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A tribute to Sam (and Kirk) McGee
by Brad Sondahl

Although I'm sorry to have never met Sam McGee, I was happy to have first encountered him in a record store on this Arhoolie record:

As far as I'm concerned, he's tied with Missippi John Hurt, for the best smile in music
( I think they both smile that way because they know things we don't.)

This album was recorded in 1969 and 70 in his hometown of Franklin, Tennessee by Mike Seeger.  It's still available on CD from Arhoolie

From his early days he was tied musically to his brother Kirk, as they're pictured on this MBA record from the 60s:


Kirk played fiddle, banjo, and rhythm guitar
Biography:
Here's my quick take on it:  The McGee brothers grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, where Sam learned to pick guitar from local black musicians.  The use of alternating bass and playing the melody on the treble strings had more in common with black blues than local string band playing, where a guitar kept time with bass runs while backing the fiddle.
Sam and Kirk intertwined with some of the best old time acoustic musicians of the 20th Century, including Dave Macon, the Delmores, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, as well as moving into bluegrass with Bill Monroe.  Although well known in Tennessee for their many years of playing (on the old time segment) on the Grand Ole Opry, they never gained the star status of pickers like Chet Atkins.  They kept day jobs (Kirk in realty in Nashville and Sam in farming in Franklin--he died in a farm accident in 1975) They rode the wave of the first radio and recorded music and the dawn of the Grand Ole Opry, moving beyond the older generation of Uncle Dave Macon and his old fashioned cornball antics (don't take offense, I love Uncle Dave, just trying to show the flow of the music),  to forming  the hot string band called the Dixieliners with Fiddlin' Arthur Smith.  In spite of being a pioneer to record (in 1928 solo and with Dave Macon), Sam wasn't prolific in recorded output.  (The Complete Recorded Works album below yielded an average of 1 1/2 78's per year in the late 20's and 30's--I may be off base here--curiously, according to Charles Wolfe, this made them second only to Uncle Dave Macon in recordings for the pre1935 Opry performers).   I'm guessing two factors influenced the low output. The first was that the tunes he worked out required a lot of practice to get right, and so he had a limited stock of material. The second possibility is that he was busy farming and playing live performance, and the recording business didn't appeal to him.
Besides guitar, Sam played the banjo and the Gibson banjo-guitar.  He and Kirk were often billed as comedy acts, with Sam wearing a red wig to become a Toby character developed in minstrel shows.  A lot of his songs show his comedic side (with lines like, "Met a little gypsy in a fortune telling place--she read my mind, and then she slapped my face..."), but were accompanied with masterful runs and bends on the guitar.  Charles K. Wolfe's excellent book on the early Opry, A Good Natured Riot, tells how Uncle Dave taught showmanship to the McGee brothers, particularly playing up the hillbilly aspects for comedy.


Timeline (loosely derived from Wolfe's book):
Sam McGee, born 1894, near Franklin Tennessee.  Kirk was born in 1898.
Around 1910 Sam began hearing the guitar, learning from Jim Sapp and Amos Johnson, two African American pickers. By 1920 both Sam and Kirk were playing guitar.
1924 Sam had been running a blacksmith shop, but met Uncle Dave Macon (and Sid Harkreader) and started performing with him. Kirk started playing with them about a year later, first billed as Uncle Dave Macon and his Sons from Billygoat Hill.
1926 Sam beat Uncle Dave on banjo in a "blind judge" banjo contest (playing Old Black Joe and Swanee River).  Also first recordings made with Uncle Dave.  Also first appearance Grand Ole Opry.
Through the rest of the twenties, they played with Uncle Dave and other groups (another Fruit Jar Drinkers group of George Wilkerson for Sam, and the Crook Brothers band for Kirk).
1930 Uncle Dave was using his son Dorris, and that and the depression made for few gigs for the McGees, and a parting of the ways.  But they met Arthur Smith,
 and by 1932 appeared on the opry with him as the Dixieliners. Although frequently on tour and radio, they never recorded until the reunion record in the 1950's (see below).
1934 Smith also began playing with the Delmore Brothers, which recorded over 50 sides with him either as the Arthur Smith Trio or the Delmore Brothers.  By the late 30's the Dixieliners dissolved, and the McGees took up their day jobs, still appearing regularly on the Opry in the old-time segment, which was retained into the 60's.


