Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal have ‘reunited’ for a tribute to the lasting blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
Photo: Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal Photo by Abby Ross / Nonesuch
23 March 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Nearly sixty years after they first played together, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, longtime friends and collaborators, reunite with an album of music from two Piedmont blues masters who have inspired them all their lives: GET ON BOARD: THE SONGS OF SONNY TERRY & BROWNIE MCGHEE, out April 22, 2022, on Nonesuch Records.
A video for the track “Hooray Hooray” may be seen below, as well as an interview with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal about the record.
With Taj Mahal on vocals, harmonica, guitar, and piano and Cooder on vocals, guitar, mandolin, and banjo—joined by Joachim Cooder on drums and bass—the duo recorded eleven songs drawn from recordings and live performances by Terry and McGhee, who they both first heard as teenagers in California.
Explaining where Terry and McGhee took him musically, Cooder says, “Down the road, away from Santa Monica. Where everything was good. ‘I have got to get out of here,’ was all I could think. What do you do, fourteen, eighteen years old? I was trapped. But that first record, Get on Board, the 10” on Folkways, was so wonderful, I could understand the guitar playing.”
Taj Mahal adds, “I started hearing them when I was about nineteen, and I wanted to go to these coffee houses, ‘cause I heard that these old guys were playing. I knew that there was a river out there somewhere that I could get into, and once I got in it, I’d be all right. They brought the whole package for me.”
Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder originally joined forces in 1965, forming The Rising Sons when Cooder was just seventeen.
The band was signed to Columbia Records but an album was not released and the group disbanded a year later. The 1960s recording sessions, widely bootlegged, were finally issued officially in 1992. Cooder then played on Taj Mahal’s 1968 self-titled solo debut album. GET ON BOARD is Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s first recording together since then.
Harmonica player Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee, both originally from the southeastern United States, had active solo careers as well as collaborating with some of the most celebrated musicians of their time.
They were best known for their forty-five-year partnership, which began in 1939 and included mesmerizing live performances around the world and numerous acclaimed recordings.
Their Piedmont blues style became popular during the folk music revival of the 1940s and ’50s, centered in New York City’s flourishing club scene for jazz, boogie-woogie, blues and folk music.
Terry and McGhee traveled in the same circles as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Josh White, among others in a rich mix of writers, actors and musicians.
As a new generation emerging in the 1960’s drew inspiration from folk and blues, Terry and McGhee toured the world as the foremost exponents of the acoustic music of the Piedmont. They were named National Heritage Fellows in 1982 in recognition of their distinctive musical contributions and accomplishments.
“You got the south on steroids, when you got the music of the south, the culture of the south, the beauty of the south, through Brownie and Sonny,” Taj Mahal says. He describes McGhee as a “solid rhythm player.
To really play behind the harp like that. He would set stuff up. He wasn’t making many notes. Sonny had all the notes, running around. But Brownie, he laid it down.” Cooder adds: “This thing of squeezing the thumb and first finger and a little bit of the second finger, which I still do. I’d forgotten where it came from. That’s what Brownie did. I saw him do that and said, ‘I think I can do that.’”
Taj Mahal calls Terry “a wizard harmonica player.” Cooder says, “Sonny had incredible rhythm for one thing. Making sounds with his voice and the harmonica so you couldn’t tell quite which was which. He was good at that.”
“We’ve been doing this a while,” Cooder says. “Perhaps we’ve earned the right to bring it back. Taj Mahal concludes. “We’re now the guys that we aspired toward when we were starting out. Here we are now … old timers. What a great opportunity, to really come full circle.”
GET ON BOARD: THE SONGS OF SONNY TERRY & BROWNIE MCGHEE Tracklist
- My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door
- The Midnight Special
- Horray Horry
- Deep Sea Diver
- Pick a Bale of Cotton
- Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
- What a Beautiful City
- Pawn Shop Blues
- Cornbread, Peas, Black Molasses
- Packing Up Getting Ready to Go
- I Shall Not Be Moved
16 April 1982 | Robert Palmer | New York Times
SONNY TERRY and Brownie McGhee, who are appearing at the Other End on Bleecker Street through Sunday, have been performing together since 1939 -probably longer than any working blues or folk duo or group.
But their story isn’t one of close, undying friendship, as one might suppose. Mr. Terry, the harmonica player and singer, and Mr. McGhee, the guitarist and singer, are staunch individualists whose partnership has been marked by feuds, splits, and reunions.
”Sonny does what he wants to do as an artist, and I do what I want to do,” is the way Mr. McGhee put it recently. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee grew up in the Southeast, in harsh conditions that go a long way toward explaining both their determination to think of themselves as individuals and their success as a team.
Mr. Terry was born Sanders Terrell in Greensboro, Ga., in 1911. He was blinded in both eyes by accidents before he was 16. Like many black musicians from the Deep South, he took up the most easily obtainable and inexpensive musical instrument around, the harmonica, and learned to imitate the sounds of trains and nocturnal animals before going on to the finer points of blues playing. He was touring with medicine shows by the time he was 19, and during the early 1930’s he played in the streets of Durham, N.C., with two blind guitarists, Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller.
