Archive for the ‘Dave Macon’ Category

Heaven And Earth Magic

October 10, 2014


Local heroes Anthony Pasquarosa,  Zac Johnson, and Ian Logan recorded under the moniker Heaven And Earth Magic a tape for High Ledges Tapes. The name is borrowed from a really weird one hour long stop motion experimental film from the late fifties, by  Harry Smith (see above).

There was one track that grabbed my attention and when I looked closer, it wasn’t even their own song. They recorded a version of Uncle Dave Macon “Oh lovin’ babe“. I heard about Macon, a key figure of early country music, with a huge output, but I’ve never heard this particular song.

So the surprise, how the original banjo driven song translates into the band’s psych rock sound was quiet huge and I wanted to find out more.

Regarding the lyrics: It looks like Uncle Dave Macon wasn’t able to keep it in his pants when he was traveling and so he got kissed by a pretty, strange woman, because men cannot help themselves in those cases. When his wife wants to leave him, he tries to make her guilty with the old story about the garden of eden and Eve and the apple she gave to Adam. I might be wrong with my interpretation, please correct me. Macon also was more an entertainer than a preacher so he’s probably not that serious about the bible and stuff.

Another interesting bit:

Charles Wolfe noted: ‘Oh Lovin’ Babe is another song never before issued (Rounder issue 1979) and nowhere else recorded by Macon. The unusual melody for the song seems to have been adapted from the verse of ‘Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose’, an old coon song written in the ragtime era by one B. Harney. Macon had recorded ‘Mister Johnson’ with Sid Harkreader in 1929 with the melody (but not the words) to the verse identical to what is heard here … The juxtaposing of the sacred (verse) with the profane (chorus), common enough in Macon’s music overall, was seldom illustrated so dramatically in a single song’. (source)

Uncle Dave Macon video

September 19, 2014

View entire 58 minute video here.

“Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?”

May 14, 2014


edited excerpt from “Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?” (in Harry Smith: the Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, ed. Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010):

How do you explain what it’s about-not only to someone who’s never heard Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, never heard of it, but to yourself, especially if you’ve been listening to Smith’s book of spells for years or decades? An answer came right out of the air: ‘Dead presidents,’ I’d say. ‘Dead dogs, dead children, dead lovers, dead murderers, dead heroes, and how good it is to be alive.’

That sounded right the first time it ran through my head; it sounded ridiculously slick after that. I realized I had no idea what Harry Smith’s collection was about. When, in the fall of 2000, I taught a faculty seminar on the Anthology, including what for decades had seemed the apocryphal Volume 4, Smith’s assemblage of mostly Depression-era records, finally released in 2000 on the late John Fahey’s Revenant label, I realized I had no idea what it was.’

An English professor confessed she really couldn’t stand the ‘flatness of the voices’-she meant the Appalachian voices, Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family, G. B. Grayson, Charlie Poole, Lunsford. ‘What’s that about?’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’ ‘Maybe it’s a kind of disinterest,’ a young Musicology professor said. ‘Everybody knows these songs, they’ve heard them all their lives. So they’re bored with them.’ ‘It’s like they don’t care if anyone’s listening or not,’ said the first professor. ‘Maybe that’s what I don’t like. As if we’re not needed.’

‘I don’t think that’s it,’ said a German professor, who, it turned out, had grown up in the Kentucky mountains. ‘It’s fatalism. It’s powerlessness. It’s the belief that nothing you can do will ever change anything, including singing a song. So you’re right, in a way-it doesn’t matter if you’re listening or not. The world won’t be different when the song is over no matter how the song is sung, or how many people hear it.’

‘Uncle Dave Macon isn’t like that,’ someone said of the Grand Ole Opry’s favourite uncle. ‘No, he’s satanic.’

I realized I was completely out of my depth-or that Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music had opened up into a country altogether different from any I’d ever found in it. ‘It’s that “Kill yourself!”’, another person said, picking up on the notion, and quickly it seemed as if everyone in the room saw horns coming out of the head of the kindly old banjo player, saw his buck-dancer’s clogs replaced by cloven hoofs. They were talking about his 1926 ‘Way Down the Old Plank Road’, one of the most celebratory, ecstatic, unburdened shouts America has ever thrown up. Where’s the devil?

‘Kill yourself!’ Uncle Dave Macon yells in the middle of the song, after a verse, taken from ‘The Coo Coo’, about building a scaffold on a mountain just to see the girls pass by, after a commonplace verse about how his wife died on Friday and he got married again on Monday. ‘Kill yourself!’ He meant, it had always seemed obvious to me-well, actually, it was never obvious. He meant when life is this good it can’t get any better so you might as well-kill yourself? Does that follow? Maybe he’s saying nothing more than ‘Scream and shout, knock yourself out,’ ‘Shake it don’t break it,’ or, for that matter, ‘Love conquers all.’

That’s not how he sounds, though. He sounds huge, like some pagan god rising over whatever scene he’s describing, not master of the revels but a judge. ‘Uncle Dave seems much too satisfied about the prospect of apocalypse,’ the agent-of-satan advocate said. Everyone was nodding, and for a moment I heard it too: Uncle Dave Macon wants you dead. I heard what was really satanic about the moment: when Macon says ‘Kill yourself!’ it sounds like a good idea-really fun.

And you can hear the same thing in ‘The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train’, which Harry Smith slotted into Volume 4 of his Anthology. It was 1930, and Macon compressed as much journalistic information as there is in Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ into just over a third of the time, dancing through the financial ruins of his state-the phony bond issue, the collapsed banks, the stolen funds-while crying ‘Follow me, good people, we’re bound for the Promised Land’ over and over. ‘Kill yourself!’-this is what the devil would sound like singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’: correct.

