Virtually all of the great Mississippi Delta bluesmen are gone. Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Son House, Muddy Waters and countless others have long left us. But there is still one talented Delta blues artist that is, luckily, still among us today and living in Chicago.
David "Honeyboy" Edwards not only still sings and plays the blues in the raw, unadulterated country style that he learned in the early part of the last century, but he's also a man with a wealth of fascinating tales that seem as large as any piece of American folklore.
Here's a man who often watched early bluesman Charley Patton play on the streets of the Delta Mississippi as well as the fertile blues ground of Dockery Farms. He ran with Robert Johnson a few years after his mythical deal with the Devil, where Johnson allegedly sold his soul in exchange for talent and fame. He was even at Johnson's deathbed, after he was poisoned by a jealous juke joint owner, whose wife he purportedly had an affair with. He was discovered by renowned folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942 a week before Lomax stumbled upon the then unknown McKinley Morganfield, also know as Muddy Waters. Like so many other Mississippi bluesmen at the time he made the Great Migration north to Chicago in the '40s and was a vital player in the burgeoning blues scene of early Maxwell Street. There's hardly a name in the pantheon of 20th century bluesmen that Honeyboy didn't know, play with or see perform. His own life history of wandering, womanizing, drinking, gambling and playing juke joints and street corners for nickels and dimes throughout a great deal of the last century sounds like it could be one of the defining stories in the life of a black country bluesman. Edwards is more than a talented blues musician, he's a walking piece of American folklore.
Honeyboy was kind enough to invite me into his Southside home for the following interview. With a keen memory and hospitable demeanor this legend shared some of his thoughts about not only his own career as a blues musician, but many of his late peers as well.
Interview and Photos by Tony Bonyata
Livewire: You're 86 now aren't you, Honey?
Honeyboy: Yeah, I'll be 87 in June. I was born in 1915 in Shaw, Mississippi.
Livewire: So you grew up in Shaw?
Honeyboy: Around Shaw and Greenwood. I had an uncle that lived in Shaw after my father moved to Greenwood. I'd be over there every week, you see. I'd stay at both of them places. But I was born and raised around Shaw and Greenwood - both the towns.
Livewire: Have you been down South recently?
Honeyboy: Oh yeah.
Livewire: Do you still have family down there?
Honeyboy: I've got some cousins down there.
Livewire: How has Mississippi changed since you were young?
Honeyboy: Oh, it's changed a lot. Nothing like it used to be when I was a boy. When I was a boy down there they had a lot of cotton, cotton gins, mules and wagons, a few cars and trucks. But mostly they had wagons to haul their cotton to the gin. A lot of farmers raised a lot of vegetables. Sold a lot of vegetables in town on Fridays and Saturdays. Now they don't raise too much cotton. They raise soybeans. All down through the Mississippi Delta about midways they got casinos down there too. Around from Memphis straight down 61 Highway clean on down to near Tunica.
Livewire: There's been dozens of great blues artists over the years, but is there one you consider as the single most important musician in the history of the blues?
Honeyboy: You talking about now or growing up?
Honeyboy: Well, I know a lot of blues players. A lot of good blues artists, you know. You take Big Joe Williams, he's dead. He learnt me how to play. And I took a big influence with him, you know, 'cause he learned me a lot about playin' the guitar, and how to tune my guitar and what to do. Playin' in the streets and different things like that.
Livewire: When was this that he taught you how to play?
