Monday, January 23, 2012

Poor Boy Long Way from Home #9 – Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

A happy Monday, friends, & welcome to the Monday Morning Blues!  We’re here with another installment in the Poor Boy Blues series, & this time around we have a version by the great Brownie McGhee, accompanied by his usual musical partner, the equally formidable Sonny Terry.

McGhee’s version of the “Poor Boy Blues” is one of the more mellow songs in the series, & the lyrics are more individualized; other than the “Poor boy, a long way from home” statement—which is de rigueur with slight variations for all songs in the series—the song doesn’t dip into the usual pool of “Poor Boy” lyrics—there’s none of the existential angst of the Ramblin’ Thomas, Booker White or John Dudley versions.

Of course, McGhee & Terry, at least in their folk music incarnation, were two of the most musically easygoing bluesmen around.  They were fixtures on the folk music circuit from the late 50s on until the 80s; as such, they lived different lives from many of their contemporaries—they recorded with Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger, for insatnce, & made recordings of songs like “Pick a Bale of Cotton” & “Skip to My Lou” along with such blues classics as “Key to the Highway” or “Sportin’ Life Blues.” 

But McGhee & Terry actually lived a few distinct musical incarnations in their lives. Both suffered significant disabilities from an early age: Terry lost his eyesight in his teens, & McGhee was unable to walk after having polio (an operation funded by the March of Dimes later enabled him to walk.) Growing up at a time when jobs were scarce for everyone, but certainly for African-Americans & even more so, men with significant disabilities, both relied on their considerable musical abilities. Terry became a street performer, & partnered with the great Blind Boy Fuller, & McGhee later came under Fuller’s tutelage as well. 

Fuller is considered one of the great exponents of the “Piedmont” style of guitar playing, & McGhee is considered another—not only did he learn from Fuller, but he was a gifted player in his own right, & with assistance from Happy Traum, who was his student, he published a book on his guitar playing in the early 70s.  McGhee & Terry met, of course, thru Blind Boy Fuller, & not long after Fuller’s death in 1941, they became a hit as a recording duo.

It’s interesting to me that McGhee & Terry continued a completely separate musical career during the time they were such prominent figures in the folk scene.  They fronted a jump band called Brownie McGhee & his Jook House Rockers" or "Sonny Terry & his Buckshot Five." This combo included not only horns & piano, but also McGhee on electric guitar, which was of course taboo in the folk music at that time!

I should also note that Terry’s harmonica playing is at least as masterful as McGhee’s guitar picking & smooth singing
—his blues harp is almost immediately familiar, & not just from his characteristic whoops, but from the sound itself. Terry was known not only for his ability to produce any number of effects using the harp, but also for his outstanding breath control.

Finally, I’m not sure when this particular recording was originally released. There is a live version of “Po’ Boy” (as they invariably titled the song) from either ’61 or ’62 (the notes on that vary), but this is a different recording. I do know that it was released on the 2003 Tomato release Sun’s Gonna Shine, but this is a compilation—both men passed away in the 1980s.

Hope you enjoy these two top-flight musicians’ gentler take on “Poor Boy Blues”!


  1. Ah, another great start to a day! I've already told you the tale of how I spent the night in a hotel room in Newport listening to Sonny and Brownie jamming with local musicians. But you also threw another pleasurable memory in there - Happy Traum. My goodness! Is there any guitarist in the US who came up in the '70s and later who didn't learn to play from Happy's Homespun Tapes? Classic!

  2. Hi Roy: Thanks, glad you liked it! Yes, Happy Traum has definitely been a force for good in the guitar world over the years. I myself have four of his books, plus a few DVDs from his current outfit, Homespun Tapes!


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