Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May, 2010)

In the March issue, I wrote about Hold That Woodpile Down, a steamboat roustabout song. Here's another steamboat song that would have been lost were it not for Uncle Dave Macon. This one (Vocalion 5152, reissued on Uncle Dave Macon Classic Sides, 1924-1938, JSP CD 7729) was recorded by Uncle Dave on the same day in 1927 as Woodpile, with the same Fruit Jar Drinker sidemen: Sam & Kirk McGee and Mazy Todd. I assume Macon also learned it from traveling entertainers when he was young.

Here's some speculation about what a couple of the terms mean: "rock," used in the sense of rhythmic movement (with sexual connotations), has a long history of usage in ebonics, dating at least to the middle of the 19th century. It's probably a good assumption that Saro Jane is a person, not a boat.

The reference to "hole in the wall" in verse #3 may be about Hole-In-The-Wall Plantation, which was a large cotton plantation a short distance upriver from Natchez. There was once a river landing there of the same name, and Mark Twain mentions it in Life on the Mississippi (chapter 8) as an area where depth measurements were important, so perhaps it means that the boat ran aground there. That interpretation would be consistent with the misfortunes mentioned in the verse #2, where the experienced captain is no longer around to pilot the boat.

I found no reference to a steamboat named MacMillan*, but the last verse dates the song to the American Civil War, and indicates that the narrator plans to (or already has) run off to join the Union side in the battle. Both sides in that conflict converted freight and passenger steamboats into gunships in the hard-fought battle for control of the Mississippi River.

Whatever the meaning, it's fun to sing. There are very few traditional songs that have both a refrain and a chorus, as well as a minor chord. You'll have to listen to the original to figure out how to do Uncle Dave's complex 3-finger banjo picking — it's way beyond me.


Complete Lyrics:
1. I've got a wife and five little chillun,
Believe I'll take a trip on the big MacMillan,
Oh Saro Jane!
Oh, there's nothing to do but to set down and sing
Oh rock about my Saro Jane.
Oh, rock about my Saro Jane,
Oh, rock about my Saro Jane,
Oh, there's nothing to do but to set down and sing,
And rock about my Saro Jane.

2. Boiler busted and the whistle done blowed,
The head captain done fell overboard,

3. Engine gave a crack and the whistle gave a squall,
The engineer gone to the hole in the wall,

4. Yankees build boats for to shoot them rebels,
My musket's loaded and I'm gonna hold it level,

* Editor's addendum (by Bob Waltz):
Lyle and I talked a bit about what "MacMillan" might be. I thought it might be a river rather than a boat, but that is little help; there is no major river named MacMillan in the United States. Nor was there a Civil War battle officially named for one of the various small towns named MacMillan or anything like it (information from Frederick Phisterer's Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States). There were four battles in the vicinity of McMinnville, Tennessee, but McMinnville is in the eastern part of the state; there were no river battles in that area.

My conjecture, if Uncle Dave remembered the name correctly (never a good bet with him) is that the reference is not to a boat or river but to the singer's commander. James Winning McMillan (1825-1903) was a Mexican War veteran who joined the army as an Indiana colonel. He was promoted Brigadier as of November, 1862. He is a good fit because he commanded a brigade (and sometimes a division) in the Red River campaign of 1864. This was rather a disaster, with riverboats trapped up the Red by low water. The Union army had to build and empty dams to get the boats out -- and there were pelenty of soldiers on the boats trying to defend them from Confederates. I emphasize that this is only speculation.

[Note added 12/21/2010: I received an e-mail from Les Caraher with the following information, which seems to me a prime candidate for the Big MacMillan.]:

I read your article on Uncle Dave Macon's Rock About My Saro Jane. Your speculation about the source of the phrase the big MacMillan intrigued me. So, I did a little bit of research on the internet and came up with an alternative source for the phrase. In the article you mentioned the questionable assumption that Uncle Dave remembered phrases correctly and he may have, but if the song is a civil war era song then a lot of folks had to remember things accurately before Uncle Dave got a-holed of it. So, here is my speculation.

It turns out there was a boat that plied the Mississippi all during the civil war as a supply boat. It was called the MOSES McLELLAN. It is not hard to imagine that name changing to the big MacMillan is it?

Here is the reference.

[Note added 6/7/2013: More ideas about the Big MacMillan: I received an e-mail from William Lewis with the following information]:

Just wanted to add my thoughts on Uncle Dave’s Rock About My Saro Jane and the origin of the McMillan reference. I always thought McMillan refered to a boat. However, I have never come across a steamship with that name (not to say there wasn’t one). According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Uncle Dave said he had learned the song from black stevedores on the Cumberland River in the l880s. In the mid-19th century, the Cumberland River supported a large riverboat trade which reached to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. A portion of Monroe County, KY can be reached from Tompkinsville only by crossing the Cumberland River on a ferry (still in operation today), which leads to the scenic Turkey Neck Bend area located at McMillan’s Landing, which was at one time considered one of the finest steamboat landings along the upper Cumberland River. It’s my guess that this may have been the home dock (or port) of a steamship named McMillan. I have no documentation to support this but it seems very plausible.

Also, Monroe County strongly supported the Union during the Civil War. There were over 800 men from Monroe County who joined the Union army, compared to less than 30 joining the Confederacy. These numbers seem to support the last verse.

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