Article MT257

Uncle Dave Macon

A Study in Repertoire


[1.  Uncle Dave]

[2.  Uncle Dave's Repertoire

[Early Influences:]  [Popular & Parlour Songs and Ballads]  [Blues]  [Topical Songs]  [Religious Songs

[3.  Conclusions]  [Acknowledgements:]  [Notes:]


“And now Friends we present Uncle Dave Macon, with his gold teeth, plug hat, chin whiskers, gates-ajar collar and that million dollar Tennessee smile ...  take it away Uncle Dave!” - George D Hay, the ‘Solemn Old Judge’ in the 1940 Republic Picture: Grand Ole Opry

Uncle Dave Macon One of the highlights of my musical upbringing was to hear the old Folkways Anthology of Folk Music set of recordings when I was about 15 or 16 years old.The Anthology of American Folk Music is currently available as a CD set on Smithsonian Folkways SFW40090.1  The number of singers and musicians that I heard there was just breathtaking, although, for me, one performer stood out from all the rest - Uncle Dave Macon, singing two songs Way Down the Old Plank Road and Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line.  Now, fifty years later, I still believe that Uncle Dave was one of the greatest of all the Old-Timey singers and musicians that ever recorded.  In fact, I would say that some of his recordings, especially those made with The Fruit Jar Drinkers, are possibly the best examples of Old-Timey music ever made.  Over the years I must have heard just about all of his issued recordings and each new experience has brought a tingle down my spine.  Uncle Dave had one of the largest repertoires of any of the early recording stars.  The bulk of his recordings were of late 19th century/early 20th century songs (most with known composers).  He also recorded religious pieces, together with some American folk and topical songs.  But, unlike, say, the Carter Family or Charlie Poole, I did not hear any Anglo-American folksongs, and this is something that has puzzled me over the years.  (In fact, as we shall see later, Uncle Dave did record a couple of Anglo-American songs, but, as these were unissued, there was never any chance of me hearing them!)  In a way, this piece is my tribute to Uncle Dave.  It is also a massive “Thank You” to him and to all the other musicians who played along and recorded with him.

1.  Uncle Dave

David Harrison Macon was born five years after the ending of the American Civil War, on October 7th, 1870, in Smart Station, a small settlement close to McMinnville, Tennessee.  His father, Captain John Macon, had been an officer in the Confederate Army.  His mother was Martha Ramsey Macon.  Thirteen years later David’s father bought the Old Broadway Hotel in Nashville, a hotel used by travelling vaudeville artists and circus performer.  The family also lived in the hotel and the young David found himself surrounded by all kinds of performers and musicians.  In 1885 a circus comedian called Joel Davidson, who worked for Sam McFlynn’s circus, taught David to play the 5-string banjo.  However, in 1886 David’s father was murdered in a fight at the hotel.  Some reports say that David witnessed the killing, but other accounts say that it was his mother who was present at the event.  The tragedy was such that Martha Macon promptly sold the hotel and moved her family to Readyville, TN, ten miles south of Murfreesboro, where she ran a stagecoach stop.  David, in order to earn some small change, apparently began entertaining the coach passengers by playing his banjo on a small stage that he had constructed himself.

David Macon was nineteen years old when he married Matilda Richardson.  The couple bought a farm at Kittrel, TN, where David also formed the Macon Midway Mitchell Mule and Wagon Transportation Company, a one-man operation run by David to haul merchandise between the towns of Woodbury and Murfreesboro.  Apparently, there were four grocery stores around a square in Murfreesboro and David would sing out as he pulled up with his deliveries outside each store.  Once the delivery work was finished, David would head for home down the Main Street playing his banjo and singing as he left town, much to the delight of the town’s children.  In fact, David Macon spent some twenty years hauling goods around Murfeesboro before he was forced out of work by the arrival of cars and trucks.

Things were not looking too good for David, but, sometime around 1922, he was invited to sing at a Shriner’s meeting.  By chance, he was spotted by Marcus Loew of Loews Theatres who offered him a chance to perform for a night at a Loew’s Theatre in Alabama.  David accepted and travelled to Alabama with a friend, Fiddlin’ Sid Harkreader, whom he had met previously while playing at Charlie Melton’s barbershop in Nashville.  Harkreader just happened to walk into the barber shop with his fiddle under his arm and started to play alongside Macon’s banjo.  The pair became good friends.  Macon so impressed Marcus Lowe that he offered the pair a week’s contract to perform at his theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, apparently for several hundred dollars.  In fact, Macon & Harkreader were so popular with the Birmingham audiences that their contract was extended to a month, before they were invited to tour at other Loew’s theatres.  This, we may say, was the start of David Macon’s professional career as a singer and musician.  There were to be many other offers from different theaters in the Loew’s vaudeville circuit and, on one occasion, a rival circuit, the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Corporation, tried to poach Uncle Dave (as he was now being called) away from Marcus Loew, but to no avail.Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader

It is, I think, important to say a little here about Sidney 'Sid' J Harkreader (1898 - 1988) a musician who appeared on many of David Macon’s best recordings and who was probably influential in helping David choose which songs and tunes the pair should record.  Harkreader came from a farm in Wilson County, TN.  Surprisingly, none of his immediate family played fiddle, although a great-grandfather was well-known as a violinist.  It seems that he learnt to play fiddle from a neighbour and also from an elderly man who worked on his father’s farm.  He also played guitar and was known locally as a singer.  By 1924, Sid and Uncle Dave had come to the notice of James Gilbert Sterchi of the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company of Knoxville, TN.  As well as selling furniture, including phonograph players, Sterchi also acted as an agent for Vocalion Records, both by selling and distribution the records and also by acting as a talent scout for the Company.  In fact it was Sterchi who recommended that Uncle Dave and Sid Harkreader should be recorded and who also provided the necessary funds to pay for their trip to New York, where Vocalion had their recording studios.  According to the American folklorist Archie Green, Macon’s version of Hesitation Blues, recorded on that trip under the title of Hill Billie Blues, was one reason why the word 'hillbilly' entered the American language, especially when associated with Country music.

Over the years Uncle Dave had picked up a number of tricks while playing his banjo.  He would swing the banjo out in front of his body, holding it by the neck with his left hand, and somehow managing to keep the tune going at the same time! He would fan the strings with his hat, or else play the instrument whilst holding it between his legs.Uncle Dave demonstrates one of his unorthodox playing styles

He would also shout out between singing, using phrases such as “Hot dog”, or else “Kill yourself”, and, all the time, he would stomp his feet on the floor creating a rhythm that just drove his songs and tunes forward.  He was, without doubt, unique within the field of American music, and the public just loved him.  Often, Uncle Dave would add spoken comments to his recordings.  The term 'PC' was not around when Uncle Dave spoke the following introduction to his Sourwood Mountain Medley:

And the same could be said for this introduction to the song I’ll Never Go There Anymore. I do wonder, though, if the introduction to the song Never Make Love No More was slightly more personal: Uncle Dave also had a whole repertoire of jokes that he liked to use during his live performances.  He would sometimes tell an audience, “Now I’m kind of sad tonight and that’s because my wife and children are back home tonight with no clothes and barefoot.”  He would then pause and the audience, shocked at this revelation, would sometimes offer him money.  Then Uncle Dave would continue, “If they ain’t barefoot by this time of night they should be; I don’t allow ‘em to go to bed with their shoes on!”

At one time in his career Uncle Dave worked in shows with the bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, who said that Uncle Dave would peep out of the curtains to see how many people were in the audience.  If the house was full, Uncle Dave would tell Monroe, “Looks like Uncle Dave can still draw them in.”  But if the audience was sparse he would say, “Mr Bill, you can’t draw them like you used to!”

