Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal pay tribute to a great blues duo

Old friends take their cue from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s 1952 album Get On Board

Ry Cooder is on fire, his memory flicking through the years as the renowned Californian singer/guitarist recalls the first time he saw the great blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

"So Ed Pearl started this club called the Ash Grove in a little [Los Angeles] grocery store, a wooden building with nightclub chairs and round tables. You could get beer and pretzels. That's all you could get. Seats about 200 people. A little stage in the corner. A crappy little sound system. And Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were the first artists to play there. I went every night. My mother took me."

He believes he was about 13, but as this famous home of folk and blues first opened its doors in 1958 he would have been 11. “You have to realise. When you are from Santa Monica you’ve never really seen anything because there is no tradition in a dull place like that. If you’re from the south, let’s say, and you’re from a musical family and your uncles and aunts play musical instruments and you grow up hearing a style, banjo or guitar music, then it is natural for you. That is your world. But if you’re from Santa Monica there’s no uncles out there. So everything is records or nothing.

“And then when I saw and heard these people in person, I can’t even tell you, it was like the second coming, a revelation. Just sitting eight feet away from these guys. And you could talk to them. I was real shy then but I’d say, ‘Hey Brownie, could you show me that bass line?’ And he’d say ‘Sure kid’. And that was an amazing opportunity that cannot exist again – it doesn’t exist now. There is no way for people to learn from masters anymore; they’re all dead.”


Then he namechecked some bluegrass legends as if to show that great music knows no skin colour . "[Lester] Flatts and [Earl]Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe. I saw all these people. I was with them. Christ I even played onstage with Bill Monroe at age 16. Can you believe it?"

Cooder is reeling in the years as he talks about Get On Board, a new album recorded with friend and fellow roots luminary Taj Mahal and son Joachim Cooder. The project is the result of a chance meeting in 2014 when Mahal was receiving a lifetime achievement award for performance from the Americana Music Association in Nashville. Cooder and his son were in the house band and together they played a storming version of Mahal's signature tune, Statesboro Blues. Mahal and Cooder knew each other from the Rising Sons, the name of their short-lived band in the late 60s in Los Angeles and, coincidentally, the name of one of the tracks on Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's first album in 1952, Get On Board. Old friends, Cooder and Mahal are also musical magpies who through their long careers have dipped into everything from West African rhythms to Cuban jazz, from Caribbean calypso to bluegrass and blues. But, strangely, never together.

Joachim Cooder thought it long past time that changed. But his dad was unsure of the nature of any collaboration. “I just had to figure out what makes sense. I don’t want a big band. I don’t want a group. I don’t want to go into a recording studio; I hate all of that now. Joachim’s living room is best sounding room I’ve ever been in . Let’s just do something with the three of us. So then you think. What’ll we do?

“And then it came to me. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. We both know that music. Nobody didn’t like Brownie and Sonny. Everybody liked them, especially white people who’d never heard of the blues, didn’t know what it was, wouldn’t have wanted to know what it was.

“We set up in the room with a couple of microphones, earphones and did it. It took three days. So it has that natural kind of sound, unrehearsed, not masterminded. It’s just nice music. At our age, Christ!, Taj is 80 this year and I’m 75, we should be able to do this. And if we can’t, what the hell do we think we’re doing?”

Their Get On Board is indeed rough around the edges, but there is real joy and spirit in their performance and no little skill; Cooder’s guitar and vocal on Pawn Shop Blues is a particular delight. The 11 tracks include some of the same material from Sonny and Brownie’s debut – and indeed the cover references the artwork – but the rest is drawn from the blues duo’s long career.

Speaking to Mahal a week later, he confirms that the tribute was Cooder's idea. "He said 'what do you think of this concept? Will it work?' And I said, no question. I'm in." Mahal rates Terry and McGhee as "among the top blues duos. The only ones who could come close to them was Memphis Minnie and Charlie McCoy. But right up there. The best. You know a lot of people got recorded and then disappeared. But Sonny and Brownie were around for about 40 to 50 years. And at the full tilt of their powers all the way through it."

Cooder warms to the theme of what made them special. “Well, first of all Sonny Terry was an incredible virtuoso but that’s not even the half of it. Of course he was a tremendous stylist on the harmonica but he was the soul of black music in a way.”

