Uncle Dave Macon (#1)

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Uncle Dave Macon: “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” 9CD/1DVD-Box  and 176-Page Book (Bear Family 15978)

by Bill Dillof (excerpt from The Old Time Herald, Volume 9, Number 7 • Spring 2005)

 

The bulk of the Bear Family collection contains Macon’s 184 commercial sides, from 1924 to 1938, in chronological order. They include both solo recordings and ensemble efforts with some of the finest country artists of the time: Sid Harkreader (fiddle and guitar), Sam McGee (guitar and guitar-banjo), Kirk McGee and Mazy Todd (fiddles), The Delmore Brothers, Doris Macon and Smoky Mountain Glenn. All were adept musicians and more than competent harmonizers. The earliest recordings – the 76 sides to the close of 1926 – are often three minute,  sample-sized vaudeville acts, opening with a brief, fingerpicked showpiece of banjo dexterity followed by a story, joke or moral tale and concluding with the titled, featured song. All that is missing is the banjo trick.

Until the close of 1930, that is, in all but the last thirty or so of his commercial recordings, Macon fingerpicked the banjo almost exclusively. If you include the introductory instrumentals over the same period, the count is 136 fingerpicked versus only 27 frailed pieces. In some years – 1927 and 1928, particularly – the disparity is even greater. While it is likely that Macon learned some technique from virtuoso “classic” banjoists that he would have encountered on the vaudeville circuit in the 1890s and later (Sylvester “Vess” Ossman was a contemporary), it is certainly conceivable that he borrowed from black banjoists of middle Tennessee, among whom “up-picking” was not uncommon (Murphy Gribble comes to mind). I have even heard a plausible, intriguing theory that Macon’s fingerpicking was his own transcription of the complex frailing of minstrel banjo.

While Charles Wolfe suggests that Macon picked in as many as eighteen “styles”, I would suggest, rather, that it was one overall style, employing seven or eight discrete thumb-lead rolls and other devices of rhythmic “fill” (the “backward roll”, often with fifth-string lead, being prominent among them), combined in sundry ways so as to facilitate the playing of lead melody in a considerable variety of material. Fingerpicked melodic lead, was exceedingly rare among old-time banjo players before the mid-1930s.  I can think of but one other artist – Mack Woolbright – who punctuated his songs thus. In fact, I strongly suspect that it was just this –  rhythmic, fingerpicked lead – that so attracted the young Earl Scruggs, who has cited Macon and Woolbright as two of his major inspirations.

With commercial recording taking a breather during the early years of the Great Depression, there is a four-year hiatus in Macon’s output – to 1934 – from which he returned in a near complete reversal of his pre-1930 technique. From this point on clawhammer takes precedence until, by 1939, as evidenced by the live Grand Ole Opry recordings, it is exclusive. While Macon’s fingerpicking became slower and sparer in this latter period, his clawhammer (“rapping”, as he called it) was to remain every bit as driving, rhythmic and technically proficient as on his earliest recordings; and, lest anyone think of Macon’s frailing as simple and loudly strummy, a listen to his playing on Harkreader’s fiddle tunes and later, on Cotton-Eyed Joe, for example, should convince otherwise. In short, Macon was the most versatile, consummate banjo player on record in the pre-war years. In the words of banjoist Rick Good, Macon was “the total banjo player”, never failing to find just the right combination of rolls and rhythm to best draw out the soul of any tune.

TO BE CONTINUED.

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2 Responses to “Uncle Dave Macon (#1)”

  1. The Biting Tick Says:

    Hot dog!

  2. noopinionshere Says:

    Guy had amazing technique. Thanks for the tips!

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