Honeyboy: Oh, that was in the '30s. It was 1932, I was 17 years old. I could play a little, but my brother in law learnt me how to play. My father played violin and guitar, so I learned some from my father too. But Joe learnt me how to play in the streets and get nickels and dimes from people and hustle - pass the kitty around in the streets, you know. He learnt me everything I know about the guitar. He played in Spanish and cross-key and he'd put me in natural key. He play Spanish and used a capo all the time. He wasn't really a natural guitar player - he'd play a good blues and what he'd play most, is what I'm trying to say, is that he played most in elevating keys like Spanish and stuff. But he could play in natural. He made over a hundred numbers, like "Schoolgirl, Schoolgirl" and "Crazy About your Black Sugar Mama" that Sonny Boy Number 1 made. Joe Williams owned them numbers. He was a big influence with what he was doing. But we had a lot of really good natural guitar players like Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson. They were really fine men that played in natural key, you know what I mean. They could read music while they played it. But you play blues, you don't read no blues. You can, but most the musicians like B.B. King... we don't read no blues. What you have to do, you have to know your chords and you got to know your keys. You got to know that. Without that, you can't play. You have to know what key you're playing in. We got a few musicians now that are good guitar players but they don't know what key they're playing in. I've meet some musicians and good players that didn't know E from D, but he knows his sound alright. He'd call C D. He didn't know. But I was lucky enough to go to school and bought me guitar books and taught myself, 'cause I wanted to do that.
Livewire: And you said that you also learned from your father. What style did he play in? Was it the blues or was it something different?
Honeyboy: He played a few blues back then. The kind of blues my father played was like "John Henry Fell Dead with a Hammer in His Hand" and "Stagger Lee" and Big Joe Turner and Cryin' Joe Turner he played all of that. "Stagger Lee" is a piece over a hundred years old, did you know that? My dad done played "Stagger Lee."
Livewire: Can you tell me a little about your dealings with Charley Patton. Did you actually know him?
Honeyboy: Oh yeah, I knew Charley Patton. I knew Charley Patton in 1929 when I was 14 years old. Charlie Patton made his first recording, I think, around '31 or '32. He stayed at Dockery (Farms) then in '29 out there in Ruleville on number 8 Highway. He was living out there and I use to come out and watch him play on the streets of Ruleville, Mississippi. Charley died in 1934. I was 19 years old when he died. He died out in Holly Ridge.
Livewire: And that's where he's buried now, isn't he?
Honeyboy: Yeah. They put him up a nice stone there, I guess about 10 or 12 years ago.
Livewire: There's been some speculation from some blues historians stating that may not be the exact spot where he's buried. Do you think that's where he's actually buried?
Honeyboy: Oh yeah. I know he's buried there. I was there a week or two after they buried him. I come through there. I was 19 years old. I was going up to my uncle's house in Shaw, and we lived in Greenwood, right across the Tallahatchie River, and I used to walk there through Itta Bena and go on over there. Sometimes it'd take me a day, or a day and a half. I'd know friends clean on through the country, all through there. I'd stop off and stay all night and then go on over to my uncle's house.
Livewire: And I understand that you were lucky enough to have actually seen him play.
Honeyboy: Yeah, he'd play out there at Dockery Farms and play on the streets on Saturdays out there in Ruleville. He left Ruleville and went to place called Merigold, Mississippi, out there on 61 Highway. He stayed in Merigold 'bout two or three years, and then after he left Merigold he come back over there 'round Holly Ridge where he died at, over there where his uncle Sherman was at.
Livewire: Can you recall what Patton was like? I understand that he was quite a flashy player.
Honeyboy: Well, Charlie Patton was this little thin guy, mixed with a lot of Indian. He was related to Sam Chatmon of the Chatmon Boys. You know, from the Mississippi Sheiks. They made a hit in '29 with "Sitting on Top of The World." Bo Chatmon, and Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, I knowed them too. Charlie Patton and all them was first cousins. He was black mixed with some Indian and white. All those musicians come from the hills, and what I mean is they come from a place called Edwards, between Jackson and Vicksburg.
Livewire: Did you ever hear anything about the the trip that Patton, Willie Brown and Son House took up to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount?
