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Bringing blues history to life

Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing
By Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Smithsonian / Folkways: 1958 (reissued on CD in 1990)

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This review first appeared in the September/October 1990 issue of Living Blues magazine.

A mean harp, some fine guitar work, and the sweetest vocal harmonies this side of the Staples or Everly clans made the duo of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry among the most popular folk/blues acts in the 1950s and '60s.

"Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing," a reissue of the 1958 Folkways release of the same title, shows the pair in top form.

Joined only by the unobtrusive drumming of Gene Moore, McGhee and Terry trade both vocals (in traditional call and response) and instrumental solos through as strong a selection of material as one is likely to find on a single album.

"Confusion" is a typically excellent example. Terry's harp is melodiously set against McGhee's rhythm guitar, and they sing a rich two-part harmony on the refrain while trading vocals during the verses. And check out the way they chase each other during a swap of solos.

It's been 30 years since Charles Edward Smith wrote that the rendition of "John Henry" presented here was one of the two finest ever recorded, and it's unlikely that there have been any versions recorded since to change the veracity of that statement (although Moses Rascoe's version in 1987 was very good). Shouting the vocals, and bringing the rhythm of the sledgehammer to life with Terry's harmonica, the duo doesn't just sing a song, they re-enact the legend of John Henry with a living, breathing passion.

To sit down and list highlights from this album would be redundant, though, because there is not a letdown on a any song here. This release is a bit of blues history, and it's hard to imagine anyone being bored or disappointed with it.