Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, March 2007)

The works of Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952), the first Grand Ol' Opry superstar, could easily extend this series for years, since he recorded over 200 songs, many of them traditional, during his career. So far, we've covered only one, Jordan is a Hard Road To Travel. This song is of the same genre: an older one recomposed by Macon to suit new times.

New York City, in the mid 19th century, needed to move railroad cars around the city, but conventional steam engines scared horses and annoyed people. The solution was a "dumb engine" (dumb = quiet) that recondensed its exhaust and was disguised as a passenger rail car. Similar dummy steam streetcars (one even had a fake horse in front) appeared in other cities, and soon many short rail lines were called Dummy Lines. A vaudeville song about a generic dummy line was written about the time Uncle Dave was born, and he probably heard it while growing up in Nashville.

This song, recorded 1926, is a parody of On The Dummy Line, updated for the automobile age. Before governments built roads, trail clubs promoted them, publishing maps and building new ones with donations from auto manufacturers and the cities involved. These primitive roads were named rather than numbered, but some of the names survived later numbering: the Lincoln Highway (New York to San Francisco), the Lee Highway (New York to Los Angeles), and this one: the Dixie Bee Line (US Route 41, Chicago to Nashville), so named because it connects the two cities by almost the shortest distance.

Macon wrote songs railing against modernization, but he also recognized that part of his audience wanted to "keep up to time," and a Ford car driving on the new Dixie Bee Line was the perfect song for them. Non-rail travel from Louisville to Nashville (175 miles) in half a day was unheard-of modernity, and he also threw in a dig at Buick, the car a banker would drive.

During WWI, the US built a dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to make nitrates for explosives. The war ended before the plant was finished, and the project languished. In 1921, Henry Ford announced he had a plan: he'd build an auto plant at Muscle Shoals that would employ one million workers. He'd also build a city 75 miles long. The only catch to the deal was that he offered the US $5 million for a project that had already cost $41 million, so congress turned him down. (Muscle Shoals dam later became key to electrification of the south as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority.)

Kirk McGee, who, along with his brother Sam, accompanied Macon on many recordings, told us a story about this song when he was in Minneapolis in 1965: Uncle Dave sent the Ford company a copy of the record addressed to Henry Ford. Ford, recognizing that Macon was singing directly to potential customers, gave him a new car, which Uncle Dave proudly drove. Sam McGee decided to try the same ploy, and wrote a song called "Chevrolet Car," including the refrain,

I love my baby, but crazy 'bout my Chevrolet.

He sent off a copy to General Motors, but he never received an acknowledgement, much less a car.


Complete Lyrics:
Hello, folks, it won't do to be without hope. Now, I never had hoped to get another good drink of good red liquor, but yesterday evening I played a few pieces and two gentlemen invited me up to their room, opened up a box, said, "Uncle Dave, here's water and glasses and sugar and lemon and everything. Now, what'll you have first?"
I said, "Give me that largest glass." I poured her out half full and begin to stir it with a spoon.
He said, "Now, what next?"
I said, "A little water to make her weak."
"What next?"
I says, "A little sugar to make her sweet."
He said, "What next?"
I says, "Put in a little lemon, now, to make her sour."
"Now, what next?"
"Now," I says, "pour her up brim full to give her the power."

1. Some folks says that a Ford won't run,
Just let me tell you what a Henry done:
She left Louisville about half past one,
Oh, she got into Nashville at the settin' of the sun.

On the Dixie, on the Dixie Bee Line,
Going to rise and shine, I'm going to stay up to time,
Rise and shine, I'm gwine to keep up to time,
When I ride in that Henry of mine.

2. Henry Ford wants a Muscle Shoals
To bring to the people of the South pure gold.
"Let him have it," says, "Oh, my Lord,
We'll all ride to heaven in a Henry Ford." CHO.

3. That old Buick, said she treated me mean,
Took all my money for to buy gasoline,
She may be warm, but I don't know,
But a Buick won't come where a Henry will go. CHO.

4. Went to the mountain for to get some booze,
A Henry Ford car was the one I choose,
The officers got right on me, I say,
I pulled her wide open and made my getaway. CHO.

5. Everybody knows the Henry Ford car,
Everybody knows they's the best they are,
You wanta take a ride, just get in a Ford,
And set the lever down, say "Oh, my Lord." CHO.

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