Honeyboy: Well, at the time I was a little younger than Charley. But I knowed of the time when they done it. That stuff come out in like '29 and '30, up until '34. He died in '34. I was 18 and playing, but I was so young. Those were 78s, you know, when records were called 78s. H.C. Speir had a furniture store in Jackson, Mississippi and he sent Tommy Johnson and them up there. Me and Sonny Boy [Williamson] number 2 and Big Walter Horton we went there in '37 to record for Mr. Speir and it was so late that we couldn't get in the studio. It was seven days before Christmas, so we missed the session with him. Then me and Sonny Boy and Walter went to Vicksburg and then Louisiana and played there 'till spring near 'bout. And then me and Big Walter went to Memphis, and Sonny Boy he cut out. He wouldn't stay nowhere. Elmore James played with Sonny Boy longer than anybody, so he knew his bullshit better than anybody (laughs). Elmore used to cuss him out, "Hey, man, you go to hell!" and then he'd get back and start playing. He could take that harp and play be hisself. He could take that harp and make more noise and carryin' on with himself that he didn't need nobody else. That's the way he learned. He wouldn't stay with no guitar players for very long. Elmore played with him longer than anybody I knowed. And the other guys, most of them would just record with him and then cut on out. He went over to London and stayed over there a couple of years playin' with some of them boys over there. You see that picture with the derby hat on there [pointing to his wall with dozens of blues artists taped in a haphazard collage], he had that made over there in Europe in the '60s.
Livewire: How did you come to record for Alan Lomax in the early '40s? Wasn't that really your first really big break?
Honeyboy: Well, it was, but I really didn't know that at the time. The big recording session, I wasn't lucky enough to make that. That was in '37 when Lester Melrose went down there and picked up Tommy McClennan and all of them in Greenwood and missed me. That's where I missed out on everything when they were making all them 78s in '37. I was like 22 or 23 and I wouldn't stay nowhere. I had a couple of girls down in Greenwood - two or three. And I'd go to Vicksburg every weekend and sometimes duck across the river to Louisiana.
Livewire: Sounds like you had girls tucked away in a lot of places.
Honeyboy: Yeah, I was just like that all the time. Tommy didn't go nowhere but stay in Greenwood and play out there at the country dances and out there on the streets. And Lester Melrose knew this gang of musicians down in Greenwood, so he went 'round there and got Tommy looking for me. He said, 'Where's Honey? Honey was here last week.' They left there and come clean to Vicksburg looking for me . But by the time they got there I'd already crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana. And that's when I missed that big session. That would've been a good one for me. But still, I made up in one way 'cause I did 17 cuts with Alan Lomax in '42.
Livewire: How many days did that take?
Honeyboy: One day, that's all.
Livewire: Were all 17 off those cuts issued for the Library of Congress or just some of them?
Honeyboy: Pretty close to all of them. Michael [Frank, president of Earwig Records] got some of them and cleaned them up for my LPs. [Honey reaches behind his bed into a case filled with his CDs and pulls out one titled, "Delta Bluesman]. Now this is some of the Alan Lomax stuff from 1942.
Livewire: He actually recorded you before Muddy Waters, didn't he?
Honeyboy: Yes, but it was the same week.
Livewire: I understand that Alan Lomax was searching for Robert Johnson, who had recently died, when he discovered you and Muddy.
Honeyboy: Well, I don't know because he was searching for everybody. Alan Lomax was all over Louisiana and Texas recording all kinds of artists. He was everywhere. He was down through Mississippi too. That's where he got me down there. He was like a collector. A collector of blues players.
Livewire: Do you feel what he collected, recorded and preserved has helped keep the blues alive to this day?
Honeyboy: Yeah, but I never really thought that the blues would die down. You take blues; blues got a little something of everything in it. It's got gospel in it. And you can play blues two or three different ways. Just 'cause you say you're a blues player that don't mean that you're a natural blues player. Most blues players play a little of everything. You don't just feel for the blues, but you feel for ragtime and a little bit of love songs and just about anything. Now you can play what I call a shuffle blues or boogie woogie - something a little more uptempo.
Livewire: That always seems to get the crowd going.
Honeyboy: Yeah, but then you turn around and take that boogie woogie blues and drop it in low gear and play the blues and make you think the woman left you and put something on your mind.
Livewire: The style that you started playing and that you still mostly play is considered country Delta blues. Other than yourself there hasn't been a whole lot of musicians that stick with that style here in Chicago is there?
