Charles Nabell (1887-1970)
Charles Nabell, an Atlanta native, was one of the first singers to record traditional Western folk songs, either commercially or for folk song archives.
Born blind on January 13, 1887, Charles E. Nabell was the son of Mary and William Nabell. His father was a native of Germany and worked as a gardener, day laborer, and cotton-mill worker. Nabell was one of at least six children, but little else is known about his early life. Soon after his father died in 1914, Nabell moved to Joplin, Missouri, where he established himself as a local entertainer and drew his income from performing music and working at such odd jobs such as broom making. He married Mary Jane French, a widow, but they had no children together.
Nabell's brief recording career began when he traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1924 and recorded four songs for the OKeh Record Company. Most of his career recordings consist of typical country music songs performed in the high, pinched, nasal vocal style that was typical of central Georgia country music at the time. His guitar playing was confined to the strumming of chords. Among the recordings from this first session is his best-known and first Western song, "The Great Round Up." Two other recording sessions followed. In 1925 he recorded eight songs, including another Western song called "Utah Carl," a version of the traditional "Utah Carroll." "Utah Carl" (backed with "Follow the Golden Rule") was his only recording to be issued on a twelve-inch 78 rpm disc. Later that year he recorded six more songs for OKeh, but no Western songs. No other Nabell recordings are known to have been made.
Nabell's recording of "The Great Round Up" is considered something of an oddity by some folk-music scholars because the variant melody he used originated in Montana, and there is no indication of how Nabell came to know it. A probable explanation comes from interviews conducted by field researchers of people who remember southern Missouri in the 1920s. As the zinc and lead mining industry expanded in the state, workers began to arrive from the West. Bars and entertainment establishments sprang up in the mining boom towns as a result of this influx, and Nabell likely expanded his repertoire through interactions with musicians from other areas of the country.
Nabell disappeared from the music scene with the coming of the Great Depression and the subsequent closing of many recording companies, including OKeh. He died in Joplin in 1970.
Thomas S. Johnson, "The Ghost of Charles Nabell: Searching for the First Recorded Western Folk Singer," JEMF Quarterly 21 (spring/summer 1985).
Thomas S. Johnson, Texas A and M University at Galveston
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