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
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.)
From his early days he was tied musically to his brother Kirk, as they're pictured on this MBA record from the 60s:
" 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
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!
The Roots of "Thumb Picking" - by Palmer Moore has an interesting passage on Sam's musical roots
"From 1925 to 1935 the Grand Ole Opry was dominated by string bands. Dr. Humphrey Bates and his Possum Hunters, the Crook Brothers, the Gully Jumpers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers were all regular contributors. It was in the Fruit Jar Drinkers that Sam McGee, one of the pioneers in country guitar playing, first started out as a professional entertainer.
Sam McGee (born 1894 in Tennessee) was the first guitarist to introduce fingerpicking into country music (to Dave Macon on the Grand Ole Opry - around 1925.) Sam grew up surrounded by plenty of home-made music - his father a fiddler, his brother banjo - so, he just took to playing accompaniment with them. But, the guitar was rare in the Tennessee hills before the First World War and he didn't have anybody to learn from. The first other guitarist that young Sam heard was Tom Hood (black guy?) who was fingerpicking the guitar in the way that Sam was trying to teach himself.
After Sam’s family moved from the farm to town was where he had his first contact with black people: "My daddy ran a little store, and these section hands would come over from the railroad at noon... Well, after they finished their lunch, they would play guitars... that's where I learned to love the blues tunes. Black people were about the only people that played guitar then."
(End of Quote)
Arhoolie Records (this one also available from County
Grandad of the Country Guitar Pickers
He appears on two other CDs 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 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
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
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
'Em in the Evening Blues The McGee Brothers and "Fiddlin'" Arthur Smith
Folkways Records - FW31007 1968
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
SAM & KIRK MCGEE
Outstanding In Their Field - Live, 1955-1967
Spring Fed 103
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.
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
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
OLD MASTER'S RUNAWAY
A FLOWER FROM MY ANGEL MOTHER'S GRAVE
C-H-I-C-K-E-N SPELLS CHICKEN
SALTY DOG BLUES
SALT LAKE CITY BLUES
SOMEONE ELSE MAY BE THERE WHILE I'M GONE
HANNAH WON'T YOU OPEN THE DOOR?
MY FAMILY HAS BEEN A CROOKED SET
AS WILLIE & MARY STROLLED BY THE SEASHORE
THE SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL
BROWN'S FERRY BLUES
& 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
BOUND TO GO
BLUES COME ON IN
GULF COAST BLUES
FLAT TOP PICKIN' SAM MCGEE
BUCK DANCER'S CHOICE
WON'T HAPPEN AGAIN
WHEN THE WAGON WAS NEW
SHUT THE DOOR
SAM'S OTHER SIDE
LITTLE TEXAS WALTZ
WAITING FOR A LETTER
THE END OF FOREVER
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
How Great Thou Art
When The Wagon Was New
Pig Ankle Rag
Roll on Buddy
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
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...