BROWNIE McGHEE: THE COMPLETE BROWNIE McGHEE (1940-1941; 1994)
CD I: 1) Picking My Tomatoes; 2) Me And My Dog Blues; 3) Born For Bad Luck; 4) I'm Callin' Daisy; 5) Step It Up And Go; 6) My Barkin' Bulldog Blues; 7) Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Baby; 8) Prison Woman Blues; 9) Back Door Stranger; 10) Be Good To Me; 11) Not Guilty Blues; 12) Coal Miner Blues; 13) Step It Up And Go No. 2; 14) Money Spending Woman; 15) Death Of Blind Boy Fuller #1; 16) Death Of Blind Boy Fuller #2; 17) Got To Find My Little Woman; 18) I'm A Black Woman's Man #1; 19) I'm A Black Woman's Man #2; 20) Dealing With The Devil; 21) Double Trouble #1; 22) Double Trouble #2; 23) Woman, I'm Done.
CD II: 1) Key To My Door; 2) Million Lonesome Women; 3) Ain't No Tellin'; 4) Try Me One More Time; 5) I Want To See Jesus; 6) Done What My Lord Said; 7) I Want King Jesus; 8) What Will I Do (Without The Lord); 9) Key To The Highway 70 #1; 10) Key To The Highway 70 #2; 11) I Don't Believe In Love; 12) So Much Trouble; 13) Good-Bye Now; 14) Jealous Of My Woman; 15) Unfair Blues; 16) Barbecue Any Old Time; 17) Workingman's Blues; 18) Sinful Disposition Woman; 19) Back Home Blues; 20) Deep Sea Diver; 21) It Must Be Love; 22) Studio Chatter; 23) Swing, Soldier, Swing #1; 24) Swing, Soldier, Swing #2.
Any album that says Complete is rarely so, and, of course, this one is nowhere near a true «complete», not even close — but it does contain all or most of the recordings that Walter Brown McGhee, a.k.a. «Brownie», made for Okeh and Columbia Records in 1940-41. Apparently, the labels hired him because of growing demand on what would later be known as «Piedmont blues»: their chief star in that genre, Blind Boy Fuller, was selling reasonably well, but was not altogether reliable (certainly not in the wake of a brief prison term in 1938, and especially after having died in 1941), so they thought it wouldn't hurt to hire one more guitar-playing kid.
Brownie, who was self-taught and also used to sing with a local harmony group in Kingsport, Tennessee, must have been one of the smoothest, steadiest, «normal-est» country blues people in existence. He cherished his rural roughness, never going for a «slick» urbanized attitude, but he never imposed that roughness on people, either — everything he plays here is supposed to entertain, not scare people or induce any sort of religious or just plain soulful haze. Granted, in today's world it would have hardly counted as entertainment, either, because Brownie's motto may be decoded as «nothing out of the ordinary, just 12-bar blues guitar playing and by-the-book blues singing». Disregarding slight alternations in tempos (to some of these tunes you sit and tap your foot, to some of them you jiggle and wiggle), the absolute majority of these 47 tracks are completely interchangeable.
Even when Brownie pays tribute to his deceased mentor, Blind Boy Fuller, captured here in two subsequent takes, there is not a shred of extra emotion in his voice and not a single alternation in the regular chord sequences. Some might attribute this to lack of talent, others, on the contrary, will praise the man for keeping a steady footing and not allowing to sacrifice his «realistic» manner of performing for empty ritualistic purposes. Who really knows? But, naturally, it is best not to judge ʽDeath Of Blind Boy Fullerʼ on its own, and, instead, try to get a general feel for Brownie's unassuming playing over the course of those 2 CDs (although, unless you are using this for background purposes, I certainly wouldn't recommend forcing yourself to sit through all the 47 tracks at once — pretty soon you will be getting the obligatory Groundhog Day feeling).
On most of the tracks, Blind Boy is not completely alone, but fairly often he is being backed only by a washboard percussion player (Bull City Red or Washboard Slim) and/or a harmonica partner (Jordan Webb; later on, Sonny Terry joins in for a couple of tracks, but the real partnership between Brownie and Sonny would not truly begin until after the war). The washboard adds a little extra liveliness and, considering Brownie's almost «pedantic» approach to guitar playing, sometimes sounds like the actual lead instrument — but still, this is mostly a solo endeavour, and it is only because McGhee's playing technique is so similar on most of the tracks that one's attention might eventually shift to the scraping, grating, clicking, and clanging of percussion.
Most of the songs happened to be captured in pristine clarity (at least, for 1940), so there is at least one serious advantage to this package: if you want a solid, «no-nonsense», comprehensive, perfectly listenable sample of pre-war country blues, this just might be the package to get. Unless you happen to be a seriously refined blues scholar, there is nothing particularly distinctive about it, but this is also what makes these songs such a perfect primer for getting into the spirit of what it was all about — without getting carried too far away by Charlie Patton's subhuman growling, Bo Carter's obscene innuendos, Lonnie Johnson's virtuoso soloing, Blind Willie McTell's «woman voice», etc. etc. In addition, Brownie puts his «generic stamp» on a variety of styles — ragtime, jug band, gospel — enough to assess the general range of popular black entertainment.
So it's all quite instructive, and those who have the patience to sit through it all will be rewarded at the end with a double-take bouncy guitar duet between Brownie and Buddy Moss from October 1941, back when Buddy was freshly released from jail and eager to reclaim his status of one of the hottest players on the East Coast. However, flashy guitar sparring is simply not what this is all about — more like it's all about a handy, well-illustrated manual for every aspiring acoustic blues player. Great sound, perfect self-assurance, total lack of individual personality: the hard-to-catch «folk spirit» speaking directly to the listener. Thumbs up, if only for this strange feeling of «total impersonality» that emanates from every pore of the record.
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