Thursday, May 20, 2010

Uncle Dave Macon & "Keep My Skillet Good 'N' Greasy"

To start with, I had always thought that this song was just plain weird, and at two minutes, really just album filler on New Frontier. Allan Shaw and others had suggested that Dogies' Lament on the same Kingston Trio album was just a space-filler, though as you can see from the link, I disagree - the KT performance may be a bit perfunctory but the song is a good one and the arrangement was interesting.

But "Honey"? It seemed to me for decades just a bit of misfired strangeness, not unlike "Coo Coo U." I figured that despite the copyright to Trio members Shane, Stewart, and Reynolds it was probably based on some older, public domain song - but I could never find a source for it.

Then about four years ago I was reading a review of The Essential Kingston Trio CD by Billy Faier, a seminal force in the folk revival, acknowledged master banjo player, and an active performer still at age 80. Faier was trying to be even-handed in explaining his dislike for most of what the Kingston Trio did, and I've quoted parts of his review extensively both in these posts and in my Wikipedia article about the Trio. Faier suggested that the KT had at many points subverted the original meanings of traditional songs, and "Honey" was his most specific and developed example. He wrote:

“Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy” is a fine old folk song that paints a marvelous portrait of a lovable country ne’er-do-well. Here it is renamed “Honey Are You Mad At Your Man”, with an interesting but totally inappropriate instrumental arrangement, and the addition of a chorus from which the new title derives.

What Faier did not mention was that the "old folk song" was quite possibly composed solely by the legendary Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952), the banjo-playing granddad of country and roots music in the U.S. - and a character whose approach to music had a lot more in common with that of the KT and other pop folk groups than it did with that of the dour-faced denizens of basement clubs in Greenwich Village. And what Faier also couldn't have known was how much this song provides us with an example of the connective tissue that links 19th century mountain music with 21st century pop.

You can read a solid if simple bio of Macon on Wikipedia HERE; note the emphasis on his connection to vaudeville and his emphasis on humor and banter as part of his shows. Macon understood that his later-in-life (age 51) career switch made him an entertainer, not the high priest of (at that time) a non-existent but soon to become sacrosanct tradition. The music was part of the show, as was the humor. (Macon may be the great unknown source of Trio song selection: in addition to "Skillet" becoming "Honey," he also popularized or wrote "Saro Jane" as noted in my Lou Gottlieb piece and "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line" - and possibly more.) Here is Uncle Dave's premier recording of "Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy" - Uncle Dave follows Stringbean and precedes Woody Guthrie in this extended video:

Most subsequent versions of the song include Macon's seventh-chord based accompaniment and that little hammer-on and wrinkle he is doing on "time, time, time" and elsewhere. Here for example is a clearer recording of the song by Woody Guthrie:

It appears that the legendary Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston are with Woody here, Terry on harmonica and Houston on (for him, a baritone) an unusual tenor harmony and fine guitar work. Guthrie is on mandolin.

Faier must have known of the Osborne Borthers' 1956 version, called "Ruby, Are You Mad?" that was the immediate antecedent of the KT "Honey Are You Mad At Your Man?":

Why this bluegrass adaptation did not strike Faier as "inappropriate" is a bit of a mystery, since the elements that he objects to in the KT version are present in prototype here.

The Kingston Trio, as Faier notes, added a chorus but preserve much of the original feeling of the song - with a unique banjo part by Stewart and that punchy, syncopated guitar strum by Shane:

What makes this recording significant and part of what I term above the connective tissue of popular music is this. While I may not have liked the song all that much - Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac sure did. Buckingham was listed as producer for John Stewart's most financially successful solo album, 1979's Bombs Away Dream Babies with its Top Ten hit "Gold." But as Stewart relates in The Kingston Trio On Record, Buckingham was actually preoccupied with a FM project at the time, Tusk, I believe. So he told Stewart simply to crank the knobs on the mixing board until he liked what he heard - which Buckingham averred should be like "Seasons In The Sun" and "Honey" - simple, repetitive, and hypnotic, as Stewart said. Anyone who has listened to any significant amount of Fleetwood Mac recordings from the 70s and early 80s will recognize that formula for instrumentation immediately - take songs like "Rhiannon" or "Tusk". And like them or not, Fleetwood Mac gave much of 80s, 90s, and even 2000s rock a kind of template for instrumental accompaniment - derived from something Lindsey Buckingham heard in the Kingston Trio recordings, including "Honey."

The original "Skillet" version of the song has some fine performances available on YouTube. Three of the best, I think, are -

1) Lew Dite, a solo roots singer who has over 2 million views of his many roots recordings, most done like this one with great fidelity to the original:

2) The Mars Hillbillies, from Flagstaff AZ, just up the pike from Scottsdale - a really fun version of the song:

3) The Roe Family Singers from Minnesota, who have a clean traditional sound that sounds amazingly like Macon and Guthrie:

And a wonderful late addition in March 2012 - the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops:

I have the feeling that Uncle Dave would have liked all of these versions - they all make the song just weirdly fun - and repetitive and hypnotic to boot.


Bruce said...

Another performance by Frank Fairfield:

doron said...

jimi five said...

No mention of Doc Watsons awesome version???

Jim Moran said...

Watson's version wasn't on YouTube when I wrote this article. I'll look again and add it here if it is available.

Beta Ray Bill said...

Not a musicologist or even know very much, but here and all the other sites I've come across that talk about this Macon recording on YT nobody mentions the line "There's a nigger on the log, finger on the trigger, eye on the hog..." to the extent that on sites that purport to provide lyrics and all their variations and possible precursors and whatnot, I've seen "There's a man..." and "There's a rabbit...". And I don't mean it to be inferred I'm PCing this or anything, just curious that it doesn't ever come up and b) what's with the redactions?

Jim Moran said...

Hi BR Bill! - So sorry that I missed your comment until today - I was busy preparing my radio show that aired this morning on KPFK-FM.

First, let me say wow - I had never heard this lyric from Macon. But second - I'm not surprised. I'm no musicologist either, though I do know a bit about folk stuff and background and the like. Macon was from post-Civil War Tennessee, and though I have found no direct link, I would be surprised if Macon had not had some connection to or familiarity with the KKK, which at the time dominated much of the underground white life of the South while the federal soldiers of Reconstruction dominated public life.

It was a hard pill to swallow, I think, for my more "purist" friends in the folk world in the early 60s to find that some of the truly authentic and great Appalachian musicians born at the same time as Macon were at times tangentially and at other times deeply involved with the Klan and other white supremacist groups.

While I have no desire to be blindly PC either, I do believe that understanding context is critical. Lincoln, for example, believed that black people could never be the intellectual equal of whites and toyed with the Liberia model of sending all the newly emancipated African Americans back to Africa. Those ideas are not the ideas of a man of grand intellect and high moral character, now or then - not in a country that included people like William Lloyd Garrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe whose perspective was much broader and more contemporary. But those ideas do not make AL a racist in the modern sense, as today when people have a century and a half more understanding and struggle than AL had the benefit of.

Macon's lyrics here are despicable by our lights today - but he is not a man of our time. How much understanding ought we extend to him? I don't know, but I ran across this article on a similar song - article written by an African American writer whom I respect - and there is a good deal to ponder here.

Thanks so much for the thought-provoking comment!