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Grand Ole Opry 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.
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. He also recorded religious pieces, together with some American folk and topical songs.
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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. His mother was Martha Ramsey Macon. The family also lived in the hotel and the young David found himself surrounded by all kinds of performers and musicians.
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. 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. 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.
The pair became good friends. 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. He also played guitar and was known locally as a singer. 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.
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. 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.
Hello folks, I was walking down the street with one of the ugliest men I ever saw in my life. We passed a really pretty girl, and the ugly fellow said, "Did you see that girl smile at me? First time I saw you, I laughed outright. It was also in that Uncle Dave first began playing regularly with the singer and guitarist Sam McGee. 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.
Sam McGee was a brilliant instrumentalist and, although Uncle Dave did win prizes at banjo competitions, was probably the better player of the two.
But I did learn about handling an audience.
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 Sam and Kirk McGee were also popular players on the Opry.
Uncle Dave Macon and me were down in Alabama. In fact, Uncle Dave was recorded every year between and , and was also in the studio in , , and During this period he cut a total of sides, 40 of which were rejected, leaving a total of issued sides. It was unearthed in a garage sale in Murfreesboro. All of these sides were rejected.
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The first session was made with the Delmore Brothers. The next, in , had Uncle Dave playing with an unknown fiddler and unknown guitarist on some tracks. Although Uncle Dave made no more commercial recordings after , 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, , eighty-one years young, in a Murfreesboro hospital.
Towards the end of his life, Uncle Dave Macon was interviewed by Tennessee folklorist George Worley Boswell - , who questioned him about the origins of some of his songs. He had six steamboats on the Cumberland River and you ought to have seen that wharf just lined with horses and mules and wagons hauling freight to those boats and bringing it back.
And Sam Jones preached the low country to him so straight he took them niggers all down there Monday morning and bought all that whiskey and poured it in the river. Niggers started this song. 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.
Both recordings, however, remain unissued. 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.
It goes as follows: I love you, dear girl, the sea runs dry, Rock all dissolved by the sun. Ah, the last time I heard from my momma, Lord, She was adoing well. Quit your rowdy way, my son, Save your soul from Hell. Well, there may be a handful, though, again, things are not so clear-cut. Hence a song current among the negroes, the chorus of which was: Hello folks, raised in the South among the colored folks, and worked in the fields of corn with them all the days of my life, I will sing them good old southern songs.
Run nigger run the patroller will catch you, Run nigger run its almost day. Adam and Eve was down in the garden hoeing around tomatoes, Adam went around a huckleberry bush and hit her in the eye with a tater. Jaybird built in the tall oak tree, Sparrow built in the garden, Old goose laid in the corner of the fence, And set on the other side of Jordan.
He was just too busy hauling goods around Tennessee, so just how much of his spoken introduction can we believe? In other words, was it a song written by white singers who were pretending to be black? 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.
The song was the work of A F Winnemore and was first published in With the pretty girls I always plays the possum. When first I fell in love with Jane Melisser, I tried my best to win from her a smile. I caught her round the waist and tried to kiss her. Your company always gives me delight.
I thought upon my sweetheart I would call. As in her window slyly I was peeping, I saw something that did my heart appall: Her teeth, and one eye laid upon the table, Her pretty curls were hanging on a peg. I laughed aloud as hard as I was able, To see her taking off a wooden leg.
I never was so sold in all my life. But, Knox also had a more tender side, as in his song Ma Daffodil, written in 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.
They did, of course, leave the south in droves when they could, heading north to cities such as Chicago and St Louis. 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? Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children, Carve dat possum, carve him to de heart; Oh, carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children, Carve dat possum, carve him to de heart.
I reached up for to pull him in, Carve him to de heart; De possum he begun to grin, Carve him to de heart; I carried him home and dressed him off, Carve him to de heart; I hung him dat night in de frost, Carve him to de heart. But did Uncle Dave learn such songs from black singers? Listen, In every heart there burns the flame, For the love of glory or the dread of shame.
But oh, how happy we would be if we understood, There is no safety but in doing good. Monday morning on that eastbound train, Going where John Henry is dead, going where John Henry is dead. Carried John Henry to the graveyard, They looked at him good and long, Very last words that his wife said to him, My husband he is dead and gone, my husband he is dead and gone.
John Henry told a shaker, Lord, shake while I sing, Pulling a hammer from my shoulder, Bound to hear her when she rings, bound to hear her when she rings. John Henry told his captain, am a Tennessee man, Before I would see that steam drill beat me down, Die with a hammer in my hand, die with a hammer in my hand.
I went down to Memphis, said I did not go to stay, I saw so many pretty girls, that I could not get away.
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.