Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, September 2004)

One of the oddities of 1800s American theater is that just when the northern abolition movement was picking up strong support, blackface minstrel shows gained popularity throughout the country. Musicians and composers feeding at this trough were city slickers and the composed songs and dances were not even close to authentic. Some of the music did, however, enter the white tradition as songs and fiddle tunes. Dan Emmett (1815-1904) was one of the most successful of the New York minstrel composers. He's credited with writing, among other songs, Turkey in the Straw, Old Dan Tucker, and Blue-Tailed Fly. Most famously of all, he composed Dixie, although recent scholarship (Howard & Judith Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem, Smithsonian, 1993) claims that Dixie was performed by the Snowden Family of Mt. Vernon, Ohio (Emmett's home town) long before he "composed" it.

Emmett also took credit for the first version of Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel, for an 1853 New York minstrel show. It was hugely popular and spread to the hinterlands via traveling shows. There's some evidence that he took an existing song and substituted political and topical verses. Later minstrel performers updated the commentary depending on what was in the news. A typical verse from that era, for example, was:

Around the Crystal Palace there's a great many shows
Where all the green ones are drawn in;
There's snakes and alligators, mammoth mules and big potatoes
That were raised upon the other side of Jordan.

Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952), banjo picker, singer and entertainer, was the first Grand Ol' Opry performer to become immensely popular, even though he was in his mid-50s when he began performing. He recorded about 200 songs during his career, including this one (1927). When Macon was a teenager, his parents ran a boarding house in Nashville's theater section, and young Dave learned songs and banjo tricks from the traveling minstrel performers who stayed there. He undoubtedly learned this song from some of them, and naturally recomposed the verses to fit modern times. Before he became an entertainer, Macon had been scratching out a living using horse and wagon to haul goods between Tennessee towns. The anti-auto verses in his songs could have been there because he longed for the olden days, or maybe because he knew his rural audience already thought the world was moving just a little too fast.

There's one puzzle here: what's a dominicker mule? A dominicker (dominique) chicken is a breed that was popular in the south. It could find its own food on poor land and the roosters were prized for their fighting ability. It had striped plumage. I found no credible explanation for dominicker mules, so I'll make up my own: a fairly rare color phase in horses, called zebra dun, consists of brown stripes against a tan background. It would make sense to call such a striped mule "dominicker," same as the chicken. If you have a better explanation, let me know.


Complete Lyrics:

1. I'm gonna sing you a brand new song,
It's all the truth for certain;
We cain't live high, but we can get by,
And get on the other side of Jordan.

Oh, pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeves,
Jordan's a hard road to travel;
Oh, pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeves,
Oh, Jordan is a hard road to travel, I believe.

2. The public schools and the highways
Are raisin' quite an alarm;
Get a country man educated just a little,
And he ain't a-gonna work on the farm. CHO.

3. I don't know, but I b'lieve I'm right,
The auto's ruined the country;
Let's go back to the horse and buggy,
And try to save some money. CHO.

4. I know a man that's an evangelist,
His tabernacle's always full;
People come from miles around
Just to hear him shoot the bull. CHO.

5. You may talk about your evangelist,
You may talk about Mister Ford too;
Well, Henry's shakin' more hell out of folks Than all the evangelists do. CHO.

6. Rain forty nights, gonna rain forty days,
Gonna rain on the Allegheny mountains;
Gonna rain forty horses and dominicker mules,
Gonna take us on the other side of Jordan. CHO.

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