Vocalion 14848 – Uncle Dave Macon – 1924

Uncle Dave Macon in a characteristic pose, as pictured in Songs and Stories of Uncle Dave Macon, 1938.

With a stage persona that brought rural electrification to Tennessee early, the legendary “Dixie Dewdrop,” “King of the Hillbillies,” Uncle Dave Macon, has been called the “grandfather of country music” (Jimmie Rodgers, of course, being the “father”), and that’s no stretch; his energetic renditions of old time minstrel ditties and jubilant sacred songs made him an enduring and beloved favorite of Southern listeners from the dawn of radio entertainment until the early 1950s.

David Harrison Macon was born on October 7, 1870, five miles south of McMinnville, Tennessee in small settlement of Smartt Station, son of Martha and Confederate veteran John Macon.  In 1884, the Macons purchased a hotel and moved to Nashville.  While there, the young Dave learned banjo from circus performer Joel Davidson.  After his father was murdered in ’86, Macon and his mother sold the hotel and took up in Readyville.  His mother ran a stagecoach inn there, and Dave used his musical proclivities to entertain guests.  Soon after, Macon started a mule train, which lasted until the automobile killed off business in 1920.  The next year, Macon was hired for his first professional musical engagement.  In 1923, Macon was “discovered” by Marcus Loew of the famous theater chain of the same name, and brought into the world of processional vaudeville.  Joining with fiddler Sid Harkreader, Macon’s act became a hit, and the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company arranged a recording session for them with Vocalion in July of 1924.  Late in 1925, the fledgling radio station WSM in Nashville started their Barn Dance program to compete the successful show of the same name on Chicago’s WLS, and Macon became one of the first stars of what would later become known as the Grand Ole Opry.  In 1927, he formed the Fruit Jar Drinkers with the McGee Brothers and Mazy Todd.  After recording for Vocalion from 1924 to 1929, Macon recorded only sporadically in the 1930s, with sessions for Okeh in 1930, the Starr Piano Company’s Champion in 1934 (try to find those records!), and Victor’s Bluebird in 1935 and 1938.  Despite slacking off in recording, Uncle Dave continued to perform live for many years.  In 1940, he appeared in the Republic Pictures film Grand Ole Opry, accompanied by his son Dorris.  Uncle Dave Macon played his last performance on March 1, 1952, and died three weeks later, on the twenty-second, at the age of eighty-one.  His life is celebrated annually with “Uncle Dave Macon Days” in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Vocalion 14848 was recorded on July 8 and 9, 1924 in New York City, “Sung and Played by Uncle Dave Macon (Banjo)”.  It was shortly afterward issued on Vocalion 5041, in their “Hillbilly” series.  It is comprised of his first and sixth recorded sides, and was his second issued record.

The first side he ever recorded, “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” is one of Uncle Dave’s most iconic pieces, and perhaps his best remembered in this day and age.  Fourteen years later, the song was published in his official songbook, Songs and Stories of Uncle Dave Macon.

Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, recorded July 8, 1924 by Uncle Dave Macon.

On the reverse, Uncle Dave plays and sings “Papa’s Billie Goat”, a cover of fellow country music pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording of the previous year.

Papa’s Billie Goat, recorded July 9, 1924 by Uncle Dave Macon.

Electradisk 1919 – Bill Palmer’s Trio – 1932

One of the major hillbilly music powerhouses of the 1930s was Bob Miller—much like his contemporary Carson Robison, he was equal parts a songwriter, publisher, and musician, as well as an A&R man on the side.  Though well known throughout the Depression years for his hit songs and “hillbilly heartthrobs,” including such mainstays as “Twenty-One Years” and “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and numerous topical songs such as “Eleven Cent Cotton (and Forty Cent Meat)”, Miller has faded into practical obscurity today.

Bob Miller was born on September 20, 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was brought up a musician, and was playing piano professionally by the age of ten.  He later graduated to playing on Mississippi steamboats, before heading to New York to work for Irving Berlin as an arranger and copyist.  In 1931, he published “Twenty-One Years”, which would become one of the biggest hillbilly song hits of the decade.  The following year, his “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)” was met with the same success.  Both songs inspired Miller to write numerous “answer” songs, such as “The Answer to 21 Years” and “Seven Years With the Wrong Man”.  In addition to songwriting, Miller recorded many of his own compositions with small “citybilly” groups for various record companies, including Victor, Champion (i.e. Gennett), and Grey Gull’s many labels.  In 1933, with already a large number of credits to his name, Miller founded his own music publishing company, Bob Miller Inc.  With more than a thousand copyrights to his name, to attempt to list the song hits written by Miller would make for nothing but a mess of text consisting of title after title.  His patriotic “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” (published under the pseudonym “Shelby Darnell”) became a wartime hit when it was recorded by Elton Britt in 1942.  Bob Miller died on August 26, 1955 in New York City.

