|'Til I Find My Way Home|
The lost Brownie McGhee interview
by Tim Schuller
On the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, there is a factory that in 1973 built frames for trucks, buses and Willys jeeps. Its work force comprised some 1200 individuals. In February of that year, two of them interviewed Brownie McGhee.
McGhee talked for hours to the two working men. He told them colorful, exciting things. He told them revealing things, and on several occasions surprised them considerably.
What McGhee, who died February 16 of cancer, told the two men has remained unpublished -- until now.
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry often closed their shows with a song called "Find My Way Back Home." They'd sing the closing refrain, "Walk on, walk on. I'm gonna keep on walkin' 'til I find my way back home" repeatedly, getting quieter and quieter each time until they were literally whispering. It triggered a movie in your head of the two of them ambling down some mythic highway, singing as you watched them get smaller and smaller in the distance.
After closing with that song at the Smiling Dog Saloon on West 25th Street in Cleveland in 1973, McGhee agreed to an interview.
The next day, the two men got off work at the factory, piled into a 1964 Rambler station wagon and went to a place that rented electrical equipment. They rented a reel-to-reel tape recorder that weighed only slightly less than the Rambler and went with it to the hotel where McGhee was staying.
He had to know that these weren't seasoned journalists who could further his career. Still, he was generous with his recollections. He appreciated good questions and was patient with those he'd answered before.
McGhee was born in Tennessee in either 1914 or 1915. Polio gnarled his right leg, but he took to the road nonetheless, wandering about the land like the folk troubadour he was. In North Carolina he met J.B. Long, a store owner/talent scout who'd been handling Blind Boy Fuller since 1935. Fuller died in February of 1941, and less than three months later Long facilitated McGhee's recording of "The Death of Blind Boy Fuller" for Okeh. Long has been represented by some blues journalists as an exploiter, but McGhee said otherwise.
"When somebody blazes a path to a highway that never end, you should appreciate 'em some," McGhee said of Long.
McGhee's highway led straight to New York. He and Sonny were there by the early 1940s, living with Leadbelly on East 9th Street. Brownie and Sonny were the first true bluesmen to bring their music to white America (predating even Big Bill Broonzy in this distinction). They and the songsters, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, were the real heroes of the East Coast folk-music movement that would also include Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Josh White, Oscar Brand and lesser lights. They played at political kaffeeklatches and liberal colleges. They held "hootenannies" in Washington Square and helped establish Greenwich Village as a nightlife spot.
In New York, McGhee made records for Alert, Disk, Sittin' In With, Savoy, Jay and Encore. After 1955, he and Sonny cut for Folkways, Choice, Vanguard, World Pacific, Prestige and more. McGhee appeared in theatrical productions, including "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" with Barbara Bel Geddes, Pat Hingle and his old bud from the folk scene, Burl Ives.
Before his fame, McGhee was a rambling man. He hitchhiked his way around the land, though not in aimless wandering. It's a story told best by McGhee himself.
The Brownie McGhee Narrative:
I looked for money towns, where I knew they had paydays. I didn't just walk the highway. I found out where they was paydays every two weeks. Winston-Salem was a good town to hustle in -- any town in North Carolina was a good town to hustle in because they were tobacco towns, market places where people sold things, coal fields where the commissaries were, and people got paid off. Those were the places I played around. The beer taverns, whiskey gardens. Make money. People didn't mind givin' you a place to sleep, if they liked you, you understand. You had to look halfway decent, and you didn't just go play people for suckers because that wasn't the game. I'd get a meal, I made me some money, and I met a lot of good people. I wisht I could do it now but I'm gettin' old. Anyway coal fields not in existence like they used to be. That was all before I met Sonny. I was a loner then.
