V. (Vladimir) Leechkis in conversation with Studs Terkel

BROADCAST: Mar. 13, 1995 | DURATION: 00:51:31

Digital audio not yet public.

Synopsis

Interviewing Russian pianist and DePaul University Professor Vladimir Leechkis.

Transcript

Studs Terkel This morning will be a rebroadcast of a conversation with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sonny with a harmonica, a 'nonpareil,' and Brownie McGhee at the guitar. They've been a team for a long time. During one of their appearance in Chicago years ago. The program in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] God, that was July 1959, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, it was the Newport Folk Fest I remember how, I can't forget it. It was that feeling of introducing two great blues artists who are now in the studio this morning. They opened last night at The Quiet Knight, and they'll be there for two weeks, and I remember the notes! Even writing with the death of Big Bill, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry are just about the richest interpreters of Black blues, individual and as a team. Brownie truly sings of himself, and so doing evokes alive images of others who sang of themselves. Bill, Leadbelly, Leroy Carr, Big Maceo, Richard M. Jones, and all the wondrous fraternity of blues artists, always no contest when the question arises, "Who is the best blues harmonica player in the world?" Sonny Terry, of course, as he whoops and hollers and blows in out through his mouth harp. We see the open field, the escape, the chase, we hear the blues at once mournful and exhilarating. Remember writing that? Eleven years ago.

Sonny Terry That's

Studs Terkel And oh, how timely it is. How contemporary

Sonny Terry [Time?][Unintelligible].

Brownie McGhee Yeah, I got that album, too.

Sonny Terry [Unintelligible].

Studs Terkel And now, in all these 11 years, so much has happened to

Brownie McGhee Eleven years older,

Studs Terkel Eleven years older, so many of the young now, have finally in many cases, finally discovered it, and so where, where do we pick up from now? We think, naturally of Bill. Later on, we'll, we'll play the voice of Bill, who was a close friend to all three of us, you know.

Brownie McGhee I remember, Studs, when we were, that was a year before they went to the festival, was in '58. We had that talk when we discussing the blues, and I made a statement, and Bill and I got into a big discussion. I remember it so much I'm, I says I never had the blues and Bill didn't wait 'til I finished. "Man, you're telling me you didn't have the blues?" I says, "Why should I have them? I was born with the blues." [laughing] I had just recorded that, you know, for -- on Bill, when Bill was doing his last session, you know? I was born with the blues and I always remember the session we did. We did themes, remember we did themes on that and I, Sonny and I have followed that down through the years, since that, Bill and I didn't have, we'd been followin' themes when we did put on a coffeehouse show.

Studs Terkel What's a song that comes to your mind? Thinking about Bill, yourself, and of course I'm thinking of the scores of songs and blues you both know and play so remarkably. You name it. I'll just, go along for the ride here.

Brownie McGhee Let's do one of Bill's in F, that well that Bill wrote, and I've did -- well, we had the pleasure of recording it five times and I still love it and I'm gonna do it again.

Sonny Terry Which one

Brownie McGhee "I Got the Key to the House."

Studs Terkel Oh, yeah!

Sonny Terry Oh, yeah, that's the one. Well, Big Bill wrote that one, that's a good one. I like it. Got you covered.

Studs Terkel Oh, of course in listening. This is therapy, of course, for troubled times, always more so than ever. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee. That was Bill's song, and of course, Bill loved -- I remember when you know, Bill was there and when you played it and he sang. And he was always -- Bill was also directing,

Brownie McGhee Yeah, that's right.

Sonny Terry [Laughing] He was great.

Studs Terkel He was giving the orders. I remember when -- there was one, it was during Bill's last session. Both Brownie and Sonny were here offering the music of the original production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and you came into the studio.

Sonny Terry That's

Studs Terkel Bill knew that he was dying, you know? And he wanted, he said, "I want the blues to be remembered." And he wanted Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to be there with him. And but there's also the humor even then, he was saying, Sonny was playing "Crow Jane."

Sonny Terry That's

Studs Terkel And then Bill was starting to talk, "What you knew about 'Crow Jane'?" He knew "Crow Jane." Remember that?

Sonny Terry That's right.

Studs Terkel How did "Crow Jane"

Sonny Terry "Crow Jane"?

Studs Terkel Yeah. How'd that come to be, when'd you first hear "Crow Jane"? "Crow

Sonny Terry "Crow Jane," I knew "Crow Jane" I was a little kid, about reckon about 18 or 19 years old, you know.

Studs Terkel This was where, Sonny?

Sonny Terry That's in Durham, North Carolina.

Studs Terkel In Durham, yeah. But when you first picked up on the harmonica, and you play all variety of harmonicas, all shapes and form, when'd you first pick up on it?

Sonny Terry When I first started playing, you mean when I first started?

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry Oh, I started when I was a little kid, about seven, eight, nine years old. I've been liking a harp well since I was about five years old, you know. I'm never forgetting now my father carried me town, we lived in the country, you know, Studs. So I was got out of calling, what this guy name? Sam. Well, he was playing the harp, and didn't, didn't have his hand on it, just playing it, you know? So I, I fell in love with the harmonica, I told my father, say "Buy me one of them things." He said, "What you gonna do if you can't play it?" I said, "You buy me one, maybe I'll learn one day." So from then on, I been loving harmonica.

Studs Terkel You know, it, it's funny. You're playing of course self-taught. I remember Larry Adler was saying "The greatest harmonica player in the world", well he says "Well there's only, obvious choice", he said, "Sonny Terry."

Sonny Terry He had, you know, I, I was on, on his guest down to the Village Gate once, he had me come down there you know, and he told me, he said, "Sonny, play me a piece." So I pull out this little harmony, you know, he got one of them long ones, you know? I pull out this little small one. [laughing] He said, "Well, you can't do it with this." And I played him a piece. He said, "I want to know how in the devil you getting much out of that little than I'm getting out of this big one?"

