Don't Plug In — Bluegrass and the Folk Revival
Look Away From The Cross

Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Rev. Ford Washington McGee

I'm listening again to the original Carter Family's final, brilliant sessions of 1940 and 1941. It turns out they recorded "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," which I mostly know from Harry Smith's Anthology, performed in 1930 by Rev. Ford Washington McGee and his congregation. It's currently also available at the great music blog Long Sought Home.

I never understood the song before because of the chaotic revival meeting atmosphere created by McGee and company, which makes the lyrics pretty impossible to decipher. I mean, what ABOUT fifty miles of elbow room?

Well, focusing on the version by Sara and Maybelle Carter — with all the loving orderliness and earnest precision we've come to expect from them — the words are easy to figure out.

It turns out the song has pretty much the same theme, or belongs to the same gospel tradition, as the Tom Waits song "Down There by the Train," which was recorded by Johnny Cash on his first American Recordings album. In this tradition, the purpose and the power of the song are in the limitless, extreme, radical inclusiveness of salvation.

Maybe a kind reader can help out this old Catholic-atheist with the terminology and a Biblical passage ... in any case, these songs insist that your station in life doesn't matter, your race or gender don't matter, and not even the gravity of your sins matter — NOTHING can keep you from living in paradise, so long as you repent, so long as you meet us "down there by the train."

The emotional power of these songs is in the radical character of the forgiveness they promise. They are all about the total and extreme nature of the idea that heaven is open to ANYBODY. There's so much room for absolutely everybody in Heaven that its gates are a hundred miles wide — entering Heaven, you have fifty miles of elbow room.

If you're in need of a reminder that there's something good in Christianity, turn off your TV and spin some old 78's.

FIFTY MILES OF ELBOW ROOM

Twelve hundred miles its length and breadth
The four-square city stands
Its gem-set walls of jasper shine
Not made with human hands
One hundred miles its gates are wide
Abundant entrance there
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus:
When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There'll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me
For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room

Sometimes I'm cramped and crowded here
And long for elbow room
I want to reach for altitude
Where fairer flowers bloom
It won't be long til I shall pass
Into that city fair
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus
[ Recorded by the Carters, October 14, 1941 in New York, NY ]

I insist that Tom Waits' song "Down There by the Train" is loosely based on an old negro spiritual, "When The Train Comes Along." Versions of this earlier song were recorded by Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas and by Uncle Dave Macon. The lyrics below are from Uncle Dave Macon's recording in Richmond, IN on August 14, 1934. Macon provided the vocals and banjo, with Kirk McGee also on banjo and Sam McGee backing up on guitar.

WHEN THE TRAIN COMES ALONG

Some comes walkin' and some comes lame
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Some comes walkin' in my Jesus' name
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus:
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh lord, I'll meet you at the station
When the train comes along

Sins of years are washed away
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Darkest hour is changed to day
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Doubts and fears are borne along
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Sorrow changes into song
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Ease and wealth become as dross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my boast is in the cross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Selfishness is lost in love
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my treasures are above
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Comments

Steve

I agree, 50 Miles of elbow Room by F.W McGhee is a ripping piece of gospel music. It is based on the description of the new Jerusalem as seen by Jesus' disciple John in the vision recorded in Revelation 21:9ff. The Bible supplies the overall dimensions of the four-square city, but the gates being 100 miles wide is pure poetic license on the songwriter's part! The 'abundant entrance' spoken of is a reference to the King James version of the Bible's translation of 2 Peter 1:11, which in more contemporary English reads, 'there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.' The song takes these Bible references and uses them to express the hope of all who have confessed their sin and asked for the forgiveness that Jesus died to win for them, that he has prepared a place for them in his eternal kingdom.

Wayne Warner

While researching for a biography on Evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter (1844-1924) I discovered that one of her favorite gospel songs was "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room." Now I see that it is popular on certain web sites. I just learned yesterday that Marv and Rindy Ross(Quarterflash fame of the 1980s) have recorded it with their The Trail Band out of Portland, OR (on Immigrant Dreams CD). My biography on Sister Etter is "Maria Woodworth-Etter, For Such a Time as This" and published by Bridge-Logos.

Bob Magill Jr.

Fifty Miles of Elbow Room was also recorded by Turk Murphy in his 50's LP "Turk Murphy at the Round Table"; he does it in a Dixie jazz version, quite upbeat. The lyrics are very different from those above, however.

Sam Crawford

Norman and Nancy Blake recorded the song on their album "Blind Dog". They perform it in an old time bluegrass style with guitars only. It's the only version I've ever heard.

Norman Black

Where can I buy sheet music of the tune "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room": preferable the tune recorded by Iris DeMent. If not available, then the tune recorded by the Carter Family?

Robin Vining

There's also a lovely modern version by violinist/singer
Carla Kihlstedt (of Tin Hat/Sleepytime Gorilla Museum)
On her album 2 Foot Yard.

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