Arcade Blues

February 19, 2013


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”:

“The Monkey Wasn’t In Him”

June 19, 2012


John Thomas Scopes

excerpt from “Uncle Dave Macon: A Study in Repertoire,” by Mike Yates

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 Macon would have approved of this action.  This is what he had to say about such events in 1926, the year after the Scopes trial.

For the Bible’s true oh yes, I believe it,
I’ve seen enough, and I can prove it.
What you say, what you say, Bound to be that way.
(spoken) Lord, yes!

(Chorus) God made the world and everything’s in it.
He made man perfect and the monkey wasn’t in him.
What you say, what you say, Bound to be that way.
(spoken) Lord, yes!

I’m no evolutionist that wants the world to see,
There ain’t no man that’s anywhere born,
Make a monkey out of me.

Chorus (spoken) Now ain’t that right!

Chorus (spoken) You know I’m right!

God made the world and then he made man,
Woman for his helpmate, beat that if you can.
(spoken) Now you know it’s so!

God made the world and everything’s in it.
He made man perfect and the monkey wasn’t in him.
What you say, what you say, Bound to be that way.
(spoken) Lord, yes!

Uncle Dave Macon (#2)

January 17, 2012

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

Norman Cohen, who evaluated Macon’s repertoire in 1970 (“Uncle Dave Macon, A Bio-Discography”), observed that “more than any of the other great hillbilly artists of the 1920s and 30s, Uncle Dave Macon’s vast repertoire frequently reflected the professional minstrel show and vaudeville stage tradition.” That repertoire included, too,  “coon” songs, sentimental, or “heart” songs, comic pieces, pre-blues black and white folk tunes, gospel and “jubilee” songs, blues and 20th century compositions, often topical and likely as not of his own composition or re-working. Full forty per cent of the commercial recordings derive from the 19th century. If you toss in traditional songs and ballads, spirituals and older folk tunes with incidental lyrics, it is clear that well over half of Macon’s repertoire was of a 19th century pedigree.

While that, of itself, is not terribly unusual  among the earliest country record-makers (Carter Family, Ernest Stoneman, Vernon Dalhart), what is most striking is the degree to which Macon’s older material drew upon black, or black-inspired, sources. Counting “jubilee” and black folk tunes, minstrel and coon songs (it is sometimes hard to tell the difference), roughly half of Macon’s 19th century sources are “black”. You won’t find this in the Carters or Stoneman – not even close.

Even many of Macon’s self-composed and “Maconized” songs have an unmistakable minstrel feel about them. Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta (HarperCollins, 2004), puts it nicely: “The ghost of Daniel Decatur Emmett walks. And like all ghosts, its face is white. Uncle Dave [could] sing coon songs until the hams got smoked, and all he’d be doing is playing, as they were billed at the time, ‘old familiar tunes’. Country music. American music.” Wald relates the wonderful response of first-generation bluesman John Jackson upon being told that DeFord Bailey had been the only black star of the Grand Ole Opry: “What about Uncle Dave Macon?”

The remainder of Macon’s 19th century repertoire consists of “heart” songs, sacred numbers and a significant number (about thirty) of humorous songs (another factor distinguishing him from Stoneman or the Carters). In one of many telling anecdotes that so defined the man, Macon is reputed to have told Earl Scruggs, “You’re a pretty good banjo picker … but you ain’t one bit funny.”

While most of Macon’s musical collaborations employed back-up guitar and vocal harmony, there are two especially worth noting: the six duets with Sam McGee on his new Gibson guitar-banjo, and the session with The Fruit Jar Drinkers, alone worth the price of admission. The 1928 duets with McGee are masterpieces of banjodom, with McGee, a superb guitar-picker in his own right, plunking a driving counterpoint to Macon’s rolling fingerpick such that the two are nearly inseparable. The Fruit Jar Drinkers’ eighteen sides, recorded in 1927 (and conveniently comprising nearly all of Disc 4), are among the finest string band sides on record. Charles Wolfe speaks of the “tricks and balances that had to be worked out” in preparation for the session. Well, they worked them out, all right, begetting breathtakingly gymnastic virtuosities of exquisite balance, with Macon calling, shouting, his lively fingerpicking dancing around McGee’s bounding guitar and the soaring, elegant fiddling of Kirk McGee and Mazy Todd, reining all that raw country energy into a knot of controlled spontaneity. The band plays, sings, with one mind, Macon’s, the ringmaster.

Read part 1 of this article here.

Going Back to Dixie

November 30, 2011

by Bill Dillof

America’s  “Great Migration” of  blacks fleeing their southern homeland for the relative freedom and better life of the north and west lasted, roughly, from 1915 until 1970.  But life was not always better in the new lands, and a counter current, fueled by dissappointment and nostalgia, would bring a goodly number of migrants back south again. I’s Gwine Back To Dixie, written by C.A. White in 1874,  captures the spirit of reverse migration in song. Notable recordings were issued by, among others, Uncle Dave Macon (1927) and The Leake County Revellers (1929).



 I’s gwine back to Dixie, no more I’s gwine to wander

I’s gwine back to Dixie, can’t stay here any longer

I miss the old plantation, my home and my relations

My heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go



I’s gwine back to Dixie, I’s goin’ back to Dixie

I’s goin’ where the orange blossoms grow

I hear the children calling, see their sad tears falling

My heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go



I’ve hoed in fields of cotton; I’ve worked upon the river

I used to think, if I got off, I’d never go back, no, never

But times have changed the old man, his head is bending low

His heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go, etc.



I miss my hog and hominy, my pumpkin and red gravy

My appetite is fading, so says old Uncle Davy

If my friends forsake me, I pray the lord to take me

My heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go



Uncle Dave Macon sings “I’se Gwine Back to Dixie”:

Uncle Dave Macon (#1)

November 19, 2011

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.