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Harpo Kidwell
Born:  December 18, 1910
Died:  December 29, 2003
Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame (1987)
Renfro Valley Barn Dance
WLW Boone County Jamboree
WLW Midwestern Hayride
WSB Barn Dance
WAPI Birmingham, AL
WCKY Cincinnati, OH
WHBD Mount Orab, OH
WSMK Dayton, OH
WHKC Columbus, OH (1937)
WKRC Cincinnati, OH (1938)
WSB Atlanta, GA (1939)
WLW Cincinnati, OH (1952)

About The Artist

Harpo Kidwell:
A Portrait of an Early Country Musician


By Wayne W. Daniel

Between 1913 and 1950, Atlanta, Georgia, was one of the most active country music centers in the nation, a fact that has earned the city such sobriquets as one-time "country music capital" and "pre'-Nashville Nashville." Beginning in 1913. the annual Georgia State Fiddlers' Conventions attracted, from all over Georgia and from neighboring states, old-time fiddlers and other country musicians who played to large and enthusiastic audiences made up of farmers from the rural areas, as well as a cross-section of city dwellers. These annual events provided a showcase for such popular acts as Fiddlin' John Carson, the nation's first "real 'country' " music recording artist, ~ Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Clayton McMichen, and Riley Puckett.

When, on March 15, 1922, WSB went on the air as the South's first radio s station, a wealth of country music talent was waiting in the wings to bring their kind of music to new audiences and make WSB possibly the first radio station to feature country music.

During the 1920's and 1930's, Atlanta served as a field recording center for record companies seeking to cash in on the suddenly popular hillbilly market. A roster of early country musicians who came from other places to Atlanta to make records during this period reads like a Who's Who in the field and includes such pioneer artists as the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, Wade Mainer, Ernest Stoneman, the Possum Hunters, the Carolina Tarheels, Narmour and Smith, Henry Whitter, and Jimmie Rodgers.

In the 1930's Atlanta's radio stations provided an opportunity for a number of country music performers to publicize the personal appearances that provided their bread and butter. Several road show units, consisting of from three to six musicians, would broadcast an early morning and/or mid-day radio program in Atlanta and then present an evening stage show at some school auditorium or theater somewhere in the rural part of Georgia or in a neighboring state. On WSB one could tune in the Crossroad Follies program which featured musical styles as diverse as the old·time fiddle band sounds of Bill Gatins and His Jug Band and the western swing of Hank Penny and His Radio Cowboys. WGST had the Blue Sky Boys, and WAGA, which went on the air later in the decade. shared talent with WSB.

On Saturday night, November 16, 1940, the WSB Barn Dance, destined to become perhaps the area's largest and most popular radio and stage show, made its debut at 10:30 in the station's main studios atop the Biltmore Hotel at 817 West Peachtree Street. 7 This event signaled the beginning of a lively period of country music programming on WSB, and it was not long until one could hear as many as four country music programs on the station each day.

One of the most popular and enduring personalities that performed on WSB during the country music heyday was a tall, lean and handsome Kentuckian named Harpo Kidwell. Coming to Atlanta in the 1930's, this indomitable musician, who was one of the last country performers to be heard live on W5B, is today a regular attraction at bluegrass festivals in Georgia.

Although Harpo Kidwell was named Horace Opal by his parents, it would only be a matter of time before he would acquire his nickname in recognition of his accomplishments on the harmonica, or "harp," as he usually calls the instrument.

Harpo was born and reared in the vicinity of Irvine, just inside the bluegrass section of Kentucky, and it was in Irvine, at the age of ten, that he first performed before an audience. The occasion was a talent show at the local school. and for his part on the program, Harpo played "Dog Treed a Possum" on the harmonica . "When I finished playing," Harpo relates, "and went back to my seat, I missed my chair and fell flat on the floor. That made the biggest hit of the evening." Thus began a career that would carry Harpo twice from Ohio to Georgia, with stops in Kentucky and a detour into Alabama.

One of seven children, Harpo grew up on a forty-acre creek-bottom farm in Kentucky. He confesses, however, that he "didn't do much farming_ I had my mind set on show business."

Harpo's was a musical family. His father played "good breakdowns" on the harmonica, and his mother and four sisters played the piano. One of his two brothers was also a harmonica player and guitarist. Harpo, however, was the only member of the family to become a professional musician. He remembers that as a child he always wanted to play the harmonica just like his father

"I'd take one of his harps," he recalls. "and go way off in the woods somewhere and sit down and play and play, trying to play just like my dad."

