Dr. Gary Boye
The day was Thursday, June 1, 1939, in Boone, North Carolina. The local newspaper, the Watauga Democrat, featured front-page stories about the placing of a cornerstone for the new post office on King Street. The State Highway Commission was buying up land along the Yonahlossee Trail that would one day be used for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Appalachian State Teachers College was beginning its summer term for over 1,000 teachers. Ads for the Appalachian Soda Shop, located in the front of the theater building, promised a special fruit salad sundae for just 15 cents . . . .
At the Appalachian Theatre, for twice the price of a sundae at 30 cents, the film that night would be Frontiers of '49 (1939) with Bill Elliott, who had been starring in Westerns since the silent era. In addition to the feature film, Elliott's 15-part serial, The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (1938), had begun playing at the Appalachian on April 1 of that year and was still running each Saturday. But the ad for that week indicates that "Wild Bill," as he was now known, had some competition that night (Watauga Democrat 6/1/1939 p. 5):
Right at the top of the ad was the featured live performer of the evening, Uncle Dave Macon, seen here in a close-up of the ad above and the contemporary stage shot from which it was taken:
The film seems a bit of an afterthought. One suspects that many, perhaps a majority, of the fans in attendance that night were there to see Uncle Dave on the stage, rather than Wild Bill on the screen.
This was not Uncle Dave's first trip to Boone. He played at a Boone fiddlers convention at the courthouse in 1935, along with another Grand Ole Opry act, the Delmore Brothers. He returned to the same venue in 1936. Perhaps he liked Boone, perhaps he liked the mountains; local legend says that he liked the moonshine hereabouts. Whatever the case for his return, one suspects that Wild Bill was upstaged that night. Uncle Dave Macon, the "Dixie Dewdrop," was at the height of his fame and entertainment powers. He was a major star on radio and records, although neither medium did full justice to his act, where he sang and played the banjo, twirled it about and played tricks with it, told jokes and stories, danced, and put on a show. In every early cast photo of the Grand Ole Opry, Uncle Dave is sitting front and center, right by the microphone, often kicking up one of his heels in a classic pose. He was the Grand Ole Man of the Grand Ole Opry . . . .
David Harrison Macon (1870-1952)
Before there was radio, before motion pictures, before the alleged "Big Bang" of country music at Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927—there was Uncle Dave. Before people worried about whether it should be called country or Country & Western or old-time or hillbilly or folk or whatever, Uncle Dave was playing it. Professionally known as "Uncle Dave Macon," he was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry radio program from station WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, that became the widely acknowledged Home of Country Music. Like several other country music personalities—Willie Nelson and our own Doc Watson, to name a couple—he came to fame late in life. Uncle Dave was 51 when he started touring on the Loew's Theatre circuit in 1921.
He had already had enough experiences for a full lifetime: as a child, his family ran a Nashville boarding house that catered to vaudeville and circus acts traveling through the city. He learned to play the banjo—and no doubt learned many other things—from the show folk surrounding his daily life. As an adult and family man in the early twentieth century, he founded the Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon Transportation Company, farming and driving wagons around Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Reminiscent of a later generation's truck drivers, Uncle Dave spent long hours on the road with occasional breaks for singing, banjo playing, buck dancing, and pondering over the merits of still-legal homemade alcohol.
This all ended in 1920, largely because of the automobile. One of Dave's most famous songs, "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel," contains the lines:
I don't know but I believe I'm right, the autos ruined the country,
Let's go back to the horse and buggy and try to save some money.
Later in the same song, he sings a line that would have shocked the more conservative audience members of the time but fetched a wry smile from the majority of them: "Henry Ford's shaken more hell out of folks than all the evangelists do." Macon never did learn to drive, but the modern world gave two things to his life that changed it forever: a new career and the technology with which to broadcast it.
