Friday, September 2, 2011

Honeyboy's Gift

When Honeyboy Edwards retired a couple of months ago, you sort of had the feeling that there was a reason........otherwise, I can't imagine that he ever would have stopped playing.  Since his death early Monday morning, there have been numerous tributes to him from many blues artists, writers, producers, managers, promoters, bloggers, etc...  I never got to meet him.  I wish I had taken the time in February to meet him after his performance at the Riley Center, to at least shake his hand and tell him how much I appreciated what he gave to the blues.

So, what exactly did Honeyboy Edwards give to the blues?  Sure, he was a good singer and a highly underrated guitarist, even a composer, but in the scheme of things, you have to admit that over time, there were better guitarists, better singers, and better composers, but there was only one Honeyboy, with his idiosyncratic playing style and gravelly vocals.  If you ever heard him, you knew who he was.  There are only a few blues musicians that you can really say that about. 

Even though he left home at age 14 to travel with Big Joe Williams, he was barely recorded at all (his 1942 recordings for the Library of Congress, a 78 in 1951 and four sides for Chess Records in 1953) until the late 1960's, in part due to his nomadic lifestyle.  However, he managed to outlast all of his contemporaries.  Included among the members of the "Class of '15" (Edwards' birth year) were Muddy Waters, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Willie Dixon, Brownie McGhee, Memphis Slim, Johnny Shines, Hound Dog Taylor.  That's a pretty impressive list.  Edwards played, recorded, and toured the world up until a few months before his death.  That's an 80+ year career, folks!!!!  The video below is from his final performance, on April 17, at the Cat Head Mini Blues Festival, with Bill Abel (guitar) and Michael Frank (harmonica) backing him.

The greatest gift that Honeyboy Edwards gave to the blues over his lifetime was to give fans (via countless interviews in magazines, books, and radio) a more vivid picture of what it was like during the blues' humble beginnings, before the days of electric instruments, Sun Records, Chess, VeeJay, Excello, and the rest, when musicians risked life and limb in the deep south moving from town to town to earn a living playing on the streets, in local joints, at fish fries, and at house parties....when musicians hoboed from town to town, riding the rails from the south to the north, looking for a way to get ahead, staying one step ahead of the law, or an angry woman, or a jealous husband.  For most of his listeners, Honeyboy's recollections were about as close as they would ever get to actually "living the blues."  As much as I enjoyed listening to Edwards perform over the years, it was even more interesting to hear about his life.  He had an incredible memory and could recall things from seventy years ago like they just happened.  That will be the biggest loss of all in losing Honeyboy Edwards.....that amazing memory and his wonderful stories.

Of course, he was most revered for his memories of Robert Johnson.  He was there in Leflore County, MS, when Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband and saw most of what happened.  Sadly, it appears that he was our last living link to Johnson.....the last living musician to play with him, to talk with him, and to hang out with him.  He was always generous with his time regarding Johnson (and other bluesmen, like Tommy McClennan and Tommy Johnson), even though he usually ended up relegating himself to the background with each recollection.  He always gave the people what they wanted.

More than anything you can say about Honeyboy Edwards, that last sentence says it best......He gave the people what they wanted.  He wasn't a pioneer, a ground-breaking artist, a major innovator.  Instead, he was a guy who loved to play the blues and who filled more gaps in the music's history and lore than anyone else.  We owe a huge debt of gratitude to him (and to Michael Frank, who provided invaluable support to Edwards over the past 40 years, recording him for Earwig Records, serving as his manager, backing him on harmonica on tour, etc...) for what he gave us, on record and with countless interviews, stories, and even his own autobiography (absolutely essential reading for ANY blues fan).  His was a life well-lived and we should be glad that he shared a part of it with us.

A few of my favorite Honeyboy Edwards recordings.......

Delta Bluesman (Earwig):  a wonderful combination of the old and the new.  The "old" are Edwards' 1942 Library of Congress recordings.  The new are freshly (early 90's) recorded blues tracks that show how strong a performer Edwards was, even in his late 70's.  Though it's nice to have the Library of Congress songs, the modern tracks are really special.

Crawling Kingsnake (Testament):  Recordings made by Pete Welding in the mid to late 70's.  Edwards was at the peak of his powers at this time.  Too bad, no one was taking notice.  These recordings sat dormant for years (similar to his recordings for Chess, which weren't issued until being collected in an anthology set in the early 70's) before Testament reissued it in the late 90's.

Old Friends (Earwig):  The second-ever release from Earwig Records, this recording features Edwards with a quartet of old-school Chicago musicians - Sunnyland Slim, Kansas City Red, Big Walter Horton, and Floyd Jones.  Each took turns in the spotlight, and Edwards' material really stands out, but all of it is worth hearing.  It sounds like a bunch of buddies getting together and just making music.  Rough and ragged other words, it's nearly perfect!!  One of my all-time favorite recordings.

Shake 'Em On Down (APO):  To me, this is one of Edwards' best recordings.  The production and sound is first-rate and Edwards sounds as good as he's ever sounded.  There's also a 13 to 14 minute interview with Edwards as he recounts his days with Tommy McClennan, Tommy Johnson, and Robert Johnson.  This is a really well-done recording.

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