David “Honeyboy” Edwards
As a young Mississippi Delta bluesman, David “Honeyboy” Edwards traveled and performed alongside the legendary Robert Johnson until the latter’s mysterious death in 1938. That historical link makes Edwards an indispensable part of the tribute record 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Rykodisc), out in February, and the accompanying concert tour, which includes a Feb. 11 show at Symphony Center. Chicago magazine contributing writer Kevin McKeough visited Edwards’ south side apartment to talk with the 95-year-old about his association with Johnson and his own life in the blues.
How’d you get started as a musician?
I left home when I was 17 with Joe Williams. He was about 36 years old I was 17. We went to New Orleans. Joe wanted to fight me every night, so one morning when Joe was drunk in the bed, I slipped off and left him to go back to Greenwood. I was coming across a bridge where people were catching crabs in a net. They said, ‘Boy can you play that guitar?’ I started playing on the guitar, and they started chucking nickels and dimes at me. I said, ‘I think I can make it without Joe.’ I come to Memphis, and I started working with the Memphis jug band.
When did you meet Robert Johnson?
My first time meeting Robert, I was 20 years old, in 1935. I had started playing pretty good with the Memphis Jug Band. I tried to catch a ride back to Greenwood. I stopped in Lake Carmen and went into a country store. Two young boys my age were sitting around talking. They said Robert and Son House are playing across the field over there, go listen. I said, ‘I believe I will.’
[Soon afterwards] he disappeared, left. People were surprised by him coming back and playing in that style. [Johnson’s newfound, much improved technique prompted the legend that he’d sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability.]
Me and Robert played together all of ’37 and half of ’38. We used to run around in Greenwood, Mississippi. There were a lot of bootleggers around then, serving whiskey and gambling in the back [of a local juke joint]. We played music in the front.
You were with him the night he was poisoned. Can you tell me about it?
Robert had been playing for [the juke joint owner] for about a year. What happened was Robert started going with his wife. Greenwood was a small farming town, and if it rained in the country everybody would go into town. They’d see Robert and her. [The owner] didn’t want to lose his woman, so he got him out of the way. She was a pretty woman. Her hair hung down to there [pointing to his waist.]
When I got there about 11 o’clock, he was getting sick. He tried to play for a while, then he said, ‘I don’t feel good, I‘m kind of sick.’ I went home that Sunday morning, and I thought he’d be all right. Tuesday, I went over to where he lived, and he was crawling around, his stomach all upset, people giving him soda water and different stuff to try to make him heave that stuff up. He passed August 16, 1938. They buried him the same day because he didn’t have no insurance.
Robert was crazy about whiskey and women, but he was the easiest musician I met playing the blues. I never heard him cuss or holler or want to fight like a lot of musicians. He was a nice guy. If he’d left that man’s wife alone, he’d probably have lived longer.
Did he influence your own music?
I played with so many musicians and some of the musicians would have something I want. I steal a lot of them, and I mash it up, I mash it up into my chords. I don’t care how famous a guitarist is, he ain’t learned everything. There’s always somewhere to go, something to mash up, but he ain’t found it yet. You never learn everything on that guitar neck.
How is the delta blues different from Chicago blues?
The delta blues is a low-down, dirty shame blues. It’s a sad, big wide sound, something to make you think about people who are dead or the women who left you.
At presstime, I heard that you’ll be playing on this tour. [Edwards will perform a 30-minute set.] What keeps you going?
I’d probably sit around the house and get lonesome if I didn’t have something to do. I done it all my life. It’s what I know to do.
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