At an early age Harpo and three of his friends formed a musical group and started performing locally. In addition to Harpo and his harmonica, the group consisted of Ralph Richardson who played fiddle, and Ralph's two brothers: Carice, who played guitar, and Glen, a tenor banjoist.

"Glen had an almost new Model-T Ford," Harpo reminisces," and we started out to seek our fortune." The quartet went to Camden, Ohio, to play for "thrashing parties." According to Harpo, Camden was located in what was then known as the richest farming county in the state of Ohio, with wheat and corn among its most important crops.

"Back in those days," Harpo relates, "several farmers would go in together and buy a big thrashing machine. There might be as many as sixteen farmers involved, and they'd go from farm to farm to thrash each other's wheat. They'd take their wives and children along and throw a big dinner each week, and they'd want music. These were the thrashing parties we'd play for. Somebody would pass the hat to take up a collection, and that's how we were paid."

During the first part of the thrashing season, Harpo and his band lived in a tent, doing their own cooking on a kerosene stove, so they could be convenient to the thrashing parties. When the weather began to turn cold, however, they rented a vacant house in which to live.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of their music by the farmers and their families, Harpo and the Richardson brothers "got up enough nerve" to make a bid for a job on a radio station. To fulfill their ambitions, they went to Dayton, Ohio, in search of an audition 011 radio station WSMK.

"We were so green," Harpo says. "We never had been in a radio station before." When they told the station receptionist that they had "come to see about getting a job on the radio station," they learned that this was not the day the station held auditions. After explaining that they had driven a considerable distance, Harpo and his group succeeded in securing the coveted audition which, to their delight, turned out to be successful.

Harpo and the Richardsons remained at WSMK for about six months, playing on the station's All Night Barn Dance on Saturday nights and on a program called the Skylarkers during the week. They also played show dates in the surrounding area. The station did not pay them a salary. Their only source of income was from their personal appearances which Harpo recalls paid "pretty good."

The studios of WSMK were on the twenty-first floor of one of Dayton's tallest buildings. Harpo remembers that "one time the elevator broke down, and we had to walk up to the studio. By the time I got up there," he adds, "I didn't have enough breath to blow my harp."

Since at Dayton Harpo's group did not secure a sponsor, they journeyed to Cincinnati to try their luck with a vaudeville booking agency. They soon learned that there were many more unemployed vaudeville acts than there were available jobs.

By this time Ralph Richardson had left the group to be replaced by Riley Mitchell who, Harpo remembers, "could play more tunes on the fiddle than anybody I ever heard."

'When Harpo told the vaudeville booking agent that their's was a hillbilly act, the agent said he'd never seen a hillbilly act before, but maybe he could use them at a local burlesque house where they could fill up time between strip acts. "We didn't know what a burlesque house was," Harpo admits, "but we took the job and got a kick out of it."

Harpo says that nowadays you can see girls in shopping centers and at the beach with less clothing on than the "strippers" at the burlesque house had on after they had "stripped." "We thought the jokes were pretty rough, too," Harpo continues, "but you can hear the same thing on TV now."

The hillbilly act was enthusiastically received by the burlesque audience, and Harpo and his group soon found themselves booked as the Mountain Hotfooters with legitimate vaudeville acts, playing in large theaters and auditoriums in the surrounding area.

Harpo feels that he learned a lot about show business from the vaudeville people. "They knew we were green," he explains, "and they'd tell us how to stand on stage in order to make a better presentation to the audience. And they'd tell us not to put our hands in our pockets on stage, because that would make us look like we were nervous."

Harpo recalls that the music the Mountain Hotfooters played was "real fast stuff like 'Darktown Strutter's Ball' and 'Tiger Rag.' "

By 1937 Harpo was in Columbus, Ohio, playing on the Neo-Vim and Scioto Ranch programs on WHKC. Scioto Ranch was a large amusement park located just outside of Columbus. Harpo, now known as Kentucky Slim, was performing with Homer Kirk, rhythm guitarist; Jimmy Wilder, a fiddle player; and a bass player and comedian called "Cranberry Bill."

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Hilarity Club - August 1947 Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

After about a year-and-a-half in Columbus, Harpo returned to Cincinnati where he helped form a group called the Roundup Gang that performed for about a year and a half on WKRC Among the artists composing the Roundup Gang were a husband and wife team, Glen and Jean Hughes; a high yodeler and bass player called "Little Joe" Isbell; and three fiddlers: "Fiddling Red" Herron, who later worked with Pee Wee King; Carl Cottiner, who went to work for Gene Autry; and Winnie Waters, who is remembered in the Columbus, Ohio, area as a one-time fiddler with Hank and Slim, the Georgia Crackers. At times, the Roundup Gang was composed of as many as sixteen musicians. Al Bland was the emcee of their show which was sponsored by Peruna and Kolorbak.

