Kirk McGee

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Kirk McGee

by Stephen Wade (edited from “Banjo Diary”):

Rural Southern banjoists translated ragtime-era tunes and techniques into their own idiom. Perhaps the most obvious of these translations lies in banjo player and band leader Charlie Poole’s indebtedness to Fred Van Eps for his “Southern Medley” and “Sunset March”.

Grand Ole Opry patriarch Uncle Dave Macon likewise reworked city-based recordings—from “Eli Green’s Cakewalk” to his several laughing songs to his seemingly autobiographical yet pre-existing “They’re After Me.” The list of hillbilly artists drawing from earlier popular music goes on and on.

 
One of those individuals was Kirk McGee, my source for “Under the Double Eagle.” By the time Kirk played it, the piece had become well established in band shell and parade repertory, along with numerous recorded brass and string renditions. Austrian “March King” Josef Franz Wagner completed the piece in 1902. That year English banjoist Olly Oakley recorded it, and in a few months’ time, John Philip Sousa’s band began to popularize it in the United States via their recordings and personal appearances.

 
In July 1981, I visited Kirk (1899–1983), best known for having accompanied Uncle Dave Macon and having played with his late older brother, Sam McGee. Sam and the Skillet Lickers’ Riley Puckett were the two earliest players to record solo guitar breaks in country music. By then Kirk was the longest continually performing member of the Grand Ole Opry.

During our time together Kirk offered a breathtaking range of music: from his father’s Henry Ford contest fiddle tunes to his mother’s Civil War ballads, from singing-school hymns he learned as a youth to demanding arrangements he made up of “St. Louis Blues” and “Dill Pickles Rag,” from standards like “Old Folks at Home” to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” from songs he heard black section hands do as they laid rails near his childhood home in Franklin,Tennessee, to pieces he learned from itinerant players “just walking around from house to house”.

 


Kirk used a chord-melody style. Instead of relying on the banjo’s open strings and alternative tunings, he most often em- ployed the tuning used by Ossman and his contemporaries, the highly flexible “standard C” (gCGBD) that gave him facility in all keys. He fitted his melodies around the chords, making use of majors, minors, diminished, and sevenths—a chordal vocabulary more conventional to the piano and guitar of the ragtime era than to the modal intervals in old-time music.

The C tuning Kirk preferred includes a lower bass note, allowing him to make tiny bass runs and fills between chord changes. He worked without a capo, simply tightening all the strings a whole tone up or down, preserving the entire fretboard as a playable surface. He explained that his right- hand picking followed his left-hand noting, and urged that “any time you can, put two strings together. Do it like you’re making a chord.”

Then he gave an example, playing “Danny Boy” in multiple positions all along the neck. He drew every voicing he could from the nostalgic melody, connecting each part with passing chords or brief note runs. His eyes sparkling, he looked up from the fingerboard and said,“You just find more and more on it all the time.”
That evening, our session complete, I helped him to his car and put his banjo, fiddle, and guitar in the trunk of his new Cadillac. I noticed bemusement in his face as he quietly watched it close, the lid sliding into place and electronically locking. He chuckled over this amenity of a late-model automobile. For years he had traveled to engagements in a Model T, and he still remembered the farm wagons drawn by mules that his brother Sam, also a blacksmith, had shoed.

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