Sonny Terry - vocals, harmonica; Brownie McGhee - vocals, guitar, kazoo
Both Saunders Terrell AKA Sonny Terry, born in 1911 and Walter "Brownie" McGhee, born in 1915, began pursuing music from an early age for similar reasons. In Sonny Terry's case, injuries to his eyes, which resulted in blindness by age 16 and in Brownie McGhee's case, a paralyzed leg as a result of polio, prevented them from pursuing work as farm hands or factory workers, the jobs available to most black men at the time. With such limited opportunities, each pursued music in order to earn a living. Terry and McGhee originated from North Carolina and Tennessee respectively, and they favored the Appalachian region's Piedmont blues style, which unlike the Mississippi Delta blues, had a less raucous, gentler sound and was open to outside influences including ragtime and country music. Both musicians became protégés of the guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and favored his East Coast Piedmont style. Following Fuller's death in 1941, McGhee, a folk-blues singer and gifted acoustic guitar player and Terry, who played harmonica and supplemented his singing with distinctive whoops and hollers, teamed up, creating a distinctive sound of their own. The combination of Terry's raspier vocals and raw freight-train harmonica and McGhee's softer, more melodic approach created a contrast that was also evident in their personal relationship. Regardless of their musical chemistry, Terry and McGhee were known for their mutual antagonism, arguing with each other both on and off stage. Despite this, the duo enjoyed astounding career longevity, performing, and recording together for nearly 40 years and eventually becoming the most recognized duo in blues history. Over the course of those four decades, they recorded a surprisingly diverse catalogue of music. They also embraced other projects like appearing in the original Broadway productions of Finian's Rainbow and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, but are most revered for their traditional Piedmont blues material. During the folk and blues revivals of the late 1950s and 1960s, McGhee and Terry's recordings and performances began catching the attention of a much broader audience and they would become the most widely recognized duo in the history of the blues.
Recorded at the West Coast epicenter of the folk and blues revival, the Ash Grove on January 27, 1967, this first show of the evening captures Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee near their peak of popularity, occasionally adding contemporary material to their vast repertoire but primarily remaining faithful to their blues roots. The recording begins with the opening song in progress as the duo warm up on "Easy Rider" followed by a strong reading of Guitar Slim's 1954 hit, "The Things I Used To Do." One of the early highlights of this set is next as Sonny Terry introduces a more contemporary original number, "Burnt Child (Afraid Of Fire)." Written the previous year, this showcases Terry's ability to quickly interject effective harmonica lines between each vocal line. This is followed by Terry humoring the audience with a behind-the-scenes monologue about the duo's Broadway stint in Finian's Rainbow." He then delivers his signature performance from that production, "Hootin' The Blues," a harp blowing highlight of this set.
The next several numbers provide an excellent overview of Brownie McGhee's guitar prowess and the way these two distinctly different musicians complement each other. Impressive call and response between vocal and guitar is featured on "Hey Baby Hey Baby You're So Sweet." "When These Blues Get On Me," a more straightforward blues features McGhee on kazoo, as well as vocals and guitar, and his bouncy and propulsive finger picking on " Come On If Your Coming" is most impressive. In these three numbers and throughout the set, Terry's expressive harmonica playing and occasional vocal whoops tangle with McGhee's syncopated guitar and engaging vocal delivery, creating a sum far greater than the individual parts.
Next the duo tackle a more serious tale of flood dislocation in "Backwater Blues," a classic Louisiana style number covered by countless artists but best known for Bessie Smith's definitive version. Although Terry's harmonica is often lighthearted on many songs, here his playing is extraordinarily expressive, bordering on spine tingling. Unlike the late show version (also available here at Wolfgang's), which was truncated due to tape stock running out, this wonderful performance is complete.
As the set winds to a close, the duo invites the audience on a journey to "Kansas City" that initially has McGhee utilizing kazoo in an unusual percussive manner, further enhancing the duo's unique interplay, before they wind up this set with an exemplary reading of "Rock Island Line" that features superb musicianship and the duo's strongest vocal arrangement of the set. The Ash Grove audience coaxes them back for an encore and they conclude the performance with the lyrically appropriate "Packin Up, Getting' Ready" as their outro to this engaging set.
Encapsulating Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's many years of performing together, this 1967 recording will be of great interest to existing fans, but is also an excellent introduction for new listeners. It is a prime example of two utterly divergent styles complementing each other. Sonny Terry's raw hardcore traditionalist approach combines with Brownie McGhee's smooth vocal delivery and clean guitar-picking in a surprisingly compatible manner. Scholars of the Piedmont blues genre or acoustic country blues in general will find this thoroughly engaging. The duo's casual virtuosity and seemingly telepathic interplay is evident throughout the set. Either musician could easily command the stage as a solo artist, but it is the combination of their two divergent styles that makes these Ash Grove recordings so compelling.
Written by Alan Bershaw