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Walter "Brownie" McGhee (1915-1996)

Walter “Brownie” McGhee, an African American musician, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 30, 1915. Raised within a musical family (Brownie’s brother Granville scored a hit with “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” in 1947), McGhee overcame the ravages of polio at an early age, traveled extensively throughout the Southeast, and mastered the hillbilly- and ragtime-influenced style known as Piedmont blues. Often remembered for his thirty-year musical partnership with North Carolina harmonica player Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee earned a reputation as an accomplished blues and rhythm-and-blues recording artist and as a central figure in the 1960s folk blues revival. Indeed, McGhee effectively translated the southeastern blues idiom to new audiences, thereby contributing to the wide dissemination of blues culture in the latter half of the twentieth century.

After playing and singing with church-related groups around Kingsport, Tennessee, in the late 1920s, McGhee traveled the roads of the South to pursue a career in music. As a working musician, he played in medicine shows and carnivals and worked with the popular Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He often hitched to mining towns in Virginia and West Virginia, eager to capitalize on their payday cycles. In such contexts, McGhee benefited from his musical adaptability, playing blues for black audiences and hillbilly or mountain styles for their white counterparts. His musical family exercised a profound early influence on McGhee’s style, providing elements of African American blues form as well as aspects of styles typically associated with rural southern white culture. This training resurfaced in McGhee’s flexible musicality and ranging performance repertoire, and he was thus able to play outside the bounds of what many modern fans define as blues. A move to North Carolina in the late 1930s precipitated the launch of Brownie McGhee’s formal recording career and his subsequent place among the many influential American musicians in the twentieth century.

After moving to Durham, North Carolina, McGhee met J. B. Long, a record-store owner, talent scout, and manager to popular Piedmont blues player Blind Boy Fuller. Long proved an invaluable connection for the young McGhee, securing a 1940 recording session in Chicago that resulted in several titles, including “Coal Miner’s Blues.” The Okey record label, eager to continue the commercial success of Blind Boy Fuller even after his death in 1941, released some of McGhee’s early recordings under the nickname “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.” McGhee eventually moved to New York to further his recording career, thereby securing a place within the mid-century cohort of folk artists associated with the New York-Greenwich Village scene that included Woody Guthrie and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.

While Brownie McGhee achieved solo recording success in both blues and R&B formats, many consider his association and musical partnership with Sonny Terry to be his crowning achievement. In 1942, Brownie and Sonny traveled to Washington, D.C., to record for noted Library of Congress folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax. The recordings were made for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, which formally associated Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry with authentic southern blues. This session solidified Brownie and Sonny’s musical partnership, and it helped to ensure their position within the New York folk phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s.

Both McGhee and harmonica player Terry were highly versed in the Piedmont country blues style, which effectively fused ragtime and swing with other folk elements. They each drew upon their vast musical repertoire and versatility, displaying an ability to assess particular audiences and augment their style accordingly. This capacity to read an audience, draw from a diversified repertoire, and adapt to the performance situation was a technique employed by many previous African American blues artists. Such professionalism and versatility significantly alters the rather common assumption that twentieth-century African American blues players were one-dimensional products of a mythologized blues culture.

Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry succeeded in a New York folk scene that often associated blues with cultural purity. Brownie’s ability, in particular, to adapt to his audience while drawing upon his vast repertoire contributed to his wide success. Indeed, Brownie and Sonny were instrumental in drawing a white audience to the folk blues style reemerging in the late 1950s and 1960s. Their significant recorded output for the Smithsonian/Folkways, Capitol, Fantasy, and Bluesville labels, among others, insured their place within the pantheon of twentieth-century blues artists. Brownie and Sonny, along with many African American folk and blues artists, toured extensively on the festival circuits in the United States and Europe, extending the reach of the blues form and influencing numerous English bands that reintroduced blues to American mainstream audiences.

In the 1950s, McGhee took his talents to the Broadway stage, appearing in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Langston Hughes’s “Simply Heaven.” He also appeared in films, including “Angel Heart,” starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, in 1987. In 1997, the Blues Foundation inducted McGhee into the Blues Hall of Fame. Walter “Brownie” McGhee died in Oakland, California, in February 1996.

Suggested Reading

ruce Bastin, Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast (1995);

Francis Davis, The History of the Blues (1995);

Robert Neff and Anthony Carter, Blues (1975);

Tim Schuller, “‘Till I Find My Way Home’: The Lost Brownie McGhee Interview,” Blues Access (1996);

Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004).

Published » January 04, 2010