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|Figure 1 |
By 1924 Uncle Dave Macon was one of the most famous men in the South. His posters said he was the only man in captivity who could play two banjos at the same time. Photograph courtesy of Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
David Harrison Macon was born at Smart Station near McMinnville on the Highland Rim of Tennessee in 1870.
As long as anyone could remember, he was "nuts about a banjo."
When Dave was thirteen, his father, a Confederate captain, bought the Broadway Hotel in Nashville, and for three years the boy picked up music and tricks and a line of talk from the show and circus people who trouped through the Broadway. [End Page 108]
Captain Macon was knifed to death, and Dave's mother sold the hotel and moved the family to Readyville, near Murfreesboro. Dave took to teamstering—hauling freight, produce, and Jack Daniel's No. 7 whiskey to Woodbury at the rate of twenty-five cents a gallon. He got him a wife and a farm near Murfreesboro, and from then on 'til 1920 this is what he did: farmed a little, hauled a lot, singing as he drove his mules, picking banjo when he stopped to rest. He grew chin whiskers, and people took to calling him "Uncle Dave." Clerks in the small towns would come to the doors of their stores as Uncle Dave drove his mules by—singing and picking and whooping and making them laugh whether they wanted to or not.
In 1920 a trucking line came along. Uncle Dave folded up his Macon Midway Mule and Transportation Company. He couldn't compete—he had never learned to drive.
Uncle Dave, who had been performing all his life, took up doing it for pay at the young age of fifty. His first formal appearance took place in Morrison, Tennessee, in 1921. Uncle Dave played and they passed the hat and made seventeen dollars for a new door for a Methodist church. If he could make money for the Methodists, he could make it for himself.
In 1922 an agent for Lowe's chain of vaudeville theaters collared him backstage after a benefit for Nashville's Shriners. Do you want a contract, Uncle Dave? Where do I sign, mister?
In 1923 Uncle Dave added a fiddle player and a buck dancer, Dancin' Bob, and this trio sang and played and danced in front of papier mâché sets depicting rural scenes.
By 1924 Uncle Dave was one of the most famous men in the South. His posters called him a banjoist and humorist. His posters said he was the only man in captivity who could play two banjos at the same time. That summer, Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company paid his way to New York City, where, for Vocalion Records, he cut "Hill Billy Blues," "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy," "Chewing Gum," and "Fox Chase." He went into a Manhattan barber shop and called for the works, what would have cost him six bits back home. He left the shop stunned and went back and wrote in his diary:
"Robbed in a New York barbershop—$7.50!"
When he made his records, he'd talk about the towns and stores and hotels and folks he knew back home: "Now, folks, I'm a playing the first half of this piece especially for the benefit of Mister Henry Huddleston of Rutherford County, Tennessee."
They put a pillow on his foot so his stomping wouldn't shake the recording stylus when they were working in the studio. Uncle Dave took the pillow off.
A young city-boy producer gave Uncle Dave singing advice and that was a mistake. Uncle Dave packed up his banjo and asked someone else in the studio when the next train left Penn Station for Tennessee. Then he turned to the city-boy and [End Page 109] said, "I...