Sonny Terry – His Best 21 Songs | Album Review

sonnyterrycdSonny Terry – His Best 21 Songs

Wolf Records – 2015

21 tracks: 66 minutes

This album is the eleventh issued by Austrian label Wolf in the ‘Blues Classics’ series and follows discs by the likes of  Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Leroy Carr and Big Bill Broonzy.  These recordings were made between 1938 and 1946 and find Sonny playing mainly in a duo format with a variety of musicians. Sonny’s distinctive ‘whoopin’ and hollerin’ vocal style is well in evidence, particularly on the first half of the disc and his high pitched vocals on those cuts may be an acquired taste if you are not familiar with it.  The first two tracks are live at Carnegie Hall, one being “The New John Henry” which is a take on the familiar tale of the railroad man, complete with washboard. The only recording made under Sonny’s real name Saunders Terry is “New Love Blues” which is also a solo harp and vocal performance.  Sonny first came to prominence with Blind Boy Fuller and that combination appears on the appropriately titled “Harmonica Stomp”; Blind Boy on guitar, Oh Red (aka George Washington) on washboard and Sonny on harp and vocal. Just two of the 21 tracks here were recorded away from NYC: “Forty-Four Whistle Blues”, clearly a version of the well-known “Forty-Four Blues”, finds Sonny and Oh Red in Chicago in 1940 while an unissued side from 11 May 1942 in Washington DC is one of three tracks from Sonny with Brownie McGhee on guitar, an interesting song entitled “The Red Cross Store”.  The other two sides with Brownie are “Shake Down” and “Sweet Woman”, both from 1945.

The rest of this compilation comes from three LPs issued on Stinson.  Recording dates seem to be vague as the first two sets are both credited as ‘probably 1944’; it may well be that the recordings were all made in the same session but released across two LPs.  Four tracks feature Sonny with Woody Guthrie on banjo and violin and Alec Seward on guitar as well as vocal on one cut “Rock Me Mamma”, an early run-out for what we would recognise as “Rock Me Baby”.  There are quite a number of songs that reference chain gangs and two of those four tracks are “Chain Gang Blues” and “Chain Gang Special” as well as a take on the traditional and often recorded “Stackolee”.  The other 1944 set is the same personnel and includes another chain gang song. The final set of three tracks is just Sonny and Woody, recorded in 1946, Sonny mainly singing in his natural voice with just the occasional whoop.  The last cut is a train song “South Bound Express” with outstanding harp work from Sonny.

Recording quality here obviously reflects the age of the material and in some cases one can hear some of the clicks and crackles from the original pressings but for fans of early country blues and Sonny Terry’s harp and vocal style this is a treasure trove of his work in a variety of settings.

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