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Sonny Terry and His Harmonica: Teaching People to Laugh Again Essay

People rarely expect this kind of an instrument and this kind of a performer on stage, and the U.S., caught in the grip of the Great Depression, amidst the I and the II World Wars, could hardly believe that a plain Georgian man with a plain harmonica would win over the hearts of his audience in a millisecond.

Sonny Terry, however, did not expect anything, either; he just did what he could do best – he simply told his Southern blues stories to the accompaniment of his harmonica. Surprisingly enough, his songs were exactly what America of the post-WWI depression needed.

Although traditional commonplace phrases also occurred in Terry’s songs, most of his repertoire consisted of his observations of the United States at the verge of a major change, which made these songs documentaries of the U.S. of the 1930ies.

I’m a Stranger Here might seem a weird choice for a song that will make the audience feel happier about their lives. Indeed, the song tapped into the pace that was set by Guthrie, Moses Asch, and many other musicians of the decade. However, even with a song title that sounded no merrier than knell, Terry still managed to jazz the tune up a bit by introducing an upbeat rhythm and an optimistic “Woo-yes!” (Terry and McGhee).

More to the point, the song represents the needs and wishes of the people of the epoch, therefore, serving as a documentary of people’s emotions: “I’m gonna write home to daddy, / send me my railroad fare” (Terry and McGhee). It is truly amazing how both economical (“railroad fare” (Terry and McGhee) and social (“write home to daddy” (Terry and McGhee) aspects of a documentary are intertwined in a single line.

Despite its title, Mean Ole Frisco does not harp on the economical, racial or financial issues of the city, but, in fact, allows seeing the U.S. with the eyes of a person, who used to live in a happier place and, thus, makes one feel the loss of this place all the stronger.

Although technically, the song does not render any obvious economical or social issue, when taking a closer look at the lyrics, one will be able to see what lies beneath the surface and read an idiom of men and women losing their homes, hopes and each other as they roam to larger cities in search for a job to earn some pennies into the image of a girl luring the leading character into San Francisco.

Thus, the girl in the song appears to be a metaphor, which stands for a more promising fate, which the residents of the U.S. were so mercilessly ripped off.

The “ole dirty” (Terry and McGhee) San Francisco does not have much to offer, either, which tells the audience that for most Okies, the search for the “Promised Land” did not end well. However, Terry still manages to add more vivacity into the gloomy context of a seemingly silly song.

One of the songs that Sonny Terry is known best for, Born and Livin’ with the Blues might not sound as happy as one would expect it to, given some of his early and more upbeat performances; however, it still hit the chord with the post-WWI American audience, who wanted to hear about the family values, the strength of a community, faith in God, and the rest of the unshakeable elements of the life that they strived for.

On the one hand, the song appeals for the numerous Okies, who abandoned or, more probably, lost their property due to the economical disaster: “I’d use my guitar for my pillow” (Terry and McGhee). On the other hand, it shows people the glimpse of hope that they wish they could see: “From my childhood, where I am now, / I ain’t gonna worry, I’ll get by somehow” (Terry and McGhee).

While seemingly describing his childhood, starting, properly enough, from the time when he was a kid, to the point when he grows up into a disappointed adult: “Just look at what a hole I’m in” (Terry and McGhee), Sonny obviously refers to the situation that the entire South, predominantly “Okies,” was trapped in.

Classified as a mix of a social documentary and a traditional one, the song provides an account of both the historical events (though in a metaphoric way) and the emotions of the people who suddenly lost everything.

With Sonny Terry on stage, the darkest times of the American history did not seem as gloomy as they were. While other musicians of the era explained though their songs that it was all right to cry, Sonny Terry showed that it was fine to laugh – and the audience smiled as soon as the first chords of his songs started ringing.

While remaining a striking contrast to what most artists of the epoch preferred to perform on stage, Terry’s songs gave people lust for life, which was truly a breeze of fresh air for the United States of the 30ies, when every single citizen was caught in the Dust Bowl, with no ray of sunshine getting through.

Works Cited

Terry, Sonny and Brownie McGhee. “Born and Livin’ with the Blues.” YouTube. 1 Mar. 2009. Web.

Terry, Sonny and Brownie McGhee. “Mean Ole Frisco.” YouTube. 2 Jun. 2010. Web.

Terry, Sonny and Brownie McGhee. “I’m a Stranger Here.” YouTube. 28 Jun. 2010. Web.

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E., Kaleb. "Sonny Terry and His Harmonica: Teaching People to Laugh Again." IvyPanda, 16 July 2019,

1. Kaleb E. "Sonny Terry and His Harmonica: Teaching People to Laugh Again." IvyPanda (blog), July 16, 2019.


E., Kaleb. "Sonny Terry and His Harmonica: Teaching People to Laugh Again." IvyPanda (blog), July 16, 2019.


E., Kaleb. 2019. "Sonny Terry and His Harmonica: Teaching People to Laugh Again." IvyPanda (blog), July 16, 2019.


E., K. (2019) 'Sonny Terry and His Harmonica: Teaching People to Laugh Again'. IvyPanda, 16 July.

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