Today we mourn the loss of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, one of the greatest blues musicians there ever was. Honeyboy was an incredible talent in his guitar playing, singing, songwriting and also with his rack harmonica playing (see his 1979 Folkways album, “Mississippi Delta Bluesman” as well as his very first recordings made by Alan Lomax in Clarkesdale, MS, 1942, among many others.) Honeyboy was not only an amazing artist but also through his longevity became the last living link to the world of the old Deep South that created the Folk-Blues. That world was a small world, and many of the people that created the blues knew one another. Honeyboy counted as friends and musical associates Big Joe Williams, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, The Memphis Jugband and others and undoubtedly ranked among them as one of blues music’s great practitioners. With his passing the kind of deep feeling and subtle mode of expression that he lived and breathed in his music leaves the world a diminished place.
On today’s show we revisit my extended interview with Honeyboy which we recorded when he came to play at BB King’s club in New York in 2006. I picked up Honeyboy and his manager and harmonica player Michael Frank at La Guardia Airport and drove them back to Michael’s brothers house on the Upper West Side. Once there we relaxed in the living room and Honeyboy and I recorded this interview. He was easygoing and easy to talk with and very generous with his time to speak with me, just a kid. I knew Honeyboy and Michael from when I had booked them a couple of years before to play at the Oberlin College Folk Festival and felt lucky to be able to reconnect with them in New York.
In this interview Honeyboy reveals many fascinating insights, vignettes and critical information gathered during his 80+ years as a professional musician. He talks about his days playing in Memphis with the Memphis Jug Band (plus how to blow a jug and build a tub bass) and Big Walter Horton, living and playing in the Mississippi Delta and then Chicago with all the greats there, how to hop a 1930’s freight train and get away with it as well as lots more.
I used the interview as a chance also to play a number of my favorite recordings by Honeyboy, as well as recordings by many of his musical associates he mentions, to give listeners not already familiar with his work and milieu a better understanding of his life and music.
For a brief account of his extraordinary life, see the below obituary from the New York Times. For more I highly recommend his autobiography The World Don’t Owe Me Nothin’ and the excellent documentary film about his life, “Honeyboy.”
Below is the obituary that appeared in today’s New York Times:
By BILL FRISKICS-WARREN
Published: August 29, 2011
David Honeyboy Edwards, believed to have been the oldest surviving member of the first generation of Delta blues singers, died on Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 96.
His death was announced by his manager, Michael Frank.
Mr. Edwards’s career spanned nearly the entire recorded history of the blues, from its early years in the Mississippi Delta to its migration to the nightclubs of Chicago and its emergence as an international phenomenon.
Over eight decades Mr. Edwards knew or played with virtually every major figure who worked in the idiom, including Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He was probably best known, though, as the last living link to Robert Johnson, widely hailed as the King of the Delta Blues. The two traveled together, performing on street corners and at picnics, dances and fish fries during the 1930s.
“We would walk through the country with our guitars on our shoulders, stop at people’s houses, play a little music, walk on,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview with the blues historian Robert Palmer, recalling his peripatetic years with Johnson. “We could hitchhike, transfer from truck to truck, or, if we couldn’t catch one of them, we’d go to the train yard, ’cause the railroad was all through that part of the country then.” He added, “Man, we played for a lot of peoples.”
Mr. Edwards had earlier apprenticed with the country bluesman Big Joe Williams. Unlike Williams and many of his other peers, however, Mr. Edwards did not record commercially until after World War II. Field recordings he made for the Library of Congress under the supervision of the folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942 are the only documents of Mr. Edwards’s music from his years in the Delta.
Citing the interplay between his coarse, keening vocals and his syncopated “talking” guitar on recordings like “Wind Howling Blues,” many historians regard these performances as classic examples of the deep, down-home blues that shaped rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Mr. Edwards was especially renowned for his intricate fingerpicking and his slashing bottleneck-slide guitar work. Though he played in much the same traditional style throughout his career, he also enjoyed the distinction of being one of the first Delta blues musicians to perform with a saxophonist and drummer.
David Edwards was born June 28, 1915, in Shaw, Miss., in the Delta region. His parents, who worked as sharecroppers, gave him the nickname Honey, which later became Honeyboy. His mother played the guitar; his father, a fiddler and guitarist, performed at local social events. Mr. Edwards’s father bought him his first guitar and taught him to play traditional folk ballads.
His first real exposure to the blues came in 1929, when the celebrated country bluesman Tommy Johnson came to pick cotton at Wildwood Plantation, the farm near Greenwood where the Edwards family lived at the time.