Studs Terkel Yeah, how do you -- this is -- could you demonstrate to me? How do

Sonny Terry I don't like the large ones, you see, the one that got the button on, you know. See, I do a whole lot of tricks with my hand, you know. Then people wonder, say how you make the thing change your hand, I say you gotta hold it tight my lips, and blow at the same time and hit it with my hand, and that making those change.

Studs Terkel We should point out that Sonny Terry has a plain ordinary little harmonica, that's a plain, it's not one of these chromatic, it's just a plain little

Sonny Terry Back in '33 and '34, you'd get 'em for 25, and 50 cents. Now they're four dollars.

Studs Terkel Four

Sonny Terry Three

Studs Terkel Cost of living.

Sonny Terry Oh yeah.

Studs Terkel Well, how do you, how do you, just before you say do "Crow Jane," because Bill would have said, "Oh, well let, let him do 'Crow Jane,' let him do 'Crow Jane.'" But before you

Sonny Terry Yeah, he asked me, "What you know about 'Crow Jane'?" I said, "I know a little about 'Crow Jane' too." [laughing]

Studs Terkel He said he knew her before you did! The way you

Sonny Terry Maybe he did, 'cause he was a little older than

Studs Terkel You, could you sort of demonstrate Sonny how, you know, the blowing and also the, the vocal sound as well as playing.

Sonny Terry But see, what I do, to Studs, I do something, I say I, I call this my own [unintelligible], nobody else gonna do it, I'm playing and, and blow and sing all the same time, you know. See, it's when on my singin' my harp, it, it start playing it now, but it's going so fast you can't tell it, you know. So unless for you just to think of the harp, when I'm singing the harp still going, too. So that's my trick. Sort of they call it now I'm doing my thing.

Studs Terkel You're

Sonny Terry Yeah. [laughing]

Studs Terkel You've been doing your thing

Sonny Terry Long time, yeah.

Brownie McGhee Now I know it's a trick. That's the first I've ever heard him say it was a trick.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry Yeah, Little Bill you right. It's a trick!

Brownie McGhee It's a trick?

Sonny Terry Well, it's a good trick, though. [laughing] Ain't nobody else do it

Studs Terkel if Why don't you try that trick once more?

Sonny Terry Oh, do it again?

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry How about me doing that one what Bill told me to do? With Eli. "Crow Jane."

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry Do it?

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry Okay. Rhythm.

Studs Terkel I was thinking Sonny Terry, later on, of course we think about Durham, North Carolina. I remember you talking about your childhood and hearing the sounds of the locomotive later on, perhaps from the fox hunt, you know. Brownie, where were -- I forgot, was it Nashville? No, where, where Knoxville.

Brownie McGhee -- Knoxville.

Studs Terkel Knoxville it was. Knoxville. I remember that

Brownie McGhee I was born between a river, a highway and a railroad track.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Brownie McGhee I went back to see, they've torn my birthplace down, in a place that we call the old ark, near the Southern Railroad, highway number 11, and the Tennessee

Studs Terkel I suppose as you think back of your childhood in that place near -- the railroad sounds, the river. I suppose here too, songs. Do you recall one of the early blues that you remember? [guitar playing] As a small child or later on that you sang and played?

Brownie McGhee Highway and the river and the railroad track. "Take Me Back to Tennessee".

Studs Terkel That was an early one. And then, of course, I think of, I know, it's hard for me to pick out any one of

Brownie McGhee Well, "Red River" was something on the order of "Key to the Highway" and, uh

Sonny Terry Sister to "Crow Jane."

Brownie McGhee "Crow Jane." But I learned, I learned it another way, and I think I remember playing it once the way my daddy played it, he never played with the turn in it like that, and he always giving me the third degree about "Son, you've got 'Crow Jane' and 'Red River' mixed up," but it seemed to be the same chord progressions after I got a little older, but he always played it like this. [guitar playing]

Studs Terkel "Moaning like a woman, crying like a baby, wailing like a man," I think

Sonny Terry Ho!

Studs Terkel You know, Brownie and Sonny, I'm thinking these, these songs of course, we have to again talk to the young, sometimes say that the blues come out of actual experience, of course, you know. You say your father worked the levee camp, and of course, many of the songs came out of

Brownie McGhee -- Them. Most of the songs I heard him do, I -- that's one, that's one of the favorites I heard him do, and "Betty and Dupree" and ["Quiet Notch Low"?] "John Henry," and a lot of the songs he, mind mostly his songs didn't never rhyme, but I realized what he was talking about then.

Studs Terkel You know, as you were singing, it occurred, you know, Sonny and Brownie, I'm thinking as, as you play in that, that blues, in a way, W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" might have been derived from a song like this.

Brownie McGhee That's what my father said. He said that it wasn't no original "St. Louis Blues" because it's picked up, each man that'd come in always added a verse because they would sing while they worked, and when they were working it was pretty hard work. When a man's back is dragging the ground when you loading wheelers, when you get up sometimes your back would be bleeding, because you had to go up and sometimes the wheeler would go too low, it'd take a pretty strong man to load a wheel with snatch team, then my father come from the loading to a snatch team, and that was pretty hard work.

Sonny Terry And you load that thing I'm telling you sometimes you turn somersault. Fell on your back.

Studs Terkel It's singing the blues in, in a way to survive the day, in a way. But so -- also, there's something else you said, that the song -- you take an established blues, a popular one like "Saint --" it was derived from some-- this is always the story of the blues, isn't it. Someone is always -- some other person is doing it on the basis of some other person's work, it's a continuous strain, isn't it?

