Honeyboy's not-so-blue gig: Inauguration party
From sharecropping childhood to the election of a black president, Mississippi bluesman Honeyboy Edwards has a long story.
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January temperatures here are never kind. But in David “Honeyboy” Edwards’s bedroom, where he likes to entertain guests – closet crammed with guitar cases, chipped chair and dresser squared against a bed with crimson sheets – the heat is positively Mediterranean.
“I like to do it like this,” says Mr. Edwards stretched across the bed, hands cupped behind his head, and dreamily scanning the ceiling like it’s a night sky in Mississippi, his childhood home. “I like it warm.”
While the radiator hisses near his head and a space heater boils at his feet, Edwards smiles and goes quiet a moment. He’s 93 and remembering another story – and this Grammy-winning bluesman has got many.
They are vivid accounts of a world that no longer exists, on the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century before household electricity and civil rights. His stories have drawn academics, documentary film crews, and wide-eyed music enthusiasts from around the world to his door. Having lived the sharecropper life, Edwards – considered the last living link to country blues, which is the deepest root of all American popular music – recounts the people he knew and the musical culture he helped nurture, with photographic exactitude.
Some stories are personal, like how he got cut with a blade wooing his wife away from her first husband, or how he remembers the legendary guitarist Robert Johnson the night he died from being poisoned by his jealous girlfriend. Others paint a portrait of an era – the sound the water made when the levees broke in 1927, flooding the Mississippi lowlands. Or portraits of a culture – the exact uses of each part of a hog to make it last an entire winter. And portraits of a style of music – the exact chords and lyrics of songs never transcribed.
Edwards will bring that history to Washington, D.C., on an already historic occasion: The inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president. The Big Shoulders Ball, on inaugural eve at the Black Cat Club, will feature an entire slate of Chicago’s most significant bands and musicians, honoring Barack Obama, Edwards’s neighbor.
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Edwards is pleased with Obama’s win for history’s sake. “Matter of time,” he says. “That’s all it was.” But Edwards lived his entire life on the margins that politicians so often ignore – and history has made him cautious.
“I seen many presidents pass through. I was here in [President Herbert] Hoover’s time back in the ’30s and the Depression. I was 16 years old. People were starving to death. Here in Chicago, soup lines,” he says.
Although Obama “may be better, may be worse,” says Edwards, having the first African-American president in a time so similar to Hoover’s is important if only to try a different course. “The same people, the same thing in the same seat all the time – I don’t think it makes sense.”
Obama’s election win didn’t surprise Edwards, who attributes it to Obama being highly educated – an opportunity Edwards’s generation largely missed out on.
“When I was a boy, if you went to a restaurant, by the front door [a sign] say, ‘white only’. You got to go all around the back. Little ol’ pen there to eat in. You have three little benches back there. So it changed. So much of that I saw that a lot of people hadn’t seen. I didn’t get no education of school that much. But I got a helluva lot of street sense,” he says.
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“He is living history,” says Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues magazine. He remembers asking Edwards five years ago about an obscure Delta musician named Johnny Temple, who enjoyed a minor hit in 1936 but ended up a custodian at the University of Mississippi. “The guy had been dead since the ’60s and here’s Honeyboy going, ‘Oh yeah, I remember Johnny!’ Before then there weren’t any stories about Johnny Temple.... When he’s gone, there won’t be anyone else who can make those connections.”