Culture & Criticism Since 2003
I met Walter Brown “Brownie” McGhee in Oakland, California in the mid 1980s. I was a college student at the time, attending San Francisco State University, studying journalism and creative writing. As such, I had long been interested in the blues, and when I found out that McGee lived in Oakland, I decided to make phone contact with him and seek a real-time lesson from a real-life bluesman. McGee was quickly receptive to the call and invited me to his house.
In his 70s, he was in fragile health. Nonetheless, that did not deter McGhee’s gentle nature. He welcomed me into his house and gave me a extemporaneous education on what it was like to play the blues at a time when African-Americans were hardly being welcomed into the business with open arms. As McGee spoke, there was a rhythm to his language, as the song writer inside his head instantaneously came out. In a sudden twin-fisted flash of words, his core showed through: A master story teller; the common man’s historian; a street poet illuminating the faces of the sharecroppers and slaves of long ago.
Everything about Brownie McGhee resonated with the blues; back then, even his telephone answering machine greeted you with a stabbing song of sorts: “HELL-O/ Thissss is Brow-NEE MaGEEE/ I’m not home just NOWwww to ansirrrr the fa-own/But if you leave your name and NUMBurrrr/I’ll call you soon as I can/The BlUZZZZman….”
McGee’s work with harmonica legend Sonny Terry is world-renowned; together, they influenced countless musicians along the way, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, George Thorogood, John Stewart, Pete Seeger, and Eric Clapton – this brand of blues that meshed the sorrow-stained sound of the South with the social consciousness of the white folk revival.
Still, in this age of smartphones and tech wizardry, much of the current generation has no idea of the duo’s place in the landscape of our musical history. Thus, it seems like an appropriate time to look back now at Brownie McGhee, reconnecting with a man I’d first met when I was just a kid. Rifling through a file cabinet stuffed with songs still in manuscript, McGhee spoke to me with a haunting passion for both art and mankind – speaking of the music that drove and fed him, telling the story of his people and country through the half-shuffle of the blues.
“Maybe we can do a sit-down interview one day,” I mused.
“We’ll see what happens,” McGhee growled, deep in thought. “We will see…”
That movie on paper I wanted to create around McGhee’s music never happened. After college, I took a job at the San Francisco Chronicle and became busy with the business of life. McGhee, meanwhile, got older and more withered before finally dying in 1996.
Nonetheless, comments published in the Chronicle’s This World Section on March 22, 1970 in advance of the Berkeley Blues Festival illuminate the man and his music as well as anything I might have pulled from him: “Blues is a story, man. Blues is not something to be fooled with. It tells something of the past and something of the present. The future is not involved in the blues. The blues has no death, it’s a living thing…”
Even though many young people today have never heard of the music Terry and McGhee made, much of modern day R&B owes its existence to them. In turn, Black History Month 2018 seems the right time to recall the music that Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry made. In the end, their story is really our story told in another form.
“A lot of people don’t want the truth because they can’t afford it,”McGhee continued in that 1970 interview. “Some people hide their past. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my past. You couldn’t buy it! You couldn’t pay me to forget it. And that’s what I’m singing about, those hungry days I’ve had, those bad days of persecution. You can’t have them, you can use them, but you’ve got to give them back…”