'Honeyboy,' The Last Link To Delta Blues



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David "Honeyboy" Edwards was recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. (NPR)
David "Honeyboy" Edwards was recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. (NPR)

Correction: The story refers to a recording made in Clarksburg, Mississippi in 1942. It was actually Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Delta blues guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards is one of the few living links to the mythic bluesman Robert Johnson. If playing with the man who (as legend has it) sold his soul to devil wasn't enough, Edwards was there the night Johnson was poisoned. His list of collaborators reads like a history of the blues, including Charley Patton, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Like the guitarists in that list, he's also been recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

Edwards was born the son of cotton sharecroppers in Mississippi; his father played the guitar and violin and his mother played the harmonica.

"My father had slowed down playing a little ... I was 'round 10 or 12 years old," Edwards says. "Every time he put his guitar down, I pick it up. I started playing the guitar and he'd [lie] down some nights and listen to me."

In 1920, Edwards would spend his nights in the Jackson, Miss., cotton fields listening to Tommy Johnson and others, "playin' the blues, shuffle blues, low-down-dirty-shame blues." In his autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, Edwards writes, "Listening to Tommy, that's when I really learned something about how to play guitar."

In 1932, at 17, Edwards began to play professionally with Big Joe Williams, who had been impressed by Edwards' guitar style. On tour, Edwards would pick up books from music stores and teach himself more chords in order to keep up with the band.

As with most blues guitarists, Edwards had a hard time finding gigs. In an interview with Andrea Seabrook, he talks about sleeping all day to avoid getting thrown in jail for "vagrancy" during the time of Jim Crow laws in the South. He'd slip out at night to play the bars and make his money that way.

Recordings and performances were scant from the mid-'50s through the '60s. He'd play small clubs and street corners in his new home of Chicago until he met Michael Frank, who was later to start Earwig Records and document Edwards' music. Most notably, Earwig released 1992's Delta Bluesman, a collection of Edwards' early Library of Congress recordings and then-recent material.

Even at 93, Edwards still performs and records. He was recently honored by Gibson Guitar for his continued blues preservation, as well as his contribution to the Grammy-winning 2007 recording, Last of the Great Mississippi Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.

Things haven't changed much, either: Edwards still likes to have fun, drink and talk to young women.

"I can do anything I ever done," he says. "Just take more time."

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This is David Honeyboy Edwards, an original master of Mississippi delta blues.

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Alan Lomax, the great music collector, is in the Library of Congress. Honeyboy Edwards plays his guitar in an old schoolhouse, Clarksburg, Mississippi, 1942.

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Mr. DAVID HONEYBOY EDWARDS (Musician): (Singing) Oh my dear, (unintelligible) how much I'm not a poor man (unintelligible), but some day, baby, you're going to (unintelligible) my life anymore.

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SEABROOK: This is Honeyboy Edwards today in NPR's studio, 93 years old and still touring.

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Mr. EDWARDS: (Singing) Go on, my baby now, going down slow, (unintelligible), waiting on a (unintelligible), but that's all right. I know you love me, girl, but that's all right. But every night and (unintelligible).

Mr. EDWARDS: Honeyboy Edwards is a history book of the blues. He's played with Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters. He was with the legendary Robert Johnson on the day Johnson was poisoned, that story in a minute.

Honeyboy Edwards' long career started in the crucible of American blues, the deep South during Jim Crow.

Mr. EDWARDS: My father was shook up, and at night when he'd come out of the field, he'd get in the cotton shack with a chair and play the blues, shuffle blues, low-down-dirty-shame blues and drank whiskey and get drunk all night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: As a child, Edwards learned to play listening. Workers picked cotton all day and played the blues all night. Later on, Honeyboy figured out he could make more money playing music on the weekend than he could working in the fields all week, but at that time if a black man was caught not working during the day, he'd be thrown in jail as a vagrant. So Edwards did what he had to do, he stayed inside.

Mr. EDWARDS: I didn't come out until 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. That's when everybody was coming out of the fields, didn't know whether I'd been in the field or not.

SEABROOK: What did you do all day?

Mr. EDWARDS: Sleep all day, sleep and cooking (unintelligible). That sun is hot, anyway. It ain't right out there.

SEABROOK: You are a smart man.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EDWARDS: (Singing) Baby, you (unintelligible), and baby, you're trouble now, come some day. Just go ahead on, baby, go ahead on, baby now, you can have your way.

SEABROOK: I wish people could see you play because you move, you shake the guitar while you play.

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, I've got to do that to make a sound. I've got to do something.

SEABROOK: I read that you played with Robert Johnson.

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah, I did in 1937, (unintelligible). Me and him (unintelligible) in and out together until August in '38, and he got poisoned.

SEABROOK: The night Robert Johnson was poisoned, Honeyboy Edwards showed up at a house party Johnson was playing in Three Forks, Mississippi.

Mr. EDWARDS: When we got there, Robert was sitting in the corner with a guitar like I'm holding my guitar now.

SEABROOK: On your lap?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah, and he had been playing a little, and Robert was crazy about things, whiskey and women. He was crazy about whiskey and women. What happened, he had been playing for this man out at Three Forks, and the man had a good-looking wife.

SEABROOK: Honeyboy says the jealous husband gave his wife a bottle of corn whiskey to give to Robert Johnson. The whiskey was poisoned.

Mr. EDWARDS: The poison that he put in that whiskey, it killed him a slow killing, you know. He had a slow death. Robert had drink a bit, about half of the whiskey, about a half pint, he started getting sick. People come in, play the blues, Robert, play the blues, play the (unintelligible), play this, play this.

He said oh, I don't feel too good, and the people start, maybe because he loved that whiskey, (unintelligible), they said come on, get another drink. Come on, you'll be all right. After finding out he was really sick, 1938, 16th day of August. I was 23 years old.

Yeah, I've been playing blues a long time.

SEABROOK: Are you still playing in bars?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh yeah.

SEABROOK: You like that?

Mr. EDWARDS: It's all right, having fun and drinking and talking to the young women, run around having fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Things haven't changed much, huh?

Mr. EDWARDS: No, I can do anything I ever done, just takes more time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Whoo, how am I supposed to respond to that, huh?

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Mr. EDWARDS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SEABROOK: Can I ask you one more question?


SEABROOK: Do your fingers feel different now?

Mr. EDWARDS: My fingers' just as good as it was when I was 20, so far.

SEABROOK: So far, at 93.

Mr. EDWARDS: So far.

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SEABROOK: David Honeyboy Edwards. Head to npr.org to hear more of his in-studio performance with harmonica player Michael Frank.

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Mr. EDWARDS: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.