Sonny Terry Never has an

Studs Terkel Yeah. Never has an

Brownie McGhee Or somebody always picks up on it because it relates to somebody's life, or something has happened in their life, and they'll add a little to it, and it becomes part of them.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking you know of Sonny Terry's listening and hearing, too, as one where -- Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, I'm supposing those were train stop, was that also a roundhouse? A train, you'd hear the trains, of course, wouldn't

Sonny Terry Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's right.

Studs Terkel And so, how would you hear the train? You'd hear that whistle. You'd hear the locomotive.

Sonny Terry Yeah, that's right.

Studs Terkel And then how would you -- and then you'd take that harmonica.

Sonny Terry Oh, I'd just --I, when I hear the whistle blowin', you know? So I just take [one inside out?], keep on messing around 'til I find something to fit in there, you know? So and I just made a song out of it, and called it "Locomotive."

Studs Terkel How would that, how would that -- this is a train, we're on the train, a train of course is always a big

Sonny Terry Now, this the old locomotive train way back, you know? So some of these kids now wouldn't know what a, wouldn't be able to know what a locomotive is, but

Brownie McGhee -- They got

Sonny Terry They got that diesel.

Studs Terkel They don't carry passengers anymore, either.

Sonny Terry But I won't let it know who that's where I started from. Old train a-starts like this, you know. [Plays harmonica] That's the whistle blowing, know, they're getting ready to go and all. [Plays harmonica] Old train getting ready to start, you know. [Plays harmonica] See, when they do like that, you know, the wheels slipping, you know, and so when the motor going on too fast, the wheel slips, you know, so and I keep doing that 'til, til, til the wheels catch a hold, you know, and here we go.

Studs Terkel Oh, boy, this train is bound for glory. This train don't carry no gamblers, this train. That's beautiful. The recreation of that sound. We're talking of course two great blues artists, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and if ever there were a, the matter of continuity in art and music and in history it's in, in the artistry of my two guests. The train, Sonny, I suppose, and, and Brownie, the train, the train has always been the, in the past the vehicle, wasn't it, as symbol and the actual thing, and Black people going north and going from one job to another trying to survive, the train?

Brownie McGhee Yeah, well, it always left a longing in your heart. Somebody was on it. If it was even a freight train, you know. Well, you could realize and I have stood and watched so many guys get on, and the technique of hoboing and then you know, far as you could see, the train of smoke rolling back, the cinders from the old smokestack hitting on you and you'd stand there and watch and teardrops rolling down, don't know whether they're gonna get back or not. And then the whistle that Sonny was just demonstrating there, the further it got away, the mournful the whistle sound, the distance and the echo would ring and the firemans could hear him dinging the bell, "Ding-dong, waaahh" and they had, every stop would have a different thing going: "Whaah-Whaah." Train stops, cow stops, road crossings, bridges. They's done give all different signals for that, it was just marvelous to run down to the railroad, and the fireman or the engineer one would know that you were coming down, he'd see us kids standing by the railroad track, and he'd do one of those little things that he'd puff out some steam in a ball, it was just a thrill.

Studs Terkel He'd do a special one for you. He knew you were watching it.

Sonny Terry Yeah.

Brownie McGhee Always watching it, we'd always be there because we knew the time was coming along. And Studs, a beautiful story about my home life there, it was this place where this train had to stop. It was owned by an Irish doctor, Dr. McGhee, and it was McGhee Station, it's still standing. That's where my father and my, my older parents, my grandparents were born, and I went there and lived for four years, and that train station is still there, it's called McGhee Station. The train must stop there and pick up the mail. Had to blow, but now they have moved it through the years, they have moved it up just about three miles from there, it's called Vonore, little place you will find on some maps, Vonore, Tennessee in Monroe County. And I had the pleasure of going back to where my father was born in, going to McGhee Station.

Studs Terkel Isn't this, and the name Brownie McGhee, I suppose this goes may-- may go back itself to slavery days.

Brownie McGhee Oh, it does. This definitely goes back.

Studs Terkel The name of the man

Brownie McGhee Owned all my people.

Studs Terkel Yeah,

Brownie McGhee And that's the way I finished, well, that's so I got out of my old high school, by tracing my name back. Found out how I come me a McGee. I didn't like Latin. [laughing] He'd give me, he said, "You go and find out how come you're a McGhee, then come back," and I had to spend an extra year in school and I did this, and I went out to where my people were born and I run into some of the old people. Some of 'em lived to be 107; 104, 98.

Studs Terkel Yeah, you looked, you looked up the whole family.

Brownie McGhee Yeah I went back as far as I could go -- whole family tree.

Studs Terkel You know, I, there's little I can say. I just, I wanna listen to you. Just listen to you and to Sonny. So you just go ahead, whatever songs you'd

Brownie McGhee Well, that was, that's one phase of it. And the blues just keeps on following me. And I, I was writing all night last night. I don't never stop writing, because when I get off like I am now, when I get off like I am now, you see, I can kind of finish up some of the things. I'm in a very lonely spot on the 12th floor, you know, and it's very -- in a little, a little cubby room, and I slept and I write all night, and, I carry my notes along with me, and I finished up a few things, and I, I mean that I'd started on maybe a few years ago, and that's what happens.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Brownie McGhee And I've been working on this song. I did a chorus of it too a while ago that I says, "The Highway and the River and the Railroad Track," and "From Tennessee to Broadway," and I did another one, "I Call Him River." And a lot of people ask me why I call

Studs Terkel You call Sonny "River."

