Morning Blues (Uncle Dave Macon)

This was originally recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1926 and issued as “I’ve Got the Mourning Blues.” Folk revivalists have tended to correct that title to “Morning Blues,” and for familiarity’s sake I’ve gone with that… but my guess is it should actually be “Moaning Blues.” That was a common title: Ma Rainey had a “Deep Moaning Blues,” Clara Smith had an “Awful Moaning Blues,”  Crying Sam Collins had a “Moanin’ Blues,” and so on.

In any case, it’s a nice example of an older rural artist refitting his style to suit the new blues craze. Uncle Dave Macon was born in 1870, and his recordings are among the best surviving examples of 19th century rural music. His usual instrument was banjo, and his style was deeply grounded in African American traditions.

There is a story about John Jackson, the great blues singer/guitarist from Virginia, that when an interviewer mentioned DeFord Bailey as the only black star of the Grand Ole Opry, Jackson responded, “What about Uncle Dave Macon?” I once asked Jackson if the story was true, and he cheerfully confirmed it: “The way he sound on the radio, I always thought he was black until I seen him.” It would not just have been the sound; there was also the “Uncle” before his name, which was the standard way southern white people addressed older black men they liked: Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus, Uncle Ben, and of course Aunt Jemima…

Macon grew up around the hotel his father ran in Nashville and learned his music–as well as jokes, stories, and the tricks of an old-time entertainer–from the show people who stayed there. Fortunately for the world, he did not go into show business himself at that point, but instead made his living from farming and hauling goods in a wagon–which meant he didn’t keep changing his style to suit the times and when he finally took to the stage in the 1920s he arrived as an old man playing the music of his youth. Hence the “Uncle” before his name.

This song was in some ways atypical of his repertoire: for once he didn’t play banjo, leaving the lead chores to his guitarist, the great Sam McGee (I’ve played his “Buck Dancer’s Choice” in an earlier post, and there’s more to come), and it is nominally a blues song. Which said, it is only nominally a blues, and both the style and lyrics reach back to earlier minstrel comedy. (I’ve edited the lyrics to omit the more offensive remainders of that tradition.) Honestly, it’s not my favorite Uncle Dave record–that would be something like “Hold the Woodpile Down” or “Down the Old Plank Road”–but it’s the one where his style overlapped mine and I could come up with an interesting arrangement.

As for Macon, he went on to become the first great star of the Grand Ole Opry and continued to be a popular entertainer on stage and radio into his eighties. There’s a lovely clip of him at age 69, singing, dancing, twirling and swinging his banjo, and eventually playing it with his hat: