Big Bo McGee

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Cleo McGee, harmonica player and singer: born 9 October 1928; died Tuscaloosa, Alabama 3 March 2002.

Every so often, some academic or know-it-all pundit announces that the folk tradition is dead or dying. Bishop Percy said as much in 1765. Cecil Sharp added his two-penn'orth in 1907. Most recently, it's been happening to the folk blues; and yet, despite the supposed depredations of commercialism and electricity, just as often as the death of the tradition is announced, some old guy is discovered in the backwoods, keeping the tradition alive.

Big Bo McGee, the harmonica-playing virtuoso, was just such an example of the indestructibility of the tradition. He had worked as a truck-driver for 40 years before teaming up with Jolly "Little Whitt" Wells (also a truck-driver). They caused a sensation when they toured Europe and even appeared on BBC radio in 1995, after the release of their only recording, Moody Swamp Blues, on the tiny Alabama label Vent. It was named "CD of the Year" by the UK blues magazine Blueprint. Typically, McGee didn't receive similar approbation in his native land until later in the Nineties, with an appearance in 1997 at the Chico Blues Festival.

Cleo McGee was born in 1928 in a house on the state line between Emelle, Alabama, and Porterville, Mississippi. He used to quip that his family could eat breakfast in Alabama and sleep in Mississippi. He began playing the harmonica at the age of five, taught by his grandmother, and was a popular performer at juke joints (illegal drinking clubs), house parties, fish fries and family reunions for most of his life.

The Wells-McGee style was rather more primitive than the sophistication of that better-known guitar-and-mouth-harp duo, Brownie McGhee (no relation) and Sonny Terry, which was evident from the opening notes of "Robert Johnson's Walking Blues" on McGee and Wells's sole recording together. McGee contributed three original compositions to the 12 tracks on the album, "Overseas Blues", "The Burning", and "You Go Your Way". The remainder were familiar tunes like Muddy Waters's "Can't Be Satisfied", Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman", and Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago".

They demonstrated how creative old bluesmen could be with tunes they had probably learnt from the radio, or from phonograph records, without departing from the traditional feel of the music.

Karl Dallas

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