Nov. 2006
Sam's granddaughter Jane McGee Frost wrote me with some interesting details, when I asked about Sam's playing the first electric guitar on the Opry: :
"Yes, Sam McGee did play the first electric guitar (National New Yorker Model made in 1938) ever played on the Opry sometime
In the early 40’s.  The story he told in our family and that I have heard forever is that after he played, George D
Hay told him not to bring that electric guitar back that they wanted to keep the Opry down to earth.  A year or so after that,
Pee Wee King performed with electrical instruments in his band and from that point on, the opry allowed electric instruments.
My Uncle Bass McGee still has this National New Yorker electric guitar.  It does not look anything like any other
Musical instrument I have ever seen.

" Did you know that as part of the comedy act, Sam could also play cow bells.  He had a matched
tuned set of 8 cow bells (do re me fa so la ti do) and at a festival somewhere, someone stole one of the bells and he
searched everywhere to find another bell with the missing note but he never found an exact match to the one stolen."
She also wrote:
"I inherited my grandfather’s Gibson Mastertone banjo as well as a couple of mandolins.  When he passed away, he had
27 musical instruments in his estate and all remain within our family except for one Gibson Electric guitar which was loaned out and is now missing.  (serial number Gibson E-S300A5087 in case you come across this hot instrument--contact Jane...)


April 2005:  I asked Mike Seeger to comment on the role of the McGees in his own music.  Here's his response:
 "Sam was one of the most talented and influential early country guitarists.  He was a hot player and was well known through his 1920s recordings, some of them with Uncle Dave Macon and his frequent Grand Ole Opry appearances.
    Obviously he's been a big influence on me as I play a number of his banjo and guitar instrumentals.  He was modest, laid-back and had a sunny disposition.  He and Kirk were fine wonderful people."

I also asked him how he came to record the two folkways lp's, and if they were commercially successful:

"I saw the McGees at a Grandpa Jones show at New River Ranch in 1955.  I knew very little about them except Sam's guitar picking, and only a little of that.  They were still playing well and I asked them to record.  Their LPs didn't sell very well, as far as I know.  At present Folkways is not interested in putting the LPs on CD, but I'm going to start bringing up the idea again.  Both LPs are available on special order and single tracks are down-loadable at 99 cents each via the SF website. "

That would be Smithsonian Folkways Records...


June 2009

Debbie Delmore (daughter of Alton Delmore) sent me this story about Sam: "There's a funny story my Dad told me about Sam McGee. He said that someone had told Sam that a safe driving speed was 40 mph. Daddy said that it didn't matter if they were going around steep mountain curves or driving on a level highway he still went 40mph wherever. He said even the hairpin turns he would take would be at 40 mph, since someone had told him that was a safe speed to drive he drove it regardless!"

Here's a biography from MSN
 The Roots of "Thumb Picking" - by Palmer Moore  has an interesting passage on Sam's musical roots



Discography and where to find his music on the web.

Arhoolie Records (this one also available from County Records below)
Grandad of the Country Guitar Pickers
He appears on two other CDs if you search the Arhoolie site, but they're compilations.  I think this is my favorite Sam and Kirk album. After that would be Milk 'em in the evening blues.
1. Sam McGee Stomp
  2. Fuller Blues
  3. Burglar Bold
  4. Dew Drop
  5. Jesse James
  6. Ching Chong This is probably loosely based on 1917 original Ted Baxter and Max Kortlander arrangement of QRS-186, "Ching-Chong", which was first produced in 1917  novelty number (piano roll linked here)  The term Ching Chong is an ethnic slur, and the lyrics of the song are racist--fortunately Sam plays it as an instrumental.
  7. Blackberry Blossom
  8. Wheels
  9. How Great Thou Art
  10. When The Wagon Was New
  11. Franklin Blues
  12. Penitentiary Blues
  13. Pig Ankle Rag
  14. Railroad Blues
  15. Buckdancer's Choice
  16. Black Mountain Rag
  17. Wayfaring Stranger

