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Richmond’s Top Five Pre-1960 Musical Moments



1. 1836 — Banjoist Joel Walker "Joe" Sweeney makes his earliest documented performance in Richmond with James Sanford at Terpsichore Hall. Richmond is the first major city to see Sweeney's performances of minstrelsy on the five-string banjo, an instrument taught to him by slaves in his native Appomattox County. Sweeney goes on to tour widely in the United States and Great Britain, helping to launch America's first major form of musical theater.

2. 1909 — Druggist Polk Miller records for Edison, accompanied by the Old South Quartette in Richmond. Miller's rendition of the "Bonnie Blue Flag" is a rare recording by a veteran and reflects his nostalgia for the Confederacy and Virginia society before the Civil War. Ironically, he's accompanied by a black quartet that records its own sacred and secular numbers, some of the earliest recordings in the great African-American quartet tradition.

3. 1929 — For five days in October, Virginia musicians played their songs for engineers of the OKeh Record Co. Such companies held sessions away from their Northern studios in order to mine the rich vein of Southern music demanded by record buyers. The Richmond session was a microcosm of Virginia and American music, capturing the music of old-time bands, gospel quartets, harmonica players, jazz acts and even Hawaiian orchestras. Artists came from Roanoke, Richmond, Hopewell, Norfolk and many rural communities hoping to achieve musical fame.

4. 1936 — Famed folklorist John Lomax travels to the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond and the State Prison Farm in Goochland County to record music for the Library of Congress. Lomax and Harold Spivacke record inmates performing gospel, blues and work songs as part of his field travels to every Southern state prison. The resulting archive is an irreplaceable window into black folk music and culture.

5. 1946 — The Old Dominion Barn Dance signs on to Richmond radio station WRVA and quickly becomes one of most successful country music shows on the air. With host Mary "Sunshine Sue" Workman, the show features a plethora of national talent, including Grandpa Jones, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Joe Maphis, and rockabilly sensation Janis Martin.

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