Brownie McGhee "River" And people always ask me, of course, "Why you call him River?" But through the years I searched through the encyclopedia, river has a lot of definitions, but the one I like with the river is something that goes on forever. Man may come and men may go, but rivers go on forever. And I consider that a friendship. After

Studs Terkel

Sonny Terry This morning will be a rebroadcast of a conversation with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sonny with a harmonica, a 'nonpareil,' and Brownie McGhee at the guitar. They've been a team for a long time. During one of their appearance in Chicago years ago. The program in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] God, that was July 1959, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, it was the Newport Folk Fest I remember how, I can't forget it. It was that feeling of introducing two great blues artists who are now in the studio this morning. They opened last night at The Quiet Knight, and they'll be there for two weeks, and I remember the notes! Even writing with the death of Big Bill, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry are just about the richest interpreters of Black blues, individual and as a team. Brownie truly sings of himself, and so doing evokes alive images of others who sang of themselves. Bill, Leadbelly, Leroy Carr, Big Maceo, Richard M. Jones, and all the wondrous fraternity of blues artists, always no contest when the question arises, "Who is the best blues harmonica player in the world?" Sonny Terry, of course, as he whoops and hollers and blows in out through his mouth harp. We see the open field, the escape, the chase, we hear the blues at once mournful and exhilarating. Remember writing that? Eleven years ago. That's And oh, how timely it is. How contemporary and [Time?][Unintelligible]. Yeah, I got that album, too. [Unintelligible]. And now, in all these 11 years, so much has happened to blues. Eleven years older, that's Eleven years older, so many of the young now, have finally in many cases, finally discovered it, and so where, where do we pick up from now? We think, naturally of Bill. Later on, we'll, we'll play the voice of Bill, who was a close friend to all three of us, you know. I remember, Studs, when we were, that was a year before they went to the festival, was in '58. We had that talk when we discussing the blues, and I made a statement, and Bill and I got into a big discussion. I remember it so much I'm, I says I never had the blues and Bill didn't wait 'til I finished. "Man, you're telling me you didn't have the blues?" I says, "Why should I have them? I was born with the blues." [laughing] I had just recorded that, you know, for -- on Bill, when Bill was doing his last session, you know? I was born with the blues and I always remember the session we did. We did themes, remember we did themes on that and I, Sonny and I have followed that down through the years, since that, Bill and I didn't have, we'd been followin' themes when we did put on a coffeehouse show. What's a song that comes to your mind? Thinking about Bill, yourself, and of course I'm thinking of the scores of songs and blues you both know and play so remarkably. You name it. I'll just, go along for the ride here. Let's do one of Bill's in F, that well that Bill wrote, and I've did -- well, we had the pleasure of recording it five times and I still love it and I'm gonna do it again. Which one is "I Got the Key to the House." Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah, that's the one. Well, Big Bill wrote that one, that's a good one. I like it. Got you covered. Oh, of course in listening. This is therapy, of course, for troubled times, always more so than ever. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee. That was Bill's song, and of course, Bill loved -- I remember when you know, Bill was there and when you played it and he sang. And he was always -- Bill was also directing, wasn't Yeah, that's right. [Laughing] He was great. He was giving the orders. I remember when -- there was one, it was during Bill's last session. Both Brownie and Sonny were here offering the music of the original production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and you came into the studio. That's Bill knew that he was dying, you know? And he wanted, he said, "I want the blues to be remembered." And he wanted Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to be there with him. And but there's also the humor even then, he was saying, Sonny was playing "Crow Jane." That's And then Bill was starting to talk, "What you knew about 'Crow Jane'?" He knew "Crow Jane." Remember that? That's right. How did "Crow Jane" -- "Crow Jane"? Yeah. How'd that come to be, when'd you first hear "Crow Jane"? "Crow Jane," I knew "Crow Jane" I was a little kid, about reckon about 18 or 19 years old, you know. This was where, Sonny? That's in Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, yeah. But when you first picked up on the harmonica, and you play all variety of harmonicas, all shapes and form, when'd you first pick up on it? When I first started playing, you mean when I first started? Yeah. Oh, I started when I was a little kid, about seven, eight, nine years old. I've been liking a harp well since I was about five years old, you know. I'm never forgetting now my father carried me town, we lived in the country, you know, Studs. So I was got out of calling, what this guy name? Sam. Well, he was playing the harp, and didn't, didn't have his hand on it, just playing it, you know? So I, I fell in love with the harmonica, I told my father, say "Buy me one of them things." He said, "What you gonna do if you can't play it?" I said, "You buy me one, maybe I'll learn one day." So from then on, I been loving harmonica. You know, it, it's funny. You're playing of course self-taught. I remember Larry Adler was saying "The greatest harmonica player in the world", well he says "Well there's only, obvious choice", he said, "Sonny Terry." He had, you know, I, I was on, on his guest down to the Village Gate once, he had me come down there you know, and he told me, he said, "Sonny, play me a piece." So I pull out this little harmony, you know, he got one of them long ones, you know? I pull out this little small one. [laughing] He said, "Well, you can't do it with this." And I played him a piece. He said, "I want to know how in the devil you getting much out of that little than I'm getting out of this big one?" Yeah, how do you -- this is -- could you demonstrate to me? How do you I don't like the large ones, you see, the one that got the button on, you know. See, I do a whole lot of tricks with my hand, you know. Then people wonder, say how you make the thing change your hand, I say you gotta hold it tight my lips, and blow at the same time and hit it with my hand, and that making those change. We should point out that Sonny Terry has a plain ordinary little harmonica, that's a plain, it's not one of these chromatic, it's just a plain little ordinary. Back in '33 and '34, you'd get 'em for 25, and 50 cents. Now they're four dollars. Four Three Cost of living. Oh yeah. Well, how do you, how do you, just before you say do "Crow Jane," because Bill would have said, "Oh, well let, let him do 'Crow Jane,' let him do 'Crow Jane.'" But before you -- Yeah, he asked me, "What you know about 'Crow Jane'?" I said, "I know a little about 'Crow Jane' too." [laughing] He said he knew her before you did! The way you played. Maybe he did, 'cause he was a little older than I You, could you sort of demonstrate Sonny how, you know, the blowing and also the, the vocal sound as well as playing. Could But see, what I do, to Studs, I do something, I say I, I call this my own [unintelligible], nobody else gonna do it, I'm playing and, and blow and sing all the same time, you know. See, it's when on my singin' my harp, it, it start playing it now, but it's going so fast you can't tell it, you know. So unless for you just to think of the harp, when I'm singing the harp still going, too. So that's my trick. Sort of they call it now I'm doing my thing. You're Yeah. [laughing] You've been doing your thing -- Long time, yeah. Now I know it's a trick. That's the first I've ever heard him say it was a trick. Yeah. Yeah, Little Bill you right. It's a trick! It's a trick? Well, it's a good trick, though. [laughing] Ain't nobody else do it if Why don't you try that trick once more? Oh, do it again? Yeah. How about me doing that one what Bill told me to do? With Eli. "Crow Jane." Yeah. Do it? Yeah. Okay. Rhythm. I was thinking Sonny Terry, later on, of course we think about Durham, North Carolina. I remember you talking about your childhood and hearing the sounds of the locomotive later on, perhaps from the fox hunt, you know. Brownie, where were -- I forgot, was it Nashville? No, where, where -- Knoxville. Knoxville it was. Knoxville. I remember that -- I was born between a river, a highway and a railroad track. Yeah. I went back to see, they've torn my birthplace down, in a place that we call the old ark, near the Southern Railroad, highway number 11, and the Tennessee River. I suppose as you think back of your childhood in that place near -- the railroad