Folkways (Smithsonian):
 McGee Brothers and Arthur Smith: Old Timers of the Grand Old Opry
Sam and Kirk McGee
Folkways Records - FW02379 1964
101 Cumberland Gap   Arthur Smith
102 Roll on Buddy  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
103 Needlecase  Sam McGee
104 Buck Dancer's Choice  Sam McGee
105 Sally Long  Sam McGee
106 Rock House Joe  Kirk McGee
107 Polly Ann  Arthur Smith
108 Hell Among the Yearlings  Arthur Smith
109 Kilby Jail  Arthur Smith
110 Coming from the Ball  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
111 Dusty Miller  Arthur Smith
201 Sixteen on Sunday  Arthur Smith
202 Snowdrop  Kirk McGee
203 Railroad Blues  Sam McGee
204 House of David Blues  Arthur Smith
205 Green Valley Waltz  Arthur Smith
206 Guitar Waltz  Sam McGee
207 Knoxville Blues  Sam McGee
208 Jim Sapp Rag  Sam McGee
209 Whoop'Em Up Cindy  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
210 Hollow Poplar  Arthur Smith
211 Bile Them Cabbage Down  Arthur Smith

 Milk 'Em in the Evening Blues The McGee Brothers and "Fiddlin'" Arthur Smith
Folkways Records - FW31007 1968

101 Single-Footing Horse   Arthur Smith
102 Widow Haley  Arthur Smith
103 Charming Bill  Kirk McGee
104 Milk Cow Blues  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
105 Memphis Blues  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
106 Boogie  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
107 Amos Johnson Rag  Sam McGee
108 Under the Double Eagle  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
109 Red Wing  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee, Arthur Smith
110 Don't Let Your Deal Go Down  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
111 Evening Shade  Arthur Smith
112 Pig at Home in the Pen  Arthur Smith
113 Peacock Rag  Arthur Smith
201 Milk 'Em in the Evening Blues  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee (Ernest Ford 1949)
202 Late Last Night  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee
203 Keep a Light in Your Window  Kirk McGee, Sam McGee (Lester McFarland, Robert A. Gardner and Happy Jack Turner - M.M.
Cole Publishing Company - 1933)
204 Uncle Buddy  Arthur Smith
205 Lafayette  Kirk McGee, Arthur Smith
206 Drummer Boy  Sam McGee
207 Easy Rider  Sam McGee
208 Chinese Breakdown  Arthur Smith
209 Dance All Night With a Bottle in Your Hand  Arthur Smith
210 Whistling Rufus  Arthur Smith
211 Sally Johnson  Arthur Smith
212 I've Had a Big Time Tonight  Arthur Smith

Arthur Smith was a great fiddler--Single footing Horse is a tour de force.

Starday SLP 182
Opry Old timers Sam and Kirk McGee from sunny Tennessee and the Crook Brothers

From 1962.  The Crook brothers  started in Nashville concurrently with Sam and Kirk in the 20's, and recorded even less than the McGees.
This album is out of print, but here's what's on it.
Roll on Buddy      McGees
John Henry      Crooks
Hung down my head and cried     McGees
Black Mountain Rag      Crooks
Freight Train Blues      McGees (this where Bob Dylan got it?)
Soldier's Joy     Crooks
Roll along Jordan     McGees
Ragtime Annie     Crooks
My Gal's a highborn Lady      McGees
Coming from the Ball     McGees
Liberty     Crook Brothers
Chittlin' Cookin Time in Cheathem County      McGees
Will the Circle be Unbroken     Crooks.
Seeing as how it's a "Collectors Item" and out of print, here's the back side for your perusal.

