55 “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” by Rev. F.W. McGee


May 29, 2011 by gadaya

“The Half Ain’t Never Been Told” Rev. F.W . McGee and His Congregation (1928)

Tell it over again- (ain’t never been told)

The half ain’t never been told.

Dear brothers and sisters,

We come before you at this hour,

To tell you about the half ain’t never been told.

Our text is found in the Book of the First Kings,

The tenth chapter and the seven verse,

And reads as follows:

“Howbeit I believed not the words,

Until I came and mine eyes had seen it,

And behold-the half was not told me;

Thy wisdom and prosperity

Exceedeth the fame which I heard…”

“Before he began to preach, Reverend F.W. McGee led his congregation in a snatch of gospel song, their sung response lines overlapping antiphonally with his own, while the sweeping glissandi of a a broad-toned trombone and the cross-rhythms of guitar, piano and percussion contributed to the exhilarating sound. As the stanza ended, the tension was sustained with his powerful delivery of the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the Kingdom of Solomon. Members of the congregation shouted their approval and sang or moaned in accord, while, with a strong and trembling voice, he lingered on specific words to an implied beat. His sermon was an allegory, an appeal for understanding, discernment and judgement, and was addressed not only to the congregation present but to the thousands of black people who purchased phonograph discs of preaching in the 1920’s.”

(This is the introduction to “Songsters and Saints” by Paul Oliver, a wonderful book about “Vocal traditions on Race records”, and I’m quoting him also for the biography of McGee)

Reverend Ford Washington McGee was one of the most popular preacher on the “Race” records of the 1920’s and 1930’s, along with Reverend J.M Gates, Rev. Nix or Reverend J.C Burnett. Born in Tennessee in 1890, he was raised in farming communities in Texas. His parents sent him to college in Oklahoma where he trained as a teacher, leaving this profession for evangelism and practicing faith healing, until he joined the Church  of God in Christ. The blind pianist and singer, Arizona Dranes, helped him build his congregation in Oklahoma City, while he successfully evangelized  in Iowa and elsewhere. In 1925 he established a church under canvas at 33th Street in Chicago’s South Side, and three years later laid the foundation stone of his “Temple” on Vincennes. His first recordings under his own name and with his Church of God in Christ Jubilee Singers was a single title for Okeh, Lion of the tribe of Judah, a shouting spiritual with stomping piano by Arizona Dranes.

Arizona Juanita Dranes was a blind girl from Texas of mexican and african-american parents. She has been instrumental in getting McGee to record and played with him and his Jubilee Singers on some of her sides in 1926.

Arizona Dranes (with McGee and his Jubilee Singers) on Bye and Bye We’re Going to see the King and Lamb’s Blood has washed me clean

A few months after his first session under his own name, he got a contract with Victor Records and recorded more than forty titles for the label in the following years until the Depression made a stop to his recorded career in 1930. Many of his records sold well and his 78rpm record coupling “Jonah in the Belly of the Whale” and “With His Stripes We Are Healed” sold more than 100,000 copies.

“Jonah in the Belly of the Whale” and “With His Stripes We Are Healed” by Rev. McGee

On his recordings, McGee’s rich and musical voice, which had more subtlety than other preachers, was accompanied by members of his congregation and some musical instruments like piano (played by Rev. D.C. Williams), guitars, mandolins, brass and rhythm instruments, creating a joyful and lively sound. On some recordings, the singing and playing is heard throughout, while on others, the preaching part is more important.

While his recording career stopped in  1930, Rev. McGee continued to increase his community in his own Chicago church and continued to preach until his death, in 1971.

Document Records issued Rev. McGee’s complete recordings on two cds and have also one cd devoted to Arizona Dranes.

Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Rev. McGee recorded “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” with his congregation at his last session and it’s one of their best performance, sung throughout the whole side, with a full musical accompaniment of string and brass instruments. (Some even think this is the best song ever, read this fine article here)

Rev. McGee and Congregation, “Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room” (This is take 1 of the song, the one appearing on the Anthology is take 2)

The song was written by Herbert Buffum (1879-1939) a very prolific gospel song writer (who claimed to have written thousands of gospel songs). He was a Holiness/Pentecostal evangelist and lived and worked in California. It’s in this state  that Sara Carter claimed to have heard the song for the first time in an Adventist church. She recorded it with the Carter Family during their very last session in october 1941 and it is to their version that most of the singers afterwards would refer to when they sing the song.

The Carter Family “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room”

Here’s a little compilation of 8 versions of the song that I like, many being in the same vein and influenced by The Carters but also a more Honky-Tonk Country version by Hank Locklin and a Dixie Jazz version (which is closer in feeling to the Rev McGee’s upbeat version) by Turk Murphy, both from the 1950’s.

  1.  Iris DeMent (Infamous Angel)
  2.  The Red Clay Ramblers (Merchants Lunch)
  3. Turk Murphy And His Jazz Band (At The Roundtable)
  4. Dry Branch Fire Squad (Live At the Newburyport Firehouse)
  5.  (Featuring Gillian Welch) James Alan Shelton (Gospel Guitar)
  6.  Hank Locklin (A Year Of Time)
  7.  Sonsy (Heaven’s Bright Shore)
  8. Norman & Nancy Blake (Blind Dog)
-For discussing the meaning of the song “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room”, I can’t do better than turn you to this Celestial Monochord article
-I don’t know if it’s still in activity but there’s a fine web site/ record shop bearing the name “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” from Brooklyn, New York who sells many fine lps and cds. Check it out!

5 thoughts on “55 “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” by Rev. F.W. McGee

  1. loved your blog. Great research and material. I will be following some more. Thanks.

  2. JF Stover says:

    Wow. Thanks for this great page. I’ll be exploring your site.

  3. trollificus says:

    Great article, research, and a fine job of compiling versions…though I missed the first one I heard, which was by the Red Clay Ramblers with dulcimer and 4 part harmony.

    And now I’ll have to check out the site, onto which a lot of care has obviously been lavished.

  4. trollificus says:

    Woops! My bad. It’s on there. Thanks!

  5. […] in the Wildwood” to the gospel singing preacher Reverend Ford Washington McGee’s “Fifty miles of elbow room” the tunes on this new collection wax eloquent along the blurry lines between traditional […]

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