In 1925 “Dancing Bob” Bradford, a buck-dancer joined Uncle Dave and Sid Harkreader as part of their Loew’s act.  It was also in 1925 that Uncle Dave first began playing regularly with the singer and guitarist Sam McGee.  The pair had first met the previous year, when Uncle Dave and Sid Harkreader were playing at a show near Franklin, TN.  Sam invited Uncle Dave home after the show and, having performed a version of the Missouri Waltz, was asked by Uncle Dave to join him and Sid Harkreader as part of their act.  The three first appeared, along with 'Dancing Bob' Bradford, at Loew’s Bijou Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama.  Later that years Sam’s brother, the guitarist Kirk McGee, also started performing with Uncle Dave and Sam, the trio using the stage name of 'Uncle Dave Macon and his Sons from Billygoat Hill'.  Sam McGee was a brilliant instrumentalist and, although Uncle Dave did win prizes at banjo competitions, was probably the better player of the two.  He once said of Uncle Dave, “I never did learn much about playing from him.  But I did learn about handling an audience.”Sam McGee, playing a six string banjo, with Uncle Dave

On 6th November, 1925, Uncle Dave and Sid Harkreader were asked by the Nashville Police Force to perform at the Ryman Auditorium, a building that was to become synonymous with Old-Timey and Country Music, because it was to become the home of the Grand Old Opry, a Saturday night concert that was transmitted by radio throughout the American South.  Uncle Dave was one of the first artists to be invited onto the Opry show and he remained there almost up to the time of his death in 1952.  Sam and Kirk McGee were also popular players on the Opry.  As Sam used to say, “The Opry came down here and said they wanted players who were outstanding in the field - and that’s where they found us, out standing in the field.” On a more serious note, Sam said, “Just as soon as word circulated about the Opry, the Barn Dance as it was then, everybody got excited about it.  Uncle Dave Macon and me were down in Alabama.  He says, ‘Let’s go and play on that Barn Dance.’  It wasn’t any trouble to get on then because it was so new and they didn’t have the people they needed.”

It seems likely that the Opry listeners were only too happy to buy Uncle Dave’s recordings, which sold so well that he was constantly invited back into various recording company studios.  In fact, Uncle Dave was recorded every year between1924 and 1930, and was also in the studio in 1934, 1935, 1937 and 1938.  During this period he cut a total of 216 sides, 40 of which were rejected, leaving a total of 176 issued sides.  Quite why 40 sides were rejected remains something of a mystery, because three masters - for Oh Lovin Babe, Come On Buddie, Don’t You Want to Go and Go On, Nora Lee - were traced and reissued on a Rounder LP, and all three songs are as good as anything else that Uncle Dave recorded.Rounder LP 1028. GoOn Nora Lee has been re-issued on Times Ain't Like They Used to Be – Volume 7 (Yazoo2067). 5  Another unissued track - Tennessee Tornado - has also turned up, as a test-pressing with Uncle Dave’s handwriting on the label.  It was unearthed in a garage sale in Murfreesboro.Tennessee Tornado has been re-issued on Times Ain't Like They Used to Be – Volume 8 (Yazoo2068).6

Over a four day period in 1927, Uncle Dave recorded a total of 38 sides in New York City for the Vocalion Record Company.  There were eight solo tracks (banjo and voice), two tracks with Sam and Kirk McGee and a further twenty-eight tracks by Uncle Dave, the McGee Brothers and fiddler, Mazy Todd.  Eighteen of these tracks were issued as by “Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers”, the rest as by the “Dixie Sacred Singers”, or else as “Uncle Dave Macon & McGee Brothers”, when Mazy Todd was not playing.  As I said above, the tracks by “Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers” are some of the greatest ever recorded and include such classics as Bake that Chicken Pie, Rock About My Sara Jane, Tell Her to Come Back Home, Hold That Wood-Pile Down, Carve that Possum, Sail Away, Ladies, The Grey Cat on the Tennessee Farm, I’se Gwine Back to Dixie, Tom and Jerry, The Rabbit in the Pea Patch and Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel.These tracks are all re-issued on JSP box set JSP7729.7

Uncle Dave with the Delmore BrothersIn June, 1929, Uncle Dave and Sid Harkreader cut a further 18 tracks, though only six were actually issued and it may be that the economic situation was forcing record companies to cut back on their issues.  Nine months later, on 31st March, 1930, Uncle Dave and his son Doris recorded eight sides for Brunswick Records, Uncle Dave having by then partially parted with the McGee Brothers.  All of these sides were rejected.Actually Uncle Dave did sometimes play with Sam McGee after this date. The pair, for example, were in a recording studio together on 17th December, 1930, and recorded together, along with Kirk McGee, in 1934.8

By 1935 the Depression years were beginning to be overtaken by a new optimism and Uncle Dave signed up with Bluebird Records who, in four sessions, recorded a total of 29 songs.  The first session was made with the Delmore Brothers.  The next, in 1937, had Uncle Dave playing with an unknown fiddler and unknown guitarist on some tracks.  Finally, there were two sessions held in 1938, the first with “Smokey Mountain” Glen Stagner joining in on some tracks, the second with an unknown fiddler on some tracks.

Although Uncle Dave made no more commercial recordings after 1938, he did continue to tour and appear on the Grand Old Opry.  In fact, he had appeared on the latter only three weeks before he died, on 22nd March, 1952, eighty-one years young, in a Murfreesboro hospital.  According to the locals, all the roads around Murfreesboro were gridlocked as people tried to get to Coleman’s Cemetry for the graveside service.

Uncle Dave Macon - 'The Gayest Old Dude that's Out'

2.  Uncle Dave's Repertoire

Early Influences:

Towards the end of his life, Uncle Dave Macon was interviewed by Tennessee folklorist George Worley Boswell (1920 - 1995), who questioned him about the origins of some of his songs.  In 1927 Uncle Dave had recorded a song called Rockabout my Saro Jane, which seems to date from the time of the American Civil War.Rock About my Saro Jane has been re-issued on JSP7729.10  Uncle Dave also sang another piece, clearly based on Rockabout my Saro Jane, about Tom Ryman, the man who built the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  There are no commercial recordings of the Tom Ryman song, but Uncle Dave did record it for Boswell. According to Uncle Dave: It has often been said that Uncle Dave Macon, when young, learnt songs from Negroes and that other songs came to him from the entertainers who stayed in his parent’s Nashville hotel.  The above comment by Uncle Dave is one of the few direct links that we have to the origin of one of his songs and it acknowledges the fact that he did sing songs that were, originally, from black singers.  But this is only one song and, as I hope to show, the picture is not all that clear.