sounds, the river. I suppose here too, songs. Do you recall one of the early blues that you remember? [guitar playing] As a small child or later on that you sang and played? Highway and the river and the railroad track. "Take Me Back to Tennessee". That was an early one. And then, of course, I think of, I know, it's hard for me to pick out any one of the Well, "Red River" was something on the order of "Key to the Highway" and, uh -- Sister to "Crow Jane." "Crow Jane." But I learned, I learned it another way, and I think I remember playing it once the way my daddy played it, he never played with the turn in it like that, and he always giving me the third degree about "Son, you've got 'Crow Jane' and 'Red River' mixed up," but it seemed to be the same chord progressions after I got a little older, but he always played it like this. [guitar playing] "Moaning like a woman, crying like a baby, wailing like a man," I think -- Ho! You know, Brownie and Sonny, I'm thinking these, these songs of course, we have to again talk to the young, sometimes say that the blues come out of actual experience, of course, you know. You say your father worked the levee camp, and of course, many of the songs came out of -- Them. Most of the songs I heard him do, I -- that's one, that's one of the favorites I heard him do, and "Betty and Dupree" and ["Quiet Notch Low"?] "John Henry," and a lot of the songs he, mind mostly his songs didn't never rhyme, but I realized what he was talking about then. You know, as you were singing, it occurred, you know, Sonny and Brownie, I'm thinking as, as you play in that, that blues, in a way, W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" might have been derived from a song like this. That's what my father said. He said that it wasn't no original "St. Louis Blues" because it's picked up, each man that'd come in always added a verse because they would sing while they worked, and when they were working it was pretty hard work. When a man's back is dragging the ground when you loading wheelers, when you get up sometimes your back would be bleeding, because you had to go up and sometimes the wheeler would go too low, it'd take a pretty strong man to load a wheel with snatch team, then my father come from the loading to a snatch team, and that was pretty hard work. And you load that thing I'm telling you sometimes you turn somersault. Fell on your back. It's singing the blues in, in a way to survive the day, in a way. But so -- also, there's something else you said, that the song -- you take an established blues, a popular one like "Saint --" it was derived from some-- this is always the story of the blues, isn't it. Someone is always -- some other person is doing it on the basis of some other person's work, it's a continuous strain, isn't it? Never has an end. Yeah. Never has an end. Or somebody always picks up on it because it relates to somebody's life, or something has happened in their life, and they'll add a little to it, and it becomes part of them. I'm thinking you know of Sonny Terry's listening and hearing, too, as one where -- Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, I'm supposing those were train stop, was that also a roundhouse? A train, you'd hear the trains, of course, wouldn't you? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's right. And so, how would you hear the train? You'd hear that whistle. You'd hear the locomotive. Yeah, that's right. And then how would you -- and then you'd take that harmonica. Oh, I'd just --I, when I hear the whistle blowin', you know? So I just take [one inside out?], keep on messing around 'til I find something to fit in there, you know? So and I just made a song out of it, and called it "Locomotive." How would that, how would that -- this is a train, we're on the train, a train of course is always a big Now, this the old locomotive train way back, you know? So some of these kids now wouldn't know what a, wouldn't be able to know what a locomotive is, but -- They got diesel They got that diesel. They don't carry passengers anymore, either. But I won't let it know who that's where I started from. Old train a-starts like this, you know. [Plays harmonica] That's the whistle blowing, know, they're getting ready to go and all. [Plays harmonica] Old train getting ready to start, you know. [Plays harmonica] See, when they do like that, you know, the wheels slipping, you know, and so when the motor going on too fast, the wheel slips, you know, so and I keep doing that 'til, til, til the wheels catch a hold, you know, and here we go. Oh, boy, this train is bound for glory. This train don't carry no gamblers, this train. That's beautiful. The recreation of that sound. We're talking of course two great blues artists, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and if ever there were a, the matter of continuity in art and music and in history it's in, in the artistry of my two guests. The train, Sonny, I suppose, and, and Brownie, the train, the train has always been the, in the past the vehicle, wasn't it, as symbol and the actual thing, and Black people going north and going from one job to another trying to survive, the train? Yeah, well, it always left a longing in your heart. Somebody was on it. If it was even a freight train, you know. Well, you could realize and I have stood and watched so many guys get on, and the technique of hoboing and then you know, far as you could see, the train of smoke rolling back, the cinders from the old smokestack hitting on you and you'd stand there and watch and teardrops rolling down, don't know whether they're gonna get back or not. And then the whistle that Sonny was just demonstrating there, the further it got away, the mournful the whistle sound, the distance and the echo would ring and the firemans could hear him dinging the bell, "Ding-dong, waaahh" and they had, every stop would have a different thing going: "Whaah-Whaah." Train stops, cow stops, road crossings, bridges. They's done give all different signals for that, it was just marvelous to run down to the railroad, and the fireman or the engineer one would know that you were coming down, he'd see us kids standing by the railroad track, and he'd do one of those little things that he'd puff out some steam in a ball, it was just a thrill. He'd do a special one for you. He knew you were watching it. Yeah. Always watching it, we'd always be there because we knew the time was coming along. And Studs, a beautiful story about my home life there, it was this place where this train had to stop. It was owned by an Irish doctor, Dr. McGhee, and it was McGhee Station, it's still standing. That's where my father and my, my older parents, my grandparents were born, and I went there and lived for four years, and that train station is still there, it's called McGhee Station. The train must stop there and pick up the mail. Had to blow, but now they have moved it through the years, they have moved it up just about three miles from there, it's called Vonore, little place you will find on some maps, Vonore, Tennessee in Monroe County. And I had the pleasure of going back to where my father was born in, going to McGhee Station. Isn't this, and the name Brownie McGhee, I suppose this goes may-- may go back itself to slavery days. Oh, it does. This definitely goes back. The name of the man who Owned all my people. Yeah, And that's the way I finished, well, that's so I got out of my old high school, by tracing my name back. Found out how I come me a McGee. I didn't like Latin. [laughing] He'd give me, he said, "You go and find out how come you're a McGhee, then come back," and I had to spend an extra year in school and I did this, and I went out to where my people were born and I run into some of the old people. Some of 'em lived to be 107; 104, 98. Yeah, you looked, you looked up the whole family. Yeah I went back as far as I could go -- whole family tree. You know, I, there's little I can say. I just, I wanna listen to you. Just listen to you and to Sonny. So you just go ahead, whatever songs you'd like. Well, that was, that's one phase of it. And the blues just keeps on following me. And I, I was writing all night last night. I don't never stop writing, because when I get off like I am now, when I get off like I am now, you see, I can kind of finish up some of the things. I'm in a very lonely spot on the 12th floor, you know, and it's very -- in a little, a little cubby room, and I slept and I write all night, and, I carry my notes along with me, and I finished up a few things, and I, I mean that I'd started on maybe a few years ago, and that's what happens. Yeah. And I've been working on this song. I did a chorus of it too a while ago that I says, "The Highway and the River and the Railroad Track," and "From Tennessee to Broadway," and I did another one, "I Call Him River." And a lot of people ask me why I call him You call Sonny "River." "River" And people always ask me, of course, "Why you call him River?" But through the years I searched through the encyclopedia, river has a lot of definitions, but the one I like with the river is something that goes on forever. Man may come and men may go, but rivers go on forever. And I consider that a friendship. After 31 Is Thirty

