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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Issue 3. 15th March [1976]


You used to do a bit of preaching when you started playing on the road.

Yeah, when I was young I used to. I was brought up in the church.

People like the Rev. Gary Davis used to....

Well, Rev. Gary Davis was a parish preacher. He was an ordained preacher. But I wasn't. Mine was a gimmick. I knew that religion was a fantasy and everybody believed it and if you can express yourself from the Bible. You know, you can take up a collection. It was to get a crowd round and take up a collection - singing and preaching that was it.

Did you ever record any religious songs?

Oh yes, Brother George and the Sanctified Singers I was on. I've got a whole album out on Fantasy now called 'Closer walk with Thee' All scriptures.

You first recorded, evidently, under the name of Blind Boy Fuller.

No, Brownie McGhee was my first recording 1939.

Weren't you ever given a sort of subtitle of.....

That's after BBF died. I made the 'The Death of Blind Boy'. It was a guitar playing - Sonny was playing with me at the time and I met Sonny. I made 'The Death of BBF and for record selling purposes they called me Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.

Do you feel it helped or hindered your career?

Well, my father though it was scandalous.

In those time who would your biggest influences have been?

Well, I hadn't met BBF at the time. My father was my biggest influence because I'd only heard him and his associates playing. His way of playing the guitar had a great deal of influence on me. He played with 2 fingers and thumb. I used to play with 3 fingers and a thumb. But it got me into just one way of playing. I played more like a classical style. He played that-a-way but he played very slow blues. My father played very slow, country, real cornfield.

Were there any other influences?

Lonnie Johnson was my biggest influence after my father. After I began to listen to the records they had around the house. I found that LJ was picking guitar at that time. I liked that way. I really thought the man had more hands than he did have.

Did you ever work with him?

Yes, I met him in 1948 in Chicago and played with him for the first time on stage. Then after that I invited him up to Canada, (that's where he died). I was around with him in New York in different places and in Philadelphia. I figure I got every record he ever made. I never saw him again.

He was a hell of an influence on me, mostly on my single string. I'd never be able to do what Lonnie was doing, but I could hear it by doing it my way. LJ would sing and play afterward you see. Usually his phrasing would come after he'd sing. All his fantastic playing and his improvising would come after. Now I sing and play at the same time. My style.... my father did that. But I usually use Lonnie Johnson on my improvising on the single string.

Just thinking of guitar styles, I listened the other day to a track you recorded with Sonny and Big Bill Broonzy. What do you think of BBB?

Oh Bill was an outstanding player. Bill's contribution to the blues both in writing and singing of real country blues was enormous.

A lot of blues nowadays is still being written. You've got the old standars but you've got a lot of original stuff continually being written.

The form will never be destroyed. The content goes into it people have different ideas. They're not singing about mules and cotton much. They' re going to sing about cars and short dresses, nice houses and [unclear: Cadillcs]... you know. Everything is changing but the form hasn't changed. The content that goes into the form is the main thing that changes. They call me a city blues singer but I wasn't going to sing city blues. I still live in the country in the mind. I live a little better that's all.

How do you feel about white people playing the blues?

I've got no discrimination against anybody singing the blues because I know they didn't create it. What do you think about me singing an English Ballad. What do you think about Charlie Pride singing country and western? He's Black. If you like the thing and want to do it, you can do it. So that just shows you, Ray Charles took all of country and western and turned them into gold records.

And that changed my attitude about people singing songs - you can sing anything you want to if you want to. If you think you can do it - I can't do it. But now white people can do a good job on the blues. But the main thing found out about white people is that they don't want you to know what goes on behind closed doors. They will not tell you about their personal lives. They seem to be ashamed about what goes on at home - about what goes on in the family. They don't want you to know that they have had it hard.

One of the chief qualities of blues is that one blues song is probably never played the same way to two people. Would you agree?

Yes thats true. It's a free type of music. People try to make a set pattern - they try to put it into a written category. But blues is free. It's a story-tellin thing. It's a music that you tell stories behind — you can relate to that. That's the thing about it and that's what I'm doing when I'me on the stage. I feel so free and relaxed when I have my guitar with me. I'm only really my past. And blues as I said we have a form which is only a 2 chord, 3 chord 4 chord thing. You can do so much improvising on it, and people absolutely turn it into really fantastic stuff.

It's the thing that throws you when you start reading about the history of the blues. There are so many people that probably never actually made it but were evidently really good. Do you think of these people?

I do, yes There's a lot of young blacks that really need to be heard. And I'm trying to do something about it by investing into companies - young record companies that might be able to get them on and get them heard. I think fellas like myself should take them by the hand and let them play with us more. They should be heard because they still have it.

But you won't see them. There's nobody to lead them, and so they'll just be a lost cause, and that's why they keep asking us questions. Are there any young blacks playing the blues? Yeah, there are, but they are hidden. They're pushed back by all the fellas like myself that's out here. Down there as you say, out of the light. The only way they're going to get recognition is by fellas like me, and others like Freddie King and BB King.

You ran a blues school in New York, didn't you?

Yeah, I had a place called the home of the blues and I was training people on stage and on how to get lyrics together, how to store them, how to put them into the form in a way that would be listenable, and hopefully somebody might, like them. And I put a lot of people on records. But I turned them loose at the wrong time and I was working with he wrong people.

Photo of Brownie McGhee performing

page 17

I noticed last night that you and Sonny seemed to be playing individually rather than acting as a two some.

