Brownie McGhee

by Peter Stone and Ellen Harold

Walter Brown McGhee was born on November 30, 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Kingsport, Tennessee. In 1918 Brownie contracted polio. As he grew older, he got around in a cart, which was pushed and navigated with a pole by his younger brother Granville — born in 1918, and destined to become a fine guitarist in his own right — who, for his efforts, earned the sobriquet “Stick.”

The family was musical: Brownie’s uncle, John Evans, a fiddler, made a banjo for him. His father George (or Duff) McGhee, a construction worker who often sang and played guitar with a mixed race band, taught him guitar and piano chords. Another influence was family friend Lesley (or “Esley”) Riddle, who accompanied A. P. Carter of the Carter Family on song collecting trips, and whose style influenced that of Maybelle Carter.

Brownie played the organ at Solomon Baptist Church and sang in the choir of Sacred Baptist Church and in the 1930s with the Golden Voices Gospel Quartet. In 1937 a successful operation sponsored by the March of Dimes lent him greater mobility, enabling him to move about the Southeast with tent shows and perform with his father’s gospel group. During these travels, he met washboard player George “Bull City Red” Washington, who arranged for him to meet the talent scout for Okeh-Columbia records, James B. Long, of Durham, North Carolina.

Durham had a lively musical street scene outside its tobacco auction warehouses and was the hometown of Brownie’s hero, Blind Boy Fuller, the pre-eminent exponent of Piedmont-style guitar picking. He was J. B. Long’s principal blues artist. Long arranged a two-day recording session for Brownie McGhee in Chicago with Okeh in 1940, that included “Me and My Dog,” “My Barking Bulldog Blues,” and “Picking My Tomatoes.” Meanwhile, Sonny Terry, upon returning to Durham, had continued to play regularly with Fuller and also occasionally with Brownie McGhee. In 1941, after Blind Boy Fuller’s death at the age of 33 from blood poisoning, Long promoted Brownie McGhee as “Blind Boy Fuller #2”; his second recording of Okeh included the musical tribute, “Death of Blind Boy Fuller.”

In May of 1942, when Sonny Terry was invited to sing at a concert in Washington, D.C., Long sent Brownie McGhee along to look after him and back him up at the performance. “I was just going along for the ride,” Brownie recalled. “But I introduced myself to the Library of Congress people and made some records under the supervision of Alan Lomax. From then on in, me and Sonny started making records. My first records, Sonny was backing me up. Sonny wasn’t singing natural at the time; he was singing falsetto.” Lomax, who recorded the pair in the Coolidge Auditorium, is heard on these recordings announcing that Terry and McGhee were appearing courtesy of J. B. Long and John Hammond.

Years later, a nameless interviewer, apparently unaware that the congressional budget hadn’t allocated lavish sums to pay performers for contributing to the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song, asked if McGhee thought Lomax was “a tightwad .” McGhee replied, “Let’s shelve this thing [all] together. Something is better than nothing. . . It’s better to give him ten bucks and get a record out than to never record the cat. See, [Son] House and a lot of these old-timers wouldn’t have been heard of if it hadn’t been for Lomax. This is the marvelous thing about it.” Later, when the discussion turned to why it was so hard to find information about blues legend Blind Willie McTell, he answered, “Well, I’ll tell you why. Because Lomax didn’t get to him. . . . There’s a lot of good musicians who are unheard of. Get it down before they pass away” (quoted in Tim Shuller’s "The Lost Interview with Brownie McGhee” [Blues Access, Summer 1996]). [Though, to be fair, John A. Lomax DID get to McTell —Eds.]

Sonny and Brownie settled in Greenwich Village in 1942, where work with Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, Reverend “Blind” Gary Davis (also from Durham), and Josh White put them in the foreground of the folk revival. In 1944 Langston Hughes wrote a radio ballad-opera for the BBC home service, The Man who Went to War, with a cast that included Ethel Waters, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Josh White, William Vesey, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry, with choral numbers performed by the Hall Johnson Choir, and music curated by Alan Lomax. The two were also regulars on Lomax’s wartime armed forces radio broadcasts and were heard in his commercial shows in the late forties. They recorded prolifically for Moses Asch and traveled the concert, college, coffee house, and festival circuits throughout the world, becoming veritable fixtures at Newport.

As well as performing folk revival audiences, the duo also formed a “ jump-blues” combo (a precursor to rock and roll) with saxophone, called, alternately, Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five or Brownie McGhee and his Jail House Rockers. McGhee’s rhythm and blues singles included “My Fault, ” a 78 R&B hit in 1948 — with Hal “Cornbread” Singer on tenor sax — “Robbie Doby Boogie” in 1948, and “New Baseball Boogie” in 1949, with Brownie fronting a full band. In 1958, just before the explosion of what was to be the 1960s urban folk boom, Brownie McGhee issued “Living with the Blues,” a 45 on the Savoy label. He also recorded a number of gospel sides, using the pseudonyms of Big Tom Collins, Blind Boy Williams, and Spider Sam in order to steer clear of contractual conflicts.

As an actor, Brownie appeared with Sonny Terry in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (its three-year run beginning in 1955), and later in Langston Hughes’s Simply Heaven (1957). He was also seen in the films Buck and the Preacher (1972), The Jerk (1979, as himself), and Angel Heart (1987) andin an episode of Family Ties (1988), a TV sitcom. If all this activity was not enough, he established a guitar school, Home of the Blues, on 125th Street in Harlem, and the charitable organization, Blues Is Truth Foundation, and helped write an instructional book, Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee, edited by Happy Traum (New York: Oak Publications, 1971).

In 1982 both Terry and McGhee received National Heritage Fellowship awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Brownie McGhee made one of his last concert appearances at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival, a year before his death in Oakland, California, on 16 February 1996.

For more on Brownie McGhee see the entry on Sonny Terry.