Brownie McGhee (1915–1996)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Country blues singer and guitarist.

Walter Brown “Brownie” McGhee was born November 30, 1915, in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was reared in Kingsport. At the age of four, he contracted polio and was partially crippled. McGhee learned guitar from his father and could also play the organ and the piano by age eight. He plied his trade in church, traveling shows, roadhouses, and juke joints, playing a mixture of country blues and other folk songs. A 1937 operation sponsored by the March of Dimes restored most of McGhee’s mobility.

In 1938 McGhee relocated to the North Carolina Piedmont, where he met Blind Boy Fuller, a famed blues singer and guitarist, and J. B. Long, a talent scout for OKeh Records. In Chicago, McGhee recorded his first song, “Me and My Dog,” as the flip side to Fuller’s “Bus Ride Blues.” After Fuller’s passing in 1941, McGhee wrote and recorded the song “The Death of Blind Boy Fuller” for OKeh. This single was credited to “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.”

Later in 1941, McGhee started a longterm collaboration with harmonica player Sonny Terry, Fuller’s former sideman. Relocating to New York in 1942, the duo became a part of the city’s burgeoning folk music scene, playing alongside Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Josh White. The duo was equally popular with revivalist audiences in the 1950s and 1960s, recording numerous albums and performing at major folk music venues and festivals across much of the United States, Canada, and Europe. McGhee and Terry’s association lasted approximately forty years, reaching a landmark in 1973 with Sonny and Brownie, an album featuring songs written by prominent songwriters such as Curtis Mayfield and Randy Newman and performed with popular musicians, including Arlo Guthrie, John Mayall, and John Hammond Jr., as sidemen. From the early 1980s until his death, McGhee continued as a solo performer while gaining a measure of success as an actor in such movies as The Jerk and Angel Heart and on television’s Matlock series. He had previously worked in Broadway shows, including Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Langston Hughes’s Simply Heavenly. McGhee died February 16, 1996.

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"Brownie McGhee," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 24 Aug 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=154>

APA Style

"Brownie McGhee." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved August 24, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=154

Brownie McGhee with Sonny Terry