Well, that's the whole thing about myself and Sonny's survival. There are 3 acts on the stage. There's Sonny Terry, and there's Brownie McGhee, and there's Sonny and Brownie. Now we're missing the third part of the show. We always did that. One opened, the other backed and we did 30, 15, 20 - whatever we wanted to do. There s no set time of doing it. If you want to do five numbers, you do 5. We don't go backstage and argue about how many numbers we're going to do. There's as much difference between myself and Sonny Terry as there is between night and day. But we have pooled our resources in being together. We don't dictate to one another. I don't try to change him. You don't change a man's style of playing. You try to support his style of playing and that's why we've been together 37 years. That's a long time to be with a man.

But it's got to the stage now after so many years that the 3rd show is missing. I know it. The duet show, which we do maybe 6 or 8 duets. We're not recording that type of thing any more. We haven't written any new numbers and so I feel like its left out. I haven't written any duets since 1955. And they have to be written. You have to get together on them. You just can't go out and be free. There's the individual stuff that you can do yourself the way that you want to do it, but when you're doing to do duet numbers there's got to be some kind of togetherness. You've got to be oversinging, undersinging, or aftersinging. Some ones got to lead. Someone's got to sing top and someone's got to sing bottom.

Were you singing more duets when you first started up?

No we weren't singing any. Sonny was just backing me up, being honest about it. Sonny didn't start to sing until 1942. When we started in 1939, Sonny was just backing me up. He wasn't even vocalising or singing. The first duet song we did was in '42. And I arranged 'Stranger Blues' That was the first song that we ever did together. Sonny was singing falsetto when I first met him. He doesn't sing false now I think he made 1 or 2 records in falsetto. In 1942 'Stranger Blues' was the first song he ever did in his natural voice. Then after that he got very familiar with what we were doing and I wrote a lot of duets. I arranged 'John Henry', Treated Wrong', 'Sun's Going to Shine' ....and I did a lot of under-toning on that.... 'Ride and Roll'. In 1955 I got a whole album of folksongs. I wrote nothing but duets. I worked on lyrics that would be suitable for us both. And mostly I have him in the lead. And that's all we know now.

You do a song for 20 years, and you think its about time you do some new one. But if we can get on and do that, we do a whole show. That's what we usually do when we got to France, because that album has been translated into French. People say 'are you writing new things?' Sure! Got many new songs. And I could do songs that you have never heard anyway, and you'd think they were new ones. Somebody asked me the other night, he said 'Play the Baseball Boogie' - I didn't think anybody had ever heard of it. It was a dedication in 1947 to Jackie Robertson when he made the baseball team., Brooklyn Dodgers'. It was the season and we sold all our records. When the season was over the records stopped. And I could sing about baseball, but it was no fun Not too many people know that Jackie was the first black to ever hit the major teams.

In the early days before you started recording you were playing with jug bands.

With washboards and tubs, yeah! Those instruments have become very popular, because they're classic instruments now, if you can find anybody to play them. Very seldom you can find a jug-blower, and its very hard to find a good washboard-beater. And tub-players, they're very rare, because how you can pluck a string and move that neck around, its very hard on the hands.

A lot of whites have formed jug bands.

Yes, there is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jim Kweskin had a pretty good thing going but it didn't last long. We have musicians like that in New York, but they're in the ghettos. Nobodys going to take time go in and find them because this thing between the races has got to goddamn up in the air. You know, nobody wants to go in to look for this talent anymore. So its left up to the blacks that come out. Brooklyn is full of good harmonica players washboard players, good tub players, good kazoo blowers, and they just don't get a chance. They don't come out because they don't know where to go, once they walk out of Brooklyn.

Photo of Brownie McGhee performing

I go there quite often when I'm on the East Coast, because I know them. I want to get some of them on record so people will realise that this music is not dead, its not going out. They're still playing it, just not recording it. John Lee Hooker's first guitar was a one string baling wire on a barn door. He doesn't like to talk about it. He used to go out and put the baling wire between two doors and then push the doors back.... before he was able to buy a guitar. And my first string I made for the banjo was a sewing thread. I tied it on branches of a tree, and pushed the branches back. You had to have a lot of patience. I learnt to do ti from my old uncle, he taught me how to wrap the strings together, and stretch it. When you got the sound you wanted you left it to dry. They didn't last, and you had to play them very soft.

If you tie a string in 9 knots and have to play between the knots - that's where you really have fun. That's where the capo come in. I had no capo then. I used a hickory stick. You'd tie that around the neck of the guitar because you weren't able to buy a string in the late 20's. If you did get a string, you'd hang on to it. I tied bass strings and high strings together. As long as you have the capo below the knot you get the same tone. I bottle all my strings. After this tour I'll go back and bottle each set of strings. I could sell them if I wanted to. Someday I might become famous. You could to into my office and see all these guitar strings bottled up and stuck down my bottles saying Germany and India - and think 'Whats all this for'. I save all my strings. I use the same set of strings that I had when I first toured Australia in 1965, the same pick that I made my first record with.

You don't have the guitar you made your first record with?

No, I wished I did, but I was stupid. I had to pay for the new car. It was a little old make-believe guitar. It was so old the keys were all bent on it.

You played a Gibson earlier on didn't you?

Yeah, earlier. I had an SS Steward. Then after that I had a guitar with a neck on it. I liked the body of it and I put a neck in it for me. Then after that I got a Gibson. I sued Blind Boy Fuller's steel Nash one.

How do you feel about the steel guitar?

I liked it at the time because it was a very good weatherproof guitar. Hitch-hiking was.....

You were still on the road?

Yes, I had it when I came to New York.

They were popular because they were loud for the street?

Oh yes, and they were good in the weather. All you had to do was just cover up the resonator - the little piece of wood underneath the bridge. If you keep that from getting wet, its fine. I slept on it many a night. I used it for my pillow, just put a sack on it, put it under your head. Pick it up, put it on your back and walk on. It was no problem. But a wooden guitar - as soon as it started to rain you had to get it under something. It made my shoulders sore after so long - very heavy.