Electradisk 1919 was recorded November 3, 1932 in RCA’s Studio 1 in New York City by Bob Miller’s Trio as “Bill Palmer’s Trio” and was issued in April of 1933.  It was later issued on Bluebird B-5034, Sunrise S-3132, and—with the sides split up—on Montgomery Ward M-4232 and M-4401.  The ensemble consists of Bob Miller on piano and singing, Barney Burnett on banjo and second vocal, and A. Sirillo on guitar.

Seldom do you see these Electradisks—one of RCA Victor’s early budget labels, sold at Woolworth’s—at all, and it’s even less often that you see material other than the typical dance band pop.

One of the hillbilly hits of the 1930s was Miller’s “Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)”, and was covered by artists ranging from Cliff Carlisle to Jack Payne’s Dance Orchestra.  It was “answered” by such songs as “Seven Years with the Wrong Man” and “Seven Beers with the Wrong Woman”.

Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman)

Seven Years (With the Wrong Woman), recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.

On the reverse, Miller’s trio does another of his compositions of some note, “What Does the Deep Sea Say?”

What Does the Deep Sea Say?

What Does the Deep Sea Say?, recorded November 3, 1932 by Bill Palmer’s Trio.

Decca 5070 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1935

Milton Brown was one of the founders of that marvelous fusion of hot jazz and hillbilly string band music that we now call Western Swing, yet a tragically early demise led his name into near-obscurity today.  Not only did Brown’s music lay the foundations of Western swing music, it also served to inspire such subsequent luminaries as Django Reinhardt.

William Milton Brown was born in Stephenville, Texas on September 7, 1903 to Barty and Martha Brown, a family of poor sharecroppers.  Ma and Pa Brown determined that Milton and his sister Era would get an education to live a better life, and so they did.  Singing old standards and church songs, Milton’s musical talent showed itself at an early age.  Tragedy struck in 1918 when his sister died, and the Browns relocated to Fort Worth.  Milton finished high school late, as helping to support his family made his attendance sporadic, and after graduating, he pursued a career in music.  In 1927, he sang in a local group called the Rock Island Rockets, and his younger brother Derwood soon joined him on guitar.  Nonetheless, Brown made his living as a cigar salesman until the Great Depression left him unemployed.

Brown’s big break came in 1930, when he crossed paths with the Wills Fiddle Band at a dance in Fort Worth and joined in a chorus of the “St. Louis Blues”.  Leader Bob Wills was impressed and asked him—and his brother Derwood—to join the band.  After a stretch on Fort Worth’s WBAP as the “Aladdin Laddies,” the Wills Fiddle Band was contracted by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elavator Company of Saginaw, Texas, producer of Light Crust Flour, thus becoming the first generation of the prolific Light Crust Doughboys.  In 1932, the Doughboys cut two sides for the Victor Company in Dallas, as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, producing one of the finest—and earliest—Western Swing records made.  Not too long after, Milton had a spat with Pappy, and left to form his own band: the Musical Brownies.

For the Brownies, Brown hired jazz musician Bob Dunn, the first player to electrify his steel guitar, and fiddlers Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner.  Their regular spot was the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion in Fort Worth, buy they also toured Waco, Corsicana, Weatherford, and Mineral Wells.  They’d a play a hot tune, then follow with a waltz to let the dancers cool off.  After two 1934 sessions for Bluebird, the Brownies secured a spot on Decca Records’ roster, which produced a string of successful records.  Tragically— perhaps as much for the world to be deprived of his talent as for his own misfortune—the end came too soon for Milton Brown when he fell asleep behind the wheel while driving a young lady home one night, and wrapped his car around a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway.  Although he was expected to make a full recovery from the accident, Brown died of pneumonia on April 18, 1936, at the young age of thirty-two.

Decca 5070 was recorded on January 27, 1935 at the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Brownies’ first Decca session.  Brown’s Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Bob Dunn on his famous electrified steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and Fred Calhoun on piano.  Milton, of course, sings the lead vocals, with Derwood and Dunn backing.

First up is Milt’s recording of the tune that launched his career, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”.  A signature piece, at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion the Brownies were known to stretch this one out to a full fifteen minutes.  Even limited to a three-and-a-half minute phonograph record, Brown makes a tour-de-force performance out of it.  Make note of Bob Dunn’s idiosyncratic steel guitar solo.