Terry and McGhee were from the Piedmont area, which stretches from Richmond, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia, and which gives its name to a gentle rolling style called Piedmont Blues, that “juke-joint rhythm where the music just rolls out”, as Cooder describes it. “And that’s a very pleasing sound for people, toe-tapping, you can’t not like it. And Sonny was the paragon of that stuff, he was perfect…He could do all this crazy stuff. His rhythm is perfect. Listen to his early records, he had an arranger’s mind; he could see a song in a structural way that is amazing. I wasn’t able to do that when I was young.

“But now I can look back and see that he was thinking of the verse, the chorus, how to make the chorus groove harder than the verse which is what you’re supposed to do. And he did all this with his harmonica and his voice as though he was a horn section. He just had that sense, a highly evolved, musically complex, expression. You think of the harmonica as something ordinary but take a look at Little Walter [famous Chicago player] and, of course, Sonny. These kind of people you will never see again.” He draws breath. “You see I’m just a fan who likes music.”

Initially, Terry made his name in a duo with another major Piedmont blues singer-guitarist, Blind Boy Fuller, but, after the latter’s death in 1941, he teamed up with singer-guitarist McGhee and though they were always in tune, the pairing was not always harmonious (see panel). But they endured as a duo from 1942 to the early 1980s; Terry died in 1986 aged 74 and McGhee 10 years later at 80.

In that 40 or so years, blues and its audience underwent a fundamental change, according to both Cooder and Mahal. In the early years the audience was predominantly African-American, but by the 1960s that audience, undergoing massive socio/economic change, believed blues to be “grandfather music”, as Cooder puts it, and it was white college-educated music lovers who filled their concerts. For instance, Cooder remembers there were no African-Americans at the Ash Grove shows.

But how relevant is blues today?

Mahal: “The blues haven’t gone anywhere; it is the people who’ve disappeared.”

Cooder echoes this: "Blues is like bluegrass or old gospel, it came from a way of life that is long gone…Music has social implications, especially traditional music. People sang about their life. If they were poor and broke or out of work and couldn't get a meal together or they were without shoes, that's what they sang about. You find me a millionaire or a billionaire does the same. Does Jeff Bezos write songs? I don't think so. Rich people don't have any use for it but poor people, working people, have always had music on their side. And the result is everything we know that has come before us. The hundreds of records, the thousands of songs. Everything, blues, bluegrass. Come on. So that's what I like. I like to play it, but I also like what it represents, or has represented."

And there they go, two seasoned veterans happily still in love with music. As Mahal says: “You could live 100 lifetimes and never cover all the great music on this planet.”

Ry Cooder on Paddy Moloney

Ry Cooder pauses after mention is made of the death of the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney with whom he collaborated on many projects. "Paddy was a dear friend. A person I'll always remember and hold in the highest regard. And fun. I mean you find me a more fun person. Even on the telephone I could be talking to him and he'd whip out his tin whistle at the other end of the line and start playing….And I'm sorry to say that I didn't spend as much time with him as I should have, you are always going to have regrets about these things. That's life. But I think we did some good work together. It's a wonderful thing about music as a lifetime thing. You meet these sensational people. And that's probably the best thing. You know guitar is good and I like it. Banjo is good and I like it. It's the people who count. That's the real story."

And the Irish connection continues. Cooder revealed that future projects may include working with Sligo traditional band Dervish.

Who were Terry and McGhee

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were a remarkable duo who played a particular style of blues called Piedmont named after the American east coast area where they were raised. Terry, who was blind, was already a renowned harmonica player from his work with Blind Boy Fuller. But after the latter died in 1941 he enlisted McGhee as his partner. It was not the most harmonious of pairings. When they played a memorable Dublin show in 1982 all the talk was about how they didn’t speak to each other until they hit the stage.

Cooder thinks what he calls “Brownie’s presentation” was the issue. In the early 1960s, as their white liberal audience grew, McGhee had taken elocution lessons to make himself easier to understand and easier to employ – he was also a sometime actor as was Terry. It must be remembered that even top-notch African-American musicians struggled to make a good living. However, Terry viewed McGhee as pandering to a white audience, as laid on a “little thick”.

In addition, according to Cooder, McGhee was stepping into “mighty big shoes” when he replaced Fuller. “And I think Sonny used to give Brownie some s**t about not being Blind Boy Fuller. Nobody could be; Fuller was really good, a spectacular musician. So I think he was hard on Brownie that way. But when they got onstage, they hit it.”

Get On Board is released on Nonesuch Records next Friday. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee albums are available on streaming services and YouTube features some notable performances by the duo.