It’s the month of the Leek Blues Festival in which musicians both local and further afield will be bringing the music of the Deep South to local pubs and clubs. It’s over 40 years since I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee perform in the Legendary Bluesmen Tour. They appeared at the Heavy Steam Machine in Hanley. Older readers might recall the venue. It had been a ten pin bowling establishment until turned into a music venue in around 1972.( I also saw a young Elton John there ) Both men were the real deal in terms of living the life of true bluesmen. Terry’s father was a share cropper and Sonny went blind in his teens the result of an accident while McGee was from a working class family whose father was a factory worker. He was crippled with polio as a child and was pushed around in a cart by his brother until a charity organised an operation to cure the illness. Both men were from the south and both experienced hardship and racism as travelling musicians through the country during the 40s and 50s. Like many blacks they moved north and established themselves on the folk music scene in New York. They were welcomed in the left leaning bohemian clubs of Greenwich Village, venues that would later nurture Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
McGee and Terry toured the UK frequently after 1957 so when I saw them in the Potteries they were well known and had played with some of the most influential musicians of the period. Curiously I gather although it was a musical partnership that carried over a 30 year period the two men disliked each other intensely and off stage would not talk to each other. I saw a clip of them on You tube from a TV show of the 50s. They were playing with Woody Guthrie the legendary folk singer and song writer. Guthrie chronicled life in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the depression of the 1930s in his songs and writing who then went on to influence Bob Dylan.
What musicians like McGee, Terry and Guthrie( and from an earlier generation Leadbelly, Son House and Robert Johnson) had was authenticity. They had the genuine experience of working in the fields or factories and in the case of Lead belly and House grim experience in the prison farms of the South. Some of them found solace in religion or in politics. House was an itinerant Baptist preacher. Leadbelly and Guthrie supported left wing causes which led to them coming under scrutiny in the communist “witch hunting” phase of the 1950s.
They learned their skills at the feet of earlier musicians such as Blind Blake and Irene Scruggs of the Piedmont Blues style. McGee and Terry in turn went on to inspire later musicians such as Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, the Animals and Rod Stewart whom I saw in the music venues of the Potteries in the 1970s. And the baton is now being passed to another generation who are playing at the Leek Festival.
I will end with an anecdote: Jeff Parton of Werrington used to run the Folk Club at the Red Lion in Stoke, now part of the Crich Tram Museum. Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo was touring UK folkclubs in the 60s and wandered in to Stoke Folk Club. Arlo later went on to write many political songs following in his father’s tradition but was then unknown. The manager of the Folk Club asked to do an audition which compliantly he did.