Henry Townsend

Blues guitarist


Henry James Townsend, singer and guitarist: born Shelby, Mississippi 27 October 1909; married (three children); died Grafton, Wisconsin 24 September 2006.

Henry Townsend was a stalwart of the St Louis blues scene; a veteran musician who, over a 70-plus-year career, worked alongside such figures as Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Nighthawk.

Born in Shelby, Mississippi, in 1909, he spent much of his childhood in Cairo, Illinois, before moving to St Louis in 1921. A friend, David Perchfield, taught him to play the slide-guitar, an instrument whose sound, he later recalled, "just penetrated me like a bullet", and in time he became highly proficient. He worked on a shoeshine stand that served as the front for a bootlegging operation and supplemented his income by performing at house rent parties and fish fries.

In 1929 he travelled to Chicago to make his recording début, cutting four numbers, including "Long Ago Blues" and "Henry's Worry Blues". Further solo sides followed, including a clutch, in 1932, on which he was billed as Henry Thomas. It was, however, as an accompanist that he was most valued, appearing on disc with some of the era's finest talents, including the pianists Roosevelt Sykes and Walter Davis. In 1935 he participated in a session with Big Joe Williams that would result in both the superb duet "Somebody's Been Borrowing That Stuff" and the first recording of Williams's classic "Baby Please Don't Go".

Townsend taught the enigmatic, self-styled "Devil's Son-in-Law" Peetie Wheatstraw to play the guitar and became part of a musical circle that included both Robert Nighthawk and the pioneering harmonica-player John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. He also reputedly met and performed with Robert Johnson, a figure, like Wheatstraw, clouded in mystery, but one whose body of work continues to be of seminal importance.

Following war service in the Air Corps, he found daytime employment in the refrigeration industry. The folk music revival of the 1960s led to appearances at festivals across America and he became a source of reference for those keen for an insight into the careers of now mythic figures like Johnson and Williamson.

He had several fine albums to his credit, including Tired of Bein' Mistreated (1961), Mule (1979), on which he was joined by the veteran blues mandolinist Yank Rachell, Cairo Blues (1999) and 88 Blues (2001).

Paul Wadey

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