In 1939 when Harpo went to Atlanta, Georgia, he was accompanied by part of the Roundup Gang: Glen and Jean Hughes, "Fiddling Red" Herron, and "Little Joe" Isbell. In Atlanta they became a featured act on WSB's Crossroad Follies program, performing with such locally popular groups and individuals as Pop Eckler and His Young'uns; Hank Penny; a father-son duo, Red and Raymond Anderson; Butch Cannon and the Hidden Valley Ramblers; Marvin and Doug Spivey, the Pine Ridge Boys; Uncle Ned [Strickland] and his Texas Wranglers; Cousin Emmy; Chick Stripling; and now successful Nashville music publisher and songwriter, Boudleaux Bryant.

According to Harpo, when the Roundup Gang went to Atlanta, they had to alter their music to better suit the local audience. He notes that al that time instruments and songs that were popular in the Midwest didn't always go over as well in the South. He says, for example, that north of Cincinnati, the accordion was very popular, but this was not the case in the Atlanta area. Also, he says, trios were popular in the Midwest, but in the South, he found that solos and duets were in greater demand.

Except for two brief interludes, Harpo remained with WSB in Atlanta continuously for twelve-and-a-half years. He left the station once to operate a grocery store in nearby Marietta, Georgia, but when things didn't work out as he had planned, he was back on the air within a year.

On another occasion he left WSB to take a job at WAPI in Birmingham, Alabama. It was in Birmingham that he worked with the Delmore Brothers whose singing talents he is quick to praise . "You didn't appreciate their harmony," he says, "until you sat down and listened to them in person. We used to go over to their house when I was in Birmingham, and we'd sit around and drink coffee, and they'd sing one song right after the other. Their harmony was so close it would sound almost like one person singing."

After only a couple of months in Birmingham, Harpo returned to Atlanta and WSB.

In December 1939, WSB and its parent company, Atlanta's evening newspaper, The Atlanta Journal, were bought by the Cox enterprises of Ohio, and J. Leonard Reinsch became the station's new manager. One of Mr. Reinsch's first projects at WSB was to revamp the station's country music programming. To help with the job, he called on John Lair whom he had known while working earlier at WLS in Chicago. Lair, who was just getting his Renfro Valley Barn Dance established, was responsible for bringing several country music acts to W5B, including James Roberts who was known in Atlanta as James Carson; Roberts' future wife, Martha Ambergey; and two of Martha's sisters. At WSB Martha and her sisters were known as Minnie, Mattie, and Martha , the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls. Lair made trips to Atlanta on weekends to help supervise the station's country music shows. A man named Chick Kimball was hired by the station to serve as booking agent and to perform other duties connected with the country music activities at the station.

As part of the reorganization at WSB, the Crossroad Follies was abolished and replaced by the Saturday night WSB Barn Dance, the daily noon·time Georgia Jubilee, and several other daily programs, including Hank Penny's Cracker Barrel program and the Barnyard Jamboree which Harpo managed.

Although a few of the performers from the disbanded programs were retained, the new programs featured mostly fresh talent. Among the artists with whom Harpo worked on these new programs were Pete Cassell, James and Martha Carson, Cotton Carrier, Boots Woodall, and the Swanee River Boys.

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Hilarity Club - August 1947 Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

The WSB Bam Dance, which brought all of the station's country talent together on Saturday nights, soon moved from the Biltmore studios to the Atlanta Woman's Club Auditorium from the stage of which a thirty minute segment of the show continued to be broadcast over WSB. The show later moved to the Erlanger Theater which, like the Woman's Club Auditorium, was located on Atlanta's famous Peachtree Street. On occasions, especially in the summers, the Bam Dance was staged in large auditoriums in Georgia's other larger cities such as Macon and Albany.

Another change inaugurated by the new management at WSB had to do with the remuneration of the country music performers. Formerly, the musicians' only source of income was from personal appearances, but after 1940 the station started paying its talent a salary. In exchange for the booking services handled by Chick Kimball. the station received a percentage of the door receipts at personal appearances of the entire Barn Dance group and of the smaller performing units, the Cracker Barrell Gang and the Barnyard Jamboree, that played the school auditoriums and small town theaters in the surrounding area.

Harpo says that "the WSB Barn Dance, at its best, was probably the best show I ever worked on."

