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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, November 29, 2010


Brownie McGhee was born in Knoxville Tennessee 95 years ago tomorrow. Here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

McGhee, Brownie [1915 - 1996]

Walter Brown McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 30, 1915. He was the older and smoother brother of Granville Sticks McGhee, composer of ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’, with whom Brownie played in New York in the early 1940s, and on whose brother’s huge hit record of 1949 Brownie too played and sang. He learnt ukelele, 5-string banjo, piano and guitar but concentrated on guitar, met harmonica-player SONNY TERRY in 1939 and off and on worked with him for 40 years thereafter.

McGhee first recorded in August 1940 in Chicago (his début track was ‘Pickin’ My Tomatoes’), and being an exemplar of the Piedmont blues school (if, in fact, there ever was such a thing) he was promoted as the successor to BLIND BOY FULLER, with whom he and Sonny Terry had both worked shortly before Fuller’s death. He made one gospel session in 1941 - as it happens, the day before Bob Dylan was born - billed as Brother George and his Sanctified Singers and he was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942.

With and without Sonny, Brownie recorded for Folkways from the mid-1940s till the late 1950s (though moonlighting under pseudonyms for many other labels) and the two became an omnipresent part of the folk revival and blues revival scene in New York City (McGhee had even played on the soundtrack of Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, and both would do more filmwork later).

By the time Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village they were perhaps the world’s best-known still-active blues artists. McGhee’s Leroy Carr-inspired ‘In the Evening’ was in Dylan’s repertoire by the time he went back to Minneapolis in December 1961 to show his old friends there his greatly-improved skills and knowledge.

Dylan mentions Sonny & Brownie alongside THE BEATS and the jazz musicians when listing, in the Biograph box-set interview of 1985, the constituent parts of the underground, bohemian scene that he found and tagged onto just before it was too late. But as Tony Russell sums it up, ‘They were around for so long that they began to be overlooked or underestimated. Their blues stories, once new and fascinating, were still worth listening to but they had told them too often and like pub bores they…lost their audience. Still, for a generation they had been despatch riders of the blues…’

Sonny & Brownie, as it was sufficient to call them, played all through the 1960s and survived beyond them, recording, in 1973, a ‘contemporary’ album (itself just called Sonny & Brownie) on which they were joined by CLYDIE KING, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, JOHN MAYALL and even (on a cover of Randy Newman’s splendid song ‘Sail Away’) ARLO GUTHRIE and included versions of ‘People Get Ready’ and SAM COOKE’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.

By this point, though, the two could hardly stand each other though their duo continued until 1982, after which McGhee recorded with the inferior harp player Sugar Blue. He long outlived his ex-partner and died of cancer in Oakland, California on February 16, 1996, aged 80.


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