Monday, July 26, 2010

"Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line" - Uncle Dave Macon


Set Three: Songs; Disc Two; Track Nine: "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line" performed by Uncle Dave Macon. "Vocal solo and banjo - guitar by Sam McGee." Recorded in Chicago on July 25, 1928. Original issue Brunswick 292.

For biographical information on Uncle Dave Macon, see the previous entry on "Way Down The Old Plank Road."

According to Smith's notes, "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line," along with the previous selection, "Way Down The Old Plank Road," and the three songs that follow, are classified as "work songs" because "they are structurally adapted to responsive chanting by gang workers." Smith notes that "the performances in the present set have been given accompaniments and somewhat 'refined', but the characteristic leader and chorus pattern survives."

Field recordings of work songs performed by laborers and prisoners were made by John and Alan Lomax (among many others) and are available on such releases as Prison Songs (Historical Recordings From Parchman Farm 1947-48), Vol. 1: Murderous Home.

Uh, oh! Comin' up hard!

Way back yonder in Tennessee, they leased the convicts out.
They worked 'em in the coal mines against free labor stout;
Free labor rebelled against it. To win it took some time.
But while the lease was in effect, they made 'em rise and shine.

Oh, buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.

Every Monday morning they've got 'em out on time.
March 'em down to Lone Rock, said to look into that mine.
March you down to Lone Rock, said to look into that hole
Very last word the captain say, "You better get your coal."

Oh, buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.

The beans they are half done, the bread is not so well.
The meat it is as burnt up and the coffee's black as heck.
But when you get your task done, you'll gladly come to call.
Anything you'd get to eat it taste good, done or raw.

Oh, buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.

The bank boss is a hard man, a man you all know well.
And if you don't get your task done, he's gonna give you hallelujah!
Carry you to the stockade, and it's on the floor you'll fall.
Very next time they call on you, you bet you'll have your coal.

Oh, buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.


The first verse of "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line" makes direct reference to the Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891. Beginning in the mid-19th century, it was common practice in the state of Tennessee to lease convicts to private companies as cheap labor, allowing the companies to pay for the care and feeding of the convicts. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture,

On July 14, 1891, miners launched a series of guerrilla attacks at Briceville in Anderson County. In the initial confrontation, three hundred miners surrounded the stockade, took charge of the forty prisoners, marched them and their guards five miles to Coal Creek (now Lake City), sealed them in boxcars, and shipped them to Knoxville. The miners requested the intervention of Governor John P. Buchanan to protect the rights of labor. Buchanan agreed to meet with the miners, but ordered three companies of state militia to restore order and return the convicts to Briceville. In his meeting with the miners, Buchanan advised them to seek justice through the courts. When the miners repeated their action on July 20, Buchanan agreed to call a special session of the legislature to consider the issue of convict leasing.

It wasn't until 1893 that the Tennessee legislature agreed to construct a new prison and put an end to the practice of convict leasing, once the lease expired in 1896.

The rest of the song is a description of convict life as the men are forced to work in the mines and submit to brutal discipline.

As on the previous selection, Macon plays a spirited banjo part and is joined by Sam McGee on guitar. McGee also sings on the choruses. Macon was fond of including both historic and topical references in his songs.

There are two references in the song to getting one's "pole," which I imagine is something commonly used in coal mining, although I haven't been able to find any confirmation of that.

One amusing detail in this song is Macon's reluctance to use the word "hell" in a song. In two verses, he sets up rhymes that lead the listener to believe that Macon is going to end the line with the word "hell," but Macon quickly (and humorously) substitutes another word ("heck" in one verse and "hallelujah" in another). This reminds me of a "play song" I heard in elementary school where swear words are substituted with innocuous sound-alike words. The only words I can remember are

...you son of a
Beech Nut chewing gum, five cents a pack.
If you do not like it, then shove it up your
Ask me no more questions, I'll tell you no more lies.


If anyone remembers this song or chant, or any variations thereon, please leave a comment below.

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Here's a video of guitarist Jody Stecher performing a version of "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line." He also teaches you how to play the song yourself!



Download and listen to Uncle Dave Macon - "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line"

4 comments:

  1. I really think he is singing "you bet you'll get your coal", or maybe "goal". Either make sense in the context...sometimes I think I hear one and sometimes I'm sure it's the other.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You have a number of transcription errors here.

    Bisbonian is right -- it's "coal" not "pole"
    "Very last word the captain say, 'You better get your coal.' "

    and later on

    "Very next time they call on you, you bet you'll get your coal."

    The second line is "against Free Labor stout" (not "South").

    Also, the spoken introduction is "Uh-oh! Comin' up hard," not "coming apart." This regional slang refers to mining and poverty. See the book "Coal Camp Kids: Coming Up Hard and Making It" by Barbara Ford Ritch at
    openlibrary.org/books/OL8443608M/Coal_Camp_Kids_Coming_Up_Hard_and_Making_It

    ReplyDelete
  3. The "play song" you mention reminds me of a popular version among kids these days:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Susie

    ReplyDelete