Tennessee Mountain Stories

More Music from Yester-Year


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Last week we started talking about the history we can learn from lyrics of yester-year’s music.  While the song I highlighted last year was an encouragement to the World War 2 generation, today’s songs would have been relevant to all country folks, those rural Americans who knew about a hard days work in the sun and watching crops ripen then enjoying the fruits of the labor.

“What’s the Matter with the Mill” laments a broken grist mill, along with a few concerns about his girl and his 96 year old Uncle Bud – who seems to be able to play a fine horn.  Then the fiddles chime in with a line of Chicken Reel to which Bob enthuses “It don’t matter how you feel, you ought to play that Chicken Reel”.

Okay, so some of these rhymes are just kind of fun but can you imagine the grief if the grist mill was broken – remembering that in that day you couldn’t just go to the corner and buy 5 pounds of corn mill or flour.  So what are you going to do with a turn of corn?  Make hominy? Oh my!


Mr. Wills also helped write and sang “Stay a Little Longer” which has been recorded multiple times over the years.  In this song he again laments access to the mill because “the bridge washed out at the bottom of the hill” but not to fear, he goes on to remind us that “Big creek’s up, and the big creek’s level, Plow my corn with a double shovel.”

Now that line made me wonder whether my children would even understand what a double shovel is, or indeed what it would mean to plow with one.  Do you know?  It’s a horse (or mule) drawn cultivator.  And one day we’ll discuss the differences and preferences between that and a Gee Whiz.  But again, I’ve gotten off subject. 

“Stay All Night” also mentions how a “slop bucket fell from the window above” which ought to remind you to praise The Good Lord for indoor plumbing yet again because that slop bucket wasn’t for potato peelings.

I’ve also recently bumped into some Civil War era music and I’m pretty fascinated by it.  Much like “Smoke on the Water” is better understood with a bit of WW2 history, the music of the 1860’s sends me digging for facts. 

Certainly the music of the south has a hint of bitterness and anger and frankly some of it is so intent on shooting Yankees that I pass by it.  However, it seems I can feel a bit of the frustration of the day as well. 

While “Dixie Land” is recognizable to anyone who’s spent much time in the South, some of the best lines in the song are usually omitted.  The last verse creates a mental image of a Rebel soldier far from home, “Then hoe it down and scratch your gravel, to Dixie’s Land we’re bound to travel” and just before that they talk about “Buckwheat cakes and Injun batter” as though longing for the food of home.

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Here again is a lesson.  I didn’t recognize ‘Injun batter’ but I sure know the recipe – it’s Hoe Cakes or Fried Cornbread, a favorite quick dish in the Durham house I can tell you.

I tried to understand the inspirational character of “Will the Weaver” who appears in 3 of the verses as he romances and then deceives the “Ole’ Missus”, however there seems to be no real person from whom that character is drawn and he appears in more than one song by this author, Daniel Decatur Emmett.

Ironically Dixie Land was neither written by a Southerner nor written to honor Southerners.  In fact it was part of a blackface minstrel show that seemingly meant to mock people of the south both white and black.  When marching troops sang, “In Dixieland I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,” their sincerity surely must have surpassed the foolish intent of the songs’ author.

“The Bonnie Blue Flag” would aid any history student to learn the geography of the Confederate States of America.  It lists each state that seceded in order, with only slight error when it transposes the sequence of Alabama and Mississippi.

Music is an age old means of remembering and recounting history.  Gospel lyrics often testify to their writers’ personal trials and victories.  I said last week I listen to this music in my headset, but I also play it for my children to hear and I explain to them (without them even asking of course) about the wars and the foods and the tools that it talks about.  There aren’t many radio stations where you’ll hear these songs but they’re not hard to find with our streaming resources so I hope you’ll listen in and see just what you can learn.  And be sure to comment below and share the lessons with us – I know I’m eager to hear about it!