David Honeyboy Edwards, Delta Bluesman, Dies at 96
By BILL FRISKICS-WARRE AUG. 29, 2011
David Honeyboy Edwards performing in New York in 1991. Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos
David Honeyboy Edwards, believed to have been the oldest surviving member of the first generation of Delta blues singers, died on Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 96.
His death was announced by his manager, Michael Frank.
Mr. Edwards’s career spanned nearly the entire recorded history of the blues, from its early years in the Mississippi Delta to its migration to the nightclubs of Chicago and its emergence as an international phenomenon.
Over eight decades Mr. Edwards knew or played with virtually every major figure who worked in the idiom, including Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He was probably best known, though, as the last living link to Robert Johnson, widely hailed as the King of the Delta Blues. The two traveled together, performing on street corners and at picnics, dances and fish fries during the 1930s.
“We would walk through the country with our guitars on our shoulders, stop at people’s houses, play a little music, walk on,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview with the blues historian Robert Palmer, recalling his peripatetic years with Johnson. “We could hitchhike, transfer from truck to truck, or, if we couldn’t catch one of them, we’d go to the train yard, ’cause the railroad was all through that part of the country then.” He added, “Man, we played for a lot of peoples.”
Mr. Edwards had earlier apprenticed with the country bluesman Big Joe Williams. Unlike Williams and many of his other peers, however, Mr. Edwards did not record commercially until after World War II. Field recordings he made for the Library of Congress under the supervision of the folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942 are the only documents of Mr. Edwards’s music from his years in the Delta.
Citing the interplay between his coarse, keening vocals and his syncopated “talking” guitar on recordings like “Wind Howling Blues,” many historians regard these performances as classic examples of the deep, down-home blues that shaped rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Mr. Edwards was especially renowned for his intricate fingerpicking and his slashing bottleneck-slide guitar work. Though he played in much the same traditional style throughout his career, he also enjoyed the distinction of being one of the first Delta blues musicians to perform with a saxophonist and drummer.
David Edwards was born June 28, 1915, in Shaw, Miss., in the Delta region. His parents, who worked as sharecroppers, gave him the nickname Honey, which later became Honeyboy. His mother played the guitar; his father, a fiddler and guitarist, performed at local social events. Mr. Edwards’s father bought him his first guitar and taught him to play traditional folk ballads.
His first real exposure to the blues came in 1929, when the celebrated country bluesman Tommy Johnson came to pick cotton at Wildwood Plantation, the farm near Greenwood where the Edwards family lived at the time.
“They’d pick cotton all through the day, and at night they’d sit around and play the guitars,” Mr. Edwards recalled in his autobiography, “The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing” (Chicago Review Press, 1997). “Drinking that white whiskey, that moonshine, I’d just sit and look at them. I’d say, ‘I wish I could play.’ ”
After spending the better part of two decades as an itinerant musician, Mr. Edwards made Chicago his permanent home in the 1950s. He performed frequently in its clubs and at the open-air market on Maxwell Street, but he recorded only sporadically during his first years there, notably for the independent Artist and Chess labels.
Mr. Edwards achieved new popularity during the blues revival of the 1960s. Near the end of the decade he appeared with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy on sessions that produced both volumes of the album “Blues Jam in Chicago” by the British rock band Fleetwood Mac.
In 1972 Mr. Edwards met Mr. Frank, a blues aficionado and harmonica player, who would be his booking agent, manager and collaborator, on both stage and record, for the rest of his life.
Mr. Edwards was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996 and named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002. In 2007 he appeared as himself in the movie “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”
Survivors include a daughter, a stepdaughter and several grandchildren.
Mr. Edwards won a Grammy Award in 2008 for the album “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas,” a collaboration with Henry Townsend, Pinetop Perkins (who died in March) and Robert Lockwood Jr., and a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2010.
He was still playing as many as 100 shows a year when he stopped touring, in 2008, and he continued to perform occasionally until this year. His last appearance was at a blues festival in Clarksdale, Miss., in April.