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Next, the Brownies swing Eddie Green’s blues standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Champion S-16443 – Luke Baldwin – 1931

One of the outstanding folk song spinners of the 1930s was the “Dixie Songbird”, Bill Cox.  In spite of his innocuous nickname, Cox’s repertoire consisted largely of topical songs about hot-button issues of the day, including “The Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann” (about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping), “The Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post”, and “N. R. A. Blues”.

William Jennings Cox was born in Eagle, West Virginia on August 4, 1897.   In his youth, he took up the harmonica, and guitar, both of which he came to play with proficiency.  In 1927, Cox reportedly made his professional debut on WOBU radio in West Virginia, performing as the “Dixie Songbird,” a moniker which he retained throughout his musical career.  Two years later, in 1929, Cox ventured to Richmond, Indiana to cut his first records for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records (and their subsidiary labels such as Champion, Supertone, and so forth).  Like many of his contemporaries, his earliest recordings were covers of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, but he soon branched out into making renditions of old folk songs and his own original compositions.  Cox continued to record for Gennett until around 1931, and after an apparent hiatus, resumed his recording career in 1933 for the American Record Corporation, with whom he remained until he retired from recording.  On many of these records, he was accompanied by fellow West Virginian Cliff Hobbs.  Under the ARC, Cox’s records were issued on Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Oriole, Banner, Vocalion, and later Okeh.  After retiring from recording in 1940, Cox fell on hard times, and was discovered destitute and living in a converted chicken coop in 1966.  The following year, he recorded an album that would be his swan song.  Bill Cox died on December 10, 1968.

Champion S-16443 was recorded on August 17, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana by Bill Cox, released under the pseudonym Luke Baldwin.  He is accompanied by his own guitar.  It sold a total of only 301 copies!  It was also issued on Superior 2833 (which appears to have sold only 55 copies, if my interpretation of George Kay’s Superior Catalog is correct, and if it is indeed accurate), and later reissued with the sides split up, with “In 1992” on Decca 5497 and Champion 45093, and with “I Found You Among the Roses on Champion 45106 and Montgomery Ward 4942.

Cox plays harmonica on own composition “I Found You Among the Roses”, set to the tune of Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern’s “My Mother Was a Lady”, or at least Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of it, which is likely where Cox found his inspiration.  Please note that this is an entirely different song than the 1916 George B. Pitman song of the same name as recorded by the Carter Family.

I Found You Among the Roses

I Found You Among the Roses, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

On the “B” side, Cox predicts the future on “In 1992”, a novelty song penned by musical duo Arthur Fields and Fred Hall.

In 1992

In 1992, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

Victor 21291 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1928

“Thumbs Up—On the Spot.”  Jimmie Rodgers donning his brakeman attire for a famous studio pose.  Circa 1930.

This is the first Jimmie Rodgers record I ever owned, I picked it up at a little record store down in Austin that unfortunately no longer bothers stocking 78s.  I hadn’t been collecting for long at the time—mostly I just had a bunch of records inherited from my great-great-grandfather and some junk from used bookstores—and that was one of my first forays into record stores to look for 78s.  My musical knowledge wasn’t so vast then, but I’d heard Jimmie’s “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” and I wanted to find a copy of that one.  When I picked up this one, I couldn’t really recall which number of Blue Yodel that one was, and I hoped this one might’ve been it.  I took it to the listening station in the store, and it wasn’t, but that was okay, it was only $3.99, and I wanted it anyway.  When I got home, I listened to it over and over and—though the sound was a little rough, especially on the cheap equipment I had at the time—I fell in love with both sides just the same as I had with “Mule Skinner Blues”, and so began my quest to find more.

Victor 21291 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15 and 14, 1928, respectively.  It was issued that June and remained in the catalog until 1936.  Jimmie Rodgers is accompanied by his own guitar, and by Ellsworth T. Cozzens on steel guitar on the “A” side and on ukulele on “B”.

UPDATE: Since my original posting of this record, I’ve come into possession of a considerably cleaner copy (about an “E-” as opposed to my original “V”, for those versed in the VJM record grading system), so I’ve replaced the transfers and label scans accordingly.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings the second installment in his Blue Yodel series, “Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille)”.  I’d argue it’s one of his best, but then, aren’t they all?

Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille), recorded February 15, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side is another of Singing Brakeman’s classics, his eponymous “The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)”.

The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away), recorded February 14, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Updated on October 28, 2017.