Historic Performances at Klinkhart Hall
The poster pictured here, along with a handful of others, was recovered from the basement of Klinkhart Hall building in 2017 during the first, volunteer “Clean out the Klink Day.” It is obviously an ad for a live event and, because it mentions “Houn’ Dog Guitar,” some of us assumed it was from the 1950s, perhaps a reference to Elvis Presley’s eponymous hound dog tune – which some of us are old enough to remember. The real story is much more interesting.
Who was Bradley Kincaid?
William Bradley Kincaid (1895-1989) was a Kentucky-born folk singer, prolific song writer, collector of old songs, and a popular radio entertainer. His debut radio performance was in 1926 on the National Barn Dance show in Chicago, Illinois. Later, he performed regular live shows on many radio stations across the country including, for a period in the late 1920s, WGY in Schenectady, one of the oldest radio stations in the country.
In 1928, he became the first country artist to publish a songbook, inaugurating a long and profitable tradition. Along with his many recordings, Kincaid’s thirteen songbooks helped preserve and disseminate a large body of early folk and “roots” music, years before the folk revivals of the early 1940s or 1960s.
The first edition of Kincaid’s 1928 songbook, called My Favorite Mountain Ballads, sold more than 100,000 copies; later editions brought the total to 400,000. This success, along with his many recordings and his constant presence in live radio performance, made him a major star in the 1920s and 1930s. Later in life he performed at the Grand Ole Opry (1940s) and he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1971).
Kincaid retired in 1950, although he made a few later recordings. Despite his importance as a collector and singer of traditional songs, he is not very well known today. However, the first episode of Ken Burns’ 2019 documentary film Country Music includes audio of Kincaid singing Barbara Allen, the 300-year-old Scottish folk song that became a favorite of many 1960s folk music performers. As a boy, Kincaid learned the song from his uncle in Kentucky; later he was the first to perform it live on the radio. In Burn’s film we learn that, “when he first sang it on the radio, the song received such an overwhelming response that he sang it on the radio every week for a solid year.”
What about that Houn’ Dog Guitar?
As you have probably figured out by now, the “Houn’ Dog Guitar” mentioned in our poster pre-dates Elvis by quite a while. The story is that Kincaid’s father traded one of his fox hounds to a friend for an old dilapidated guitar that Bradley and his nine siblings all learned to play. Later, after Bradley became a radio personality, he was so well known that from 1929-1933 Sears Roebuck sold a “Bradley Kincaid Houn’Dog Guitar” for aspiring performers. At the time it cost $9.50; today they can sell for up to $700.
When did Bradley Kincaid and his Houn’ Dog Guitar make it to Klinkhart Hall?
Smalley’s Theatre opened on the first floor of the old Klinkhart Hall in 1923, a dozen years after the fire that gutted the hardware store and 10 years after the local Masonic Lodge renovated the 2nd floor to serve as their meeting hall. (Read more about the history of Klinkhart Hall here.)
Smalley’s showed movies through the 1950s, but it also hosted many live performances on the tiny stage in front of the movie screen. With a little research, it was possible to date this poster to 1929, while Kincaid was performing regularly at WGY in Schenectady, and when June 29-30 occurred on a Friday and Saturday.
We don’t know for certain what Kincaid performed at Smalley’s those two nights, but we can make a good guess based on what he was recording around that time. So, here are a few examples of Bradley Kincaid and his Houn’Dog Guitar, in the first of what we hope will be an ongoing series of virtual performances from historic Klinkhart Hall.