Carson was born near Fannin County, Georgia, in 1868 and grew up on a farm there. In his teens, Carson learned to play the fiddle, using an old Stradivari-copy violin brought from Ireland in the early 19th century. When he was eleven years old, he roamed the streets of Copperhill playing for tips.
In 1894, Carson married, and a couple of years later, in 1900, he began working for the Exposition Cotton Mills in Atlanta, followed by work in other cotton mills of the Atlanta area for the next twenty years. In 1914, the workers of the cotton mill went on strike for their right to form a union, and Carson had nothing else to do but to perform for a living in the streets of North Atlanta. In these days, he wrote many songs, and he used to print copies and sell them in the streets for a nickel or a dime. Some of the songs he wrote dealt with real-life drama like the murder ballad "Mary Phagan".
On April 1, 1913, Carson performed at the first annual "Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention", held at the Municipal Auditorium in Atlanta, where he came in fourth. Between 1914 and 1922, he was proclaimed "Champion Fiddler of Georgia" seven times. The governor of Tennessee, Robert L. Taylor, dubbed him "Fiddlin' John". In 1919, Carson began touring, mostly the areas north of Atlanta, with his newly formed band the Cronies. He became associated with many politicians of Georgia, like Tom Watson, Herman Talmadge, and Eugene Talmadge, relations that gave rise to new songs like "Tom Watson Special". Carson and his daughter Rosa Lee began a series of performances for different political campaigns: for the Tom Watson U.S. Senate Campaign in 1920, for all of the Gene Talmadge campaigns, and for the Herman Talmadge for governor campaign. On September 9, 1922, Carson made his radio debut at the Atlanta Journal's radio station WSB in Atlanta, It was reported by the Atlanta Journal that Carson's fame quickly spread all over the United States following his broadcast at WSB.
In early June 1923, Polk C. Brockman, an Atlanta furniture store owner, who had been instrumental in the distribution of records for Okeh Records, went to New York City to work out a new business deal with Okeh Records. Later, in New York, he was asked if he knew of any artist in Atlanta that could justify a recording trip to Georgia. Brockman promised to return with an answer. A few days later, he was watching a movie followed by a silent newsreel at the Palace Theater in Times Square. The newsreel contained footage of Fiddlin' John Carson from an old time fiddlers’ contest in Virginia. Brockman wrote in his notebook: "Record Fiddlin' John Carson". At his next meeting with Okeh Records Board, he persuaded Ralph Peer to go ahead and record Carson.
On June 19, 1923, Carson made his recording debut in an empty building on Nassau Street in Atlanta, cutting two sides, "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going To Crow." The recording was immediately sold out from the stage of the next Fiddler's convention on July 13, 1923. Peer, realizing Carson's potential, immediately invited Carson to New York City for another recording session. His recordings of "You Will Never Miss Your Mother Until She Is Gone" and "Old Joe Clark" both sold over one million copies, and each was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Between 1923 and 1931, Carson recorded almost 150 songs, mostly together with the "Virginia Reelers" or his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, who performed with him as "Moonshine Kate". He wrote more than 150 songs in his life, but only nine were ever copyrighted.
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