The Folksingers-Sonny Terry folk Blues Harp and Harmonica
Sonny Terry was a blues harmonica player. Struck with blindness at an early age he found his ability to play music, especially blues on the harmonica was a valuable talent. Blindness is not an attribute to look forward to, but it seems that some of the best musicians were blind. In the case of Sonny Terry he lost an eye when he was five years old and the other when he was 18. Since he was already a musician he decided to turn to his music to make his living.
To follow his new vocation he took his harmonicas to the streets and soon joined forces with guitarist Blind boy Fuller made their first recording in 1937 for Vocation.
According to most references that I found Sonny was born in Greensboro, GA on October 24, 1911 as Saunders Terrell. However on an LP album I have his birthplace is given as Durham. His father was a farmer who taught him to play basic blues harp (harmonica) as a youth. His father played a folk style harmonica with local bands at dances but didn’t play blues. He also sang at camp tent meetings for the Baptist Church. He seems to be in the company of many southern singers, including Elvis Presley, in honing his skills in church musical activity.
Sonny has played with a number of well known musicians including Woody Guthrie Who described his him by saying:” Sonny blew, whipped, beat, fanned and patted his harmonica, cooed to it like a weed hill turtledove, cried to it like some worried woman come to ease his worried mind. He put tobacco sheds of North and South Carolina in it, and all of the blistered and hardened hands, cheated and left empty, hurt and left crying, robbed and left hungry, beat and left dreaming. He rolled down the trains that the colored hand cannot drive, only clean and wash down.”
He had a long time musical relationship with Brownie McGee. Together they became well known among white audience during the 1950’s and 1960’s folk boom. He also played with Rev. Gary Davis, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He recorded for such labels as Folkways, Savoy, and Fantasy, which crossed racial boundaries.
In 1938 terry was invited to Carnegie Hall for the first From Spirituals to Swing concert. He also recorded for the library of Congress in that year. He did his first commercial sides in the 1940’s including “Old Jabo” and “Lost John.”
In addition to playing his blues harmonica Sonny had a prominent role in the Broadway play “Finian’s Rainbow.” This role lasted for about two years, starting in 1947. Experimental filmmaker Len Lye for a soundtrack a film used his song “Fox Chase”.
After being an active performer during the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s Sonny Terry died March 11, 1986 in Minelola, NY