I first learned an instrumental version of this from Perry Lederman. Perry was a good friend and playing with him reshaped my understanding of the guitar. He was particularly noted for his vibrato, which was incredible — he had exceptionally strong hands and could hold a full chord and get a stinging vibrato on top of it using only his little finger. (He could also do crazy numbers of chin-ups on the edge of a door molding, holding on with just his fingertips.) His version of “Railroad Blues” included some of that, but I learned it as a right-hand exercise, and his smooth thumb-and-index-finger bass patterns became a (somewhat less smooth) basic part of my own playing, as well as preparing me to tackle Rev. Gary Davis.
Perry’s standard repertoire included several Sam McGee tunes — joining a small personal pantheon of great fingerstyle players alongside Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt — and that made me pay added attention to McGee’s work. I first learned a couple of his instrumentals, “Franklin Blues” and “Buck Dancer’s Choice,” and it was probably another dozen years before I got around to this song. I had gotten interested in the playing of some white “hillbilly blues” players like Dick Justice and Clarence Greene, thanks to anthology LPs on the Yazoo and County labels. That subgenre was one of the many retrospective inventions of the folk revival, and it succeeded in drawing the attention of blues revivalists to some terrific white fingerpickers — but like most such inventions it also led us somewhat astray, since most of those players (like their black contemporaries) played a lot more than blues, and also (unlike most of their black contemporaries) recorded a lot more than blues. McGee, for example, was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry and did much of his touring and recording with the Opry’s reigning star, Uncle Dave Macon. He also played regularly with his brother Kirk, and as a trio with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. (Their gigs included the legendary blues workshop at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at which Alan Lomax got in a fistfight with Albert Grossmann over the Butterfield Blues Band.)
Anyway, McGee recorded this in 1934 and I fell in love with it, tackled it assiduously, and eventually worked out a halfway decent simulacrum of what he played. Then Steve James happened to be playing at Johnny D’s in Somerville and I was down in the green room with him and we got to talking about Sam McGee, and I mentioned I’d been working on this and played it for him. Steve wrote the one book on hillbilly blues guitar and spent some time with McGee, so he’s the go-to guy for this stuff, and he was generally ok with what I was playing, but gave me a couple of tips: First, that the bass on the opening riff (and later the “train coming into Nashville” section) is 6-5-5-5 rather than 6-5-6-5, which gives it a nice propulsive feel. And second, he said McGee played the descent to the B7 as a three-finger banjo roll, index-middle-thumb… which is not what McGee plays on the old record, but what the hell — I’m not going to argue with Steve James.
(Actually, we argue all the time, but not about how to play like Sam McGee.)