I said at the beginning of this article that I had not heard any Anglo-American songs sung by Uncle Dave.  In fact, Uncle Dave did record two such pieces.  On 21st June, 1926, he recorded a version of the song Darby Ram (Roud 126) and on 31st March, 1930, a version of the children’s song Little Sally Waters (Roud 4509).  Both recordings, however, remain unissued.  Uncle Dave, unlike, say, The Carter Family, was not from the Appalachian Mountain region, where Anglo-American songs did survive.  He was from Nashville, and the area around Nashville, where both Darby Ram and Little Sally Waters were known in both black and white American song traditions.Darby Ram turns up in black American tradition as the song and tune Didn't He Ramble, although it is still sung today as The Derby Ram by white Appalachian singers. For a recording of Little Sally Walker sung by black Mississippi singers, see the CD 61 Highway Rounder 1703.12  Another such song is one titled Late Last Night When My Willie Came Home (Way Downtown) that Uncle Dave recorded in1926 with Sam McGee.  It goes as follows:

This is, in fact, the same song that the Mississippi blues singer Skip James recorded in 1931 under the title of Drunken Spree: James’ song is totally different from any of the other pieces that he recorded in 1931.  His line “Take morphine and die” does occur in a number of other songs, ones that were common to both black and white singers, but Uncle Dave’s second verse is taken almost word for word from a number of British folksongs and also occurs in one of Robert Burns’ best-known poems, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, verse 3 of which is as follows: So are there any other songs in Uncle Dave’s repertoire that can be directly traced to black singers?  Well, there may be a handful, though, again, things are not so clear-cut.  Take the song Run Nigger Run, which Uncle Dave recorded in 1925.  All the evidence points to the song being originally from a black tradition and takes the form of a warning to slaves not to try to escape, as they risked being caught by 'patrols' who would take revenge on the slave.  Joel Chandler Harris, author of the 'Uncle Remus' stories (first published in the 1880s), mentions the 'patter-rollers' (patrols) in one of his books: And another 19th century white writer, Abraham Hoss Yeager, gave this account in his autobiography: Perhaps Uncle Dave did learn this song from black singers, though it must be said that other early white performers also recorded the piece.Versions of Run, Nigger, Run were also recorded by Dr Humphry Bate (in 1928), Fiddlin' John Carson (in 1924) and Gid Tanner (in 1927). Carson's recording has been re-issued on Document CD 8015 and the Tanner recording is re-issued on Document CD 8056. The song certainly remained in black traditions until c.1933, at least, when a version was recorded by the Library of Congress from Mose 'Clear Rock' Platt. This recording is available on Document CD 5580.15

This is Uncle Dave’s version:

As we have seen above, Uncle Dave never “worked in the fields of corn with (colored folks) all the days of my life”.  He was just too busy hauling goods around Tennessee, so just how much of his spoken introduction can we believe?  And this is not the only problem with his other so-called 'black' songs.  Take, for example the first song that Uncle Dave recorded, I’ll Keep my Skillet Good and Greasy, which certainly was sung by black singers.I'll Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy has been re-issued on JSP7729.17 The song begins with this opening verse: Verse 5 continues in a similar manner: It’s that phrase “I’se gwine” that I find particularly troublesome.  Was Uncle Dave trying to emulate the speech patterns of Negroes, or was this song, like so many others, a product of the 'Black-face Minstrel' tradition?  In other words, was it a song written by white singers who were pretending to be black?  This was certainly the case with the song I’se Gwine Back to Dixie which Uncle Dave recorded with his Fruit Jar Drinkers in 1927: Here is a song full of nostalgia for the 'Old South', the land of plantations, orange blossom, hominy, pumpkins and red gravy.  All that is missing is the image of a happy pickaninni eating a slice of water melon.  In fact Uncle Dave recorded several songs that originated from the Minstrel stage.  There include the songs Uncle Ned, written by Stephen Foster in 1848, Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel, anonymous words set to a tune by Dan Emmett in 1853, Listen to the Mocking Bird, written by Septimus Winner - as 'Alice Hawthorne' - in 1855 (Uncle Dave only recorded the tune of this song, as a banjo solo), and The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, written in 1855 by William S Hays.Uncle Ned, Listen to the Mockingbird and The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane have been re-issued on JSP7769. Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel has been re-issued on JSP7729.19

He also recorded a version of Stop Dat Knocking, a song popularized by the Christy Minstrels in the 1850s.  The song was the work of A F Winnemore and was first published in 1847.  Uncle Dave’s recording, made on the 8th September, 1926, was titled Stop That Knocking at My Door.Stop That Knocking at my Door has been re-issued on JSP7729.20

Uncle Dave must have been feeling in a 'Minstrel mode' that day, because after recording Stop That Knocking at My Door he promptly recorded another Minstrel piece, Sassy Sam.Sassy Sam has been re-issued on JSP7729.21

The song, written and composed by Ned Straight in 1868, was originally titled Josiphus Orange Blossom and was printed in Johnny Allen’s Songs and Dances.  Straight’s original text is as follows:

Cover of Ma DaffodilAnother Minstrel Show song was I Don’t Care if I Never Wake Up, written by Paul J Knox in 1899.  Knox wrote several Minstrel songs, including The Unlucky Coon and Every Darkey Had a Nervous Spell (no surprise, I guess, if they saw titles like that!).  But, Knox also had a more tender side, as in his song Ma Daffodil, written in 1900.

The sheet music cover depicts the image of a well-dressed African American and suggests that the song may have been marketed towards a black audience.  It is certainly far more respectful than many sheet covers of that era.  And, indeed, Knox’s words are also far more restrained than in, say, the song that Uncle Dave recorded, I Don’t Care if I Never Wake Up.I Don't Care if I Never Wake Up has been re-issued on JSP7769.22

Ma Daffodil opens with these lines:

In reality very few southern blacks wanted to return to the old 'back to Dixie' days.  They did, of course, leave the south in droves when they could, heading north to cities such as Chicago and St Louis.  Clearly songs such as I’se Gwine Back to Dixie, which was actually written by two white singers, Arthur Collins & Byron Harland in 1911, were presenting an idealized version of 'the South' from a white perspective.  And we find the same feelings for the old south in the song Rise When the Rooster Crows which Uncle Dave recorded with Sam McGee in 1926.Rise When the Rooster Crows has been re-issued on JSP7729.23  The chorus goes: In 1889 one Samuel Conrad Hanson published a song book, Merry Songs (Chicago: A Flanagan Company), which includes a song I’s Gwine Back Souf.  According to Hanson, “This is a representation of a melody I heard negroes sing in the South years ago.”  Hanson’s chorus goes: What, I wonder, did Hanson mean when he said that this was “a representation of a melody”.  Is he saying that he heard the tune being sung by Negroes?  There is no mention of the words.  So were they being sung along with the melody, or did Hanson add them to the melody?

Another similar song was Watermelon Smilin’ on the Vine, written by Thomas P Westendorf and published, in 1882, by The W F Shaw Publishing Co (Chicago & New York).  Westendorf’s set is as follows:

Uncle Dave’s recorded version, which begins with a banjo solo of the tune Listen to the Mocking Bird, follows the Westendorf text fairly accurately and is sung as written.Watermelon Smilin' on the Vine has been re-issued on JSP7729.24  The same cannot, however, be said for Uncle Dave’s version of Carve Dat Possum, composed by Sam Lucas of Callender’s Original Georgia Minstrels in 1875 and published by John F Perry & Co of Boston.  This is Lucas’s text: In Uncle Dave’s recording we find the above verses sung out of sequence, with lines from different verses being mixed together.  There are also a few lines added to Uncle Dave’s recording that are not in the Lucas text.Carve Dat Possum has been re-issued on JSP7729.25  This suggests that Uncle Dave probably learnt his version of Carve Dad Possum from an oral, rather than a printed, source.  But did Uncle Dave learn such songs from black singers?  It seems to me far more probable that if Uncle Dave did pick anything up from black singers, then it would have been, for the most part, the 'floating verses' that popped in and out of songs and which were common to both black and white singers.  I say “for the most part” because it could be that he did learn one or two songs from black singers, and here I am thinking of his version of The Death of John Henry with its slightly unusual opening lines and tune: John Henry may be something of an exception, so let’s get back to those floating verses.  Take this example, the song I'm a Child to Fight. The reference to Hosea Clark in verse 3 suggests that at least one verse pre-dates the Civil War, and I doubt if anyone today would wish to sing the verse about the scolding wife.  The penultimate verse also occurs in a recording that I made of the Appalachian singer Dan Tate, while the final verse is from the folksong Old Joe Clark, which, incidentally, Dan also sang.For recordings by Dan Tate, see Musical Traditions CD Far in the Mountains- volumes 1 & 2 MTCD 331-2. The verse about Chicken Pie occurs in Dan's song Who's On the Way?28