I met Sonny after (Blind Boy) Fuller died, and me and Sonny played in the streets like everybody else. I was livin' in Durham, North Carolina, and after Fuller died I was asked to go to Washington (D.C.) with Sonny. (J.B.) Long said it'd be nice if I'd go up there with him and take my guitar. I was just goin' along for the ride. But I introduced myself to the Library of Congress people, made some records under the supervision of Alan Lomax. From then on in, me and Sonny started makin' records. My first records, Sonny was backin' me up. Sonny wasn't singin' natural at the time; he was singin' falsetto.
McGhee's interviewers had read that when Son House recorded for Lomax, he was paid with a bottle of Coke. They asked McGhee about Lomax's reputation for being a tightwad.
Well, let's be honest about Lomax. Let's shelve this thing together. Something is better than nothing. Doin' anything for a man, there's investments involved, there's time and production. It's better to give him ten bucks and get a record out than to never record the cat. See, House and a lot of these old-timers wouldn't have been heard of if it hadn't been for Lomax. This is the marvelous thing about it.
The man who picked me up was J.B. Long. A lot of people give J.B. Long a hard time, but I don't give J.B. Long a hard time. I thought he was a marvelous fellow. He may not have given me every dime I was supposed to get, but how much did I know I was supposed to get? He saw some talent, he saw some quality involved and he used his ingenuity to get me on record, so automatically I owe him a vote of thanks for gettin' Brownie McGhee alive. Long made it possible for me to get on records, so what little money he did take from me, if any at all, he was entitled to it. He didn't take something from me. He made it possible for me to get something for myself if I was intelligent enough to go on and do it and not stop and sit down. And that's what I mean: Anybody blazes a path to a highway that never end, you should appreciate 'em some.
Guys started tellin' me, we need a fellow like you, Brownie and Sonny, in New York, to play the blues. I laughed at him, I said, "Who the hell gonna listen to the blues in New York?" He said, "There's a lot of people that's hungry for the blues." So I came to New York in 1942 and lived with Leadbelly a couple years after living with the Dominic Singers down on 6th Avenue. Then I took off to Harlem. I got Sonny up to Harlem, and we started street playin' in New York. We did that for three or four years and survived. We brought it back to the streets again.
I didn't make too many records with Leadbelly. The truth about it, Lead had his 12-string guitar, and I was playin' a steel National. My guitar was loud as hell, and I had no sympathy for anybody else. If he didn't play as loud as me, he was drowned out. I played in the street and had to have something loud. That guitar was (Blind Boy) Fuller's guitar. Little was being said about it, but it had been in the pawn shop. It was put there by Fuller's brother, and Long got it out of the pawn shop and give it to me. That's how I got it. I didn't get it from Fuller. So when I got to New York it was a good, loud, outdoor guitar, and the weather didn't bother it too much. All you had to do was keep the resonator from getting wet.
I was playing with steel picks on a steel guitar, and there was no amplification needed. I started a guitar school. It was called Home of the Blues, on 125th Street in New York. I did that for five, six years and had a lot of students. Blind Gary (Davis) used to teach there. Most of the thing was to teach people the blues pattern, how to get lyrics together to tell a story in rhyme, and I give 'em a chance to present themselves before the public. I had a little auditorium in there. I'd put on little programs there, charge 50 cents a head, maybe a dollar, and we didn't do too bad.
When Big Bill (Broonzy) came to New York, he'd come to Leadbelly's house. Bill had some people who lived in New York and we became good friends. I got songs that Bill gave me in his own handwriting. He said, "Go ahead and do 'em, Brownie." Only record we did was on the Studs Terkel show in Chicago, live. We were supposed to do some together, but everything got fucked up and we never got to do it. Bill was a jolly man, a happy guy. He was a good guitar player and a good writer, and he wasn't a moneyhungry man. It's better to be social, and Bill was a good party man. He was in New York about two years, and that's where we got to know each other.
The folk festivals began -- I think Newport was about the first one. We used to have things up on the Hudson (River), during the Josh White era -- Josh's days, Leadbelly days -- before the groups and things was organized. It was single action then and duets. We'd get guitars and go floatin' up the Hudson and have a big bash.
