Good-Natured Blues

In the field of country blues, probably no duo has been as influential as blind harpist Sonny Terry and vocalist/guitarist Brownie McGhee. They started performing together in the early 1940s, alongside compatriots such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. The 1950s/'60s folk revival gave their career a permanently revitalizing boost until the '70s, when their friendship reportedly fell victim to the harsh pressures of road life and business. Absolutely the Best compiles a number of earlier collaborations, before things between the duo went south.

Culled mostly from a July 1960, recording session, this new compilation features three outstanding tracks — all traditionals — on which Terry and McGhee are joined by Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Joe Williams: the robust "Right on That Shore," "Blues for Gamblers," and a beautifully rueful "Early Morning Blues" (RealAudio excerpt) with McGhee, Hopkins and Turner trading vocal lines.

Renowned for the cries with which he punctuated his harmonica playing — as on the engaging "Blowin' the Fuses" — Terry had a readily identifiable, widely emulated sound and style that emphasized quick, melodic patterns. The complementary balance struck between his exuberant performance style and McGhee's mellow warmth and solidly rhythmic guitar playing formed the basis for their powerful musical chemistry.

McGhee's fine rendition of Hopkins' "Trouble in Mind" (RealAudio excerpt) provides some of the album's most contemplative moments. Despite the recurring themes of loneliness and loss addressed in their music, his and Terry's blues generally convey a hard-traveling but good-natured spirit. As a result, songs such as the vigorous "Dirty Mistreater" (RealAudio excerpt), "Down by the Riverside" and "I'm a Stranger Here" are imbued with a winning sense of hope.