Click on image for fullsized view.

SAM & KIRK MCGEE
Outstanding In Their Field - Live, 1955-1967

Spring Fed 103
CD $15.98
26 tracks, 62 min., highly recommended
I just bought this CD, and besides excellent liner notes by Charles Wolfe, there's a nice mix of performance banter that lets you get a sense of them as people and performers...

"The Brothers McGee played with Uncle Dave Macon in the 1920s, and Sam's first solo recording (Buck Dancer's Choice) dates to 1926. They joined Fiddlin' Arthur Smith is the early 1930s to form The Dixieliners, but despite being one of the most respected bands on the Grand Ole Opry, the brothers did not record during those golden years, which is a shame. In 1957 Sam and Kirk launched a comeback (although they hadn't been away) and eventually recorded three albums for Folkways and Starday. These recordings come from three live sessions, the first from a 1955 show at the New River Ranch (a show that also featured Grandpa Jones). Recorded by Mike Seeger, the set includes a cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford's Milk 'Em In The Morning Blues, Kokomo Arnold's Milk Cow Blues, Sam's own Railroad Blues, and three others. The next 16 tracks (from a 1966 show in Bean Blossom, Indiana) spotlight the brothers on a typically eclectic set of tunes, including John Henry, Tiger Rag, Blackberry Blossom, When The Wagon Was New, and others. The final four tracks (two of them under one minute) were again recorded by Seeger, this time in 1967 as part of the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. Issued by a small label to grateful fans of old-time country music, this CD is unlikely to remain in print forever." (JC)

source: Roots & Rhythm (link died). You can find this CD and another called Sam McGee--God Be With You Till We Meet Again  at The Arts Center of Cannon County Tennessee-- here.

 Uncle Dave Macon
Folkways Records - FW0RF51 1963
Sam only plays on one cut, but Uncle Dave was the beginning for Sam, recording such classics as Mourning Blues, Way Downtown with the Fruit Jar Drinkers...
101 Cumberland Mountain Deer Race   Uncle Dave Macon
102 All in Down and Out Blues  Uncle Dave Macon
103 From Earth to Heaven  Uncle Dave Macon
104 Gal That Got Stuck On Everything She Said, The  Uncle Dave Macon
105 I've Got the Mourning Blues  Uncle Dave Macon, Sam McGee
106 Hold That Wood-Pile Down  Uncle Dave Macon
107 Johnny Gray  Uncle Dave Macon
108 Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel  Uncle Dave Macon
201 My Daughter Wished to Marry  Uncle Dave Macon
202 Old Man's Drunk Again, The  Uncle Dave Macon
203 Over the Road I'm Bound to Go  Uncle Dave Macon
204 Rise When the Rooster Crows  Uncle Dave Macon
205 Tom and Jerry  Uncle Dave Macon
206 Two-in-One Chewing Gum  Uncle Dave Macon
207 When the Train Comes Along  Uncle Dave Macon
208 Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train  Uncle Dave Macon

County Records
SAM McGEE 'Complete Recorded Works'
This CD features the complete recorded works of Sam McGee in chronological order (1926-1934).
BUCK DANCER'S CHOICE
THE FRANKLIN BLUES
IN A COOL SHADY NOOK
IF I COULD ONLY BLOT OUT THE PAST
KNOXVILLE BLUES
OLD MASTER'S RUNAWAY
CHARMING BILL
A FLOWER FROM MY ANGEL MOTHER'S GRAVE
C-H-I-C-K-E-N SPELLS CHICKEN
SALTY DOG BLUES
SALT LAKE CITY BLUES
RUFUS BLOSSOM
RAGGED JIM
SOMEONE ELSE MAY BE THERE WHILE I'M GONE
HANNAH WON'T YOU OPEN THE DOOR?
MY FAMILY HAS BEEN A CROOKED SET
THE TRAMP
EASY RIDER
CHEVROLET CAR
AS WILLIE & MARY STROLLED BY THE SEASHORE
THE SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL
BROWN'S FERRY BLUES
RAILROAD BLUES.

