Folk Alliance Newsletter
by Joel Mabus
written August 2002
By Joel Mabus
I was in the studio this past summer working on a blues & ragtime album -- something I've promised myself to do for years and now getting around to it. It's one of the most fun times in the studio I've had with a guitar. Growling, shouting and thumping my thumb -- it's a good workout.
And it has shaken loose some old memories. One of them is the afternoon I spent with Brownie McGhee some thirty years ago.
It was either late 1972 or early in '73. I was in my sophomore year at Michigan State, living in the "hippie" dorm of Snyder-Phillips ("Sni-Fi" we called it) spending a lot of time goofing off and playing guitar. It was the year that a grad student named Jim Fleming started an on-campus "coffeehouse" called Mariah. Mariah promised to bring in the top folk and blues acts to do concerts on campus for 2 or 3 nights at a 1 or 2 dollar ticket. (That math is as astounding now as it was appealing then.) Their first show was with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
They were great Friday night. Even though they seemed to be having one of their famous feuds onstage the two bluesmen were in their prime and thoroughly captivating. I had never seen them live -- though I had a few of their records worn down to scratches. I was planning to go back the next night too.
Saturday morning I was inspired to play my guitar. My roommate was sleeping in so I slung my Martin over my back and headed down to the basement of the dorm, where things were always dead in the AM. There I played for an hour or so, when a buddy -- who shared my tastes in music -- happened by. He said with a beaming face "Did you know Sonny and Brownie are staying in our dorm? They're in the guest room right upstairs!"
I said I thought that was cool and returned to my guitar. "Come on! I want to introduce you to them!" he said and prodded me upstairs.
"I don't think we should bother them," I said. "No no no, it'll be cool!" he assured me, as he knocked on their door.
I wasn't really thinking clearly or I would have told my friend not to be an ass and leave these poor guys alone. But I stood there like an oaf with my guitar as Brownie answered the door and graciously asked us in.
"This is my friend and he plays guitar really well!" was how I was cheerily introduced to Brownie. The man was of about 57 years, which at the time seemed very old indeed. He looked at me skeptically and said "That's a nice Martin guitar you got -- don't you have a case for it?" I said it was up in my room. Then he asked me to play him a tune.
I don't remember what I played, but Brownie nodded in approval. He said I reminded him of Doc Watson or the Carter Family. He said he liked that “hillbilly” stuff -- used to play it when he was a kid. "Now they won't let me," he scowled.
I played a few tunes for him. He watched seriously and then pronounced, "I'm gonna play my guitar with you. But you're so good, I'm gonna have to change my strings first." I was about ready to bust at that. My head must have grown 2 hat sizes. I watched as he changed his strings. He liked Black Diamond strings -- extra light. "Light as I can get 'em," he told me. I was using extra lights then too, so I thought I was really in the know.
It was about this time I noticed that in the next room of the suite Sonny Terry was sitting on the side of his bed. Fully clothed, but just sitting there quietly with his hands folded. Brownie told me of all sorts of things as he smoked cigarettes and changed his strings. He said you could drink whiskey and play guitar at the same time as long as you didn't quit doing either. Stop either activity and you're in trouble. He said he once drank a whole quart of whiskey while he was playing his guitar and stayed sober as a judge. But once he put down his guitar he "couldn't find the floor."
He took all six strings off before putting on the fresh set. When he was done we played together for more than an hour. We played mostly blues. He was insistent on calling the key and the number of bars -- 8, 12, or 16 -- before each song, even when the changes were obvious. "All blues aren't alike" he said several times. Either he thought this was a lesson I should learn, or it was a fact of life he needed to speak.
In those days I tended to play too fast and put all my favorite licks in every song. And looking back, Brownie was probably planning to change his strings that afternoon anyway. But he went out of his way to make me feel like an equal. It was a wonderful gift he gave me, his time that afternoon. That night on stage he saw me in the audience and gave me a wink and a point with his finger. He was still mad at Sonny. And Sonny never did budge from that bed the whole time I was playing with Brownie.
Mariah Coffeehouse had a good run of four or five years. I became an early favorite as an opening act and opened for a lot of great acts there over the years -- Lightning Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Rambling Jack Elliott, Steve Goodman, Boys of the Lough and several more. It was a great education in stagecraft as well as an opportunity to meet some truly great talent. After the first few seasons Jim Fleming went on to start a talent agency in Ann Arbor, which now is famous for its roster of singer songwriters.
Sonny and Brownie eventually split up. The last time I saw them as a duo, they didn't speak to each other at all, nor did they play together -- they took turns doing solos. It was sad to watch. They really could cook when they were "on." I think musically and personally, they tugged each other in different directions. Sonny was all about rhythm and drive. His songs were often wonderfully hypnotic and repetitious. He made the mouth harp dance. On the other hand, Brownie was into subtle word play and a smooth sophistication in his chord choices. He painted pictures with his songs. These two different artistic temperaments could make for a great blend, but eventually tore the men apart.
I never played with Brownie again, though I did have a spirited session with Sonny at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early 1980's. Both have now passed. Brownie died in Oakland California in 1996, a decade after Sonny. Brownie McGhee was, as most of the great bluesmen were, a philosopher. And I learned more from him in one day than with a whole term of certain college professors.