was made in May 1924, issued as Diamond
Disc 51361 in August, then issued as Blue Amberol 4898 in
September. It sold reasonably well despite the Diamond Disc's
reverse side featuring Ernest Hare singing a "coon"
song titled "I Wasn't Scared But I Just Thought That I Had
Better Go," which was a thoughtless match for the Dalhart
side. Frank Ferera played guitar on "The Wreck On The
Southern Old 97," and Dalhart sang and played harmonica.
Dalhart next asked Victor executivesmost likely Eddie King
to allow him to record it for the prestigious company. The
response was that Victor would record it if Dalhart could suggest
a suitable selection for the B side of the record. An old folk
song was rearranged and titled "The Prisoner's Song."
It was recorded with Carson Robison (1890 - 1957) playing guitar
and L. Raderman playing viola. In November 1924, Victor record
19427 was released with "The Wreck Of The Old 97" (the
title had changed slightly--"Southern" was dropped and
the preposition "on" became "of") on side A
and "The Prisoner's Song" on side B, both called
"Mountaineer's Song" in the Victor catalog. The latter
song became enormously popular.
Everyone involved in the production of this recording has a
different story on how "The Prisoner's Song" was
written and recorded. Although today there is no doubt that the
song was derived from an old folk song, Dalhart claimed his
cousin, Guy Massey, had sung the song for years and Dalhart had
simply rearranged it. Years later, Bobby Gregory, a protege of
Dalhart's in the 1930's, stated that Dalhart told him he had only
changed a few notes in Massey's song to make it better for his
voice. Robison, who was a Victor contract musician at that time,
later claimed he had written it. Nat Shilkret, the producer and
also under Victor contract, claimed some responsibility for the
Dalhart copyrighted the song in 1924 under his cousin's name
and Dalhart himself earned royalties when Guy Massey died the
following year. Years later Dalhart turned all rights over to the
That the song became a huge hit is remarkable given its simple
melody and the fact that its lyrics make little sense:
Oh! I wish I had someone to love me,
Someone to call me their own.
Oh! I wish I had someone to live with
'cause I'm tired of living alone.
Oh! Please meet me tonight in the moonlight
Please meet me tonight all alone.
For I have a sad story to tell you,
It's a story that's never been told.
I'll be carried to the new jail tomorrow,
Leaving my poor darling alone.
With the cold prison bars all around me
And my head on a pillow of stone.
Now I have a grand ship on the ocean
All mounted with silver and gold.
And before my poor darling would suffer, Oh!
That ship would be anchored and sold.
Now if I had wings like an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly.
And I'd fly to the arms of my poor darlin'
And there I'd be willing to die.
Within a year, the song was being sung everywhere. Dalhart was
paid $3500 for a two week stint at the Strand Theater in New
York--he only had to sing this song. He performed it on radio and
he recorded it for almost every American record company. His
recordings of this one song appeared on over 50 labels in the
United States alone. In addition, the song was recorded as a
waltz and by dance and jazz bands. Even these recordings usually
included a vocal refrain which was almost always performed by
Dalhart though he was not always identified on the record. Nat
Shilkret's International Novelty Orchestra recorded a dance band
version on June 26, 1925 (Victor 19714), and Dalhart sang a vocal
refrain. Ross Gorman and His Orchestra recorded it for Columbia
on January 4, 1926 (563-D), and again Dalhart sang the vocal
The song was re-recorded electrically by Victor and was
re-released using the original record number. It continued to
sell until the late 1930's and became popular in every English
speaking country in the world.
Although it is often stated that "The Prisoner's
Song" was the biggest selling record of the acoustical era,
this is difficult to substantiate. Since the song as re-recorded
in the electric era sold well, many of the sales were not of the
acoustical version. But it was probably the biggest selling song
of the 1920's.
Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison had discovered a new career.
Robison had already made some records for Victor, both whistling
and playing the guitar. As soon as Robison's Victor contract
expired, he teamed up full-time with Dalhart. He performed as
singer, whistler and guitarist on Dalhart recordings and also
became a prolific composer, writing many of Dalhart's hits. Over
the next couple of years, Dalhart and Robison, usually
accompanied by violinist Murray Kellner, made records for almost
every company. Many of the records were very popular and a few
sold at, or near, a million copies. Dalhart was so popular that
over 100 of his songs appeared on 10 or more labels. Among the
most popular were Robison's "My Blue Ridge Mountain
Home" (on 46 different labels), Gussie L. Davis' "In
The Baggage Coach Ahead" (on 42 labels), "Golden
Slippers" (on 38 labels) and Hattie Nevada's "The
Letter Edged In Black" (on 35 labels).
During this time various Dalhart pseudonyms were employed.
Although Dalhart himself only used perhaps a half dozen names,
the record companies used many others. When a company released
the same recorded performance on several labels, it would often
use a different name for each label. Because of the large number
of Dalhart releases, at least a hundred pseudonyms have been
verified as used by record companies on Dalhart recordings. There
were more than eighty names used in the United States, including
more than twenty names of groups in which Dalhart either sang or
played the kazoo. Another thirty or more names were used in
England, Australia and Canada. In addition, Dalhart sang with
many musical groups and often was unidentified on the label.
Including foreign issues, discographers have listed nearly
3800 sides on more than 150 labels released in the United States,
with another 1160 sides, or so, released outside the United
States. Allowing for the records where Dalhart only appeared on
one side, there were well over 3000 Dalhart records issued since
1916. Obviously he did not make this many recordings. Many of the
masters were released on a dozen, or more, different labels.
No doubt because of the success of "The Wreck of the Old
97," Dalhart would record many songs about actual events.
