Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" - Uncle Dave Macon


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Five: "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train?" performed by Uncle Dave Macon. Recorded in Jackson, Mississippi on December 17, 1930. Original issue Okeh 45507.

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

"Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" is a topical song referring to a banking and financial scandal that embroiled the state of Tennessee during the early years of the Depression. Dick Spottswood (who wrote the notes to Volume Four) summarizes the situation thus:

Charles Wolfe told me that when Tennessee governor Austin Peay died in office in 1927, his replacement was Henry Horton who, with good intentions, sold bonds to complete school & road projects. He trusted one Henry Lea, who instituted a corrupt patronage system, putting state money in banks & trusts controlled by Rogers Caldwell in Nashville. One of his enterprises was Kyrock Construction Co. It received road contracts without bidding for them and this became an issue in the 1930 gubernatorial election. Horton won, but the stock market crashed shortly thereafter, taking down the Bank of Tennessee, with $3.5 million in state funds raised from bonds. Tennessee ultimately was $6 million in debt. Horton was impeached, but the House supported him 58-41, leavng him in office. (As related to Rick Lee)

Macon is joined on this track by his usual accompanist, Sam McGee, who plays the banjo-guitar. The banjo-guitar is a six string banjo with the neck of a guitar. It is also sometimes known as the guitar banjo, guitjo, banjitar or ganjo. I have not been able to find any specific history of the banjo-guitar, but it was popular in the 1920s, suggesting that it probably evolved during the previous decade or so. The guitar-banjo was the instrument of Johnny St. Cyr, and has also been played by such musicians as Django Reinhardt, Papa Charley Jackson, the Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal, Rod Stewart, David Hidalgo, Joe Satriani, and Keith Urban.

The people of Tennessee want to know who wrecked our gravy train.
The one we thought was run so well and now who can we blame?
They want to know who greased the track and start them down the road?
This same ol' train contained our money to build our highway roads.

But now we're up against it and no use to raise a row.
But of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now.
The only thing that we can do is to do the best we can.
Follow me, good people, I'm bound for the promised land.

Now, I could be a banker without the least excuse.
But look at the treasurer of Tennessee and tell me what's the use?
We lately bonded Tennessee for just five million bucks.
The bonds were issued and the money tied up and now we're in tough luck.

But now we're up against it and no use to raise a row.
But of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now.
The only thing that we can do is to do the best we can.
Follow me, good people, I'm bound for the promised land.

Some lay it all on parties, some lay it on others you see.
But now that you can plainly see what happened to Tennessee.
For the engineer pulled the throttle, conductor rang the bell,
The brakeman hollered 'all aboard' and the banks all went to hell.

But now we're up against it and no use to raise a row.
But of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now.
The only thing that we can do is to do the best we can.
Follow me, good people, I'm bound for the promised land.


Another spirited social commentary by Uncle Dave, who keeps the mood light despite the grim subject matter. Uncle Dave ends the chorus with the promise of better things to come (he is "bound for the promised land"). Nevertheless, Uncle Dave uncharacteristically utters the word "hell" instead of substituting another word (such as "hallelujah," as he does in "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line"), indicating just how serious this situation is.

"Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" is the second of three topical songs in a row and the first of two songs by Uncle Dave Macon (as on the third volume, Uncle Dave's songs are sequenced back to back).

As with the previous song, "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" seems to eerily mirror current events, although it merely goes to show that there is truly nothing new under the sun...

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Here's broonkind performing a version of "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train."



Download and listen to Uncle Dave Macon - "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train"

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