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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate