Sweet as honey

Honeyboy Edwards' real-life Delta blues"

For David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who performs at Blind Willie's this weekend, this era is not one of legend and lore. Plain and simple, it's his past. Edwards, 85, was born in Shaw, Miss., in 1915, and as a young teen moved to Greenwood, Miss., a hub of country blues activity.

He was playing guitar by age 12, he recalls. In 1928, his father (also a guitarist) bought Honeyboy, then 13, a guitar of his own for $4. Within months, Edwards played his first country dance, for a neighbor across the field. "They had one of those old wind-up gramophones, and they broke the spring ... that made it play, so they didn't have any music," Edwards recalls by phone from Chicago.

Young Honeyboy stepped in, plied with white whiskey, playing the few songs he knew over and over. He came home at daylight, drunk for the first time on whiskey and his first taste of success as a performer.

In 1932, journeyman guitarist Big Joe Williams came to town. Edwards met him at a Saturday night dance, and the next night he and Williams went into nearby Greenwood to play music. It would be six months before Edwards would return home. He and Williams had hit the road, playing across Mississippi and Louisiana.

Unfortunately, Williams — in addition to being a capable musician — was a mean drunk, and soon Edwards was back in Greenwood, alone, but with a future as a professional musician before him. Edwards played locally with peers Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway, then took off for Memphis in 1934, where he played with Big Walter Horton, the Memphis Jug Band and others.

"We'd play on the streets, if the police wouldn't bother us, and in parks. People come through on Friday and Saturday and give us nickels and dimes. We couldn't make much money, but we made enough to live on, because everything was so cheap then."

Edwards missed his first recording opportunity when famed record producer Lester Melrose came to Greenwood in the late 1930s searching for talent for his Bluebird label. Edwards, who made his living strictly as a musician, was traveling, and Melrose couldn't find him (he did find Edwards' peers, McClennan and Petway, who each recorded now-revered sides for Bluebird). In 1942, however, Edwards recorded for musicologist Alan Lomax, who was collecting field recordings for the Library of Congress. Lomax had met Edwards on a corner in Friars Point, Miss., and expressed an interest in recording him. On the same trip, Lomax would record Son House and Muddy Waters.

Edwards recalls Lomax's arrival at his aunt's home in Coahoma, Miss., where Edwards was staying. Lomax drove up in a light green 1942 Hudson Super Six. His aunt was hesitant — a white man in a shiny vehicle was not a welcome sight in rural Mississippi — but Edwards invited Lomax in. Soon after, the pair traveled to Clarksdale where Edwards recorded in a black schoolhouse that Lomax had leased. (You can find recordings on the 1992 Earwig CD, Delta Bluesman). "He gave me $20 for that session," Edwards says. "That was more money than I'd had in my life."

Edwards later recorded without commercial success for Chicago's Chess Records and New York's Artist Record Company. He also worked as a forklift operator and a night watchman in the '60s before becoming a significant touring artist, particularly in Europe. He also became known as a primary source for details of Robert Johnson's life, and death.

While Johnson's reputation today is couched in legend, particularly regarding his deal with the devil and his unique poetic vision, Edwards remembers him in a more practical context. "Robert was the first guitar player to come out with the turnaround on the blues ... that's what made Robert popular," says Edwards, referring to the musical phrase that completes the standard blues progression. It's commonplace now, Edwards explains, but in the 1930s was not part of the repertoire of even the most popular blues players, such as Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson. "The turnaround, that makes the blues have a different sound, so that's where Robert got his name."

David "Honeyboy" Edwards plays Blind Willie's, Fri.-Sat., Jan. 26-27. For more info, call 404-873-2583.

Talkin' Blues is a monthly column on blues and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. E-mail or send your blues news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.