Uncle Dave Macon lived through World War I, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression and World War II, yet he kept smiling, kept singing and kept playing his banjo.
He could teach us a lot during our own hard times.
Uncle Dave (1870-1952) was one of the first Grand Ole Opry stars and was a musical veteran when Jimmie Rodgers — the Father of Country Music — was just starting out.
I discovered his music in the central branch of the Memphis Library some 45 or more years ago. That’s when I found out the library had a music section.
Curious, I began delving into dusty old 33-speed albums of American folk, blues and country musicians. Uncle Dave grabbed me from the start.
I was blown away — and still am — by songs like “Way Down the Old Plank Road,” “Sail Away Ladies,” “Saro Jane,” “Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel,” “Rise When the Rooster Crows,” “Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase,” “Little Johnny Gray,” “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” and “All in Down and Out Blues.”
Uncle Dave Macon’s music was nothing like the bluegrass I’d heard, songs like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or the theme to the Beverly Hillbillies. It came from a much earlier time.
His seemingly simple bare-finger style was profoundly different from the fast-paced steel finger picking of modern bluegrass. His banjo style — typically accompanied by fiddle and guitar — was way pre-bluegrass.
The lyrics came from an earlier time, too.
“Now I don’t know but I believe I’m right, the auto’s ruined the country. Let’s get back to the horse and buggy and try to save some money,” he sang in “Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel.” And he meant it.
He introduced the song “Rise When the Rooster Crows” by saying, “Now I’m a-going to give you something from the land of hog and hominy, pumpkin and possum, and where whiskey is made out of corn, and women don’t smell like talcum powder.”
Macon was born in a small town southeast of Nashville, Tenn. As an adult he ran the Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon Transportation Co., which inspired songs like “Go Long Mule.” He learned to play banjo from a circus performer and entertained people on his route.
The growth of the automobile industry forced him out of business, but his popularity as a performer grew until he became a member of the then-new Grand Ole Opry, where he performed for the rest of his life.
“Uncle Dave Macon did not begin his professional entertainment career until age 50,” said an article, “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Uncle Dave Macon” by Claire Ratliff in the June 7, 2018, edition of Bluegrass Today.
“He played locally as a part-time musician for nearly 30 years, holding a daytime job as the owner of a freight hauling business in Rutherford County. Instead of converting to modern trucks in 1920, Dave refused to abandon his faithful wagons and mules and closed the business. That’s when he set out to become a full-time entertainer.”
The article goes on: “Uncle Dave was among the very first successful recording artists in country music. When the renowned Bristol recording session occurred in 1927, resulting in the discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, Uncle Dave had already cut 115 songs.”
Most of his music was upbeat and at times hilarious.
“My wife died on Friday night, Saturday she was buried. Sunday was my courtin’ day, Monday I got married. Won’t get drunk no more,” he quipped in “Way Down the Old Plank Road.”
He would stomp and twirl the banjo, a real showman. His songs told stories of rural life and an earlier time.
“Some eat early and some eat soon. Some like a possum and some like coon,” he sang in “Carve That Possum.”
The rollicking song “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” describes a fellow who doesn’t mind stealing a chicken or ham and washing it down with a jug of brandy, assuming he can outrun the dogs and make it to his cabin, where he expects his skillet to be good and greasy.
Now and then Uncle Dave’s music could turn melancholy, like “All in Down and Out Blues,” which was apparently about the Great Depression:
“Now this is the truth, and it certainly exposes, that Wall Street’s proposition was not all roses. ... I put up my money to win some more. I lost all I had and it left me so sore. It’s hard times, pity poor boy, it’s hard times when you’re down and out.”
Sounds familiar, eh?
Most of the time, though, even when dealing with sadness, Uncle Dave sounded joyous.
“Ain’t no use to grieve and cry (sail away, ladies, sail away). You’ll be an angel, bye and bye (sail away, ladies, sail away),” he sang in the energetic, upbeat song “Sail Away Ladies.”
That pretty much says it all.
Uncle Dave’s final performance was at the Grand Ole Opry on March 1, 1952. When he finished, he was so exhausted that he had to be carried out. He died three weeks later at 81.
Now, with a pandemic, economic crash and political turmoil all around us, we can use a dose of some Uncle Dave Macon.