Sonny Terry

The Blues: 1938-1953 Mountain Harmonica

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Although North Carolina harmonica man Sonny Terry is best remembered for his long partnership with guitarist Brownie McGhee, he had his own solo career prior to hooking up with McGhee in the early '40s, and he issued several 78s on his own, as well as working with artists as diverse as Blind Boy Fuller, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and later, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, and even Johnny Winter. This two-disc set collects all manner of early material, but the most striking tracks come immediately on the first disc, with the utterly unique and haunting "Mountain Blues" and the ramshackle chaos of "The New John Henry," which features Bull City Red's distinctive washboard. Terry is a revelation on these two tracks, not just because of his trademark high-pitched, biting harmonica style, but because of his impossibly high-pitched yelping vocals, which come with all manner of shouts, whoops, and asides. Throw in the foot stomping, and Terry's Appalachian roots are obvious, because he sounds like nothing so much as a one-man string band playing fiddle runs on the harp, and the vocal whoops function much like dance calls. It is eerie, wonderful stuff, and while the rest of the program is more refined, Terry's mountain roots are always apparent, and these tracks are a revelation if you're only familiar with his later folk revival albums with McGhee. Two discs of it, though, might be a bit much for casual listeners.

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