The Recordings of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Stick McGhee and J C Burris
Compiled by Chris Smith. Shetland: The Housay Press, 1999. ISBN 0 9537412 0 6
Reviewing a discography can be a tricky business, especially if the reviewer happens to know much about the subject that the compiler doesn't. That is emphatically not the case here. Chris Smith's knowledge of the recordings of these artists vastly exceeds mine, so this review isn't going to be about scanning the various sessions and gleefully correcting errors of fact (I spotted a solitary typo, but I won't boast about it). I would start, in fact, with the assumption that the discography - all 124 pages of it - is as comprehensive and as accurate as is possible at this time. I would start there, primarily because I have known Chris Smith's work for the best part of 25 years, and his writings in many publications (including Musical Traditions) stand testimony to his meticulousness and tenaciousness, as well as his wide knowledge of the blues. Having started at that point, there is nothing in the work under review here to undermine that view, and a great deal to lend support to it.
The main body of the discography is clearly laid out, consistently organised (using the standard format), and enhanced with both a song title index and a musician index. Its scope is inclusive, covering not only those sessions which produced records released under the name of one (or more) of the featured artists, but also every one in which any of them appeared as an accompanist. Thus it takes us from Sonny's first appearance playing harp behind Blind Boy Fuller in 1937, to Brownie's last session with the Elmer Lee Thomas Blues Revue in 1995. Along the way, it picks up Stick McGhee (Brownie's brother) first as a background accompanist with Dan Burley, but soon in his own right with his classic recording of Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee for Harlem in 1947. J C Burris (Sonny's nephew) appears first in the 1950s. (It's good to have Stick and J C covered here, but they are really bit players in a much bigger picture).
The discography is very extensively annotated, first with a substantial introduction, and then as the discography proceeds, with detailed observations about the sessions, about the various participants, about the record labels, and so on. It comes complete with appendices listing the titles of all the EPs, LPs, cassettes and CDs covered, and two lists of equivalents (so that you can find all the different versions that have been released of a given LP or CD) one in order of the original releases, one in order of successor releases, as well as a list of conjoining releases. Another list enables you to find the country of origin of each record label. And there's even a guide to the real names of the many pseudonymous individuals who pepper the pages. All of these additional charts appear to be as painstakingly compiled and as detailed as you could wish for. Even the list of acknowledgements runs to an A4 page and a half.
If you are reading this review, without much knowledge of the blues, or of the artists concerned, you should be impressed enough already, but the sheer scale of the achievement is probably not really apparent. What those with only a passing interest in the subject will probably not appreciate is just how many record releases this covers. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, whether individually or combined, made vast numbers of records - there are sessions here in France, Germany, Denmark, the UK, Canada, as well as dozens on both coasts of the USA and places in between. Not only that, but many of their records have been reissued, time after time, on various different labels, and under various different album titles. There's a couple of famous sessions in 1960/61 (which they shared with Big Joe Williams and Lightnin' Hopkins respectively) from which the tracks cut have appeared in various combinations on over 20 different LPs or CDs. Each one is carefully listed here, and the annotations are detailed and meticulous to an almost obsessive degree (how many people would bother to note that Drinkin' In The Blues is entitled Drinking In The Blues on some of these releases, and may be entitled Drinkin' The Blues on others?).
The other reason why this massive, comprehensive work is so extraordinary - it has to be said - is that if there are few people who would consider documenting any blues artist to this degree, there must be fewer still who would dream of doing it for these particular artists (in fact, there's probably only one, and he's just done it). Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, while probably among the most famous names of all blues singers, particularly to people over the age of 40, are among the least respected among the majority of those who would describe themselves as blues fans. This, of course, is partly the reason why Chris Smith has felt the need to do what he has done here - it is quite clear that previous discographers have lacked the enthusiasm to document in detail the recordings of artists whose work they, frankly, disdain. In fact, a statement to this effect was even made explicitly in the first edition of Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven's Blues Records 1943-1966 (Oak, 1970). Chris clearly feels differently - he makes few qualitative comments in his introduction, but he concludes it by stating the wish that this work will encourage people "to be active listeners, and to make - even, perhaps, to change - their own judgements about the music … the effort is worth making".
So, where does the present writer stand on this? I'm quite prepared to admit to having been influenced by writers who have given little credit to these two men - in the late 1970s, when I started to buy blues records in earnest and was devouring every blues magazine I could get my hands on, it was rare to find a positive review of anything they did after about 1958 (i.e. anything other than the commercial recordings they made before they got involved with the folk music scene). With limited budgets for record-buying, and a wide and eclectic range of tastes, I've never had much room for risk-taking, so I've tended to approach their work with a degree of caution. On the other hand, there are solo harmonica and vocal recordings by Sonny Terry that I would rank among some of the most extraordinary and beautiful music I've ever heard. There's plenty more that I am very fond of, including music by both McGhee and Terry separately, and ones that they made together. Much of the rest, I could probably pass a happy hour or so with - although I have heard some that really did sound tired and uninspiring. I've no doubt, also, that in 16 years of writing reviews for Blues & Rhythm magazine, I've probably made a few prejudiced remarks on the subject myself. Whether Chris's superb documentation will turn the tide for the reputations of these remarkable artists remains to be seen, but anybody who picks this book up should be impressed enough at least to stop for a moment and think. I'm not going to rush out and buy a pile of 'sonnyandbrownie' CDs, but I'm sure to make more effort to pay attention next time I hear one I haven't heard before.
Available from: The Housay Press, Kelda Lee, Aith Bixter, Shetland ZE2 9NB, Scotland, UK. Tel: 01806 515206; Fax: 01806 515261. Or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ray Templeton - 10.3.00
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