Another of Uncle Dave’s songs which incorporates 'floating verses' also contains another of his 'trade-marks', namely spoken passages interjected between the sung verses.  The song is called Travelin’ Down the Road:

One of the strangest examples of a “floating verse” appearing in an Uncle Dave song occurs at the end of the song My Girl’s a High Born Lady.  This would appear to be a composed song, but right at the end we find this unrelated verse tagged onto the song. Perhaps Uncle Dave had found the song to be slightly too short for a 78rpm side and so just added the verse to make up the time.  Interestingly, this verse is quite well-known throughout Appalachia.The verse seems to be especially popular with North Carolina musicians from Round Peak. See, for example, the song Sugar Hill as sung by Tommy Jarrell on County CD Stay All Night…And Don't Go Home (CD2735).31

And this was not the only time that Uncle Dave would mix up all sorts of verses together.  Take the song Walk, Tom Wilson, Walk:

The song kicks off with a verse about Rolley Hole, a form of marbles that is still played today in parts of Tennessee and Kentucky.  This is followed by the chorus, which gives the song its title, comprising a couple of lines from a Minstrel song, which also entered the Negro song tradition.  (Or was it, perhaps, a Negro sing that was taken up by the Minstrel shows?)  This is how Thomas W Talley printed the song in his 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhymes. The song then goes into an almost surreal account of what happened when Uncle Dave visited New York.  I would suggest that these verses were composed by Uncle Dave himself.

If, as I said above, there is little evidence to suggest that Uncle Dave knew many Anglo-American folksongs, then we may also note that he recorded very few American folksongs.  The Death of John Henry, printed above, is one such song.  In 1929 Uncle Dave recorded a number of songs, including four pieces (each the side of a 78rpm record) which he titled Uncle Dave’s Travels - Parts 1 -4.  Part 2 was sub-titled Around Louisville, Ky, part 3 was In and Around Nashville, while part 4 was titled Visit at the Old Maid’s.Uncle Dave's Travels Pts. 1 - 4 have been re-issued on JSP7729.33  Surprisingly, part 1 was a complete version of the folksong Misery in Arkansas (Roud 257).  It begins with a typical Uncle Dave device, a spoken dedication, this time to one of his old friends.  As can be seen, Uncle Dave just loved playing with words.

Uncle Dave also recorded a version of the American folksong Life and Death of Jesse James.  As James’s reputedly died in 1882 the song must have been composed after this date.  I say 'reputedly' because when Alan Lomax interviewed the Ozark singer Neil Morris, Morris insisted that James had not been killed by his cousin Robert Ford, but had lived into the early 1900s.Life and Death of Jesse James has been re-issued on JSP7729. Jesse James story told by Neil Morris is on the 4 CD set Sounds of the South. Atlantic 7 82496-2.34

Uncle Dave was also aware of a number of a number of old fiddle & banjo tunes, such as Love Somebody, Soldier’s Joy, Muskrat, Rye Strawfields, Hop High Ladies, The Cake’s All Dough, Bile The Cabbage Down, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Whoop ‘Em Up Cindy, Devil’s Dream and Sourwood Mountain.Love Somebody, Soldier's Joy, Muskrat, Bile The Cabbage Down and The Girl I Left Behind Me have been reissued on JSP 7769. Hop High Ladies, The Cake's All Dough, Whoop 'Em Up Cindy and Sourwood Mountain have been re-issued on JSP7729. Rye Strawfields and Devil's Dream were unissued.35

I think it fair to say that, in general, we can only surmise about Uncle Dave’s early musical influences.  He certainly knew quite a few early fiddle and banjo tunes and also knew some songs which, today, we would call folksongs.  Many of the songs that appear to have come from black singers did, as we can clearly see, come from the pens of white composers, although, as in the case of Carve Dad Possum, Uncle Dave may have picked these up from oral, rather than printed sources.  We also know that, in his recordings, Uncle Dave frequently mixed together lines and verses from different songs.

Popular & Parlour Songs and Ballads

When I first set out to write this article I began by trying to place Uncle Dave's songs into various categories - folksongs, negro-songs, blues, topical songs etc.  - but it soon became apparent that this was not the right way to go about it.  I say this, because many of the songs could easily fit into more than one category.  You can see what I mean by looking at the song Down in Arkansas.Down in Arkansas as sung by Uncle Dave Macon and Sid Harkreader has been re-issued on JSP7769.36 Eli Green's Cakewalk, written by David Reed and Sadie Koninsky It seems that the song was written in 1913 by one George 'Honey Boy' Edwards (1870 - 1915), a 'blackface' minstrel, who came originally from Wales.  The song has also entered the 'tradition', in that Alan Lomax recorded a version of the song from the singer Almeda Riddle in 1959.Down in Arkansas as sung by Almeda Riddle can be heard on the CD Southern Journey – Ozark Frontier Rounder 1707.37  Interestingly, Granny Riddle's version is made up of verses that, apart from the opening verse, are different to those recorded by Uncle Dave.  In other words, the song had entered the 'folk tradition'.  So how do we classify this song - as a composed song, as a Minstrel Show song, or as a folksong?

In the Good Old Summer Time.  Music George Evans, Lyrics by Ren Shields (1902).Or take the well-know Eli Green's Cakewalk, written by David Reed and Sadie Koninsky and first recorded in 1899 by the banjo player Vess Ossman on Edison Records.  Uncle Dave recorded Eli Green's Cakewalk in 1929 for Brunswick Records, though the Company failed to issue the recording.  Described as a 'red hot number' on the music sheets, the piece depicts a black couple stepping out to the tune.  Reed & Koninsky were, of course, white composers. 

I would suggest that approximately 60 - 65 % of Uncle Dave's recorded repertoire is comprised of songs with known composers, ones that date from the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th.  (Actually, the figure is higher if we include the Religious songs that Uncle Dave recorded).  Some of these songs, such as The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, Down By the Old Mill Stream, In the Good Old Summer Time and In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree are extremely well-known.The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, Down By the Old Mill Stream, In the Good Old Summer Time and In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree have all been re-issued on JSP7769.38

In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree.  Lyrics By Harry Williams, music by Egbert Van Alstyne (1905).Others are, perhaps less well-known.  William J Scanlan's Peek-A-Boo was written in 1883, the same year that Barney Fagan composed Since Baby's Learned to Talk.Peek-A-Boo and Since Baby's Learned to Talk have been re-issued on JSP7729.39  Scanlan was also the composer of another of Uncle Dave's well-known songs, Over the Mountain, written in 1882.Over the Mountain has been re-issued on JSP7729.40  Occasionally Uncle Dave would change titles (and, sometimes, the words).  In 1869 C T Lockwood & J Wild composed And He's Got the Money Too, a song which Uncle Dave recorded as She's Got the Money Too in 1930, although he kept the composer's titles with songs such as Just Tell Them That You Saw Me, written by Paul Dresser in 1895, and When the Harvest Days are Over, written & composed by Howard Graham & Harry Von Tilzer in 1900.She's Got the Money Too and Just Tell Them That You Saw have been re-issued on JSP7769. When the Harvest Days are Over is on JSP7729.41

Another song written in 1900 was Cal Stewart's Ticklish Reuben, recorded in 1926 by Uncle Dave as Something's Always Sure to Tickle Me.Something's Always Sure to Tickle Me has benn re-issued on JSP7769.42  The year 1900 must have been a good one for song-writers, because that was also the year when J Cheever Goodwin and Maurice Levi wrote When Reuben Came to Town, yet another of the songs that found their way into Uncle Dave's repertoire, as did the song I'll Never Go There Any More.When Reuben Came to Town and I'll Never Go There Any More have been re-issued on JSP7729.43

I'll Never Go There Any More was originally titled The Bowery and was the work of Charles H Hoyt and Percy Gaunt.  It was written in 1891 for the successful Broadway play A Trip to Chinatown and, again, Uncle Dave had to omit some of the original text in order to fit the song onto one side of a 78rpm record. 

