Usually, postmodern referencing in songs—the name-dropping and allusions to other works of art, people, and places—is complete hipster mental masturbation. “Do you get it? Do you see what I just did there?” is what the artist is usually saying, other times lists of people are given to boost credibility by association, or perhaps it can be a shorthand way of communicating a feeling or character. Generally, I attribute the referencing to artistic laziness or strained coolness, but every now and then it can be effective and useful.
One such time was many years ago, when I was listening to my then-favorite track “Cleaning Windows”, by Van Morrison. Van the Man drops a lot of great references in that song—Jimmie Rodgers, Christmas Humphreys, and of course big Jack Kerouac. But it was the section of blues musician’s shout outs that gave me my (name-check) introduction to two artists I had been unfamiliar with: “I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon/ On the streets where I was born/ Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee/ Muddy Waters singing I’m a rolling stone.” And so I went looking for a proper introduction.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee teamed up in the 1940s to make a very distinct style of the blues—the Piedmont blues. The name refers to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and like that geographical region, the music is a combination of southern blues, ragtime and up-beat country swing. It’s a conflation of American music, so much so that Werner Herzog chooses Sonny Terry tunes as part of the soundtrack to his deconstruction-of-the-American-dream film Stroszek.
Terry’s harmonica style of high-pitch screetchin’ and yellin’ “whooo” in between blows (naturally dubbed whoopin’) is as original as anything in music can be, memorable and often-imitated. McGhee’s guitar playing was one of the first to be dubbed Piedmont blues style, and he was featured on a number of recordings throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, including the likes of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee hit their stride during the folk boom of the late ‘50s, when they toured incessantly and were championed by the then up-and-coming folk artists like one Bob Dylan.
If you are looking for a musical introduction, do as the title of this album says and walk on. Yes, Terry and McGhee are in great form on this live recording, but this collection is 12 tracks long and only six of the performances are theirs. Three others belong to Louisiana Red, a younger-in-comparison blues artist who is largely unremarkable (doing three covers of very popular, standard blues songs) and the other three belong to Lightin’ Hopkins. Hopkins tracks are solid, but this album isn’t titled and shelved as a compilation.
This is a reissue of the album Walk On, originally released on the Bulldog label, comprised of live performances from The Rising Sun Festijazz in Canada. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were playing together for the first time after having split a few years earlier, and whatever there differences may have been were laid to rest at least while on stage. There is great rapport between the two men both in between songs and musically, and Terry’s whoopin’ is joyous.
The album has been digitally re-mastered from the original live tapes of the performance in 1980 and it sounds great musically. There is even the charm of “Good Morning Blues” being plagued by feedback problems, making the track feel more intimate, a nice recorded moment’s attempt at dissolving space and time boundaries.
Or maybe you’ll just find the feedback annoying, like an album billed as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee that is only 50 percent them.
// Notes from the Road
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