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The Boston Phoenix Delta Delight

Honeyboy Edwards, country bluesman.

By Ted Drozdowski

MAY 18, 1998:  The bluesman Honeyboy Edwards got arrested in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1936. His crime was being a black man.

"You'd better be off the streets and in the fields during the day if you were black back then, 'cause they'd haul you into jail for vagrancy and put you to work, and you didn't know when they'd let you out," the feisty 83-year-old recounts.

"Well, I went back there last June, and the first thing I saw was a black boy coming out of a school with a white girl, holding her books. Things have changed a whole lot. Now everybody's together in schools, so how can you keep the people apart in restaurants and everywhere else? But I knew it when it was bad down there."

Yes, Edwards knew his native Mississippi and the surrounding states inside out. He knew which towns were hard on ramblers and where the cops could be trusted. Where the big levee-camp paydays came in and where to find the next Saturday-night fish fry to play. And where the women were extra fond of musicians and might even keep one fed and warm for a while.

For 20 years or so, Edwards made his living with the guitar, dice, and cards -- moving wherever circumstances carried him. Rarely short on money, good times, or companionship, he loved the life of an itinerant bluesman even if it prevented him from gaining wide renown until the late-'60s folk-blues boom -- really, until the last 20 years. It seems that Edwards traveled so much before settling in Chicago in the late '50s that when record companies came to the Delta looking to record him, he couldn't be found.

But now he's enjoy a flourishing career, living comfortably in Chicago as he tours Europe and Japan a couple of times a year, makes albums, and plays at clubs and festivals throughout the US. The phrase "the world done owe me nothing" has become his winter-years mantra.

It's also the title of his autobiography, a lively oral recounting of his adventures in blues that was published late last year by Chicago Review Press ($24; 287 pages), as well as the name of his recently released solo electric country-blues CD on Earwig. To keep his stock flush, he also has a just-reissued acoustic session, Crawling Kingsnake (on Testament), that was recorded in 1964 and '67. Sans amplification, Crawling Kingsnake in particular offers clear-toned dollops of flashy guitar playing that bare the influence Delta virtuosos Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and Robert Johnson -- his contemporaries -- had on Honeyboy. You can hear it in the way he imitates quick, buzzing bottleneck slide with his bare fingers, or the way he hits not only the essential notes of pentatonic scales but runs blue-blazes through every point in between.

"I tricked that stuff up myself," he says. "I wanted to have my own style, so I played the fast notes between the scales to see how it worked out. And I kept it."

Perhaps the only thing standing between Edwards, whose real first name is David, and the country-blues pantheon is the absence of recordings from the '30s and '40s. Those old albums, which sound as if they were echoing out of a time tunnel, have always been magic for blues fans. They're manna from the music's first fertile, formative period. So they've been turned into biblical text on how the real old-time blues was and forever should be played. If Edwards had recordings that dated back to those days, perhaps his skill would be as widely praised as that of Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, or any of the other players just a notch below absolutely formative pioneers like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

"I'll tell you something about the old-time guitar players," Edwards barks in his gentle rasp. "We had a lot of players with big names who couldn't play. Son House? All he had was a big mouth and a raggedy, rough slide. Now Willie Brown, who died earlier, was a better guitar player than Son House would ever be. He and Son used to play together, and they were an inspiration to Robert Johnson. But Son House had the name. He hollered and preached the blues to carry him along, but he wasn't no guitar player."

Today Edwards and his contemporary Robert Lockwood Junior are the last survivors of the first great wave of Delta blues. And Edwards has mourned the passing of all of his friends from the old days -- among them Big Walter Horton, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, and, of course, Robert Johnson. Indeed, he was present on the night Johnson got slipped a bottle of poison whiskey and began his slow, painful, maddening, days'-long death -- which is recounted in Honeyboy's book.

"Yeah," Edwards reflects, "I knowed all those guys who made the music, I thinks about them. I'm just lucky that God's let me stay around."

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