Polk Brockman

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Listeners who enjoy vintage country and blues music, but have only dabbled in the history of the genres, sometimes assume Polk Brockman is some kind of great backwoods Appalachian songwriter because his…
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Listeners who enjoy vintage country and blues music, but have only dabbled in the history of the genres, sometimes assume Polk Brockman is some kind of great backwoods Appalachian songwriter because his name shows up in the writer's column for songs as famous as "Sittin' on Top of the World." Nothing could be further from the truth. Brockman is one of those people whose name is in songwriting credits because he put it there; the royalty check would be made payable to the same name as well, no coincidence there. Those who loathe country music might also want to create a dartboard with Brockman's picture on it, as he was the first record producer to make and release a side by what was called an "untrained country artist," otherwise known as somebody who played music by ear. These recordings of the legendary Fiddlin' John Carson were done with the assistance of Ralph Peer, later a founder of the Grand Ole Opry.

Like Peer, Brockman is a marble head in the hallowed halls of country & western history, yet his work as an A&R man, song publisher, and producer, and its effect on the music scene, has been compared to strip mining and its effect on the environment. A syllabus for the University of Kentucky musicology department requires students to understand "the five components of Polk Brockman's mutually reinforcing system of production." Students are also expected to understand why Peer made more moolah than Brockman. Far from being mere academic banter, these subjects provide the thrust of any poke at Polk. The strip-mining analogy is pretty accurate, as Brockman's involvement with country music had the truncated lifespan of a shoddy mining company that gouges out a hillside in a Tennessee hollow. In strict business terms, it is known as short-term success and long-term failure.

Brockman came from a Georgia mercantile family, and as a young man began working for the Simmons Bedding Company after toiling as the phonograph and record department manager of his family's Atlanta furniture store. He was getting plenty of exposure to people he thought of as a ready new market. Some were black, some were white, but all were poor country folk who were new to the city. What he thought he could sell them was music, and something more like what they had grown up listening to than the early Tin Pan Alley records that were presently available. Brockman began to manage Carson, who had already broken new ground performing fiddle music live on Atlanta's WSB. Peer peered into the picture when his bosses at the Okeh label were looking for a musician to record in order to test some new equipment. Peer is famous for describing the results achieved with Carson as "pluperfectly awful," but everyone involved recognized a good thing when the first 500 copies sold at a few gigs -- perhaps the beginning of merchandising. Brockman and his sporadic partner Peer began to wander the hills looking for more talent.

Finding it was one thing, leaving it alone something else. Brockman actually became involved in how recorded material was created, simply out of interest in acquiring property ownership. Performers were pressured to write their own material rather than rely on traditional numbers that may have already been copyrighted. The idea was to write new songs that sounded old, copyright them, and get as many artists as possible to record them. Brockman was an innovator in the art of commissioning songs, then filching the copyright. A blind newsboy named Andrew Jenkins became a recording artist on the basis of "The Death of Floyd Collins," a song about a man who had died trapped in a cave, and it was Brockman who had gotten him to write it. "Sittin' on Top of the World" was one of the tracks Brockman coughed up a total of a grand to the New Mississippi Sheiks for in an all-day session, and guess whose name showed up as the writer on the record labels? As for the infamous five-component system of production, the crib sheet is ready for all musicology students: it is recording, radio, touring, song publishing, songwriting. In other words, the same stuff discussed at many a music business seminar.

It was not a system that worked for Brockman, whose influence in the music industry dwindled rather than expanded. He is inevitably compared unfavorably with Peer most among his peers, who is said to have figured out a way to make traditional music into a renewable resource through copyright agreements that benefitted his artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, as well as of course himself. In contrast, Brockman shared naught and by 1925 was the emperor of a crumbling empire. Unlike Peer, he did not establish relationships with artists that could provide a steady stream of original material. Nonetheless, he supposedly had a steady hand at recording sessions that producers such as Phil Spector or Brian Wilson probably envied: "We had a program all laid out ahead a time," Brockman bragged in an interview. "We knew exactly what we'se gonna do...It wasn't any hit or miss to it at all."