This weekend's Knoxville Stomp is a rarity among festivals, the sort of event most cities never see. It's a celebration of the release of dozens of popular-music singles rarely heard since the Hoover administration. In 1929, Richard Voynow, former pianist for Bix Beiderbecke's legendary jazz band, the Wolverines, came to Knoxville on behalf of Brunswick/Vocalion to record the most promising music from Knoxville and the greater region. What he found here, in the studio he set up at the St. James Hotel near Market Square, was a wild mixture of American music, rough-edged country, string-band pop, sentimental favorites perhaps from vaudeville, hardcore blues, sophisticated jazz dance music, and wacky novelty tunes. Although some were released, the brittle shellac 78s became scarce with the years, and many of the cuts were long believed lost. Some of the Knoxville 78s were found as far away as Australia and Denmark.
It's an international event. Bear Family Records, the well-known Germany-based documentary label, is releasing all the known St. James sessions in a big box set called "The Knoxville Sessions." Included is a handsome and well-researched hardback illustrated coffee-table-style book, written by ETSU historian Ted Olson and British music critic Tony Russell, telling the story so far as it is known. That will remain as a new document of an era in the development of popular music, not just for Knoxville, but for the world.
With live music, lectures and panel discussions, and showings of rare film, and a walking tour, the Stomp is a festival that's drawn dozens of serious popular-music scholars from across the country and even from overseas, but there's a lot for everybody, more than 30 events on Saturday and almost as many on Sunday, which will include some nods to Mothers' Day. All of it takes place downtown, near where the sessions were made, on Wall Avenue, more than 86 years ago.
Sponsors include the Knox County Public Library and the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. Based on the first day, it promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The name of the festival, by the way, is derived from a couple of the songs recorded at the sessions: The Tennessee Chocolate Drops' "Knox County Stomp" and Maynard Baird and his Southern Serenaders' "Postage Stomp." Both are vivid uptempo numbers you can dance to, but all resemblance ends there.
More more, see knoxvillestomp.com.