August 29, 2011
He was the son of a sharecropper, the grandson of a slave and -- for an extraordinary 80-plus years -- the voice of the Delta blues.
David "Honeyboy" Edwards picked cotton and pulled corn on Mississippi Delta plantations from age 9, living the hard life that the blues were created to address. As a young man, he hoboed across the South with a guitar on his shoulder, rode the rails, got thrown in prison for vagrancy and various trumped-up charges and, along the way, made music with the founders of the art form: Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Tommy McLennan, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams -- virtually everyone, really.
Edwards died at about 3 a.m. Monday in his South Side home at age 96, said Michael Frank, his longtime manager.
Edwards' death effectively closes the book on a genre of music he represented in Chicago, where he was based since the 1950s, and around the world.
"Honeyboy -- that's the end of the line," said veteran Chicago blues musician Billy Branch, who recorded and performed with Edwards. "He's the last of the bluesmen from his generation. He was that direct connection with the fabled Robert Johnson, and with (Edwards' death), it is the end of that particular style."
Said Bruce Iglauer, founder of the Chicago blues label Alligator Records, "Honeyboy was one of the very last links to the real world of the Delta blues, a crucial world in the development of American popular music. He was a truth teller.
"He understood that this music can't be separated from the culture in which he was born and grew up. It can't be separated from the reality of the racial situation in the South at that time, and what black people were and weren't allowed to do."
To listen to Edwards was to hear the field hollers and laments, the work songs and hymns of a black underclass and, equally important, to hear that music performed just as it was roughly a century ago. Edwards' soft-but-searing tenor and cut-to-the-bone guitar playing epitomized pre-pop, pre-rock, pre-recording-era Southern blues.
"I always considered him a walking jukebox of the blues from the '30s through the '50s -- he just had so much music stored up in that memory of his," said manager Frank, who worked with Edwards for 39 years.
"To me, he was the living embodiment of the quintessential Mississippi bluesman of lore, but there's nothing fictitious about his life or music. It's the stuff of legend, only it's not legend. It's real."
Edwards told his remarkable story in snippets onstage, in anecdotes during uncounted interviews and in a 1997 memoir that has become a landmark of American musical history, "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards." In it, Edwards detailed the brutality of life on the plantations around Shaw, Miss., where he was born June 28, 1915. He told of lynchings that dotted the landscape and of being picked up and sent to the penitentiary for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But he also spoke eloquently of how blues music gave outlet to the pain experienced by those who created it, heard it and needed it.
"You could play the blues like it was a lonesome thing -- it was a feeling," he said in a 1998 Tribune interview. "The blues is nothing but a story. ... The verses which are sung in the blues is a true story, what people are doing ... what they all went through. It's not just a song, see?"
Edwards first picked up a Sears Roebuck guitar at age 12 and was working as a musician by 14. Though he collaborated prolifically with the first-generation creators of the music, he was perhaps most famous as one of the last musicians to visit Robert Johnson as the seminal bluesman lay dying near Greenwood, Miss., in 1938.
"I talked to him, but he wasn't able to talk," wrote Edwards in his memoirs. "He was bleeding at the mouth, heaving up and going on. There was nothing I could do for him. ... Some people say that (his death) had something to do with Robert selling himself to the devil. ... It may be."
Along with an entire generation of blues musicians and others during the Great Migration, Edwards traveled north to Chicago in the mid-1950s to get work. He toiled in factories as a machine operator and on construction sites on anything that was needed. At night, he played the blues.
He recorded for Chess Records, the primary Chicago label of the day, but he never attained a fraction of the fame of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon or his other blues contemporaries. Edwards blamed this partially on Chess, which he believed favored Waters over him, and partly on himself.
"Sometimes I hurt my chances," he wrote in his memoirs. "I was wild and crazy and wouldn't stay nowhere much. And sometimes I was just too hard-headed."
The rediscovery of the blues in the 1960s, in the wake of the British invasion, made Edwards a desired attraction on stages around the world, and he performed steadily -- if not busily -- nearly through the end of his life. He last performed April 17 in Clarksdale, Miss.
Edwards won a 2007 Grammy Award for "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Blues Musicians: Live in Dallas" and a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
"He wasn't as influential as Robert Johnson and people like that, but if you look at his whole body of work, it was bigger and broader," Frank said. "He wasn't as influential because people weren't playing his songs as blues standards.
"But his technique was unique, which is something every musician strives for. ... He worked at the highest level of musicianship."
And he told the story of the blues.
Survivors include a daughter, Betty Washington, and her children and grandchildren; a stepdaughter, Dolly McGinister; and nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at McCullough Funeral & Cremation Services, 851 E. 75th St. A "Friends and Fans Gathering" will follow at Lee's Unleaded Blues, 7401 S. South Chicago Ave., with doors opening at 8 p.m.
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