SAM & KIRK McGEE 'The Essential Sam and Kirk McGee Collection''
Here is a 28-cut Compact disc re-issue taken from three LPs that Opry favorites Sam & Kirk McGee recorded for Fuller Arnold’s MBA label in the 1970s. Recorded relatively late in their careers, the music here understandably does not have the punch or crispness of their wonderful 1920s classics or even the very solid recordings they made for Starday and for Folkways in the 1960s, but the disc includes versions of most of the songs & tunes the brothers were noted for, Sam’s finger-style guitar work is still quite enjoyable on the 14 tracks here that feature him.
WHILE I'M AWAY
TOO LATE TO CHANGE YOUR MIND
KIRK'S WALTZ
DRUNKARDS DREAM
BOUND TO GO
BLUE NIGHT
DARK CLOUDS
BLUES COME ON IN
THE TRAMP
MABEL CLAIRE
GULF COAST BLUES
FLAT TOP PICKIN' SAM MCGEE
BUCK DANCER'S CHOICE
WON'T HAPPEN AGAIN
VICTOR RAG
WHEN THE WAGON WAS NEW
UNCLE FULLER
RAILROAD BLUES
SHUT THE DOOR
SALLY LONG
CABBAGE HEAD
FRANKLIN BLUES
KNOXVILLE BLUES
SAM'S OTHER SIDE
LITTLE TEXAS WALTZ
SOUTHERN MOON
WAITING FOR A LETTER
THE END OF FOREVER



Honkingduck.com
This site has hundreds of 78 sides available in mp3 format:  Pertinent here is
Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers With Sam McGee All Go Hungry Hash House
Only As Far As The Gate, Dear Ma

There's a tablature for Amos Johnson Rag at this link.  Amos Johnson was an African American guitarist that inspired him as a youngster.

Elderly Instruments has a video listed with Sam McGee--LEGENDS OF TRADITIONAL FINGERSTYLE GUITAR
he also shows up on "Legends of Old-Time Music"
Some musicians influenced by Sam:
John Fahey, Grateful Dead, Stefan Grossman,  Mike Seeger (often recorded Sam) Doc Watson (I think "Doc's Guitar" bears a nodding acquaintance to Buckdancer's Choice, a tune also referred to in the Grateful Dead's "Playing in the Band")


Sam McGee by Pat Conte, who keeps a picture of Sam on his Mastertone

Part of why I made this page is that I've realized lately how many songs I play on guitar that I first heard from Sam and Kirk McGee
(The links are to me playing similar renditions to Sam's pieces in mp3 format, which'll either give you a taste of his playing, or jog your memory if you've heard it before):
Sam McGee Stomp
Dew Drop
Jesse James
Ching Chong
How Great Thou Art
When The Wagon Was New
Franklin Blues
Pig Ankle Rag
Buckdancer's Choice
Roll on Buddy
Snowdrop
Red Wing
Don't let your deal go down
Pig at Home in the Pen
Milk 'Em in the Evening Blues
Keep a Light in Your Window
I've Got the Mourning Blues
Way Downtown

I also built a banjo-guitar (didn't do too well--happy to have bought a new one last year) inspired by Sam's (and Rev. Gary Davis) playing banjo-guitar.

If you think about musical history, it marches on in fairly steady fashion. Most people like the music they grew up hearing and playing, but it never regains its initial popularity. The McGee brothers managed to crystallise this music and continue playing it for around 50 years on the Grand Ole Opry, while country, western swing,  and bluegrass music evolved from the old time mainstem.  American old time music survives in festivals, square dances, back porches, and fiddle contests.  It has few stars, and its very name precludes it from being the hot new thing.  But I'm thankful there were some fine old groups like the McGees to help popularise it so I could encounter it in my own youth...
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