The background of some of the most well-known recordings of American cowboy songs is surprising enough to make the Cisco Kid fall off his horse. Who would think that the mysterious recording artists who went under the stage names of the Lone Star Ranger and the Lonesome Cowboy were one and the same person, and a city-slicker greenhorn at that! Guitarist, singer, and later western music researcher John White recorded under these names, and more. He is also Whitey Johns, Jimmie Price, and the Old Sexton. The man who hailed from Washington, D.C., instead of out west, was also "neither lonesome nor a cowboy," according to a memoir he wrote for Old Time Music, and never understood why record labels insisted on marketing his recordings under so many pseudonyms. His recording career began at the close of the 1920s, when the American Record Corporation was on the prowl for a hillbilly singer. The White referral came from guitar wizard Roy Smeck, who apparently had heard White playing cowboy songs on the radio. Smeck, considered one of the great guitar virtuosos of all time, ended up playing on quite a few of the White sides. The singer recalls hearing his first cowboy song in 1924, sung by Romaine Lowdermilk, a performer who would be prominent at folk festivals in the '30s. By the time White started cutting sides for ARC, he already knew a great deal about the genre of cowboy songs. His repertoire included numbers dating back to European settlers out west near the end of the 1800s, such as "The Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim." Despite the authenticity of such material, the record company became more interested in White recording what he described as "alleged hillbilly numbers" written by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. Often he would be called on to do cover versions of recordings by hillbilly singer Vernon Dalhart, whose career was going strong in this period. One of Dalhart's most famous hits was "Calamity Jane," and for the White cover version the company brought in the singer and violinist Adelyne Hood, a regular sidekick of Dalhart's, who actually showed up at the session himself to give the Lonesome Cowboy tips on how to sing his part properly. White began losing interest in making records in 1931, feeling the material was corny, at best. His last recordings were perhaps his most famous, including "Whoopee Ti Yo Yo, Git Along Dogies" and "The Strawberry Roan." Over the 21-month period White recorded 18 songs, all originally issued on 78 rpm discs. White continued performing on the radio through 1936. He would be featured weekly on an NBC station. He then dropped out of the entertainment world entirely, focusing on a business career. Upon his retirement in 1965, he began writing magazine articles about the American west, including much research on old songs and the people who had written them. In 1974 the University of Illinois Press published White's book on these subjects as part of their series titled Music in American Life.
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