IF BLUES ARE ROOTED IN HEARTACHE and hard times, Brownie McGhee always seemed to add some joy. “I know what I am inside,” McGhee once said. “I’m an honest-to-God storyteller, and I use my guitar to help me along the way. Blues is truth.” Last week, in Oakland, the sad truth was that his storytelling had ended: Stomach cancer had finally stilled McGhee’s warm, rolling baritone and bouncy guitar-picking. He was 80.
With his longtime partner Sonny Terry, the blind harpist who died in 1986, McGhee helped introduce his Southern-bred blues to a broad urban audience and influenced future musicians, including Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. “Brownie sounded like he had six hands,” says New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. “His music was intricate but straight from the heart.”
Country to the core, McGhee grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., where he began playing back-porch blues with his father at age 7. Despite a handicap—childhood polio left his right leg several inches shorter than his left—McGhee left home at 18 to begin life as a troubadour. “I went on the road for years, hitchhiking, playing and singing,” he said. “I played highways, byways, anyplace. I’d join a church just to play.” His travels eventually led to New York City, where he and Terry, whom he had met in 1939, began performing with Woody Guthrie and crashed in a communal apartment with Pete Seeger until their rescue by another bluesman. “Leadbelly said, ‘They can’t live on those raw vegetables you folks eat,’ ” Seeger recalls with a laugh. Says Woody’s son Arlo: “The biggest thing about Brownie was his presence. He was so comfortable with himself, he could make anyone feel at ease.”
Except, it seemed, Terry, with whom he was barely on speaking terms during the 70s. “I don’t know anyone who knows how this came about,” says guitarist Happy Traum. “But I think they reconciled before Sonny died.” In recent years, McGhee performed occasionally but mostly reveled in his role as patriarch to six children, 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. “He was an awesome man,” says bluesman John Lee Hooker. “Wherever he’s at, I hope it’s a good place.”