Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi: Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train (M.C. Records)
This is as fine an acoustic blues album as you will hear all year. Two top modern day artists at the top of their game channelling two of history’s greatest acoustic bluesmen. “Brownie and Sonny were two musicians whose work will never surpassed, let alone improved on,” says Guy Davis. That’s as may be, but Davis and Fabrizio Poggi really make the songs on this album – all recorded or performed during their career by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – live in a new way. Davis sings and plays guitar and both play harmonica, with Poggi producing the album. Davis says he wasn’t sure that Sonny and Brownie’s work needed covering but he allowed himself to be persuaded by Poggi – and the result is terrific. There’s a warmth, feeling and joy in the way these songs are presented that draws you in and puts a big smile on your face.
After you’ve heard this album, go back and listen to the original songs by Sonny and Brownie and you’ll understand why Davis wondered if they needed covering. They really are blues masters, with Sonny’s energetic blues harmonica and Brownie’s fine guitar work. Sonny Terry was born in 1911 in Greensboro, Georgia and was blinded when he was 16, which made him unable to earn a living on his father’s farm. He took to playing music to earn some money and ended up playing in Blind Boy Fuller’s trio, before eventually teaming up with Brownie McGhee in 1941. Their musical partnership lasted for nearly 40 years. His partner Brownie, born in Knoxvulle, Tennessee in 1915, grew up with music, his uncle having made him a guitar from a tin marshmallow box and a piece of board. He sang in a local harmony group and was also able to play the banjo, ukulele and piano. The duo became favourites of white audiences during the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. On a personal note, it was after a friend gave me a Sonny and Terry album back in the early seventies, that I first became interested in the blues.
Davis recalls see them perform and meeting them back in 1981, and then Brownie coming to one of his performances in Oakland, California in the 1990s. “I got to shake his hand then, too,” he says, with some reverence.
There’s reverence too in the way this album has been put together. There’s not too much deviance from the original Sonny and Brownie versions, but Davis’s gritty vocals and he and his partner’s expert musicianship really does justice to these old blues songs – and some are very old: Elizabeth Cotten’s Freight Train from the early 1900s, Jimmy Oden’s 1941 Goin’ Down Slow and Big Joe Williams’s Baby Please Don’t Go from 1935.
The latter, a blues song which has been called “one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history” (music historian Gerard Herzhaft), is one of the stand-out numbers on the album, featuring some tasty slide guitar by Davis and a toe-tapping arrangement as the song gathers momentum.
There are twelve Sonny and Brownie songs on the album and an introductory original by Davis, penned, apparently at the mike in the recording studio. The harmonica mimics the sound of the last train ride of Terry and McGhee as Davis, great story teller that he is, takes us along with the duo on their journey on out of their accomplished musical life. “Goodbye Sonny, Goodbye Brownie, see you on the other side,” intones Davis as the song closes.
There are two other train songs on the album – Freight Train, and the album closer , Midnight Special, first recorded by Dave “Pistol Pete” Cutrell in 1924 and made famous by Lead Belly. Davis and Poggi take it at a fair lick, rounded off what is a really excellent set of traditional blues songs.
“The album,” said Davis, is “meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us.” That it is, a fitting tribute to two of the outstanding stars in the blues firmament.
(Check out our recent interview with Guy Davis here)