Lisa Simpson Goes to Banjo Camp
Philosophy of Science, Part 1 of 2

Shaking the Hell Out of Folks

Shaking
image adapted from poster at the Library of Congress

I think more deeply about pre-War folk and blues than I do most other music, so maybe it's me ... but it seems striking how many of these old recordings have lines that ring in your head, multiplying and deepening and getting sweeter the more you think about them.

Probably, that's one thing Bob Dylan learned from the old music ... but that's another story.

Uncle Dave Macon rewrote an old minstrel song into a song satirizing the automobile. His "Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel" was a "topical" song when it was recorded in 1927, even though its sentiments were already old-fashioned. You can hear it at Hongking Duck, and the New Lost City Ramblers have a great cover of it on "40 Years of Concert Recordings."

For now, never mind the fascinating chorus with its reference to the River Jordan. Let's look at one of the verses:

You can talk about your evangelists
You can talk about Mr. Ford, too
But Henry's a-shaking more Hell out of folks
Than all the evangelists do

There are multiple jokes packed into these few lines.

The most literal is about the suspension system, tires, rough idle of those 1920's Ford flivvers, not to mention the terrible roads they had to travel. A ride in the country in a Model-T Ford was so rattling and convulsive that Uncle Dave considered it even more violent than the jostling you suffered in the Holiness and Pentecostal church services sweeping the USA in the 1920's. So, that's one layer of the joke, and a pretty funny one.

Uncle Dave disliked the automobile, in part because it put him out of business as a mule teamster. He also disliked the disruption the automobile caused in society, in the way people lived. Ford's production methods and the cars they produced brought wrenching changes in the economy, social hierarchies, family structures, and geography of the USA, and fast. These shocks were widely discussed and debated.

So maybe we have the convulsive services of the Evangelists trying to shake people until all the hellishness comes out of them, while Ford's disruptions are bringing out the hell in people in quite another sense. And in this battle, Dave thinks Ford is winning.

But there's still one more joke in this little verse. Uncle Dave would have known very well that the Ford Motor Company had long campaigned to instill "moral purity" and "family values" in its autoworkers. They sent company reps to the workers' homes for surprise inspections, looking for booze, tobacco, loose women, soiled linens, etc.  Henry Ford, like the evangelists, was trying to save souls.

As part of this effort, Ford also sponsored old-time fiddle contests with enormous cash prizes, believing that white, down-home fiddling was more wholesome than the hot African American-influenced jazz and blues so popular in the era. Every mention of these contest I've seen treats them as a strategy by Henry Ford to instill his beloved conservative values in his workers and customers. 

I haven't made a thorough study of it, but I suspect Ford also, or instead, wanted to improve the reputation of his product.  He wanted to associate his newfangled contraption with old-time values, thereby dispelling the stench of sex, jazz, and chaos that seemed to hover around the automobile in the minds and noses of many potential customers.

I doubt Uncle Dave's sharp wit could have missed the irony that Henry Ford was pushing nostalgia and wholesomeness at the same time he was creating a sinful new American culture.

You can talk about your evangelists
You can talk about Mr. Ford, too
But Henry's a-shaking more Hell out of folks
Than all the evangelists do