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Bluesman 'Honeyboy' Edwards Has Died

Aug 30, 2011
Originally published on August 30, 2011 4:11 pm

David "Honeyboy" Edwards, considered to be the last of a generation of musicians who brought music from the rural Mississippi Delta to the rest of America, died at his home in Chicago early Monday morning. He was 96 years old.

Honeyboy Edwards was born in 1915. He grew up in segregated Mississippi during Jim Crow. Though his dad was a share-cropper, the young Edwards did not work in the fields.

He figured out he could make more money by playing music on the weekends. But back then a black man would be thrown in jail if he was caught not working during the day. In 2008, Honeyboy Edwards told NPR's Andrea Seabrook that he just didn't go out until evening.

"I didn't come out until 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening," he said. "Sleep all day, sleep and cook and eat, stay in the house. That sun is hot, anyway. It ain't right out there."

Edwards left the hot son and tried to make a living on the road. He was a teenager when he learned from, and played with, older musicians like Son House and Robert Johnson who've since become legends.

Music critic and journalist Tom Piazza (his recent book Devil Sent the Rain is about the music and writing made in hard times) says Johnson and Son House were the pioneers of the Delta blues, a style that influenced everyone from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan.

"The Delta blues is some of the strongest and most concentrated blues that you can find, and life in the Mississippi delta during the time that musical form was coming up was about as tough as you could get," Piazza says. "And Honeyboy Edwards was probably the last living link we had to that era."

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Edwards made his first recording in 1942 when musicologist Alan Lomax went to Clarksdale, Miss., and recorded him for the Library of Congress. He made a few commercial recordings in the '50s but mostly he made a living playing in small clubs in Chicago, where he eventually settled.

In his memoir The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, Edwards wrote that he'd been "hustling all his life," and by the '60s he was tired. So he got jobs working construction to support his family. He got back into music in the '70s when he met musician Michael Frank, who recorded Edwards.

Edwards always liked the raw simplicity of country blues. When he was 92 years old he told Dan Bindert of WBEZ in Chicago less is more.

"You don't have to play a whole lot of guitar to be a good blues player. Some people plays too much guitar," Edwards said. "Stack it on top of each other the way it don't — you're working too fast. Blues not supposed to be played fast. Blues supposed to be played slow."

"You could kill a man," said Honeyboy Edwards, with just one chord.

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NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Honeyboy Edwards was born in 1915. He grew up in segregated Mississippi during Jim Crow. His dad was a sharecropper, but the young Edwards did not work in the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DAVE HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) When I first I heard the (unintelligible), rode that bus from town to town.

BLAIR: He figured out he could make more money by playing music on the weekends. But back then, a black man would be thrown in jail if he was caught not working during the day. In 2008, Honeyboy Edwards told NPR's Andrea Seabrook that he just didn't go out until evening.

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: I didn't come out until 5 or 6:00 in the evening. That's when everybody was coming out of the fields, they don't know whether I been in the field or not.

ANDREA SEABROOK: What'd you do all day?

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: Sleep all day. Sleep, cook and eat, stay in the house. That sun is hot, anyway. I ain't out there.

BLAIR: So Edwards left the hot sun and tried to make a living on the road. He was a teenager when he learned from and played with older musicians who've become legends - Son House and Robert Johnson. Tom Piazza, author of "Devil Sent the Rain," says they were the pioneers of the Delta blues, a style that influenced everyone from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan.

TIM PIAZZA: The Delta blues is some of the strongest and most concentrated blues that you can find, and, you know, life in the Mississippi Delta during the time that musical form was coming up was about as tough as you can get. And Honeyboy was probably the last living link that we have to that era.

BLAIR: Honeyboy Edwards made his first recording in 1942 when musicologist Alan Lomax went to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and recorded him for the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) (unintelligible) since you went away, how much I'm gonna worry all night and day. But someday, baby, ain't gonna worry my life anymore.

BLAIR: Edwards made a few commercial recordings in the 1950s, but mostly he made a living playing in small clubs in Chicago, where he eventually settled. In his memoir "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing," Honeyboy Edwards said he'd been hustling all his life and by the 1960s, he was tired. So he got jobs working construction to support his family. He got back into music in the 1970s when he met musician Michael Frank, who recorded Edwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) (unintelligible) be just like Jesse James.

BLAIR: The raw simplicity of country blues is what Honeyboy Edwards said he always liked. When he was 92 years old, he told Dan Bindert, of WBEZ in Chicago, less is more.

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: You don't have to play a whole lot of guitar to be a good blues player. Some people plays too much guitar.

DAN BINDERT: Too many notes?

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: Yeah. Stack them on top of each other where it don't - you don't allow it to cook. You're working too fast. Blues not supposed to be played fast. Blues supposed to be played slow.

BLAIR: You could kill a man, said Honeyboy Edwards, with just one chord. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.