Brownie McGhee - guitar, vocals
Walter "Brownie" McGhee, born in 1915, began pursuing music at an early age. A paralyzed leg, the result of polio, prevented McGhee from pursuing work as a farm hand or factory worker, the jobs available to most black men at the time. With limited opportunities, he pursued music in order to earn a living. Originating from Tennessee, McGhee favored the Appalachian region's Piedmont blues style which, unlike the Mississippi Delta blues, had a gentler, less raucous sound and was open to outside influences including ragtime and country music. He became a protégé of the guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and favored his East Coast Piedmont style. Following Fuller's death in 1941, McGhee, a folk-blues singer and gifted acoustic guitar player, teamed up with Sonny Terry, a gifted harmonica player and singer who supplemented his singing with distinctive whoops and hollers. The combination of Terry's raspier vocals and raw freight-train harmonica and McGhee's softer, more melodic approach created a dynamic contrast that was also evident in their personal relationship. Regardless of their undeniable musical chemistry, McGhee and Terry were known for their mutual antagonism, arguing with each other both on and off stage. Despite this, the duo enjoyed astounding career longevity, performing and recording together for nearly 40 years. Over the course of those four decades, they recorded a surprisingly diverse catalogue of music. They also embraced other projects like appearing in the original Broadway productions of Finnian's Rainbow and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, but are most revered for their traditional Piedmont blues material. During the folk and blues revivals of the late 1950s and 1960s, McGhee and Terry's recordings and performances caught the attention of a much broader audience and they would become the most widely recognized duo in the history of the blues.
George Wein, the impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival (which began in 1954 and 1959, respectively) is renowned for showcasing younger, older and rediscovered jazz, blues and folk musicians alike. However, his vision also included adding complimentary elements to the festivals, which presented figures from the regular Newport Festival programs participating in educational workshops, often held under tents on the festival grounds.
Presented here is a rare recording of McGhee performing alone before an intimate audience under a workshop tent at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. McGhee also served as master of ceremonies for this day's workshop program. The song he performs, "The Big Question," is an excellent example of his clean Piedmont style technique and engaging vocal delivery. The song is also a direct and thought-provoking statement on civil rights. The big question, of course, is why there was a lack of true equality in America, with each verse giving a vivid example and the chorus questioning the sensibility of such acts. Essentially, this blues is a song of black pride that eloquently portrays the struggle for civil rights during a most tumultuous time in American history.
-Written by Alan Bershaw