- Charles K. Wolfe
Bate, Humphrey (25 May 1875–12 June 1936), bandleader, harmonica player, and physician, was born in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, the son of a local physician. His parents’ names are unknown. A graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Bate took over his father’s practice and traveled the circuit in Sumner County, just north of Nashville. As a hobby he organized and led a string band that eventually became the first such group to appear on the pioneer country radio show the “Grand Ole Opry.” His band is considered by historians to be one of the finest and most authentic of the old-time performing groups, and for years it was the cornerstone of the “Grand Ole Opry.”
As a boy growing up in rural Tennessee in the 1880s, Bate listened to a variety of music but was especially fascinated with the tunes and songs that he heard from former slaves who worked on his father’s farm. Songs that they played on the fiddle and banjo he adapted to the harmonica, including pieces like “Old Joe” and “Take Your Foot out of the Mud and Put It in the Sand,” which he later recorded. Such songs, augmented by other old Civil War songs, fiddle tunes, vaudeville tunes, popular sheet music, and even Hawaiian songs, gave Bate a highly original and distinctive repertoire. As a teenager he would play his harmonica on the excursion boats that steamed up and down the Cumberland River, which ran near his home. This exposed him to an even greater variety of music, including ragtime, jazz, and black folk music.
Bate graduated from medical school just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, and he enlisted to serve in the medical corps during that conflict. Turning down offers to practice in larger cities, he chose to return home and become a country doctor. By the turn of the century he had formed his first band, Dr. Bate’s Augmented String Orchestra, a large unit that included fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica, and cello—the latter occasionally used as a makeshift bass in rural string bands of the area. The band was so popular that by World War I Bate had created several auxillary bands to meet the demand in the area. He even began to play light classical music and John Philip Sousa marches for certain socials and for intermission music at theaters for silent movies. By the early 1920s his daughter Alcyone (born c. 1912) was playing piano in some of his bands.
Bate was acquainted with Nashville’s Craig family, who owned the National Life and Accident Insurance Company and who started WSM radio station in 1925. Even before the station took to the air, they asked Bate and his band to perform. When WSM’s opening was delayed, a rival station, WDAD, went on the air first and Bate performed on it. He thus became the first person to play country music on the radio in Nashville—several months before George D. Hay came to town and the WSM “Grand Ole Opry” was officially founded. On 20 December 1925 the Nashville Tennessean ran a photo of Bate’s band, indicating that the group was already well established as radio favorites in the area; it also became the first published photo of any early “Opry” performer.
In January 1926, when WSM started a formal Saturday night “barn dance” show, Bate began a regular stint on the program, one that would last until his death. He routinely opened the show at 8:00 pm with “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Early members of the band included Oscar Stone and Bill Barret (fiddles), Walter Ligget (banjo), Staley Walton and Burt Hutcherson (guitars), Alcyone Bate (piano and ukelele), and Oscar Albright (bowed string bass). In later years Bate’s younger son “Buster” joined the band, playing guitar. Bate, of course, played harmonica (sometimes doubling it with the fiddle lead) and occasionally sang. Not long after the band started on WSM, program director Hay decided to give all the bands colorful “hayseed” names that would help him publicize the show. Bate’s orchestra became the Possum Hunters, and the station insisted they dress in overalls and rustic hats and boots for publicity photos. On one noteworthy occasion, the band was posed in a cornfield with Bate holding a hound dog—something that embarrassed all the musicians.
In 1928 the band traveled to Atlanta (Nashville was not yet a center for recording) to record for the Brunswick-Vocalion record company. This was to be the only time the original Possum Hunters recorded, and these twelve sides are considered classics of their genre. They included old favorites like “Old Joe” and “Ham Beats All Meat,” as well as rare fiddle tunes like “Greenback Dollar,” “Eighth of January,” and “Throw the Old Cow over the Fence.” There were comic songs like “My Wife Died on Saturday Night” and “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat” (which later became a theme song for a WSM bluegrass show). During the 1930s the band toured widely, through the South and up into the Midwest, with Uncle Dave Macon and other “Opry” stars. By now Bate’s health was starting to fail, but he refused to curtail his activities; “it is my wish to die in the harness,” he explained.
The end came as Bate felt his own pulse and announced he had not long to live. He died in Castalian Springs. His funeral services were held on the front yard of his family home, with hundreds of fans and former patients paying their respects. “We have lost the Dean of the ‘Opry,’ ” Hay announced on the show, and historians have since confirmed how accurate that was. Though often overshadowed by more colorful figures like Uncle Jimmy Thompson or Uncle Dave Macon, Bate was in many ways the true founder of the “Opry.” His band, the Possum Hunters, stayed on the show with varying personnel into the 1970s.
Though Bate is mentioned briefly in most of the many histories of country music and the “Grand Ole Opry,” the most detailed account of his life, drawn on lengthy interviews with his daughter Alcyone, is Charles Wolfe’s Grand Ole Opry: The Early Years (1975). Though some of his individual 1928 recordings have appeared on reissue anthologies on both CD and LP, there has been no one comprehensive collection of them.