Illustration by Gary Price:
Willard Robison was born in Shelbina, Missouri, on September 18, 1894. His country upbringing and exposure to religion had a profound influence on his songwriting. He heard and assimilated black spirituals, and created his own songs in a similar vein: gentle celebrations of the human spirit, shorn of all reference to Hellfire and the Apocalypse. The Devil figures as the antagonist in these numbers, but primarily as a killjoy rather than as a tempter proffering forbidden fruit.
In 1919, The Billboard wrote that Willard Robison established his Deep River Orchestra “after five years’ hard work.” The band, based in Coffeyville, Kansas, toured the southwest and Midwest. In 1924 they recorded Robison’s tune “The Rhythm Rag” for the pioneering electric Autograph label. Even as he began to compose and perform more melodically and harmonically sophisticated popular music, his work remained imbued with spirituality; he described his compositions as “Deep River Music.”
Robison’s 1925 song, “Peaceful Valley,” was chosen by bandleader Paul Whiteman as his first radio theme. With Whiteman’s encouragement, Robison moved to New York where he recorded and broadcast with his Deep River Orchestra for several years.
In addition to his upbeat spirituals, Robison’s lyrical content was elegiac, giving voice to a sense of longing and loss. It was nostalgia, but heartrendingly intimate and personal: a yearning for the wide open spaces, thinking about a visit back home, and wondering about the fate of old folks.
With his compositional gifts and lyrical intensity, Willard Robison was a peer and counterpart of George Gershwin, yet was in a sense his antithesis. As the public increasingly favored bustle over introspection, his songs were passed by. As Alec Wilder observed in American Popular Song, Robison did “write a few successful songs—‘Cottage for Sale’ and ‘’Taint So, Honey, ’Taint So’—but generally his songs were known only to a few singers and lovers of non-urban song.”
Willard Robison died in Peekskill, New York, on June 24, 1968. Yet his late 1930s songs like “Guess I’ll Go Back Home Again (This Summer)” and “Old Folks” have proved enduring standards. Jack Teagarden’s final album, Think Well of Me, is almost all Robison. Today, guitarist and vocalist Matt Munisteri keeps Willard Robison’s music and memory alive in glorious performance. —Andy Senior
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