Ninety-six years ago today, David "Honeyboy" Edwards began his journey on this earth. Today, he continues down the blues highway, sharing his music and his story with all of us.
Not many people in existence today can say they were friends with blues legend Robert Johnson. Guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards is one of them. Also notable is that Edwards is the last remaining Delta blues pioneers still touring.
More than a friendship with Johnson accounts for Honeyboy’s rightful place in blues, and rock ‘n’ roll history, though. Born June 28, 1915, in Shaw, Mississippi, Honeyboy learned to play guitar from his father and later refined his technique by watching other musicians, amongst them Peetie Wheatstraw, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson. And while Johnson is often credited with writing “Sweet Home Chicago”, Edwards has laid claim to the iconic song as well. As is often the case with early blues music, ownership can be a muddy area. Most of the songs of the post-war era have origins that are as twisted as the kudzu that covers much of the southern United States where these artists got their start. Honeyboy recorded with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1942. It would be almost a decade before he recorded again, during which time many of his songs had made their way through the music community and whoever got their name on a record with the song first got to take credit.
During the pre-war period, Edwards was a travelin’ man (which accounts for the gap in recording history), spending time riding the rails, walking dusty roads, and occasionally benefitting from car ownership. His autobiography, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, recounts his adventures, along with many misadventures. One fateful tale included is the night Robert Johnson was poisoned. Edwards’ recollection of the night is a jarring tale, replete with much suffering and a lesson as to the care available to ailing blacks at the time, It leads directly into the horror of the slow, agonizing death of his friend. Not that things were much better for those who were young, healthy, and black — if the law didn’t like the looks of you, they could detain you without reason, which led to Honeyboy spending some time on “the farm” (prison farm). When you take into consideration all that Honeyboy Edwards has seen in his lifetime: racism, the civil rights movement, air travel, television, and computers to name a few, it becomes apparent that he’s more than just a 96-year-old musician — he’s the best link to our history as a nation we have!
It’s taken far too long for Edwards to receive recognition for his contribution to the American songbook, but on January 31, 2010, he received his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Just two years prior, he’d also received a Grammy for Last Of The Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas album he’d recorded with Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Pinetop Perkins. He’s performed several times at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as others have been inducted but still has not been inducted himself. He was, however, inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996.
You can learn more about this legendary performer by visiting his website, reading his book, or from his movie, Honeyboy. He's also appeared in the documentaries Lightning in a Bottle, and Six Generations of the Blues, The Search For Robert Johnson, City Confidential, and 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads. And if you’re curious, you can check out his performance in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Still, I find the best way to get to the heart of the man is to see him perform. I’ve been to several concerts and am never disappointed. As you can see from the scheduled tour dates listed on his website his year started out very full. Sadly, more dates were cancelled due to health issues, but I doubt that will keep him down for long.
In my personal search for better understanding about music in general and the blues in particular, Honeyboy Edwards has served as my beacon. He's been the link between not just my own past (my grandfather was a musician and instilled in me a deep, abiding love of music), but the history of music in America. The warmth of our conversations has carried me to a different level in my understanding and appreciation of why I keep chasing after more information, exploring music further. I need to find the passion that drives these men and women, to know their heart, to see that reflected in the eyes of those who sit, stand, or dance along whenever and wherever music occurs. David Honeyboy Edwards has given me the key to the highway and I will forever be grateful.
All photos taken by the author.