Although still an unknown as he started the Loew's circuit in 1921, all of the seeds of what would become country music were there: the working class background, the nostalgia of a lost time and cause, the conservatism mixed with an odd fascination for the modern world—Saturday night laughter and Sunday morning regrets. All of this was to come out in his music once his professional career began. And the stereotype of the stone-faced folk song performer was lost on Uncle Dave: he not only played the banjo, he played the banjo under his leg and behind his back, twirled it around and juggled it, stood up and danced around it while fanning it with his plug hat and shouting "Glory Hallelujah!" He once good-naturedly joked with the young Earl Scruggs that "You pick a good banjo, Earl, but you ain't a damn bit funny, are you?" (Macon was wrong there; Earl actually had a great sense of humor, but it was low key and rarely seen on stage.) As if driving an old wagon with an older team of mules down a city street with Model T's and racing coupes, Uncle Dave threw the brakes on the technological revolution, at least for awhile, reminding older fans of a long-lost era and informing younger ones about some of the things that they had missed. Macon played on radio in its earliest days, made over 170 recordings, stole the show in a Hollywood film (Grand Ole Opry, 1940) and influenced generations of future performers.
By 1939 Macon was 58 years old, but still on the road for a grueling tour of the Carolinas and Virginia. Hatch Show Print files indicate he played Fayetteville, North Carolina, the previous Monday, hightailed it to Sumter, South Carolina, the next night, then to Marion, North Carolina on Wednesday, and up to Boone that Thursday. After leaving Boone, he headed to Mooresville and then Statesville, North Carolina. The files also showed that he ordered "50 Window Cards & 25 1 Sheets" for the Appalachian Theatre performance. He was no doubt accompanied that night on guitar by his son Dorris. A photo of a similar performance on the same tour at a theater in Asheboro, North Carolina, shows Macon, Dorris, and additional guitar player Glenn Stagner.
No reviews have been found for that night or that tour, although there are many similar ads to the one from the Watauga Democrat above. Macon's repertoire was so vast it is hard to imagine him sticking to a set program and not following the whims of the moment. No doubt fans would have wanted to hear some of the songs they had heard him singing on 78 rpm records or on the radio. He certainly would have done a few sacred numbers, a staple of his act despite all of the high jinks and good-time songs. It is possible that a 16-year-old Arthel Watson, future Doc Watson, was in the audience that night, although there is no mention found of it in Doc's interviews. Doc certainly knew Uncle Dave's work, occasionally playing "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" (1924), one of Uncle Dave's most famous songs, and more commonly performing "Hold the Woodpile Down" (1927), although Doc wisely updated some of the lyrics for a modern audience. There is an energy and a sense of humor and storytelling in Doc's version of the song that shows a clear influence of Uncle Dave, whether solely from the radio and records or from any of his performances in Boone that the young Doc might have attended.
There is one single video clip of Uncle Dave performing, from the Grand Ole Opry film released a year after his performance in Boone. The song is "Take Me Back to My Old Carolina Home," quite likely one he did that night at the Appalachian because of its local appeal. Studio sound reproduction created its own set of problems, so it appears that Uncle Dave is at times merely mimicking playing the banjo while a tape overlay fills out the accompanying soundtrack. Even still, it shows several of his stage mannerisms, as well as recording the live voices of both Dave and his son Dorris—we're lucky to have it, despite its flaws. There are also many audio clips of him available online. I would recommend listening to his original performances of "Way Down the Old Plank Road," "Rock About My Saro Jane," and "Sail Away Ladies" to get a taste of his style, as well as his most well-known sacred song, "I Intend To Make Heaven My Home."
Nine years later, Macon returned to the stage of the Appalachian, on April 20, 1948. By then he was 77 years old and nearing the end of his life, which came in 1952. He toured right up till the end. Was Uncle Dave the best banjo player around, even in his day? Well, probably not, but he played in a variety of styles seldom heard elsewhere that placed him firmly in the lost traditions of the 19th century. He was certainly not the best singer or songwriter, either. But as a showman and a living link to country music's origins, a man who could hold both rural and urban audiences in the palm of his hand, there was no one who could touch him.