Honeyboy: We got a few that try and play but they can't. You got to play blues with a feeling. You got to have a feeling with it. And you got to have the chords to go with the feeling. They play it, but they play it too fast. Blues isn't made to be played fast, not unless you're playing rock 'n' roll or an uptempo blues. Now if you're playing an uptempo blues that's a boogie woogie blues.
Livewire: Did you know Robert Johnson closely?
Honeyboy: I knowed him real well. I knowed him, Son House, Willie Brown. I knowed all of them.
Livewire: What is your take on the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to devil at the crossroads?
Honeyboy: [Hesitant pause] Well, I don't know about that. He told me that but...we used to play and drink together and have fun together but at the crossroads.... When I was young I use to go to the crossroads myself and play in the country. In those days at the crossroads in the country the stars and the moon were so bright. There wasn't no city lights or anything like that. It was so bright you could look across the field and see a person walking about two blocks away. The stars and the moon were so bright it looked like it was six 'o clock in the morning, when it was twelve 'o clock at night. When I lived across the field, I'd go down this road 'till it hit another road going over to somebody else's house I'd just sit out there in the middle of the crossroads. I'd be out there with my half-pint of whiskey in my pocket and I'd sit out there at twelve 'o clock at night in the summertime and just play my guitar and have a drink. Then I'd go over to my friend's house and we'd hook up and play a little bit together. I had a guitar player that I knowed and we'd just practice with one another. That's how I learned. He may learn a chord that I don't know and I'd say, 'how'd you do that?' That's how we learned how to play like that. Then after I started playing then I went to a music store and bought me a guitar book, a chord book so I'd be able to...it's like I said before, there's a lot of good blues musicians out there today that don't know what the hell they're playin' in. When you know your chords and know where to go you don't have to ask nobody nothing. If you get together with other good blues players, I don't have to know you and you don't have to know me. It's like, 'hey, man I've heard some of the stuff you've done on wax," or whatever, and so I'll say, 'we'll do this in the key of A,' and he know how to go to his A and I'll know how to go to my A. When you do that, you got to be right.
Livewire: When you were growing up, did you have access to the records of the day?
Honeyboy: Oh, I listened to 78s and things like that. I mostly learned from myself and got the [guitar] book and learned. And from Joe Williams. Then I come to Memphis and I started listening to different people play blues in Memphis. There was a lot of good guitar players there. I was interested in guitar playing, like Lonnie Johnson's stuff. I like to play guitar. If you can't play with your fingers, then you ain't a guitar player. A lot of people gotta big wide sound with a slide. A slide got a good sound to it - a big wide sound. But anybody can play a slide!
Livewire: I saw you last year at the Chicago Blues Festival and I have to say you play a pretty mean slide yourself.
Honeyboy: Well, yeah. When you're playing slide in Spanish it's got a wide sound, not many chords 'cause the guitar's telling you what to do all the time. All you got to do is know where to go to. But when you're playin' if you don't go to the correct chords then you're gonna make a mistake all the time.
Livewire: What made you decide to move to Chicago in the '40s?
Honeyboy: Well, I come to Chicago in '45 with Little Walter Jacob. That's his picture right there [points to his wall]. I brought him up here when he was 15.
Livewire: But at that time you didn't stay in Chicago did you?
Honeyboy: No, I left and he stayed. But I come back in '46 and got him and went back down to Helena [Arkansas] and we was broadcasted all over the radio in '46. And I got my wife in '46. After I quit the radio station in '47 I went to Memphis, where my sister was and got married over there. I just wouldn't stay nowhere long. I got me a car and started running around. Got me a big amplifier, everything.
Livewire: So you were playing electric guitar in Chicago back then?
Honeyboy: Well, when I first left, no, I had a steel National. I didn't get the electric 'till 1946. My steel guitar got stolen in St, Louis. And I made me some money on the way and bought me an amplifier and guitar. So I've been playin' electric ever since.
Livewire: Do prefer the acoustic guitar over electric now?
