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.