Brownie McGhee Will be in April! It's the 2nd week in April, be 31 years.

Sonny Terry Long time, beautiful man. [laughing]

Studs Terkel You know, I, it occurs to me in, in watching, you know, not only hearing, but watching Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry at work, you know, you know you almost could tell the breath the other man's taking, the way you came in with a guitar there, with the chords, you were playing the harmonica, this is

Sonny Terry But, I tell you, Studs, we, we probably been -- did this thing so much, I, I tell him sometimes, but he know, he knows exactly what I'm going to do, and I know what he gonna do. I

Studs Terkel What do you think, what do you think that, say, Brownie

Sonny Terry McGhee Huh?

Studs Terkel What, what you gonna do now, Brownie? And see, and see how Sonny picks up on it.

Brownie McGhee I don't even have to tell

Studs Terkel You don't have to tell him.

Brownie McGhee No!

Studs Terkel See what happens.

Sonny Terry The longer you in this key I don't care what he does. [laughing]

Studs Terkel You see, whatever you do, don't just go ahead, do it.

Sonny Terry One thing I like to do, I have for Brownie do this let's do it, one what Billy loved to hear me sing, he wrote, you know, "Louise?"

Studs Terkel Mmm, "Louise"!

Sonny Terry Yeah, I like now for Brownie to do this.

Brownie McGhee You always sing about women all the time! One

Sonny Terry One of the best things to sing about, now, almost. Can't sing about nothing no better. [laughing]

Studs Terkel Louise,

Brownie McGhee Well, we're taking that for our themes, and it's not a spiel, either, because that seems to be the three things, mostly in the blues. But there's other things to sing about. Whiskey, women and money. Seems to be, but we use them, I use them as crutches. I don't say all blues singers, I use them as crutches in order to get my point over, because they're most important things in a man's life. If you've never dealt with those three, I don't think you've ever lived.

Studs Terkel Of course, work. Work, too.

Brownie McGhee Well, work is involved. When a man puts forth an effort to sing about anything, that's why I'm saying, work sometimes exerts himself. But thinking he doesn't, that's why I don't, I think it's some other things to think about except whiskey, women and money, because there's work, and then there's persecution and things of that kind, and that's time I get it over. But you can't leave out those things, because all the important things, well, I've never had too much of either one of them. So you -- and that's one way I stay out of politics. [laughing].

Sonny Terry Well, I had too much of one of them. Thats liquor, that liquor. I had to quit then.

Brownie McGhee You could go to extremes on anything, yeah.

Sonny Terry

Studs Terkel That We should point out that

Sonny Terry You know, I want to tell you how, how I come to quit though, I got a little sick, you know, Studs. So when the doctor told me, he said, said "You drank a little too much, son," he said, "Cut down to one drink a day." I said, "If I can cut down to one, just one drink a day, I'll just quit." That way I quit.