Soon after Charles A. Lindbergh's solo nonstop transatlantic
flight on May 20- 21 1927, Dalhart entered many studios and
recorded Johnson and Sherman's "Lindbergh (The Eagle of the
U.S.A.)" and Baer and Gilbert's "Lucky Lindy."
Victor's coupling (20674) and Columbia's coupling (1000-D) were
issued in August 1927. He would record several other songs about
Sometime around 1927, while Robison was on vacation, Dalhart
sent for Adelyne (or Adelyn) Hood from Alabama to replace
Kellner. Dalhart had met Hood years earlier. During his early
Edison Tone Test Recitals, she was the violinist who accompanied
the tenor. She was an accomplished violinist and also played the
piano and sang. Although Robison respected Hood, he resented
Dalhart making a change in their group without his approval. He
had already been at odds with Dalhart since Dalhart collected a
portion of the royalties on songs that Robison wrote and which
Dalhart recorded (a common practice among singers at the time).
Despite Robison's objections, the trio of Hood, Robison and
Dalhart recorded together and some of Dalhart's most popular
songs were released during this time. By mid-1928, Robison had
found a new partner in Frank Luther and left Dalhart.
Dalhart managed to record over 200 songs after Robison left--
sometimes performing with Hood, sometimes without. They were
issued on at least 800 sides, but Dalhart's popularity was
waning. Robison's song-writing had helped Dalhart in the
past--his departure contributed to a decline in Dalhart's
popularity. Radio was increasingly hurting record sales. In
addition, new country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and The
Carter Family were now recording. By 1931 the record industry
suffered heavily from the Depression, and performing artists came
to rely on radio, not recording work, for their income.
Dalhart had earlier appeared on network radio, including at
least one full hour show for Majestic Radio in 1929. Finally, in
1931, along with Adelyne Hood, he hosted a network show for
Barbasol. The radio show was titled Barber Shop Chords and
featured Dalhart as Barbasol Ben with Adelyne Hood as Barbara the
manicurist, along with a barber shop quartet. The show was
broadcast three times a week on Columbia but left the air in
October 1931 after only six months. Apparently at least some of
the shows were done by transcription since Dalhart and Hood were
in England early in 1931. This may have contributed to the show's
Also in 1931 Dalhart had his only recording session for Durium
Records. These flexible paper based records featured a song on
one side and Dalhart's picture on the reverse. In the spring of
1931 Dalhart and Hood traveled to England, apparently for a few
personal appearances. While there they did two recording
sessions, recording eight songs with an English orchestra. Only
four of the songs were released; two had been previously recorded
in the United States and two were never recorded elsewhere. These
two new songs, "River Stay Away From My Door" and
"It's Time To Say Aloha To You" were issued on Regal
Record MR-332, now one of Dalhart's rarest recordings.
Dalhart's next recording session was not until 1932 when he
and Hood recorded six sides in two sessions for Crown Records.
The same recordings were reissued on the Varsity label in 1939
using the name Bill Vernon. Two years later he and Hood did two
sessions for Brunswick Finally in 1939, RCA signed him as an
exclusive artist. He had only one recording session, during which
he recorded six songs. All were released on the Bluebird label as
Vernon Dalhart and His Big Cypress Boys, but they did not sell
well. One of the recordings, "Lavender Cowboy" on
Bluebird B-8229, appeared to refer to homosexuality, so radio
considered it a "blue" song and banned it from the air.
Although Dalhart wrote to a friend in the 1940's that his voice
was as good as ever, there were no further recordings.
Dalhart had made a lot of money after the success of "The
Prisoner's Song" and purchased a large estate in Mamaroneck,
New York in the late 1920's. However, he had invested a lot of
his money in the stock market just before the Crash of '29. By
1938 he was forced to sell his estate and move to a smaller
Mamaroneck home. That year he made some personal appearances with
Adelyne Hood (now using the name Betsy White) in upstate New York
and even broadcast on a Schenectady radio station. In these
broadcasts, Dalhart followed the custom of many country stars by
appearing on the radio for free to advertise his personal
appearances. In a letter to a friend a couple of years later, he
stated, "I think I've had quite a belly full of that
supporting radio stations with free entertainment. If I'm going
to do that, I can stay home and do better". He did appear on
radio at least once more, as a guest on We, The People, trying to
resurrect his career.
By 1940, he had left New York and moved to Bridgeport,
Connecticut, where he was advertising as a voice teacher. During
World War II he served as a guard at a local defense plant. After
the war he worked as a night clerk at the Barnum Hotel in
Bridgeport, and was still employed there when he died September
14, 1948 from a heart attack. He is buried along side his wife
(who died two years later) and his son (who had passed away in
1942) in the family plot at Bridgeport's Mountain Grove Cemetery.
A plain headstone marks his grave: MARION TRY SLAUGHTER, SR,
1883-1948. His daughter lies next to her husband in a nearby
Although several people, including Carson Robison, have stated
Dalhart was a difficult man to work with, two of his later
proteges had nothing but praise for him. Bobby Gregory and Red
River Dave McEnery both credited him for helping them get started
in the music business and always spoke of him with great
The Country Music Foundation called Dalhart a one man
recording industry when he was inducted into the Country Music
Hall Of Fame in 1981. In 1995, during Vernon Dalhart Days in
Jefferson, Texas, he was belatedly inducted into the Texas
Country Music Hall Of Fame.
Special thanks to Robert Olson for suggestions and
By Jack Palmer
Our thanks and appreciation to the author for letting us
use his writeup. If you have any questions, please
drop an email to Jack Palmer
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