Life of an Intinerant Guitarist
Brownie McGhee, who was born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1915, began leading the rough life of an itinerant guitarist when he was in his teens, performing with carnivals, medicine and minstrel shows, on buses and trains, and mostly on street corners, where he sang and played for tips.
”At first I was kind of tied to the ghettos,” he recalled, ”because at the time my people appreciated guitar music. But I played with some white musicians on the streets down South in the 1930’s, and playing on corners for tips, I learned to entertain all types of people. I would hitchhike, play in the coal fields in West Virginia for a while, move on back around the tobacco towns like Raleigh and Durham, play for dances sometimes in those tobacco warehouses.”
The brand of blues that Mr. Terry and Mr. McGhee learned to play has been called Piedmont blues after the region in the Southeast. Unlike the blues performers of Mississippi and Texas, many of whom grew up in rigidly segregated societies and played exclusively for blacks, Piedmont bluesmen often lived near whites and learned to play a variety of tunes – ragtime, gospel, ballads, old minstrel show songs, even white hoedown music in addition to blues.
The Piedmont guitar style developed by black guitarists was an intricate, delicately melodic type of finger-picking whose most popular exponent, on records and in person, was Blind Boy Fuller.
Sonny Terry teamed up with Mr. Fuller in Durham in the early 1930’s and made a number of records with him before Mr. Fuller died in 1941. The blend of Mr. Fuller’s rapid picking and Mr. Terry’s eerie wails and moans was a sound that rural blacks understood immediately, and the pair’s records sold well, though the companies that recorded blues musicians rarely gave them proper compensation. ‘Death of Blind Boy Fuller’
Brownie McGhee made his first recording in 1939, a blues that he wrote called ”Me and My Dog.” Blind Boy Fuller does not seem to have held a very high opinion of the young Mr. McGhee’s abilities, and when Mr. Fuller died, Mr. McGhee made a tribute record, ”Death of Blind Boy Fuller,” that bristled with sardonic humor. He began his song by bemoaning Mr. Fuller’s passing, but by the song’s last verse he was casting admiring glances at the women who flocked to hear Mr. Fuller play.
The record was successful and a record company scout began recording Mr. McGhee under the pseudonym ”Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.” ”After Fuller died,” Mr. McGhee added, ”I was asked to see if I could help out his harmonica player, Sonny Terry. We had met back in 1939 and played together some, but we didn’t do our first record together until 1941.”
By then, Mr. Terry had moved to New York City. His debut here could hardly have been more auspicious; he played some haunting harmonica solos in the 1939 Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, and that appearance led to an extended engagement at Cafe Society Downtown. New York City was experiencing the early stirrings of a folk music revival, and it didn’t take Mr. Terry long to meet such young singer-guitarists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Josh White.
”A man brought me up here to New York to compete with Josh White,” Mr. Terry recalled. I settled down here in 1942, and for a while I lived in an old loft building near Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue where Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives and all these other folk singers stayed.
There weren’t many blues records being made during World War II, so I made a folk record for Folkways. I didn’t start making blues records again until 1944, when I got with the Savoy label.” Still Whooping and Hollering
Sonny Terry retained his deep country blues roots; his playing is as full of rural whoops and hollers today as it was when he arrived in New York in 1939. But Mr. McGhee was a few years younger and the sort of bluesman who enjoyed changing with the times.
The recordings he made for Savoy and other New York-based blues and jazz labels were not the lilting Piedmont blues of his prewar years. They were tough, modern electric blues, with Mr. McGhee shouting out his verses (many of which exploited the sexual double-entendres then popular with blues listeners) over the solid beat of a full band. When he makes his own records, Mr. McGhee generally prefers to work this way. ”That’s my style of music,” he said. ”Having a band behind me gives me much more freedom. But for a long time in the 50’s and 60’s, Sonny and I were working in these little coffee houses. You just can’t take a big group in there.”
Since his move to New York, Mr. McGhee has actually pursued two careers. He played electric blues with band backing for black audiences, both on records and in black clubs in Harlem and New Jersey, and he played acoustic folk-blues with Mr. Terry for a predominantly white collegiate crowd. ”If you can get into working in the schools,” he said, ”you’ll always have a good following.” Extended Runs on Broadway
Over the years Mr. McGhee and Mr. Terry have enjoyed extended runs on Broadway, Mr. Terry in ”Finian’s Rainbow” and together in ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” have shared stages with Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte and have made a staggering number of recordings.
But Mr. McGhee, for one, is not yet satisfied. ”I need to make me a good new record now,” he said, ”something with a little rhythm. I’m working on a bunch of new songs, and I also would like to record some old stuff that never got a fair shake because we recorded it as folk music. The generation I play for now, most of them don’t know anything about my old records. But the musicians do. They copy them, and that makes me happy.”