A newspaper radio log from the early 1940's lists the following program (or one of the broadcast portions of the Bam Dance: "FreeLittle Bird" -Hoot Owl Hollow Girls "Steel Guitar Rag"- Bootsl Woodall "Freight Train Blues" -Pete Cassll "Bully of the Town"-Harpo Kidwell "Rock of Ages" -Swanee River Boys "Leather Britehes"-Chiek Stripling "r'm Walking the Floor Over You"_ Hank Penny " Kansas Citv Railroad Blues"-Cotton Carrier "Precious Jewel" -James and Martha Carson "Under the Double Eagle"-Jane Logan (Accordionist) "Bill Bailey. Won't You Pleases-Corne Ho,rne"-Chick Stripling

By the late 1940's the WSB Barn Dance was. as Harpo puts it, "beginning to not do too good." During its waning days, the show first moved to an auditorium in one of Atlanta's suburbs and finally was broadcast remote from any stage for which a booking could be obtained.

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947 After the Barn Dance finally folded, Harpo stayed with WSB for about a year. "trying to make a go of it" on a Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company sponsored program. Harpo had with him at this time a duet, Richard and Helen; Bill Dover; and a steel guitarist named Charlie Stevens. "I was on the air at a bad time in the morning," Harpo recalls, "and I wasn't on a station salary, then, like I was prior to that, and the bookings weren't paying off like they should.

Bobby Gregory told readers in late 1951 in his Cowboy Songs column that Roger and Helen McDaniel had joined Harpo Kidwell and his Smoky Mountaineers on radio station WSB in Atlanta.

"Then," he continues, "I got this call from WLW in Cincinnati wanting me to come and play on the Midwestern Hayride. an NBC simultaneously broadcast radio and television program that was heard on several hundred stations." As Harpo recalls, this was around 1952. In addition to the Midwestern Hayride, Harpo worked on some of WLW's other programs, including Morning Matinee, the High Neighbor program, and the Ohio River Jamboree.

At WLW Harpo was on the station's payroll with union pay. He also performed with the station's road shows that played state fairs and other dates throughout Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and along the Michigan and Illinois state lines.

Harpo likes to tell about the time he taught WLW's sixteen-piece pop orchestra how to play "Careless Love." One day, when Harpo reported to the station for work, his regular back-up musicians were not there. As the time for him to go on the air rapidly approached, the program manager, in desperation, asked the orchestra if they would provide back-up for Harpo. They had never heard "Careless Love," but agreed to try to follow if Harpo would lead the way. Harpo says that about halfway through the first chorus the orchestra had caught on and was doing "a fine job." When Harpo signaled to the violin section to take a break, the three fiddlers stood up and "did a real good job."

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

Harpo's wife. a native Georgian, did not like Cincinnati; and since Harpo himself was getting homesick for Atlanta, he returned South after about a year-and-a-half to begin what he thought was a permanent retirement from show business.

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

During his career Harpo worked at other radio stations in the South and Midwest, including a brief stint at WCKY, then located in Covington. Kentucky, where he was a member of the Boone County Jamboree cast. While at WCKY, he was also appearing on WHBD in Mount Orab, Ohio, where he was known as Cowboy Kidwell. For a while Harpo also performed on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, where Red Foley and Merle Travis were among his co-workers. Once, Harpo recalls, he and Riley Puckett made a guest appearance together on the Grand Ole Opry.

When he said goodbye to the entertainment world in the 1950's, Harpo says he never dreamed that by 1976 he again would be playing the type of music he has always played. At that time he had never heard of a bluegrass festival.

In Harpo's words, "Bluegrass music is nothing in the world but the old-time country music-not amplified."

"It {his return to show business and bluegrass music] has been a great thing for me," Harpo emphasizes. "Bluegrass music is great music, and there are some very good bluegrass musicians."

Harpo, who estimates that he has made over 10,000 personal appearances to audiences ranging in size from two or three people to 100,000, notes that there is one major difference between the way he used to present a show and the way a bluegrass festival is programmed. "In the old-time way of putting on a show," he explains, "the audience didn't see the performers before the show started." He sees as a radical departure from the old-time way the manner in which bluegrass musicians of today mix with the audience both before and after performances.

Harpo, who plays bass, ukulele, and guitar in addition to the harmonica, has written more than sixty songs, two of which have been recorded. His "Boo-Hoo Blues" was recorded by the Lunsford Brothers, Paul and Leithford, Eddie Smith played harmonica on the record. Another of Harpo's compositions, "The Moss Covered Mill" published in 1949 by Peer International, was recorded by Pete Cassell. (Hillbilly-music.com Note: The Lunsford Brothers recorded "Boo Hoo Blues" in 1942 and the record label shows Kidwell as the song writer. Cowboy Songs published the lyrics to "Boo Hoo Blues" in its January and March 1951 issues, but credited Carolina Cotton as the songwriter with a copyright date of 1950.)