Studs Terkel But Brownie said, that's going to extremes. [laughing]

Brownie McGhee Let's do "Poor Boy a Long Way from Home," which was called "The Choloi Blues."

Sonny Terry Okay.

Brownie McGhee That's, it was called the C-H-O-L-O-I. Choloi. And we always called it "Poor Boy," but who I -- it was made but way -- it was did way before our time.

Sonny Terry Got you covered.

Brownie McGhee That's an old, [laughing] we say you got you covered, you know what key I'm in.

Studs Terkel He's got you covered before you even name the key. I guess that blues has to be called medicine.

Brownie McGhee Oh, a long way from home.

Studs Terkel Poor old boy. You know, I'm thinking there's so many songs that I'd love to hear you, I know you will be playing them and singing them at the, at The Quiet Knight, of course "The Fox Hunt," that Sonny and "Louise," and, and Norm Pellegrini our program director asked, he remembered when the original company, original production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was in town. The

Brownie McGhee Background music we were doing, that was "Pick a Bale of Cotton" and "John Henry." Sonny closed the second act and we, and we, we closed the second act and I led the song that closed the last, closed the show.

Studs Terkel That's right, so you did

Brownie McGhee That was two shows.

Studs Terkel So you, "Pick a Bale of Cotton", that's also what you sang at the '59 festival too. So "Pick a Bale of Cotton" is, was sort of set the mood in the background of the, of the locale for, for Tennessee Williams' play.

Brownie McGhee Well the first act was closed with a spiritual, two girls lead, led the spiritual. And then the second act Sonny closes with "Pick and Bale of Cotton". And I did some lyrics to "John Henry" which come, the curtain come down on "Cool Drink of Water Before I Die".

Sonny Terry See we weren't, we weren't playing no music in there you know, we just singing

Studs Terkel You just sang,

Sonny Terry Yeah, we weren't,

Brownie McGhee Well there's a very funny story about that. We were playing music, I don't think it was a funny story. And just before we come to Philadelphia to open up, Marilyn Monroe come down to listen to that show. And we had, was playing guitar and harmonica back then. And they just wanted her to see what she thought about it. And there was a few more people there listening, stars. Said "Well there's nothing wrong with it, but who can listen at the lyrics with that wailing harmonica and that strumming guitar going on back there!" Said "That takes away from the, takes away from the whole entire thing that's going on!". So right then Kazan says "Can you fellas sing without your instruments?". Said "I sure can! I haven't had this long!" [laughing]

Studs Terkel Well, if I could just challenge Kazan, how about doing it with the instruments?

Brownie McGhee Oh fine, which, either one? We'll do a little of each one? What do you say?

Studs Terkel Do

Brownie McGhee What you want to do that in?

Studs Terkel Whatever you feel

Brownie McGhee What you wanna do?

Sonny Terry I can do "Pick a Bale" on any one. Can, can you do it in E? I mean in F?

Brownie McGhee Anywhere baby.

Sonny Terry Which you want

Brownie McGhee We only play in two keys, that's high and low.

Sonny Terry That's right well, we're, we're low at this time! [harmonica playing]

Brownie McGhee Don't respect me. Just play.

Sonny Terry I ain't, don't you worry. Catch up if you can, do you just left, buddy.

Studs Terkel Well, Kazan was wrong. It's great with the instruments. You know, I'm thinking the very, that brings, that, that brings to mind another big man, doesn't it? Huddie Ledbetter.

Brownie McGhee Oh God, yes!

Studs Terkel "Pick a Bale of Cotton." That's Huddie, you know, he was such a strong man.

Brownie McGhee He was a solid rock. Solid rock. Yeah, he was a big rock. We lived with him for about two years, you know. In New York.

Studs Terkel I know you did.

Brownie McGhee Yeah, it was a very, very beautiful two years.

Studs Terkel So this is a matter of, of yourself extending as you say, it's a song. The blues is really a story of, of not one man, but of all men, people, so it's Big Bill, Leadbelly, Leroy Carr and beginnings too, when as young guys you, Sonny, I know you worked the streets, you know, to make a living, and Brownie worked medicine shows and picnics and everything, in, in the beginning.

Sonny Terry I played the medicine shows, too, you know.

Studs Terkel You played medicine shows too?

Sonny Terry Oh

Studs Terkel How'd that, how'd that work, you mean that people would come under a tent, come into the tent, is that it?

Brownie McGhee No, there wasn't no tent, Studs, in those days. Just back of an old truck or wagon.

Sonny Terry Old truck, anything, a wagon, you know, you get out there and play your music and get, draw the crowds, you know? So he wait 'til you go to drive, then the guy get up and tell about his medicine.

Brownie McGhee Make his pitch.

Sonny Terry You got the crowd out there, you

Brownie McGhee One bottle of medicine cured anything you had. Toe ache, heart ache.

Studs Terkel So it's the beginning then, playing out in the open it was, the open sound too, that's part of it, too.

Brownie McGhee Well, crowd would come in whether you had harmonica, guitar, banjo. Or washboard, anything. Anything that'd make a sound. They would just come running.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the, of the, of the songs and the sounds that you recreate, too. In the case of Sonny, I remember I earlier asked about that fox hunt, but did you ever hear, you ever hear the men hunting the fox?

Sonny Terry Oh yeah, that's where I learned it from.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry I learned it from that, from hearing the dogs and those trail the fox, you know? So when I was doing that whooping and anyhow you know, what you get me to do now, hollering, you know, I say, "Well, God, I think this got fit right in, you know." So I made up me a song that's called "The Fox Chase." Want

Studs Terkel I sure would.

Brownie McGhee Ooh!

Sonny Terry Same key

Brownie McGhee D flat?

Sonny Terry I had the "E" for "John Henry," but I take

Brownie McGhee Don't expose yourself to the public.

