August 30, 2011
David “Honeyboy” Edwards was born in the farm community of Shaw, Mississippi, on June 28, 1915. Yesterday, he passed away as one of America’s pioneering blues guitarists and vocalists at the age of 96.
“He’s what we would think of as a tradition bearer,” says Barry Lee Pearson, a folklorist and professor at the University of Maryland. “I would consider him to be the epitome of a walking musician—a walking jukebox. He was a musician, first and foremost.” As perhaps the oldest surviving original veteran of the Delta blues style, Edwards leaves behind a legacy as an influential bond between the acoustic blues from the deep south and the electric Chicago style that would lay the roots for modern rock and roll.
Pearson wrote the liner notes for Edwards’ 2001 Smithsonian Folkways album, “Mississippi Delta Bluesman.”
Growing up in Shaw, Edwards quickly showed he had an aptitude for music. “He picked up a little guitar as a youngster, but really learned when [Delta blues guitarist] Big Joe Williams came through. Big Joe noticed he could play a little bit, and asked his father if he could take him along with him as a road musician,” Pearson says. After traveling with Williams, Edwards split off on his own and continued to develop his craft. “By the time he got back home, he surprised everybody with how good he could play,” says Pearson.
Over the next several decades, Edwards toured the South from Memphis to Oklahoma, performing virtually anywhere he’d be welcomed and traveling by hitchhiking, hopping on rail cars, or by foot. He lived at a time when simply being a musician was dangerous, says Pearson. “He always claimed the authority figures down south, especially the farmers, did not like musicians at all.”
“Usually his strategy was that he stayed in all day, so nobody would see him, and then after 6 o’clock he’d go out,” Pearson says. “That’s because if they saw you during the daytime, they’d put you in jail or put you out on the farm somewhere.” Once, he was arrested for riding the rails without a ticket, and had to befriend a guard to get released.
Eventually, Edwards hitchhiked up to Chicago with Little Walter, the Louisiana harmonica player whose legacy is legendary in blues and blues rock traditions, and over the next several years switched to electric blues, his career tracing the evolution of the genre from a rural Southern entertainment to an urban nightclub phenomenon. Although he never made a chart-topping record, Pearson says Edwards “always claimed that he wasn’t at the right place at the right time to do recording, that he was always on the move.” But Edwards recorded a number of albums and played with all the major blues musicians of the era, Pearson says.
Edwards’ relationship with the renowned guitarist Robert Johnson, who died in 1938 at the age of 27 after sipping a bottle of whiskey laced with strychnine, is a particularly interesting footnote. “They played together in Greenwood for a couple of months or so, until Robert Johnson was killed,” Pearson says. “Honeyboy was with Johnson the night he was poisoned, and has one of the more trustworthy descriptions of that entire event, because he was also supposed to play at the same juke joint that Robert Johnson was poisoned at.”
Having long played in relative obscurity, Edwards enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the second half of the century, as the influence of blues on modern music genres became more well known. He continued touring into his 90s, retiring only in 2008. Among other honors, he was named 2002 National Heritage Fellow and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2010.
“I always found him to be a very friendly, charismatic, warm-hearted, really a nice guy,” says Pearson, who has conducted several interviews with the late musician. “But I think there was a side of him, especially when he was younger, when you would say ‘tough guy,’ which you had to be in those days. I had great respect for him, and I still do.”
Listen to a sample of Edwards’ music from his Folkways album.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.