Sunday, May 19, 2024

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

In this latest installment of our ongoing, occasional series, "Exploring the world of music," we take a look at the legendary country blues duo, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee: Pioneers of the country blues

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were a dynamic country blues duo whose musical partnership spanned over four decades, leaving an indelible mark on the blues genre. Their collaboration brought the raw, emotive power of the blues to a broader audience, blending traditional sounds with their unique styles and personal stories. This essay explores their backgrounds, their partnership, and their lasting legacy in the world of blues music.

Early life and musical beginnings

Sonny Terry, born Saunders Terrell on October 24, 1911, in Greensboro, Georgia, became known for his distinctive harmonica playing. Terry's introduction to music came early, influenced by his father, a sharecropper and amateur musician. A series of accidents left Terry nearly blind, pushing him to focus on music as a means of survival. His harmonica style, characterized by whoops, hollers, and a deep connection to rural life, became his signature.

Brownie McGhee, born Walter Brown McGhee on November 30, 1915, in Knoxville, Tennessee, was a talented guitarist and singer. McGhee's early life was marked by polio, which left him with a limp. Despite this, he pursued music fervently, inspired by his father and brother, who were both musicians. McGhee's guitar skills and rich, warm voice complemented Terry's harmonica, creating a seamless musical partnership.

Formation of the duo

The partnership between Terry and McGhee began in the late 1930s, facilitated by the folk music revival movement in New York City. They met through mutual connections in the music scene, particularly through Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie, who were central figures in the folk and blues revival.

Their collaboration officially took off in 1941 when they recorded their first sides together. Their chemistry was immediate and undeniable, blending Terry's explosive harmonica with McGhee's smooth guitar and vocals. They became a staple of the New York folk scene, performing at clubs, coffeehouses, and on radio shows.

Musical style and impact

Terry's and McGhee's music was deeply rooted in the Piedmont blues tradition, characterized by a finger picking guitar style and harmonica accompaniment. However, they brought their unique touches to the genre, with Terry's harmonica often mimicking the sounds of nature and McGhee's guitar providing a rhythmic and melodic foundation.

Their songs covered a wide range of themes, from love and hardship to social issues and everyday life. Notable tracks like "Walk On," "Hooray, Hooray, These Women is Killing Me," and "Cornbread, Peas, and Black Molasses" showcased their ability to blend humor, sorrow, and resilience.

The duo's influence extended beyond their recordings. They were prominent figures in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, performing at major festivals like the Newport Folk Festival and influencing a new generation of musicians. Their collaboration with artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly further cemented their place in American music history.

Challenges and resilience

Despite their success, Terry and McGhee faced significant challenges, both personally and professionally. Racial segregation and discrimination were pervasive during their careers, limiting their opportunities and affecting their lives. Additionally, their partnership was not without tension. Differences in personality and vision led to occasional conflicts, yet their mutual respect and musical synergy kept them together for over four decades.

Legacy and influence

Sonny Terry's and Brownie McGhee's legacy is profound. They brought country blues to urban audiences and international stages, helping to preserve and popularize the genre. Their recordings remain essential listening for blues enthusiasts and musicians alike.

Their impact is also evident in the artists they influenced. Musicians like Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Ry Cooder have cited Terry and McGhee as significant influences. Their ability to convey deep emotion and tell compelling stories through their music continues to resonate with listeners today.


Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were more than just a blues duo; they were cultural ambassadors who bridged the gap between rural and urban, black and white, past and present. Their music, characterized by its authenticity and emotional depth, remains a testament to their talent and resilience. As we reflect on their contributions, it is clear that Terry's and McGhee's legacies will endure, inspiring future generations to explore and appreciate the rich tradition of the blues.

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