Sonny Terry What's up down there? I got three, I got three dogs, how many you

Brownie McGhee I don't know, tonight I might turn 'em all a-loose. [laughing] I got Old Pete and Kate, that's the best two

Sonny Terry I know, but my three outrun your, I know. But we gotta see right now. [dog sounds]

Brownie McGhee Doggone, he got away.

Studs Terkel That's recreating a play, you know. I think also we should point out that the audience has to see, see it to believe it, too. Watching Sonny Terry in action and watching Brownie McGhee and he work together, and then I suppose the reason I'm, I'm stressing this is that many of the generations now jump back every five years a generation, and many of the young kids who heard about blues or hear some new singer sing the blues thinks it began with him, and they don't know how it began, and this sense, you two show how it began.

Brownie McGhee Well, that's the truth, too. And we have things we have to stress because now this thing we've been through, let me see, how many decades we've been through at least 10 changes. We've seen our music change at least 10 times, but there are singers of the blues and there are blues singers and there are singers of folk songs, and there are folk singers, and there are singers of spirituals and now spiritual singers, and we can count 'em, we can pick 'em out. But we're not critics, but there's differentiation between them. A blues singer is a guy that's lived with it, a singer of the blues a guy just learned this from a record just because he wants to make some money. And that's the same thing that goes with folk songs. The guy that's lived his environment, dealt with his environment, did not ashamed to tell it, he is a folk singer, he's not a singer of folk songs. He creates 'em because he tells it like it is. That's the rudiments of it. The same way with the spiritual. If a guy believes in the hereafter or there is a better world after this, he sings to that effect and he lives to that, and the spirituals grow with him, as the blues has grown with me, and folk songs is things, the same thing. You can't get 'em out of your system because you know your environment better than anybody and you live with it. You have lived with it, you can live with it, and your past has been bad, but not bad enough to make you want to forget. That's mine.

Studs Terkel You know, as, as Brownie is talking, you know, he talks quite obvious truth and history. You, you mentioned spirituals. I know both of you were [part on?] with blues because the connection is there, of course, church music, spirituals. Of course, there's one, you know, Pete Seeger says the greatest song he's ever heard, and he's, course both of you sing it, he heard you sing it of course. He's referring to "Twelve Gates to the City," you know?

Sonny Terry Oh, yeah.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Of course, that's what he referring to,

Brownie McGhee Yeah, I think he got, I think he did come to New York singing that.

Sonny Terry That's right. Sure

Brownie McGhee "Twelve Gates to the City" and "Go Where I Send You," that's right.

Sonny Terry That's right.

Studs Terkel Those, what do you

Sonny Terry think? The Weavers used to do that you know, I lent it to 'em, one.

Studs Terkel I know you did.

Brownie McGhee Do a little bit of that harp.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Sonny Terry What

Brownie McGhee "Twelve Gates."

Studs Terkel "Twelve Gates," that beautiful city, you make it sound like heaven. I remember in conjunction with that, as Sonny was singing "Twelve Gates to the City," and Brownie, Brownie I remember you were singing "Welcome Table." Remember that? "Welcome Table." Do a verse and that before I think it'll be, hour ends before, we have to end with the big man, "John Henry," John is a symbol of all that strength. Just listening to Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, two authentic, that's a much overused word, but here very applicable, authentic artists, you know, we can't end -- the song to end has to be "John Henry," doesn't it? Because I guess how would you -- there are many interpretations of, but you think of all the strength of this man who beat the machine down.

Brownie McGhee I believe he lived. That's why I love it so much. And that's one of our featured numbers because, you know, if you believe a thing, I went to the tunnel they say he built.

Studs Terkel You went to that tunnel.

Brownie McGhee I went to Big Bend.

Studs Terkel Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia.

Brownie McGhee That's right. Saw it with my own eyes. And it really, you know, my father said the man lived, and my dad died, he just died in '68, and he told me and I believed him, too, because everything he said to me that I didn't believe, I went out in the world and seek to find, it was true! Train running in the air right here, I didn't believe it, but there was an El in the air here. And he didn't explain to me what it meant, there was a train running in the air, and I was a kid. He said, "There's a train running in the air in Chicago, son, you've never seen anything, you can ride a train under the ground, under the river," I says, "For Chrissake, what you cats talking about, what train?" [laughing] Later years I experienced it to be true, but he didn't tell me that the man had built an elevated train. That man had dug a tunnel. I just -- I was only thinking one way, I had a one-track mind. The train I seen on the track running in the air, I might have a heart attack, but it's true.

Studs Terkel The train in the air and the train underground. And the idea is that men like John Henry

Brownie McGhee And that's the thing. That's what I'm speaking of.

Studs Terkel You know, that's, [harmonica sound] that's what

Brownie McGhee That's what it, that's what it makes me -- now, now I know it was true.

Studs Terkel So we pay tribute. [guitar sound] To the whole people, and it's Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and "John Henry". Wow. John Henry lives, Big Bill lives, Huddie Leadbetter lives, and all the anonymous singers of blues live thanks to the bearers of history with us this morning. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, true artists and

Brownie McGhee -- Thank you, Studs. Seems like

Sonny Terry Thank you, Studs.

Brownie McGhee Seems like yesterday.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much. It is 953 Belmont, The Quiet Knight. Gentlemen, like yesterday and like tomorrow, too.

Brownie McGhee Tomorrow.

Sonny Terry Good.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much.

Sonny Terry Thank you.

Studs Terkel And so this is our program for today, and after this message a word about tomorrow's program. In 1963, exactly 20 years ago, a memorable march to Washington, the Civil Rights march, during which Martin Luther King made his celebrated "I have a dream" speech. It's called "This Train," it goes about an hour and 20 minutes. Until tomorrow then, take it easy, but take it.