Discovering the Blues with Sonny Terry


Art by Wade Dillon

I used to haunt a little record store across from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Back in the day, I’d sift through stacks of vinyl, looking for something good. One afternoon, I found a four-song EP by bluesman Sonny Terry. My first thought was that I’d found a collector’s item, and might turn the record for a profit. That impression was reinforced when another shopper spotted the EP in my hand, and asked if he could please have it!

I didn’t know what was coming. Back in my basement apartment, I put the disc on my turntable. The first song was Women’s Blues (Corinna). I heard a lyric line that, on the face of it, might seem nonsensical. That isn’t how I took it. The words and the soulful vocal, backed by some killer harmonica licks, simply blew me away:

I ain’t got no sweet potato/frost done killed the vine/Blues ain’t nothing/but a little Corinna on my mind.

Who can tell what will resonate in advance? Those lines started a lifelong love affair with the blues.

Sonny Terry was born Saunders Teddell (or Terrell) in Greensboro, Georgia (1911). Injuries suffered as a teen took his sight, so he learned music to be able to make a living. In the 1930s, he established a partnership of sorts with a guitarist named Blind Boy Fuller. When Fuller died, Terry linked up with Brownie McGhee. Over the next two decades, the pair made a name for themselves among both blues and folk artists.

Terry’s harmonica style featured a lot of whooping between notes, a trick best featured on the video that follows. (Lost John was another of the four songs on my little EP.) The breath control Terry demonstrates is mind-boggling.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after listening to Sonny Terry, I spent a while trying to learn blues harp. Like my subsequent guitar adventures, I learned just how little talent I had for music.

But as with my love for baseball, my obsession with the blues led to a novel.

Sins in Blue (Black Rose Writing) tells the story of a Depression-era blues guitarist hoping to be “rediscovered” in the 1960s. The novel released today, and is available on Amazon.

Given that my novels tend to come out of personal fixation, I think Sins in Blue can trace its lineage straight back to a four-song EP hidden in the bargain bin of a long-ago record store. For that, and for the music, I’ll be forever grateful to Mr. Terry and his blues harp.

Note: This is one of a series of articles about that great American art form, the Blues. The illustrations were done by Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator who lives in Texas. You can find Wade at

About Brian C. Kaufman

Author, educator, cook. Given a tilt of fate, that might have been lead guitarist, pro wrestler, radio evangelist. You never know.
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