Hootenannies was the big thing. We'd get a big theater or building and put on a hootenanny to pick up a couple bucks. We didn't make any real money but we got over to the public. Then the folk festivals got very popular. Folk singers -- as they say. They were singers of folk songs, they weren't folk singers. Everybody would grab a guitar and listen to somebody else and call themselves a folk singer. When they didn't know no more songs, they'd run out of them.
Logically, when you talkin' about folk music and blues, you find out it's music of just plain people. They created a lot of good songs without bein' musical geniuses, and then someone comes along and fastens a copyright on a traditional song and takes advantage of people. I only write about what I do, what happens to me. I don't sit here and dream because I don't care about the future. I wouldn't take nothin' for my past and I've got enough behind me that I can write forever.
McGhee is asked if he knew Blind Willie McTell, and McGhee responds in the negative. The interviewers say that McTell is a hard man to research.
Well, I'll tell you why. Because Lomax didn't get to him. This is what's so bad about it, people put it into other people's heads. "Don't talk to this guy; he's a bad guy." But now you want information, and you can't get it. What I'd really like to do is, go out in the field and get this. There's a lot of good musicians who are unheard of. Get it down before they pass away.
You don't know much about Lightnin' Hopkins. You don't know much about Son House. Mance Lipscomb? There's a few stories on him, but nobody goes to talk to him for weeks, to live with him, to get a good chapter in a book.
The interviewers asked McGhee about the LP Brownie & Sonny (Everest FS-242), with Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Joe Williams. According to his recollection, it was initially cut for the California label World Pacific.
Yeh, that was '60. I was practically the instigator in gettin' that together because we were all on the West Coast. Very seldom do you find four old-timers in the same town. We met and I called up some people with World Pacific and said we'd just like to do something on record while we're still alive. They didn't give us much money, but it was money to survive while we were goin' around. And so we went in for rehearsal. They cut it the same day we was rehearsin,' and I dug the session. The record is very enjoyable, and I enjoyed makin' it.
I'm not one of those players wants to pick places to play. That's not my bag. Anywhere I'm wanted, I'll go. I've got to be wanted, though. When I was hitch-hiking, people had to follow me, 'cause I didn't stay long. That's what I liked about hitch-hiking. If a crowd wasn't big enough, I kept walkin.'
This is an abridged version of the Brownie McGhee interview.
For the complete article,
get the hard-copy version of BLUES ACCESS.
A word here, about the factory workers who interviewed him in 1973. Ex-factory workers they are now. One is Mot Dutko, presently drummer/leader of the Crazy House Band in Chicago. The other is Tim Schuller.
I write about blues and jazz. It's what I do, and who I am. Brownie McGhee was the first bluesman I ever interviewed. Not long after the interview took place, several magazines did Brownie/Sonny stories, so what Mot and I gathered remained unpublished. But very, very poignant to me is McGhee's statement about how when someone leads you to a highway that never end, you should appreciate 'em some.
Believe me: I appreciate Brownie McGhee.
For two decades, I've interviewed and written about some of the most significant blues and jazz players on our planet. I think I've earned the right to a little self-indulgence:
Schuller and McGhee are standing at a crossroads.
Schuller has absolutely no idea which way to go. The roads he sees might be OK for some people, but for him they'd be sure death. But then McGhee points to a highway he'd never seen before. It's absolutely full of stories to write.
That's for me, says Schuller, who's immensely relieved at receiving (for the first time) a clarity of focus. He turns to thank McGhee.
But Brownie has already set forth and is well down the highway of his own choosing. He's with Sonny Terry, and they're singing as they stride. In this vision, McGhee has no polio and Sonny Terry is not blind. They get further and further off in the distance, but their song remains clear.
"Walk on, walk on. I'm gonna keep on walkin' 'til I find my way back home."