Arcade Blues

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by Stephen Wade (from “Banjo Diary):

In September 1926 Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, recorded this folk blues, performing it as a solo banjo song. He made it his own by localizing it to the Nashville Arcade, a nearby mercantile center (still in use), and dedicating it to two of its current tenants: “Mr. Charlie Keys and Mr. Hyde . . . who will play you records on both sides!”
One of Uncle Dave’s sources for “Arcade Blues” may have been Leroy “Lasses”White, a black- face vaudevillian who by 1928 began performing on the Grand Ole Opry. Long before Uncle Dave recorded the song, however, White copyrighted its prototype in 1912. The following year White published “Nigger Blues” and by 1919 saw it is- sued on four recordings as well as four piano rolls.

The song continued to proliferate on race and hillbilly recordings, bearing such titles as Ida Cox’s 1924 “Blues Ain’t Nothin’ Else But!” followed by Georgia White’s 1938 remake. Its white vernacular music performances count Jess Young’s “Old Weary Blues” (1929), the Brock Sis- ters’“Broadway Blues” (1929), and Milton Brown’s “Texas Hambone Blues” (1936).

What musically distinguishes Uncle Dave’s version from these re- leases, as well as from the original sheet music, is his omission of the characteristic blue note. In ef- fect, Uncle Dave performed a blues in structure but not in sound.

In August 1979, I visited with members of Uncle Dave Macon’s family, calling on his sons Eston and Dorris, the family of his eldest son, Arch, grandson David Ramsey Macon, and great- grandson Dave Macon IV. During that trip, I also investigated the Nashville Arcade.This building, a handsome two-story shopping center of an earlier age, seemed as haunted then by lost souls and illicit trafficking as it did by the figures appearing in “Arcade Blues” from more than a half-century earlier.

The song’s juxtaposing currents—its blend of blues and pre-blues, its combination of urban and rural milieus, and its upbeat treatment of forbidden attraction, prostitution, and death—seemed all the more striking in conjunction with some of Uncle Dave’s letters I read at that time. Hand- written by the famous showman during his travels, they echoed the creative tension in “Arcade Blues”—words indicative of a complex personal alchemy. Almost always he signed them, “Your loving father, Uncle Dave Macon.”

Dave Macon plays “Arcade Blues”:

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One Response to “Arcade Blues”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    Thank you, Stephen Wade, for being such a scholar. We are lucky that you chose old time music as a field of interest to study.

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