“In The Good Old Days of Long Ago": Echoes of Vaudeville and Minstrelsy in the Music of Uncle Dave Macon

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Uncle Dave Macon provided an essential link between nineteenth-century, urban popular stage music (especially the minstrel show and vaudeville) and commercialized country music of the 1920s. He preserved through his recordings a large body of songs and banjo techniques that had their origins in urban-based, nineteenth-century vaudeville and minstrelsy. Like the minstrel and vaudeville performers of the nineteenth century, Macon told jokes and stories, employed attention-grabbing stage gimmicks, marketed himself with boastful or outrageous slogans, and dressed with individual flair. At the same time, Macon incorporated many features from the rural-based folk music of Middle Tennessee. Overall, Macon’s repertoire, musical style, and stage persona (which included elements of the rube, country gentleman, and old man) demonstrated his deep absorption, and subsequent reinterpretation, of nineteenth-century musical traditions.

Macon’s career offers a case study in how nineteenth-century performance styles, repertoire, and stage practices became a part of country music in the 1920s. As an artist steeped in two separate, but overlapping, types of nineteenth-century music—stage and folk—Macon was well-positioned to influence the development of the new commercial genre. He brought together several strains of nineteenth-century music to form a modern, twentieth-century musical product ideally suited to the new mass media of records, radio, and film. By tracing Macon’s career and studying his music, we can observe how the cross-currents of rural and popular entertainment during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries interacted to form the commercial genre we now know as country music.