The Bowery
by Charles H Hoyt and Percy Gaunt

Oh! the night that I struck New York,
I went out for a quiet walk;
Folks who are 'on to' the city say,
Better by far that I took Broadway;
But I was out to enjoy the sights,
There was the Bow'ry ablaze with lights;
I had one of the devil's own nights!
I'll never go there anymore.

Refrain:
The Bow'ry, the Bow'ry!
They say such things,
And they do strange things
On the Bow'ry! The Bow'ry!
I'll never go there anymore!

I had walk'd but a block or two,
When up came a fellow, and me he knew;
Then a policeman came walking by,
Chased him away, and I asked him why.
'Wasn't he pulling your leg?,' said he.
Said I, 'He never laid hands on me!'
'Get off the Bow'ry, you Yap!,' said he.
I'll never go there anymore.

I went into an auction store,
I never saw any thieves before;
First he sold me a pair of socks,
Then said he, 'How much for the box?'
Someone said 'Two dollars!' I said 'Three!'
He emptied the box and gave it to me.
'I sold you the box not the sox,' said he,
I'll never go there any more.

I went into a concert hall,
I didn't have a good time at all;
Just the minutes that I sat down
Girls began singing, 'New Coon in Town,'
I got up mad and spoke out free,
'Somebody put that man out,' said she;
A man called a bouncer attended to me,
I'll never go there anymore.

I went into a barbershop,
He talk'd till I thought that he'd never stop;
I, cut it short, he misunderstood,
Clipp'd down my hair just as close as he could.
He shaved with a razor that scratched like a pin,
Took off my whiskers and most of my chin;
That was the worst scrape I'd ever been in.
I'll never go there anymore.

I struck a place that they called a 'dive,'
I was in luck to get out alive;
When the policeman heard of my woes,
Saw my black eye and my batter'd nose,
'You've been held up!,' said the copper fly.
'No, sir! But I've been knock'd down,' said I;
Then he laugh'd, tho' I could not see why!
I'll never go there anymore!
      I'll Never Go There Any More
As sung by Uncle Dave Macon.

Oh, the night that I struck New York,
I went out for a quiet walk,
Folks that long to the City say,
Better by far that I had Broadway,
But I was out to enjoy the sights,
And there was the Bowery a blazed with lights,
And I had one of those tough old nights,
I'll never go there anymore.

I went into a concert hall,
I didn't have a good time at all,
Just the minute that I sat down,
Girls began singing 'New Coon in Town,'
Got up mad and I spoke out free,
'Somebody put that man out cried she,'
And a man called a bouncer attended to me,
I'll never go there anymore.

I went into a barbershop,
He talked till I thought he would never stop,
I cut it short, he misunderstood,
Clipped down my hair just as close as he could,
Shaved with a razor that scratched like a pin,
Took off my whiskers and most of my chin,
But that was the worst scrape I ever got in,
I'll never go there anymore.

I went into an auction store,
I never saw any thieves before,
First he showed me a pair of socks,
Then said he, 'how much for the box?'
Someone said two dollars, I said three,
He emptied the box and he gave it to me,
'Sold you the box not the socks,'says he,
I'll never go there anymore.

I struck a place that they called, a dive,
I was in luck to get out alive,
When the policeman heard my woes,
Saw my black eyes and my battered nose,
'You've been held up.'says the copper fly,
'No, sir, but I've been knocked down.'says I.
Then he laughed, oh I couldn't see why,
I'll never go there anymore.
Peek-A-Boo written by William Scanlan.
Harry Von Tilzer

Poster for A Trip to Chainatown

 
Clearly, much of Uncle Dave's repertoire had been published in the mid to late 1800s and the early part of the 1900s.  But Uncle Dave did not necessarily restrict himself to older songs.  He did, on occasion, also sing more recent compositions, such as Beautiful Love, which he recorded in 1938.Beautiful Love has been re-issued on JSP7769.44  The song had actually been written in 1931 by Wayne King, Victor Young, Egbert Van Alstyne and Haven Gillespie and was originally popularized by the Wayne King Orchestra. 

Blues

It is sometimes said that the term 'blues', for a specific musical form, came into existence in 1912 when W C Handy composed and published the song Memphis Blues.  Handy said that in1903, in Tutwiler, Mississippi, he first heard the blues being sung by a Negro.  'A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept ...  As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars ...  The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.'William Christopher Handy Father of the Blues 1941, MacMillan, p.74.45  In fact, Memphis Blues was based on a campaign tune, Mr Crump, originally written in 1909 for Edward Crump, the successful Memphis mayorial candidate.Crump is also remembered in the song Mr Crump Don't Like It, recorded in 1927 by Memphis bluesman Frank Stokes (re-issued on The Best of Frank Stokes – Yazoo CD 2070). It has been suggested that the song Mr Crump Don't Like It was actually written by W C Handy.46  Other writers have agreed with Handy that the blues began in the Mississippi Delta.  See, for example, Alan Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began.Alan Lomax The Land Where the Blues Began The New Press. New edition, 2002.47  Others have been more specific, stating that the blues began on Will Dockery's Plantation, with singers such as Charlie Patton.  I have also heard some Americans suggest that the blues actually began in the Piedmont region of the Eastern States.  One English enthusuast has shown that the words to a number of British Music Hall songs can be found in early blues recordings and a recent book gives us details of the musical term 'blues' being used well before W C Handy pegged the word.If you really want to know just about everything there is to know about Charlie Patton and Dockery Plantation, see Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues - The Worlds of Charlie Patton Revenant 212. This is a large box set with all of Patton's recordings, plus other recording by people who knew Patton...
The rest of this note is too long to fit here.
See Notes at the end of this article.48  For example, in 1871 A A Chapman published the song Oh, Ain't I Got the Blues while, in 1872, Harry Linn and Rollin Howard produced a song with the title You Never Miss Yor Water Till the Well Runs Dry, a line which turns up in several later blues.  If this all sounds a little complicated, well, it is!  When we say 'blues' we usually mean a 12-bar verse of three lines, in AAB format.  But this is not always the case, especially when we look at the six 'blues' that Uncle Dave recorded.

On 17th February, 1927, Bessie Smith recored a version of the song Backwater Blues.  The text went like this. Bessie Smith

It was to be one of Bessie's greatest hits and is, of course, a blues as defined above.  On 11th May, 1927, three months after Bessie recorded Backwater Blues, Uncle Dave also recorded a song with the same title: Clearly, Uncle Dave's Backwater Blues is nothing like the song that Bessie Smith recorded.  So why did Uncle Dave record a song with the same title so soon after Bessie?  The answer would seem to be that, on 15th April, 1927, the Mississippi River broke its banks, causing massive flooding over an area 50 miles wide by 100 miles long.  Almost 250 people were killed and the news quickly spread across the rest of America.  Perhaps Bessie's song took off because of the event and Uncle Dave, or somebody at his record company, realized that a song about flooding could sell and so Uncle Dave quickly recorded the song, which, following Bessie Smith, was termed a 'blues'.

In fact, Uncle Dave recorded a total of six songs with the word 'blues' in the title.  As well as Backwater Blues, there were Hill Billie Blues, Arcade Blues, Heartaching Blues, All In Down and Out Blues and The Mourning Blues (or should that be Morning Blues?) and none, strictly speaking is really a 'blues'.Hill Billie Blues and Heartaching Blues have been re-issued on JSP7769. Arcade Blues, All In Down and Out Blues and The Mourning Blues have been re-issued on JSP7729.51  Two of these, Hill Billie Blues and The Mourning Blues are actually based on a song, Hesitating Blues, that W C Handy copywrited in 1912.

