Archive for August, 2021

Uncle Dave Macon’s “Morning Blues”

I heard “Morning Blues” for the first time on a Jim Kweskin Jug Band record in the late 1960s. They were a magnificent band, a portal to so many great songs of the past and they really brought them all to life. “Morning Blues” originated with a man known as Uncle Dave Macon who, from an early age, was exposed to the wild and wonderful world of entertainment and embraced it all his life.

David Harrison Macon (1870-1952) was a born entertainer. He came from Warren County, Tennessee. but when he was 13 years old, his family moved to Nashville to run the Old Broadway Hotel. The hotel was frequented by musicians, circus acts and actors traveling along the vaudeville circuits, an intoxicating allure for any young man.

In 1885, he learned to play the banjo from a circus comedian. The following year, Macon’s father was murdered outside the Old Broadway Hotel. His widowed mother sold the hotel and the family moved to Readyville, Tennessee, where she ran a stagecoach inn. Macon began entertaining passengers at the rest stop, playing his banjo on a homemade stage.

In 1889, Macon married Matilda Richardson and moved to a farm near Kittrell, Tennessee, where they raised six sons. Around 1900, Macon opened a freight line called The Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon Transportation Company. The Mitchell Wagon is often referred to as one of the oldest wagons in America, the roots of which begin in 1834. As Macon drove his mules, hauling freight and produce, he would entertain people by singing and playing the banjo at various stops along the way. Unfortunately, the advent of the automobile soon put an end to all mule-based businesses.

Uncle Dave Macon gained regional fame as a vaudeville performer in the early 1920s. Although Macon had long performed as an amateur and was well known for his showmanship, his first professional performance was at a local school in 1921, when he was 51 years old. Macon was a master of musical sleight of hand and his showmanship was a staple of his performances. He would flip his banjo in the air in the midst of picking and singing and catch it without a break in the music. With his banjo planted on the floor, Macon would strum the instrument with his Derby hat while dancing around the banjo. Uncle Dave was also good friends with harmonica player DeFord Bailey (1899-1982), the first black man to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. Macon and Bailey played and traveled together in the South when a white man and a black man couldn’t easily travel together because of the Jim Crow laws. In 1923, Macon began a tour of the south-eastern United States, joined by fiddler Sid Harkreader (1898-1988). He and Harkreader made their first recordings for Vocalion in New York City, yielding eighteen songs. In early 1927, Macon formed a band called the Fruit Jar Drinkers with three other musicians. The Fruit Jar Drinkers recorded for the first time in 1927 and the group’s repertoire was mainly traditional songs and fiddle numbers. However, they occasionally recorded religious songs, for which Uncle Dave would alter the group’s name to the Dixie Sacred Singers. In late 1925, Macon met guitarist Sam McGee (1894-1975), who was to become Macon’s regular recording and performance partner. Macon is backed by McGee for their superb 1928 recording of “Morning Blues.” My arrangement includes a verse (No corn in the crib, etc.) taken from the Depression-era song “Eleven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat” which Uncle Dave often played during his shows.

Uncle Dave Macon’s recordings are the ultimate bridge between 19th-century American folk and vaudeville music and the phonograph and radio-based music of the early 20th century. He became the first star of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in the latter half of the 1920s and continued to perform until he died in 1952 at the age of 81. He was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966. Although he was never considered a great banjo player, music historians have identified at least 19 different picking styles from his records.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

Morning Blues

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