Honeyboy: Well, I got all types. I got Gibsons. I got a Fender. I got 'em all 'round here under the bed. Play 'em all.
Livewire: Can you describe what Maxwell Street was like when you first arrived?
Honeyboy: In the '40s, on up until they started tearing down Maxwell Street, I knew so many people that would come up here from Mississippi and Arkansas with their guitars and things. So Maxwell Street, it didn't go too far. It ran from Blue Island to Canal. And they'd just stand and the music was playin' for a mile, a mile and-a-half, lined up on both sides of the streets. At that time all the stockyards were running in Chicago. The had three stockyards together right there on Halsted. And people would come to get work on the railroad, defense jobs and things. Chicago was full of work then. People would leave Mississippi and just start walkin' and find a job. And they'd play music up and down Maxwell Street. Maxwell Street never closed up. It was opened 24 hours. It stayed opened 24 hours - all day and all night. Never closed up.
Livewire: Do remember it getting pretty wild late at night?
Honeyboy: Well, they never done no fighting much like they do now. And there wasn't much cocaine like there is now. A lot of reefers and whiskey, that's all. But there wasn't no cocaine. The people working the night shift would go to work at like 12 at night and get off at 8 in the morning. They didn't go to sleep. They'd come to Maxwell Street and listen to the blues and drink. And they'd stay awake until 1 or 2 'o clock, then go home, get up and go back to work.
Livewire: Did you play a lot on Maxwell Street?
Honeyboy: Played pretty good. Yeah, about every day. Me and Jimmy Rogers. We all played - Big Walter [Horton], Little Walter, Earl Hooker, Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor....we all played on the streets.
Livewire: How do feel now that the City of Chicago and U.I.C. has torn down the old Maxwell Street?
Honeyboy: Well, it used to be a like a market street. The market would be one side and the musicians would bee on one side, and there'd be people playin' in the middle of the street with their long extension cords. They had it all blocked off. There wasn't no cars coming through there. Just music and market.
Livewire: But do you feel disappointed that there's not a place like Maxwell Street for the blues musicians to play in Chicago now?
Honeyboy: Well, I tell you, the streets is alright but that's for most the local musicians. You take a lot of musicians that have done a lot of recording, they wouldn't play the streets now.
Livewire: Why, because they've moved beyond it?
Honeyboy: Yeah. The streets is for the local musicians who are hustlin.' When people get out like I have done and start makin' money, they got no business playin' the streets. I used to do that playin' for nickels and dimes. I don't have to do that no more! You understand what I'm talkin' about? You do that when you can't do no better.
Livewire: Do you think there's a place in Chicago where the local street musicians will be able to play in the future?
Honeyboy: Yeah, yeah! They're playin' out there now! They're playin' on 16th and Canal on the weekends - Fridays and Saturdays. There's a big market out there too. It's nice, but it ain't no Maxwell Street. There'll never be another Maxwell.
Livewire: How many records do you figure you've sold over the years?
Honeyboy: Oh, man, I don't know. I originally recorded for Folkways in the '70s and Smithsonian bought them out last year. I don't know how many copies they sold. Smithsonian just wrote me out a check for four thousand dollars. Sold lots of 'em.
Livewire: What do you think of the Chicago Blues Festival?
Honeyboy: It's a real nice thing going on. They really keep it up.
Livewire: It's nice that they offer all of this great music to the public for free.
Honeyboy: Oh, yeah! Everything all for free. They paid me about $2,500.
Livewire: For just one day's performance?
Honeyboy: Yeah, a couple of shows in one day.
Livewire: That sounds like a pretty good gig.
Honeyboy: Yeah, you'll never miss me there. I'll be there every year (laughs).
Honeyboy Edwards will be performing with Homesick James at the Chicago Blues Festival at Grant Park at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 1st.
For more reading information on David Honeyboy Edwards check out his autobiography "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing" (Chicago Review Press).
More Honeyboy Edwards
Live Review - Chicago's Bluesfest, Chicago, IL, June 7 - 10, 2001