Clearly, Handy's song Hesitating Blues became well-known throughout the American South, and not just to Uncle Dave.  Fiddlin' John Carson recorded it as Tom Watson Special in 1923, while Buddy Boy Hawkins recorded it as Voice Throwin' Blues, complete with falsetto effect, in 1929.The Fiddlin' John Carson recording of Tom Watson Special has been re-issued on Document CD 8014, while Buddy Boy Hawkins can be heard singing Voice Throwin' Blues on Yazoo CD 2028.52

It has been said that All In Down and Out Blues refers to the Wall Street crash of 1929.  However, as Uncle Dave recorded All In Down and Out Blues three years earlier, in 1926, this cannot be the case.  This seems to be a song that Uncle Dave probably composed himself and it certainly suggests that life 'was not all roses' for some time prior to the 'Great Crash'.

Arcade Blues is Uncle Dave's tribute to 'Mister Charlie Keys and Mister Hyde' who, presumably, sold phonograph records in The Arcade, Nashville's downtown covered shopping arcade (first known as Overton alley), built in 1902.  The final two verses appear in other blues. Uncle Dave's final blues, Heartaching Blues, is, mainly, in the AAB format, though with slight oddities, including some unexplained laughter! The song was recorded in 1927.  Two years later Edith North Johnson also recorded the song, though whether or not she learnt the song from Uncle Dave's recording is unclear.  I would suggest, however, that the line Oh, when my baby went away to sea is indicative that the song was originally written for a woman, rather than a man, to sing, and, because of this, was probably not composed by Uncle Dave.

Topical Songs

On the 25th July, 1928, Uncle Dave began the recording of the song The New Ford Car with this spoken introduction. Uncle Dave clearly says that he 'composed' the song Dixie Bee Line and it seems fairly certain that he also composed other songs that he subsequently recorded.  This is On the Dixie Bee Line (In That Henry Ford of Mine), Uncle Dave's tribute to Henry Ford and the birth of the automobile industry.  The song was recorded in 1926.  The Dixie Beeline, by the way, is the name for US Highway 41. Henry Ford in 1919. Uncle Dave recorded a number of topical songs and, like some of his other pieces, they too could have been written by Uncle Dave himself.  Take this song, Tennessee Tornado, which is concerned with events that occurred in March, 1933, when a storm struck Kingsport and Cherry Hill in DeKalb County, TN., killing over 40 people and leaving many more injured.  Uncle Dave used a version of the tune You've Been A Friend To Me to carry the words, a song that he previously recorded in 1927.You've Been a Friend to Me has been re-issued on JSP7729.56  This was not, of course, the first song to deal with such a disaster, the Carter Family having previously written and recorded The Cyclone of Ryecove in 1929.The Cyclone of Ryecove , recorded by the Carter Family, has been re-issued on JSP7701.57

John T Scopes in 1925.Not all of the disasters in 20th century Tennessee, however, were natural.  On 5th May, 1925, John Thomas Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was charged with violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which banned the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools.  The case became famous, or infamous, throughout the world as the 'Scopes Monkey Trial'.

The trial ended with Scopes being found guilty and fined $100.  However, this decision was overturned on appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court saying that the judge had set the fine, rather than the jury!  Incredibly, the Butler Act remained in force until 1967, when it was repealed.  In 1980 I was asked to give a talk at a school in Tennessee.  During a coffee break I asked if evolution was now taught in the school.  There were some embarrassed looks from the staff, before somebody said that they 'overlooked' that part of the syllabus.  Needless to say, Uncle Dave would have approved of this action.  This is what he had to say about such events in 1926, the year after the Scopes trial.

Knoxville Iron Company Mine at Coal Creek in 1910.Another important event in Tennessee (and American) history took place during the early 1890s.  It seems that the owners of some coal mines at a place called Coal Creek (now re-named Lake City) decided to use convict labour (leased out by the State Government) rather than free miners.  Needless to say, the free miners did not like this and violence soon erupted on both sides of the dispute, with dozens of miners and state militia being killed and wounded.  Prison stockades were attacked, company building raised to the ground, and hundreds of prisoners released by the miners.  In 1892, after a year of struggle, hundreds of free miners were arrested and the dispute came to a rather ragged end.  But, public opinion had changed and the Tennessee Governor, John P Buchanan, had to end the system of convict leasing.

Several songs and tunes came out of the Coal Creek dispute, or 'War', as some people still call it, most notably Pete Steel's superb pieces Pay Day at Coal Creek and Coal Creek March.  Uncle Dave's Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line was equally popular.Pete Steele's Pay Day at Coal Creek can be heard on Yazoo box set Kentucky Mountain Music (Yazoo 2200). Coal Creek March is still available on a Folkways LP (FW03828) and Uncle Dave's Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line has been re-issued on JSP7729.59

Mention of the 'bank boss' in the final verse reminds me of yet another song that Uncle Dave recorded, two years after waxing Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line.  This was The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train and told of a political and banking scandal that occurred in Tennessee in 1930.  The scandal involved a patronage scheme, where state money was put into projects that were never put up for tender.  Tennessee governor Henry Horton was almost unseated in the affair that left the people of Tennessee some $6 million out of pocket.  This is Uncle Dave's take on what happened.  I suspect that Uncle Dave's use of the word 'Hell' in the final verse reflects just what people were thinking at the time.  I say this because in previous songs Uncle Dave was careful to omit the word on his recordings. Uncle Dave's chorus to The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train is based on the chorus to another of his topical songs, We're Up Against it Now. Al Smith.In 1928 Alfred 'Al' Emanuel Smith, Governor of New York, was selected to be the Democratic US Presidential candidate in that years Presidential Election.

Surprisingly, Uncle Dave backed Smith, who was a Yankee, a Democrat and a Catholic.  Not exactly the sort of man to endear himself to the American South.  But Smith did have one thing in his favour, namely his belief that Prohibition was not working and should be scrapped and so Uncle Dave, who liked his Jack Daniels, came on side with his song Governor Al Smith, which is sung to the tune of The Crawdad Song (Roud 4853).

As I said above, Uncle Dave like to drink, but he also believed in the Church's teachings and, in doing so, highlighted the duality that can be found in the life and songs of many country singers (and others, of course).  According to Charles Wolfe, this was 'a curious combination of traditional morality (what man should be) and life-embracing gusto (what man is)'Charles Wolfe in Stars of Country Music edited by Bill Malone & Judith McCulloh. University of Illinois Press, Urbana. 1975, p.59.63.  Al Smith, incidentally, lost to Herbert Hoover.

Gilbert Haugen & Charles McNary in 1928.Both Al Smith and Herbert Hoover appear in a further Uncle Dave song, Farm Relief, recorded in 1929.Farm Relief has been re-issued on JSP7729.64  During the 1920s several attempts were made to pass a bill - the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Act proposed by two senators, Charles L McNary and Gilbert N Haugen - which would have created a federal agency aimed at supporting and protecting domestic farm prices.  During World War I the price of agricultural produce in America had risen, but prices fell in the 1920s, as Europe recovered and was capable of self-sufficiency.  The Farm-Relief Act was intended to allow the American Government to buy surpluses and give the money back to the farmers.  Eventually, in 1928, Congress passed the bill, but it was subsequently vetoed by President Hoover, much to the farmer's dissaproval.  Uncle Dave again:

This was not the only song that Uncle Dave recorded that supported the plight of the rural farmers.  All I've Got's Gone was one of his earliest recordings, from 1924, and is, again, indicative that things were not going well for the American public several; years before the Wall Street crash of 1929.  Earlier, I said how difficult it was to categorize many of Uncle Dave's songs.  The following song, My Daughter Wished to Marry, could, on the surface, be seen as a folksong.  It seems to be based on the folksong Lolly (or Rolly) Toodum (Roud 441) where a daughter is pleading with her mother to let her marry.  The folksong ends with the lines: In other words, marriage is seen as the preferred mode of existence.  Uncle Dave's song, and I do believe that the words are by Uncle Dave, is far more down to earth and bleak.  Although Uncle Dave recorded this song in 1938 there is, I think, something about the words that suggest an earlier date of composition.  Of course, I could be wrong and this could be by somebody else.  But the song does have the feel of Uncle Dave to it and, if so, again shows just how able he was to deal with universal and timeless topics.

