Sonny Terry (Saunders Terrell)

by Peter Stone and Ellen Harold

Harmonica player Sonny Terry (1911–1986) and his long-time partner, blues singer and guitarist Brownie McGhee, were among the first folk blues artists to reach a national (and international) audience and to bridge the gap between folk and pop music. They started out as street musicians, made numerous “race records,” were among the original Almanac Singers, recorded for Moe Asch’s folk music labels, performed with jump-blues bands (the precursors of rock and roll), toured internationally, acted on Broadway and television, and became part of the 1960s folk revival.

Terry’s virtuoso signature “whoopin” harmonica style incorporated energetic, intense, high-pitched vocal yawps and often featured uncanny train and animal imitations. In The Land Where the Blues Began (1993), Alan Lomax called him “that greatest of harp blowers,” describing how he had once filmed him in slow motion “lifting quarter tones off the back of his harmonica with his fingertips. He would beat his cupped hands and make blatting trumpet notes. Most of all, by muting the harp... he could make it sing the blues, the harp taking up the phrase just as the singer leaves off and moaning right on for him.” So high was Alan’s opinion of Terry’s ability that in the 1975 he mentioned him to Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh as a “stupendous talent” (in a discussion recorded in the discussions and interviews section of our database) and recommended that he be considered for a university professorship.

Born Saunders Terrell on October 24, 1912 (some say 1911), in Greensboro, Georgia, Sonny lost the sight in one eye as a child and injured the other in his teens, leaving him with minimal vision. At five or six he began learning harmonica, which his father, Reuben Terrell, a farmer, played at social functions. The boy also honed his musical skills singing at tent revivals. Debarred by his poor eyesight from making a living from farming, he became a blues singer, beginning by working the streets in Shelby, North Carolina. “In them days I just as soon died — except for my harmonica. It was like a friend who didn’t give a damn if I could see or not.”

After a stint in a medicine show, he went on the road, working the streets and playing at dinners and dances in North Carolina’s tobacco belt cities (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Durham). He also worked briefly at a factory for the blind, and occasionally sold liquor. Eventually he formed a musical partnership with local musical celebrity, blues singer-guitarist Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen), the preeminent exponent of Piedmont-style guitar picking (in which the thumb plays the bass line while two or three fingers limn the melody and harmony, giving an effect that imitates ragtime piano and scat singing). Often accompanied by washboard player George “Bull City Red” (or “Oh Red”) Washington, they picked up tips on the streets outside the tobacco auction warehouses of Durham, where the musical scene also included the Reverend Gary Davis (then Blind Gary Davis), and Brownie McGhee.

Blind Boy Fuller was a protégé of local record store manager, talent scout, and producer James Baxter Long, under whose tutelage he made records for the ARC, Vocalion, and later Okeh-Columbia labels, with Terry as accompanist and occasionally lead musician. In 1937 Fuller and Terry traveled to New York to record for Vocalion. The next year, John Hammond of Columbia Records contacted Long about visiting Durham to book Fuller for his upcoming Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall, in which he intended to present “Negro music from its raw beginnings to the latest jazz.” Hammond arrived in Durham accompanied by future Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson, only to find that Fuller was in jail for shooting his wife. However, Hammond recalled, “next door lived a blind harmonica player named Sonny Terry, and, as soon as we heard him play and shout his unique song, we decided he was a far superior performer. He definitely should be brought to New York for the concert” (quoted in Bruce Bastin’s Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast [1989], p. 266). Thus Terry became the first artist to be signed up for the legendary event. It is just possible, Bastin speculates, that had Fuller not been in jail, Hammond and Lieberson might never have met Sonny Terry.

At Carnegie Hall Terry performed “Fox Chase” and “Mountain Blues” (harmonica solos), and “New John Henry” (backed by Bull City Red on washboard). The next day (December 24, 1938) Alan Lomax recorded him at Havers Studio in New York City for the Library of Congress performing “Fox Chase” (AFS 2490-A), “A New Careless Love” (2491-A), “Louise” (2492-A), “The Freight Train” (2492-B), “Meet Me At the Railroad and Bring My Shoes and Clothes” (2493-A), and “Lost John” (2493-B, 2494-A, and 2494-B). Two days later he made his first solo commercial recording, “Train Whistle Blues” and “New Love Blues,” which was issued in Columbia’s classical series.

Terry’s successes at Carnegie Hall led to a long engagement at Café Society Downtown and to friendships with Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Pete Seeger, and Cisco Houston. When Blind Boy Fuller died in February 1941 at the age of 33, Terry teamed up with Brownie McGhee, who was soon being billed as “Blind Boy Fuller #2.” In May of 1942 they traveled together to Washington, D.C. to perform at a concert at Riverside Stadium featuring Paul Robeson. During that trip Alan Lomax recorded them at the Coolidge Auditorium (see Virginia and the Piedmont: Minstrelsy, Work Songs and the Blues in the Deep River of Song CD series [Rounder 11661-1827-2]), announcing that they were performing “courtesy of John Hammond and James Baxter Long.”

That year (1942), Millard Lampell of the topical group the Almanac Singers invited them to make New York City their base of operations. The pair never looked back, settling in an apartment on downtown Sixth Avenue and appearing frequently with Woody Guthrie and the Almanacs. Terry’s harmonica was also featured on Alan Lomax’s wartime programs broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, including This Train is Bound for Glory, with Josh White and Woody Guthrie (1944), as well as Hootenanny and Your Ballad Man, later airedon the Mutual Broadcasting System. He also performed in the radio “ballad operas” produced in 1944 by Roy Lockwood for the BBC’s home service (unfortunately never broadcast in the USA), with songs selected by Alan Lomax. These included Langston Hughes’ The Man Who Went to War (whose cast included Ethel Waters, Canada Lee, Josh White, Paul Robeson, and William Vessey as well as Terry and McGhee); The Chisholm Trail (written by Elizabeth Lomax, with music arranged by Bess Lomax Hawes and starring Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie); and The Martins and the Coys (also written by Elizabeth Lomax and featuring Ives, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie, among others [see Rounder CD 11661-1819-2]). Terry and McGhee are also seen and heard playing with Woody Guthrie in the film Hear Your Banjo Play (1947), narrated by Pete Seeger and written by Alan Lomax, which can be seen on Google Video.

After the war, when shellac for discs once again became available, Terry and McGhee made many recordings for Moe Asch. Terry also appeared as a Broadway actor in Yip Harburg and Burton Lane’s 1947 musical hit, Finian’s Rainbow, which had a part written especially for harmonica and ran for 725 performances on Broadway and toured the country for an additional 10 months. It was Columbia Records’ first recorded musical on 78rpm, and was also used to introduce Columbia’s new LP format. McGhee and Terry also appeared in Elia Kazan’s 1955 production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also starring that other folk music stalwart, Burl Ives).

In the 1960s the duo performed in folk and blues festivals around the world. Terry also worked with Harry Belafonte and made television commercials. His harmonica was also featured on the soundtrack of the film, The Color Purple (1985). In 1975 Terry wrote (with Kent Cooper and Fred Palmer) an instructional book, The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1986, the year of his death.   

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