Thursday, 25 October 2018

Sonny and me

Yesterday would have been the 107th birthday of the blind blues harmonica player Sonny Terry (who died aged 74 in 1986).

A couple of years after his death, I watched a BBC Arena documentary presented by Alan Yentob about the left-wing folk singer Woody Guthrie which included footage of him playing with Sonny Terry and the guitarist Brownie McGhee, with whom Sonny formed a long, if not always harmonious offstage, musical partnership, and a few months after that was in an "A" Level General Studies lesson when the teacher played a Guthrie track and asked if anyone knew who it was (needless to say, I was the only one who did; he also read to us the famous bit in W.C. Handy's autobiography, Father of the Blues, where he recalls meeting a "lean loose-joined Negro" at a country station in Mississippi in 1903 who "pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar with a knife" as he played a song about "goin' where the Southern cross the Dog", which Handy called "the weirdest music I ever heard", before playing Charlie Patton to us, thus planting another musical seed in me...).

Where white teenage blues fans in sixties England began by listening to the Stones and Animals' cover versions before working their way back to the Chicago originals by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, I started with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee accompanying Woody Guthrie, moved on to Bob Dylan's early Guthriesque albums and then the folk-blues of John Lee Hooker, before finally arriving myself at those post-war South Side classics.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee also appeared alongside Muddy Waters, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pianists Cousin Joe Pleasant and Otis Spann and bassist Ransom Knowling at the disused Wilbraham Road railway station in south Manchester in 1964 for the Granada TV show Blues & Gospel Train, performing somewhat incongruously between stacked coops of chickens and a tethered goat on the platform.

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