'Honeyboy,' The Last Link To Delta Blues

Correction July 24, 2008

The story refers to a recording made in Clarksburg, Mississippi in 1942. It was actually Clarksdale, Mississippi.

David "Honeyboy" Edwards was recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

hide captionDavid "Honeyboy" Edwards was recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

Alice Winkler/NPR

Delta blues guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards is one of the few living links to the mythic bluesman Robert Johnson. If playing with the man who (as legend has it) sold his soul to devil wasn't enough, Edwards was there the night Johnson was poisoned. His list of collaborators reads like a history of the blues, including Charley Patton, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Like the guitarists in that list, he's also been recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

Edwards was born the son of cotton sharecroppers in Mississippi; his father played the guitar and violin and his mother played the harmonica.

"My father had slowed down playing a little ... I was 'round 10 or 12 years old," Edwards says. "Every time he put his guitar down, I pick it up. I started playing the guitar and he'd [lie] down some nights and listen to me."

In 1920, Edwards would spend his nights in the Jackson, Miss., cotton fields listening to Tommy Johnson and others, "playin' the blues, shuffle blues, low-down-dirty-shame blues." In his autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, Edwards writes, "Listening to Tommy, that's when I really learned something about how to play guitar."

In 1932, at 17, Edwards began to play professionally with Big Joe Williams, who had been impressed by Edwards' guitar style. On tour, Edwards would pick up books from music stores and teach himself more chords in order to keep up with the band.

As with most blues guitarists, Edwards had a hard time finding gigs. In an interview with Andrea Seabrook, he talks about sleeping all day to avoid getting thrown in jail for "vagrancy" during the time of Jim Crow laws in the South. He'd slip out at night to play the bars and make his money that way.

Recordings and performances were scant from the mid-'50s through the '60s. He'd play small clubs and street corners in his new home of Chicago until he met Michael Frank, who was later to start Earwig Records and document Edwards' music. Most notably, Earwig released 1992's Delta Bluesman, a collection of Edwards' early Library of Congress recordings and then-recent material.

Even at 93, Edwards still performs and records. He was recently honored by Gibson Guitar for his continued blues preservation, as well as his contribution to the Grammy-winning 2007 recording, Last of the Great Mississippi Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.

Things haven't changed much, either: Edwards still likes to have fun, drink and talk to young women.

"I can do anything I ever done," he says. "Just take more time."

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  • Album: Delta Bluesman
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  • Album: Roamin' and Ramblin'
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