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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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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.

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“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.

• • •

“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.”

Edwards grew up in a world now known mostly in books. His grandmother was a slave. Having just escaped the high waters of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, his mother died after giving birth to a daughter who died two months later. The family lived all winter on a hog they fattened through the fall and slaughtered before the cold set in.

He lived on various plantations where his family picked cotton for a living – until he learned to play guitar and struck out on his own at 16, hopping freight cars and crisscrossing 13 states, playing for anyone who’d pay on the street, at parties and dances, and eventually settling in Chicago in 1956.

The stereotype of the down-and-out musician was never exactly accurate, says Adam Gussow, an associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. On the contrary, he says, their talent for remembering songs, playing the guitar, and lifting spirits was a valuable commodity.

“Blues men had money,” explains Mr. Gussow. “They were charismatic figures and they created this alternative entertainment world within which you could have larger-than-life identities. [Honeyboy] was a kind of a heroic exemplar for certain people who didn’t have a whole lot. You could be poor but you could still possess yourself. He offered Delta people an image of what it would be like to be free.”
Indeed, says Edwards, “I made enough money on [Friday, Saturday and Sunday], I didn’t have to go into the fields to work. People working and I’m laying up in the house.”