David 'Honeyboy' Edwards: Delta bluesman who played with Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson
Thursday 01 September 2011
David "Honeyboy" Edwards was, almost certainly, the last surviving link with the "Golden Age" of the Delta blues. A friend and associate of many of the genre's seminal figures, including the great Robert Johnson, he was a performer of versatility, integrity and power who continued to hold audiences in his thrall into his tenth decade.
Born to sharecropper parents on a cotton plantation at Shaw, Mississippi in 1915, his formative years were spent living under the repressive shadow of "Jim Crow" racial segregation laws. Family members, including his father, taught him to play the guitar and as a youngster he was able to observe performances by artists of the calibre of Charley Patton – but it was Big Joe Williams whom he would later cite as his primary mentor. Williams led an itinerant existence playing on street corners and at juke joints throughout the region and the young Edwards emulated him.
During this time he met Johnson, a musician whose enigmatic life and death have assured him legendary status. Edwards was present when Johnson died one August night in 1938, poisoned by a jealous husband, and later found himself much in-demand by academics and journalists who were keen to disentangle fact from fiction in their assessment of the now-legendary bluesman.
In 1942, Alan Lomax encountered Edwards whilst he was singing on the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi. The great musicologist was, at that time, in the midst of a song-collecting expedition for the Library of Congress and later recalled his initial impressions in his book, The Land Where the Blues Began (1993):
"A black felt hat cocked on the back of his head, his powerful hands dancing along the neck of the guitar, he sucked and puffed with furious energy at the harmonica held up to his mouth on a steel frame, the instrument gleaming against his skin like a wide silver smile."
Lomax eventually recorded a number of Edwards's performances, though none were released at the time, before following the singer's advice and seeking out a local musician named McKinley Morganfield; in time Morganfield would achieve iconic status as the bluesman Muddy Waters.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Edwards continued to live an itinerant life, joining harmonica virtuoso Little Walter in Chicago, recording "Who May Your Regular Be" as Mr. Honey for ARC in Houston, Texas and under his own name for Sam Phillips in Memphis. In 1953 he cut a number of sides for the Chess label and enjoyed a minor R&B hit with "Drop Down Mama". He became a mainstay of the Chicago scene, though without enjoying mainstream success, and found himself increasingly marginalised as soul emerged as a popular musical form. Over the following two decades he recorded only sporadically, and at times supplemented his income by undertaking factory work.
The resurgence of interest in the pre-war blues that developed out of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s reignited the careers of several of the survivors from that earlier era, Edwards, eventually, amongst them. He signed to Earwig Records, a label founded by a young, white blues enthusiast named Michael Frank, and recorded acclaimed albums for them, including Old Friends (1979) and Roamin' and Ramblin' (2008).
In 1996 Edwards was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and, a year later, published a frank autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing. In 2002 he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was the subject of a documentary, Honeyboy. In 2007 he made a cameo appearance in Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story, a parody of the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, that has since gained cult status.
In 2008 he won a Grammy award for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, a valuable record of a 2004 concert in Dallas, Texas in which he performed alongside fellow Delta blues veterans Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend and Robert Lockwood, Jr, and, in 2009, he fittingly received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. His last public performance was in April of this year when, aged 95, he played the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi; he was scheduled to perform a gig in Chicago on the day of his death.
David Edwards, guitarist and singer: born Shaw, Mississippi 28 June 1915; married (one daughter, one step-daughter); died Chicago 29 August 2011.
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