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Monday, December 16, 2013

Brownie McGhee: The Folkways Years


1) Daisy; 2) Rising Sun; 3) Careless Love; 4) Cholly Blues; 5) Just A Dream; 6) Pawn Shop Blues; 7) Hangman's Blues; 8) Livin' With The Blues; 9) 'Fore Day Creep; 10) Me And Sonny; 11) Raise A Ruckus Tonight; 12) Betty And Dupree; 13) Long Gone; 14) Grievin' Hearted Blues; 15) I'm Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me; 16) Can't Help Myself; 17) Pallet On The Floor.

In between 1945 and 1959, Brownie recorded at least six different albums of acoustic blues and «para-blues» material for Folkways records, all of them still preserved in the Smithsonian ar­chives and available if one looks really hard... but on the whole, they have been long since out of print, and the most common (and the only recommendable) way to get yourself acknowledged with Brownie's musical life throughout that period is through this generous 17-song sampler that claims to collect most of the highlights.

It is interesting, but perhaps expectable, that, unlike so many of his pals from pre-war times, McGhee never really «faded away»: he continued to release small quantities of 45s throughout the late 1940s, and then, by the early 1950s, tied a steady knot with Folkways, performing either solo (on the majority of these tracks) or as part of a guitar / harmonica duo with Sonny Terry (on a minority of the tracks, although the two went on to cut quite a few LPs together). He was, to a certain extent, marketed as a «survivor» already in the 1950s, and, along with Big Bill Broonzy and a couple other people, played the part of a wond'rous living fossil, to be admired by Village scholars and schoolboys — played it fairly well, as this collection demonstrates, because first and foremost it sounds like an honest, meticulously planned and executed «blues manual».

Unlike his earlier recordings for Columbia, where Brownie seemed too hard pressed into a single «Piedmont» formula, this Folkways stuff is, well, not exactly «all over the place», but still fairly diverse by comparison. Already the third track is a take on the old vaudeville number ʽCareless Loveʼ (which Brownie possibly picked up from Blind Boy Fuller, but which really used to be a staple for the urban blues queens in the 1920s). ʽHangman's Bluesʼ is an almost haunting shuffle, a «dark ballad» that adds intimacy, personality, and depth to Brownie's hitherto rather faceless character. ʽRaise A Ruckus Tonightʼ stems from some old minstrel show and attempts to do exac­tly what the doctor prescribed. ʽLong Goneʼ experiments a little bit with the vocals, as Brownie clones himself by echoing each of his lines, and with the guitar playing (a rather strange, hard to describe, picking style here). ʽI'm Gonna Tell God...ʼ speaks for itself — actually, it could be de­scribed as danceable «country-gospel blues», if only to pick your interest for a bit.

Some of Brownie's soloing here is quite admirable, too, particularly on extended tunes like ʽCholly Bluesʼ where you can hear proto-rockabilly chord sequences that would later be all the rage on Carl Perkins (and, subsequently, Beatles) albums; and on the comic blues number ʽDaisyʼ, he tries to transplant his subtle sense of humor into his instrument, with partial success. But, where possible, he leaves the solo spotlight to Sonny Terry (ʽLiving With The Bluesʼ), unques­tionably the more virtuoso player of the two — their friendship touchingly acknowledged in ʽMe And Sonnyʼ, which Brownie actually performs solo, perhaps as a surprise present to his friend.

Basically, if you only want a primer of Brownie's work, Folkways Years is a better bet than the pre-war recordings — better quality, not enough running time to start getting way too redundant, and both Brownie and Sonny are still well in their prime and «raisin' a ruckus» wherever possible. Neither the war nor a steady record contract were enough to transform McGhee into a jaw-drop­ping, inimitable master guitarist or a unique singer, of course, but at least this emergence as a «living blues icon» has prompted him to put down on record a more diverse and representative portfolio than ever before — so the according thumbs up go not just to him, but to Moses Asch as well, the founding father of Folkways Records, directly responsible for hours upon hours of quasi-religious joy for authentic blues aficionados.

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