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

Promo Ad - Dixie Harper - Majestic Theater - October 1947

Harpo's harmonica playing was recorded only once. Around 1952, he remembers, he recorded with the Delmore Brothers at their last recording session in Cincinnati. He has never seen the record and doesn't know for sure the name of the tune.

Now a grandfather, Harpo is married to the former Josephine Clestelle Jones who was born and reared near Atlanta. Harpo and his wife met when she came to the WSB studios to watch one of his programs. The Kidwells have three grown children.

Hillbilly-Music.com Update:

Horace Opal (Harpo) Kidwell passed away on December 29, 2003 from complications of Parkinson's Disease.

His obituary written by Patricia Newman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution perhaps summed up how close he may have come to playing like his father. "Harpo could make sounds with his harmonica that didn't seem possible."

Author Wayne Daniel was quoted, "I called him the dean of the 'Barn Dance' harmonica players." Daniel also stated, "Other musicians would say he could get more notes out of a harmonica than anybody they had ever heard. He had a lot of volume and could make a real full sound."

Harpo could also play the bass, ukulele and guitar.

Another song credited to Harpo was his harmonica tune, "Harpo's Waltz". John Carson, then co-president of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame noted, "When you heard it, you thought about love. It was a beautiful song."

Harpo's wife, Clestelle, passed away on June 12, 2004.

Credits & Sources cited by Wayne W. Daniel

  • Worth McDouglad; Welcome South Brother, Fift Years of Broadcasting at WSB, Atlanta Georgia; Atlanta Cox Broadcasting Corporation; 1974; p.46.
  • Donald Lee Nelson, Earl Johnson — Professional Musician; John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly; No. 10; Winter 1974; Pp. 169-171.
  • John Burrison; Fiddlers in the Alley: Atlanta as an Early COuntry Music Center; The Atlanta Historical Bulletin; No. 21; Summer 1977; pp 59-87.
  • Charles K. Wolfe; The Illustrated History of Country Music; 1979; Doubleday; Garden City, NY; p. 35.
  • Bill C. Malone; Country Music, U.S.A.; University of Texas Press; Austin, TX; 1968; p.35.
  • Atlanta Journal; November 16, 1940; p. 9; Atlanta, GA
  • Wayne W. Daniel: telephone interview with John Lair; January 22, 1980
  • Wayne W. Daniel: telephone interview with J. Leonard Reinsch; January 24, 1980
  • Program Listing for WSB Barn Dance; Undated newspaper clipping in a scrapbook owned by Joseph A. (Cotton) Carrier, former WSB Barn Dance Emcee
  • Alton Delmore; Trust Is Stranger Than Publicity; Country Music Foundation; 1977; Nashville, TN. In this book, the last Delmore Brothers Cincinnati recording session is given as 29 August 1952. The following songs were recorded: "That Old Train" (King 1141), "The Trail of Time" (King 1158), "I Needed You" (King 1141), and "Whatcha Gonna Gimmee" (King 1158). A harmonica is played on "That Old Train" and "Whatchas Gonna Gimmee." The discography in Delmore's book lists the accompanists for these four records as unknown. In January 1980, when Mr. Kidwell heard a tape of these songs for the first time, he said he was uncertain if he played harmonica on the records. Mr. Kidwell thinks the others who perofmred at the King session in which he was involved included Charlie Gore, Cookie COok and Louis Innis.

Credits & Sources — Hillbilly-Music.com

  • Your Favorites and Mine; Bobby Gregory; Cowboy Songs No. 15; July 1951; Charlton Publishing Corp.; Charlton Building, Derby CT
  • Gulf Coast Gossip; Constance Keith; Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder; September 1941; Rialto Music Publishing Corp.; 1674 Broadway; New York, NY
  • Boo Hoo Blues (lyrics); January 1951; Issue No. 12; Cowboy Songs; Charlton Publishing Corporation; Charlton Building; Derby, CT
  • Boo Hoo Blues (lyrics); March 1951; Issue No. 13; Cowboy Songs; Charlton Publishing Corporation; Charlton Building; Derby, CT
  • Harpo Kidwell, 93, master of harmonica; Patricia Newman; December 31, 2003; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Atlanta, GA

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