Saturday, January 7, 2012

New: When the Wagon Was New

Sam and Kirk McGee

Sam McGee: When the Wagon Was New


In recent decades, country music has branched off in a hundred different directions. In the days before “outlaw country” or “alt-country,” we had just simple, plain ol’ “country” music. I occasionally revisit those traditional roots to remind us of what the genre once was. So for that reason, I’ve chosen a song called “When the Wagon was New,” written by Sam McGee.

Sam McGee

Who is Sam McGee, you ask? He and his brother (Kirk) were born in Franklin, TN. back in 1894 and 1899, respectively. Their father was a fiddler, bought 12-year-old Sam a banjo, and soon both boys (influenced by local black musicians) were out performing on banjo and guitar. After hearing Uncle Dave Macon about 1923, they joined his Fruit Jar Drinkers, and played on the WSM radio show that became the Grand Ole Opry. They began recording in 1928. The formed a popular trio called The Dixieliners with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith in 1930. After WWII, we hear them on the Folkways record label, recording with Macon Smith (with the Delmore Brothers), touring with comedy act Sara and Sally, and playing regularly on the Opry. Sam died on August 21, 1975 in a tractor accident.

About this song he wrote in the 1920s, “When the Wagon was New,” Sam McGee once said, “Back in the days when I was just a kid we did a lot of that – went to church in wagons and even on horseback. Those were the horse and buggy days. I seen a lot of that during the twenties and thirties in Alabama and down through there in places that I played. In some places, especially in the hilly countries, some of that is still going on right now.”

I really like the straightforward, nostalgic feeling conveyed in the song. What better song is there to remember the “good old days” as we begin 2012. In the first verse, Sam mentions the “old rusty wagon that’s left to rot away,” and he remembers how “people all loved their neighbor, everybody was so free.” It’s an old style of country music, and why aren’t songs written today that mention daddy, mom, the children, grandma and grandpa too, riding off to church on Sunday “when the wagon was new”? Even though the song is nearly 100 years old, look how relevant and insightful the last verse still is today:

The automobiles are here now, and the wagon days are through,
The airplanes are a-hummin’, good neighbors are so few,
Everybody’s in a hurry, it’s the money that takes you through,
We didn’t need much money, when the wagon was new.

Now, that’s one heartfelt sentiment with a lot of wisdom that is very germane today.

Guest post by Joe Ross

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