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.”
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.”
Today, when Edwards isn’t performing, locally or overseas, he relaxes in his two-bedroom apartment. A live-in friend cooks and cleans while neighbors who enjoy his fame hang out in the living room watching daytime TV. Edwards may stay in his bedroom, playing guitar or reading, but when he feels the itch, he gets behind the wheel of his Volkswagen Golf and cruises the city.
Edwards still has a certain swagger. Rick Sherry, a harmonica player half Honeyboy’s age who frequently accompanies Edwards, observes that Edwards’s stage demeanor – with his spontaneous but slow, fingerpicked style of traditional acoustic blues – is more languid cool than a sign of any frailty.
“I’ve never taken a solo from Honeyboy but don’t want to. With Honeyboy, you’re backing him up all the time. Even if I wanted to [solo], he’d change chords within the riff,” says Mr. Sherry. “It puts you in a little Zen thing. It’s given me the ability to play with anyone because your ears are totally tuned in.”
The restlessness in Edwards’s guitar style was learned from the earliest blues figures he knew – Charlie Patton, Tommy McClennan, Robert Petway, Big Joe Williams, and, most famously, Robert Johnson. That Edwards would never become as famous as Johnson despite playing alongside him and even being at his side the night he died in 1938, is due largely to circumstance. In the late 50s, when academics and blues collectors searched for bluesmen they knew only through recordings made 30 years earlier, Edwards was not on the map, while Johnson, whose 40 or so recordings created a blueprint for rock ‘n roll, would become a posthumous star.
“That speaks to the mystery and power of Robert Johnson’s music, but, at the same time until he made those 78s, he was just another guy running around the Delta like Honeyboy. It could have been reversed,” says Michael Franks, who manages Edwards. “Honeyboy remembered the talent scouts, he knew them all. But he was only interested in making money day-to-day. He wasn’t thinking about his career as we do nowadays.”
If not fame, Edwards was blessed with a solid longevity. In the past two years he has toured Europe four times, bringing in enough to pay the rent until the next time he packs his bags. The lifestyle, while slow, connects him to the day he left home almost 80 years ago for the endless road and earned a kind of freedom that existed years before marches and legislation made it official.
In his own way Edwards, and his generation of bluesmen, set the precedent for individual worth, a quality that, this year, brought the first African-American to occupy the Oval Office.
“I never did thought when I run around playing I’d be doing it still. I was doing it because I liked to play music,” he says. “I loved what I was doing.”