On Sundays, I like to listen to music when I do my morning exercise routine. (On weekdays, I listen to the news on NPR via NHPR.)
Lately, I’ve been listening my way through an album I found on iTunes a few months back called Musical History Of America. The 57-track collection was released in October, 2009 by Masters Classics Records. I was intrigued by its inclusion of a wide variety of the expected artists – Bessie Smith, Blind Willie McTell, Duke Ellington and Woody Guthrie, for example – along with several that were new to me: Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, The Gidden Sisters and Lydia Mendoza, to name a few.
This past Sunday, after a fine Sister Rosetta Tharpe song called “Rock Daniel,” I was struck by an outstanding acoustic guitar and vocals number that was equal parts Blues and Country with some very hot guitar solos.
“Whoa!,” I thought, as the song concluded. “Who was that?”
After I’d finished my exercises, I scrolled back on my iPod and found that track #21 was Sam McGee playing “Railroad Blues.”
Sam McGee? That name sounds familiar. Time to do some research.
In the reference section of my library I have a treasure chest of a book called “Country Music Originals – The Legends and The Lost” by Tony Russell.
Over breakfast, I took a look.
Sure enough, there was a chapter on Sam McGee (1894-1975). The chapter starts: “Sam McGee recorded country music’s first guitar instrumentals. The fact is unarguable, a matter of historical record in both senses.”
Now, that’s my kind of fact.
Mr. Russell identified those instrumentals, recorded “in a New York studio” by “the quiet farmer from Franklin, Tennessee,” as “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and “The Franklin Blues.”
One of the best features of Mr. Russell’s book is that each chapter concludes with a “Playlist.” This box provides the interested reader with a list of CDs that feature or include recordings by the chapter’s artist or group. According to the Sam McGee playlist, both of those instrumentals were on a County Records CD – #3512 – titled Old-Time Mountain Guitar.
“Really?,” I thought. “I own a copy of that CD!”
A quick look through my meticulously organized CD library and there it was: Old-Time Mountain Guitar: Vintage Recordings 1926-1931, compiled and released in 1998 by County Records in Floyd, Virginia.
Track #2 was “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and track #9 was “The Franklin Blues.” The track listings identified Sam McGee as the guitarist with “spoken comments by Uncle Dave Macon” and stated the two pieces were “recorded April 14, 1926 in New York City, NY.”
I felt a blog post coming on.
Here, thanks to the never-ending wonders of YouTube, are those two pieces: the first Country music guitar instrumentals ever recorded, eighty-eight years to the day later.
In the photo that accompanies “Buck Dancer’s Choice,” that’s Sam McGee on the right holding the guitar and his brother, Kirk, on the left.
Later on that Sunday, I finally remembered why the name Sam McGee was initially so familiar to me.
Many years ago I bought two books of transcriptions of fingerstyle acoustic guitar music put together by musician Happy Traum. One of them was Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar, released in 1966 by Oak Publcations. I owned a copy of the “revised and updated edition” that came out in 1980.
On page 39 of the slim volume, there is a short bio and a photo (by David Gahr) of Sam McGee.
Mr. Traum wrote: “Sam McGee and his brother, Kirk, sang and played old-time string music for over forty years. Their exuberance and good humor made them one of the Grand Ole Opry’s most popular acts.”
Starting in 1926, Sam and Kirk were members of Uncle Dave Macon’s Fruit Jar Drinkers and, in 1931, formed The Dixieliners with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. In 1957, with the help of Folk musician Mike Seeger, the McGee Brothers and Arthur Smith reunited. For the next several years, the trio set off on a rejuvenated career of recording and performing; highlighted by a well-received appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
On pages 40-41 of Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar there was a transcription of “Buck Dancer’s Choice,” taken from a version of the piece that appeared on a 1964 Folkways recording titled The McGee Brothers and Arthur Smith. The album is now called Look! Who’s Here: Old Timers of the Grand Ole Opry on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Once again: “Good music doesn’t get old.”