Harrell was born in Draper’s Valley, Wythe County, Virginia and from his early teens worked in various textile mills. In early 1925, when Harrell was already 35 years old, he went to New York and recorded four tracks for Victor Records, among them “New River Train” (made famous by Bill Monroe and “The Roving Gambler”. He recorded for OKeh later that year, including a version of “The Wreck of the Old 97” and “I Was Born 10,000 Year Ago” (the latter often known as “The Bragging Song” and recorded by Elvis Presley, The New Christy Minstrels, Odetta and several others).
He made more records for Victor in 1925, 1926, 1927 and 1929. “The Butcher’s Boy” and “I Wish I Was Single Again” on Victor 19563 on 1/7/25. “The Dying Hobo” (1926) is a variant of the traditional English folksong George Collins. “My Name Is John Johannah” was recorded in 1927 at RCA Victor’s studios in Camden, NJ, with Posey Rorer on fiddle, Alfred Steagal on guitar, and R.D. Hundley on banjo. Variations of this song (“Maggie Walker Blues”, “State of Arkansas”, “For Dave Glover”) were performed and recorded by Bob Dylan.
After 1929, his recording career came to a halt, owing to his inability to play an instrument—Harrell always required backing by other musicians, and the Great Depression had so damaged the recording business that Victor was unwilling to pay the cost of hiring backup musicians.
His “My Name Is John Johannah” featured on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), which was extremely influential on the folk revival of the 1950s-60s. Harrell’s complete recorded music was reissued by Bear Family on a triple-LP set in the 1970s, and he is also represented by an LP on the County label. More recently, Worried Blues was released 2006
Edited by midlifefanclub on 13 Sep 2012, 17:25
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