Feature

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, 1915–2011

The last of the original Delta bluesmen

David “Honeyboy” Edwards rode the rails and played at Mississippi fish fries with iconic bluesman Robert Johnson in the 1930s. “We would walk through the country with our guitars on our shoulders, stop at people’s houses, play a little music, walk on,” he once said. Edwards was on hand when Johnson drank the poisoned whisky that killed him, in 1938, and six decades later, he was still keeping the original Delta blues sound alive.

Edwards was born in Shaw, Miss., as the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, said the Chicago Sun-Times. His father, a guitarist and violinist in “country jukes throughout Mississippi,” bought him a Sears guitar for $4 and taught him how to play. At the age of 14, Edwards left home to hobo with guitarist Big Joe Williams, who helped cultivate the musician’s “distinctive style of uneven phrasing and skewed timing.”

Over the following years, said The New York Times, Edwards played or toured with almost every blues musician “who worked in the idiom.” Big Walter Horton, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson—all were familiar with Edwards’s “coarse, keening vocals” and “slashing bottleneck-style guitar work.” After almost two decades on the road, the bluesman made Chicago his permanent home in the 1950s. He worked on construction sites and in factories by day, and played the blues at night.

Edwards never won the fame or recognition of contemporaries like Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon, said the Chicago Tribune, but the blues revival of the ’60s made him a “desired attraction on stages around the world.” He toured endlessly, introducing the “work songs and hymns of a black underclass” to several generations of fans. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996, won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2010, and was still playing up to 100 shows a year well into his 90s.

For Edwards, the blues always reflected the lives of the Delta musicians who created it. “The verses which are sung in the blues is a true story, what people are doing...what they all went through,” he said. “It’s not just a song, see?”

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