In retrospect it’s pretty funny how much of my early exposure to old-time country music was through the Holy Modal Rounders — but the more I think about it, the more right it feels. I appreciate the expertise of the New Lost City Ramblers, and enjoyed the technical brilliance of the bluegrass bands, but the old-time performers I most enjoy on record are the wild, fun ones like Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole, and no one in the revival captured that flavor better than the Rounders, weirdness and all. (If Charlie Poole had turned up in Greenwich Village, you think he wouldn’t have sampled the full range of available drugs? He sure sampled everything that came his way in his short and gaudy life down south…)
The Rounders obviously got this one from Poole, and aside from some lyric changes they stayed pretty close to the version he cut with the North Carolina Ramblers. Poole’s records with the Ramblers are by far my favorite body of work in the early string band genre — he’s a great singer, their playing is always inventive and exciting, with great rhythmic drive, and the songs range from fiddle tunes to blues, pop, and whatever else caught their fancy. I first fell for Poole as a blues singer, and still think he was one of the greats in that category, but the more I listen to him, the more I appreciate the way he could make virtually any kind of material his own.
For example… “Moving Day,” which was a ragtime-era pop song by Andrew Sterling and Harry Von Tilzer, the latter an impressively prolific composer who first crossed my radar as the author of German-American novelty waltzes, notably “Down Where the Wurzburger Flows” and “Under the Anheuser Busch.” Sterling and Von Tilzer wrote “Moving Day” as a comical “coon song,” and the original version included a verse in which the protagonist tries to buy the landlord off with a chicken stew made from hens he has stolen from the same landlord… none of which turns up in the Poole version, or the Rounders’, or mine.
Incidentally, my buddy Del Rey recently filmed a charmingly ridiculous music video for her version of this song, in old silent movie style, playing all the characters and a daunting guitar arrangement. I stay at Del’s when I’m in Seattle, and am chilled to even briefly imagine her being evicted… so let’s hope life never replicates art.