Upon meeting bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards in 1942, musicologist Alan Lomax called him a "genius" who could "make the guitar speak like a natural man." Part of the reason for his aptitude, Lomax believed, was his dedication to his ax; Edwards kept playing it even as he and Lomax strolled down the street chatting.
Today Edwards is no longer the "wild young rooster" of Lomax's description; instead, he's a pleasantly crusty old bird. But he remains as committed to the blues as he was when Lomax originally recorded him for the Library of Congress. And thanks to a recently published autobiography--The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, from Chicago Review Press--and a new live recording with the identical moniker on Earwig Records, the guitarist, who turns 83 in June, is finally receiving some long-deserved recognition. For instance, the current issue of Life magazine contains a collection of photographs entitled "Living Blues." The first picture is of Edwards.
"They all want to talk to me now. They sure do," Edwards says. "Folks be calling, wanting to know a lot about some of the older musicians like Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Tom McClennan. Or they're wanting to know more about Big Walter Horton or the Memphis Jug Band, or all the guys that were playing back then. You see, I was around at a good time. The Lord let me be out there sticking around at just a real good time. I guess I was too young to get in with some of the older people, like Charley Patton. But there's many times I seen him play. And Blind Lemon Jefferson--he was the big name when I was young. But I got in with some of the other guys that was around my age, so I kind of caught both ages. I can play the slower blues that people played back in Robert Johnson's day, and I can play the up-tempo blues that the younger people are playing. I'm in the middle. And for me, the middle was a good place to be."
As one of the last survivors of the Delta blues' golden age, Edwards is able to offer eyewitness accounts about the scene, and in his new book he does just that. A blues lover's wet dream, World overflows with tales of legendary musicians performing for spare change in alleys, regaling revelers at weekend parties, dodging railroad dicks and local lawmen, and romancing women at virtually every juke joint up and down the Mississippi River.
Such experiences would seem extraordinary to most people, but Edwards shrugs them off with becoming modesty. "I was just a young boy traveling around on the chin--just trying to make it any way I could," he says, laughing. "Playing in the street or house parties when I was young. I didn't have the sense enough to be scared. Never did. I'd catch a freight train when it was dark and get off down in the yard and try to make it out of there before it got light. I sure did a lot of things. But it was just surviving and doing what you do. When you do it, you don't never think of it as some history making. You're just living."
Edwards began playing guitar in 1929, when he was fourteen. "There was this sharecropper who stayed across from us, name of Clarence McDaniel," he remembers. "He ordered a Stella guitar from Sears Roebuck for, I think, about twelve dollars. When he got tired of it, he sold it to my father for eight dollars. From then on, I started playing guitar."
During this period, Edwards encountered likeminded musicians such as Robert Petway and Sonny Boy Williamson and got a chance to hear Rube Lacy, Kokomo Arnold and other renowned artists while they were at the height of their powers. Then, in 1932, he befriended Big Joe Williams. The pair spent the next year figuring out how to use their music to survive. Edwards obviously learned the lesson well: By the mid-Thirties, he was a hard-loving, hard-gambling man who counted among his pals Big Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim and Howlin' Wolf.
In 1937, Edwards heard Robert Johnson playing "Terraplane Blues" for a crowd that had gathered in an alley behind a whorehouse in Greenwood, Mississippi. Afterward, the musicians got together and discovered that there was a connection between them; Willie Mae Powell, Johnson's girlfriend, was Edwards's cousin. But a long friendship between them was not to be; on a Saturday night the following year, Johnson was poisoned. Edwards, who was present on this fateful evening, saw Johnson three days later, shortly before he died. "I didn't go see him on Sunday or Monday," he explains. "I really thought he would be all right. But when I saw him the next day, he was sure sick--bleeding from the mouth, couldn't talk. I was 22 years old, and I couldn't do nothing for him. Nobody had any money for him to see a doctor. So he died."
After more than twenty years as a musical nomad, Edwards moved to Chicago, where he still resides. Work was plentiful in those early days, but that changed during the late Sixties, when the South Side neighborhoods where he played were torn apart in order to make room for a new interstate, the Dan Ryan Expressway. As a result, Edwards turned to day jobs to make ends meet. He toiled as a machinist, forklift operator and construction worker until the late Seventies, when harpist Michael Franks (not to be confused with the jazz singer of the same name) signed Edwards to his new blues label, Earwig. Since then, Edwards has become a sought-after concert attraction. He appears in Europe at least twice a year and frequently headlines blues events across America. It's a demanding schedule, but he has no plans to slow down--not while he's feeling so good. "I never smoked; maybe that's why I still have my voice," he says. " And I didn't even do too much when I was young. I would drink alcohol, but I was never nothing like a drunkard. I was a weekend drinker. I'd drink on Friday night and when it got to be Sunday night, I'd quit. Now all I do is a little taste once in a while, and maybe a beer. That's about it. I still walk okay, too. I don't have to have no stick or nothing like that."
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He's also as feisty as ever, as an altercation last year demonstrates. "These boys stole my car," he recounts. "They hijacked it, close to my house--it sure was. I was at the gas station; I left my car running and went up to the window to pay, and when I got back to the car, this boy pushed me, saying, 'Get back, man. Get on back.' He shoved me out of the way and got in the car. Well, I had a knife on me, and I was trying to stay holding on to the car, but I couldn't. So I took my knife and I went to cutting him. I cut him on his hand. He hit that expressway and had to drive straight to the hospital." In the end, he says, "I got my car back, but those boys had messed up the transmission."
The music he's spent his life making is in better shape, Edwards feels. "The blues ain't never going to go out. You know why? You can play the blues just too many ways. You can make a shuffle out of the blues and play country blues. You can make up-tempo blues--that's a kind of fast shuffle, like a boogie-woogie blues. There's lots of blues. So it's going to stay around. It's got to stay around."
Roots of the Blues: The Swallow Hill Blues Festival, with David Honeyboy Edwards, Mary Flower, Mollie O'Brien, Vicki Taylor and Big Joe Duskin. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18, Eulipions Cultural Center, 1770 Sherman Street, $24/$19 for Swallow Hill members, 777-1003.