Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

Down Home Blues

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Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee hadn't been working together too long when they cut Down Home Blues, which was also only the second album ever released by Prestige Records on their new Bluesville imprint (the first, for the record, was Al Smith's Hear My Blues). The exact dates of the session are in dispute -- some claim December 1959; others August 1960 -- but the music itself stands outside of time. McGhee's strumming and singing have enough polish to pass as a commercial recording, but at its best, it's still sufficiently unaffected so as to be regarded as authentic country-blues. It's Terry's harp, however, that really pulls this body of music back to its roots: his playing and howling on "Fox Hunt" represent music-making rooted in a world far removed from late-'50s commercial music (and aimed mostly at white listeners), fortunately captured and transplanted here to startling effect. And when Terry steps forward on vocals he can even give an old chestnut like "Back to New Orleans" (subsequently covered by white artists from Van Morrison and Them on down) into something fresh in its raw simplicity; and on "Baby How Long," his harp engages in some killer pyrotechnics that dominate the song. Their vocal duets are just as appealing, but in a different way. "Stranger Here," for example, comes off almost like a pop-blues effort in its affectation. But the dominant elements of this album are the charm and honesty that Terry and McGhee offer, whatever their particular style on a specific song; they had portions of both to spare by the bucketload, which accounts for the 15 years that they held audiences in their spell. And the stereo sound, rather than being an artificial distraction -- as it often was on early acoustic blues recordings -- is a benefit here, the separation giving each player/singer a spotlight of his own.

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