Religious Songs

Uncle Dave, again in common with many other contemporary Old-Timey singers, recorded many religious songs, such as Old Ship of Zion, Poor Sinners, Fare You Well, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, Mysteries of the World, O Bear Me Away On Your Snowy Wings, Shall We Gather at the River?, When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, Jesus Lover of My Soul, Were You There When They Took My Lord Away?, There's Just One Way to the Pearly Gates and One More River to Cross.  As I personally find the texts to most of these songs to be less than inspiring and of little interest, I have simply mentioned them for the sake of completion.All of Uncle Dave's commercially recorded religious songs can be found on the two JSP box set, JSP7729 and JSP7769.67

3.  Conclusions

Like all of us, Uncle Dave Macon was a product of his times.  Born in 1870, just five years after the ending of the American Civil War ('The War of the States'), he was brought up in an American South that had been devastated by the preceding events.  In 1862 and '63 an estimated three and a half to four million slaves were freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamations, although, in practical terms, the Proclamations were unworkable until the end of the War.  Over one million people had been either killed or wounded during the War (about 3% of the population), roughly the same number of Americans who were killed or wounded during both World War 1 and World War 2.  Until 1877, the American South was the subject of Reconstruction and feeling between the southerners and northerners, who came south to work on the reconstruction, must have been tense.  But, of course, people had to get on with their lives.  Many southerners would have resented the Yankees in their midst, and the status of freed slaves within white communities must have produced all kinds of problems for both blacks and whites.

In a number if his songs, Uncle Dave mentions trips to New York, where the northerners treat him like a country bumpkin and try to fleece him of his money.  Was this an echo of the feelings between northerners and southerners that had survived from the days of the War?  Today, of course, we still laugh at a bumbling John Cleese saying, 'Don't mention the war', when a family of Germans come to stay at his hotel, Fawlty Towers.  So, possibly, Uncle Dave was indicating a tension that still existed between the two sides.  On the other hand, in some songs Uncle Dave outwits the Yankees, and this reminds me of a number of British songs, such as Walter Pardon's song Bright Golden Store, where a country lad outwits a town girl who tries to steal his money.Walter Pardon can be heard singing Bright Golden Store on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song (EFDSS CD02).68  Perhaps, then, we are looking at an even older tradition here.  More problematical is Uncle Dave's vast number of songs that either came to him from black singers or else from white composers who, in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, produced so many 'black' or 'minstrel' songs.  This was also a time when the Ku Klux Klan was active in the South.  The original Klan was formed in the 1860s, and lasted into the 1870s, as a reaction to events following the southern defeat.  But it also re-emerged in the 1920s, when Uncle Dave was making his first recordings.  However, there seems to be no mention of the Klan, or of its activities, in any of Uncle Dave's songs.  We know that Uncle Dave recorded about 200 songs.  This must mean that his records sold well, because, had they not done so, the record companies would soon have dropped him.  And many of the songs that he recorded belonged to the genre of 'Minstrel' pieces.  We can only conclude that these songs were popular with listeners, some of whom probably yearned for a return to an idealized ante-bellum south, or else to an audience who saw the humour that was clearly intended in some of these songs.  Today, of course, such 'humour' is no longer seen to be funny.  Thankfully, many of the words, then in common usage, that Uncle Dave used to describe African Americans are also now obsolete.

There is also, as I have tried to show above, a duality in some of Uncle Dave's songs, one brought about by Christian morality and the teachings of the church (and don't forget that the Ku Klux Klan was a 'Christian' organization) and the actual lives that people led.  Uncle Dave professed to be a Christian, and I am sure that most, if not all, of the people who bought his records would have also said that they, too, were Christians.  But there was surely a dichotomy here, one where the church's teachings were not put into practice.  I am sure that, to many whites, the term 'love thy neighbour' was not seen as applying to black people.  In 1929 a contemporary of Uncle Dave, Blind Alfred Reed, recorded a song There'll Be No Distinction There which was intended to show that we were all equal in the eyes of God.  One verse and chorus runs thus:

I am still amazed by that audacious line And we'll all be white in that heavenly light, which clearly suggests the inferiority of black people, people who need to be turned into white people by God before they can truly achieve equality.  In other words, if you are black, then you sure as hell ain't equal, and you have no place in Heaven.  I suppose that some modern-day Christians will say that the word 'white' in the chorus actually means 'purity' and does not signify the colour of a person's skin.  But, if that is the case, it still begs two questions.  Firstly, why did he use the word 'white', rather than 'pure'?  And, secondly, if the word 'white' signifies 'purity', then just what does the word 'black' signify?  Answers on a postcard, please.  Actually, this does remind me about a time when I was talking with a southern church minister in Virginia, one who insisted that the 'St James Bible' was the only one to be used, 'because it was the direct word of God'.  I tried to explain how many translations (and mis-translations) the words had gone through before this specific bible was commissioned, but I was speaking to deaf ears.

I could also repeat what I said above about Uncle Dave's attitude to alcohol, both as a Christian and as a drinker.  (And don't miss Alfred Reed's brief reference to 'booze' in the song above.)  But really this would just confirm how complex the situation is when we consider Uncle Dave and his repertoire, or, indeed, any of Uncle Dave's musical contemporaries and their repertoires.  Actually, there is one thing that I do want to say and that is, in order to fully appreciate Uncle Dave, one cannot just read the lyrics; one has to actually listen to Uncle Dave.  Only by doing so can we really come to understand him and his songs.  There was something special about him, something that the printed word cannot convey, and this quality has been preserved in an almost unique manner.  Few, if any, other performers of his generation have lasted so well. 

Let me end, then, with a look at a final song Sourwood Mountain Medley, one which in just three minutes manages to incorporate much of what has been said before.  It begins with a spoken introduction.  It has a couplet that comes from the British song Polly Put the Kettle On, a couple of couplets from the Anglo-American tradition, as well as some topical verses about the Banks.  And, for good measure, there is also a Minstrel Show chorus.  Take it away Uncle Dave…

Acknowledgements:

I have been listening to Uncle Dave Macon's recordings for the last fifty or so years.  During this period I have been helped by many people who have made transcriptions of his songs.  Some of the best, and most accurate, have been made by Paul Stewart of Darwin, Australia, who deserves unlimited praise.  Also, as usual, my thanks to Frank Weston for putting up with all my queries about Uncle Dave.  Thanks for all the answers!  It goes without saying that I could not have written this article without reference to Tony Russell's masterly Country Music Records – a Discography, 1921 – 1942.  Finally, my thanks to all the record companies who, year by year, have continued to re-issue Uncle Dave's recordings, especially JSP Records of London, who have all of his known commercial recordings available on two remarkable CD box sets.  Thanks guys.

Mike Yates - 29.9.10

[1.  Uncle Dave]  [2.  Uncle Dave's Repertoire]  [Early Influences:]  [Popular & Parlour Songs and Ballads]  [Blues]
[Topical Songs]  [Religious Songs]  [3.  Conclusions]  [Acknowledgements:]  [Notes:]

Notes:

  1. The Anthology of American Folk Music is currently available as a CD set on Smithsonian Folkways SFW40090.
  2. Sourwood Mountain Medley has been re-issued on JSP box set JSP7729.
  3. I'll Never Go There Anymore has been re-issued on JSP box set JSP7729.
  4. Never make Love No More has been re-issued on JSP box set JSP7769.
  5. Rounder LP 1028. GoOn Nora Lee has been re-issued on Times Ain't Like They Used to Be – Volume 7 (Yazoo2067).
  6. Tennessee Tornado has been re-issued on Times Ain't Like They Used to Be – Volume 8 (Yazoo2068).
  7. These tracks are all re-issued on JSP box set JSP7729.
  8. Actually Uncle Dave did sometimes play with Sam McGee after this date.  The pair, for example, were in a recording studio together on 17th December, 1930, and recorded together, along with Kirk McGee, in 1934.
  9. The Gayest Old Dude That's Out has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  10. Rock About my Saro Jane has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  11. Charles K Wolfe A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry Appendix 1 to Chapter 6, 'Take it Away Uncle Dave'.  The Country Music Foundation Press, 1999, pp.116 17.
  12. Darby Ram turns up in black American tradition as the song and tune Didn't He Ramble, although it is still sung today as The Derby Ram by white Appalachian singers.  For a recording of Little Sally Walker sung by black Mississippi singers, see the CD 61 Highway Rounder 1703.
  13. Vocalion 15319.  Has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  14. Drunken Spree has been re-issued on Document CD 5005.
  15. Versions of Run, Nigger, Run were also recorded by Dr Humphry Bate (in 1928), Fiddlin' John Carson (in 1924) and Gid Tanner (in 1927).  Carson's recording has been re-issued on Document CD 8015 and the Tanner recording is re-issued on Document CD 8056.  The song certainly remained in black traditions until c.1933, at least, when a version was recorded by the Library of Congress from Mose 'Clear Rock' Platt.  This recording is available on Document CD 5580.
  16. Run Nigger Run has been re-issued on JSP7729.  The final verse is well-known in Britain.  It occurs in the children's song I'll Tell Me Ma (Roud 2649).
  17. I'll Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  18. I'se Gwine Back to Dixie has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  19. Uncle Ned, Listen to the Mockingbird and The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane have been re-issued on JSP7769.  Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  20. Stop That Knocking at my Door has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  21. Sassy Sam has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  22. I Don't Care if I Never Wake Up has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  23. Rise When the Rooster Crows has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  24. Watermelon Smilin' on the Vine has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  25. Carve Dat Possum has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  26. The Death of John Henry has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  27. I'm the Child to Fight has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  28. For recordings by Dan Tate, see Musical Traditions CD Far in the Mountains- volumes 1 & 2 MTCD 331-2.  The verse about Chicken Pie occurs in Dan's song Who's On the Way?
  29. Travelin' Down the Road has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  30. My Girl's a High Born Lady has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  31. The verse seems to be especially popular with North Carolina musicians from Round Peak.  See, for example, the song Sugar Hill as sung by Tommy Jarrell on County CD Stay All Night…And Don't Go Home (CD2735).
  32. Walk, Tome Wilson, Walk has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  33. Uncle Dave's Travels Pts. 1 - 4 have been re-issued on JSP7729.
  34. Life and Death of Jesse James has been re-issued on JSP7729.  Jesse James story told by Neil Morris is on the 4 CD set Sounds of the South. Atlantic 7 82496-2.
  35. Love Somebody, Soldier's Joy, Muskrat, Bile The Cabbage Down and The Girl I Left Behind Me have been reissued on JSP 7769.  Hop High Ladies, The Cake's All Dough, Whoop 'Em Up Cindy and Sourwood Mountain have been re-issued on JSP7729.  Rye Strawfields and Devil's Dream were unissued.
  36. Down in Arkansas as sung by Uncle Dave Macon and Sid Harkreader has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  37. Down in Arkansas as sung by Almeda Riddle can be heard on the CD Southern Journey – Ozark Frontier Rounder 1707.
  38. The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, Down By the Old Mill Stream, In the Good Old Summer Time and In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree have all been re-issued on JSP7769.
  39. Peek-A-Boo and Since Baby's Learned to Talk have been re-issued on JSP7729.
  40. Over the Mountain has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  41. She's Got the Money Too and Just Tell Them That You Saw have been re-issued on JSP7769.  When the Harvest Days are Over is on JSP7729.
  42. Something's Always Sure to Tickle Me has benn re-issued on JSP7769.
  43. When Reuben Came to Town and I'll Never Go There Any More have been re-issued on JSP7729.
  44. Beautiful Love has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  45. William Christopher Handy Father of the Blues 1941, MacMillan, p.74.
  46. Crump is also remembered in the song Mr Crump Don't Like It, recorded in 1927 by Memphis bluesman Frank Stokes (re-issued on The Best of Frank Stokes – Yazoo CD 2070).  It has been suggested that the song Mr Crump Don't Like It was actually written by W C Handy.
  47. Alan Lomax The Land Where the Blues Began The New Press. New edition, 2002.
  48. If you really want to know just about everything there is to know about Charlie Patton and Dockery Plantation, see Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues - The Worlds of Charlie Patton Revenant 212.  This is a large box set with all of Patton's recordings, plus other recording by people who knew Patton and, as a bonus, the set also includes a copy of John Fahey's book Charlie Patton,first published in London by Studio Vista in 1970.  For early commercial blues, see Peter Muir Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850 - 1920 University of Illinois Press, Urbana. 2010.  The Music Hall connection, in several parts, can be found on www.earlyblues.com as The English Music Hall Connection by Max Haynes.
  49. Bessie Smith's Backwater Blues has been re-issued several times.  See, for example, The Essential Bessie Smith Columbia Records (1997).
  50. Uncle Dave's Backwater Blues has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  51. Hill Billie Blues and Heartaching Blues have been re-issued on JSP7769.  Arcade Blues, All In Down and Out Blues and The Mourning Blues have been re-issued on JSP7729.
  52. The Fiddlin' John Carson recording of Tom Watson Special has been re-issued on Document CD 8014, while Buddy Boy Hawkins can be heard singing Voice Throwin' Blues on Yazoo CD 2028.
  53. The New Ford Car has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  54. On the Dixie Bee Line (In That Henry Ford of Mine) has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  55. Tennessee Tornado has been re-issued on JSP7769 and Yazoo 2068.
  56. You've Been a Friend to Me has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  57. The Cyclone of Ryecove , recorded by the Carter Family, has been re-issued on JSP7701.
  58. The Bible's True has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  59. Pete Steele's Pay Day at Coal Creek can be heard on Yazoo box set Kentucky Mountain Music (Yazoo 2200).  Coal Creek March is still available on a Folkways LP (FW03828) and Uncle Dave's Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  60. The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  61. We're Up Against it Now has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  62. Governor Al Smith has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  63. Charles Wolfe in Stars of Country Music edited by Bill Malone & Judith McCulloh.  University of Illinois Press, Urbana. 1975, p.59.
  64. Farm Relief has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  65. All I've Gots Gone has been re-issued on JSP7769.
  66. My Daughter Wished to Marry has been re-issued on JSP7729.
  67. All of Uncle Dave's commercially recorded religious songs can be found on the two JSP box set, JSP7729 and JSP7769.
  68. Walter Pardon can be heard singing Bright Golden Store on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song (EFDSS CD02).
  69. There's Be No Distinction There has been re-issued on Document CD Blind Alfred Reed DOCD 8022.
  70. Sourwood Mountain Medley has been re-issued on JSP7729.

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