Remembering Legendary Bluesman 'Honeyboy' Edwards

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David 'Honeyboy' Edwards passed away Monday at age 96. The influential guitarist was one of the last living links to the original blues music from the Mississippi Delta. He was also known for bearing witness to the evolution of blues music throughout much of the last century. To learn about his Edwards' life and the future of blues, host Michel Martin speaks with Mark Puryear, a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland.


Now we want to slow things down a bit and take a minute with the blues.


DAVID HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) Woman like and want any day for to be just like yesterday. I've got to (unintelligible) rob some passing train.

MARTIN: The legendary bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards died on Monday at the age 96 in Chicago. And we decided to take time today not only to reflect on his life and musical legacy, but also to discover more about the state of blues music in this country right now.


HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) You told me late last night baby, Lord that you stayed in another place.

MARTIN: David "Honeyboy" Edwards saw it all. The blues musician from the Mississippi Delta came of age right alongside the great American tradition of the blues. He was a contemporary of the legendary guitarist Robert Johnson, having played with him and even seen him the night before he was poisoned and died. The child of sharecroppers, his life is representative of the kind that made blues music what it is. He traveled around the South working as what was known as a walking jukebox, playing house parties, juke joints and fish fries to make a living. He later moved to Chicago and over the course of his 96 years, he worked with most of the major figures in blues music, including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Joining us to tell us more about the late David "Honeyboy" Edwards is Mark Puryear. He's a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland. He was the curator of this year's Rhythm and Blues Program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is held in Washington, D.C. Mark Puryear, thank you so much for joining us.

MARK PURYEAR: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Why was "Honeyboy" so significant?

PURYEAR: Well, I think "Honeyboy" is significant and for a number of reasons. One is longevity. Given that life in the Delta at that time, longevity wasn't a highlight of that life and it wasn't life expectancy wasn't that long. You mentioned Robert Johnson, which I think is an example of someone who, you know, did not live much - well, 27 years old. He did not live that long. However, even if he weren't a bluesman per se, life expectancy due to the various economic impacts that came upon your life, such as health care and hard work, wasn't that long. "Honeyboy" Edwards lived quite a long time and had the - really an incredible memory and sense of the history that he experienced and shared it with everyone.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, I have a clip from an interview that he did with NPR in 2008 where he talked a little bit about the upbringing. I'll just give us a little flavor of what you're talking about here. Here it is.

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: My father was a sharecropper, and at night when he'd come out of the field, he'd get in the cotton shack with a chair and play the blues, shuffle blues, low-down-dirty-shame blues and drank whiskey and get drunk all night.


MARTIN: Low-down-dirty-shame blues, how about that?

PURYEAR: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: It's kind of a ridiculous question now that I think about it. But I'm tempted to ask could he have been who he was without that upbringing?

PURYEAR: Well, I think that's a good question and I think the answer is no. You mentioned his father. His father actually played fiddle and guitar, which a lot of people again, if they're not familiar with the blues, do not realize how central the fiddle is to this music as well. A lot of people played fiddle back in those days. When I say a lot of people I'm specifically referencing African-Americans in the Delta and throughout the South and Southeast. It wasn't that odd of an instrument at all. Now many young people might think a black person playing fiddle, not classical violin? That's strange. However, it wasn't that strange. If you look at the record, historic record, you see it was pretty common.

So I think "Honeyboy" definitely benefited from the world he grew up in, his parents, his mother was a guitarist as well. So he grew up in a household with music and at that time, even though he was a little bit later than some of the folks he was influenced by, like Charlie Patton, it really was a time when technology was just really making a big impact in the areas of the Delta specifically.

I just want to play a little bit of a recording of "Honeyboy" Edwards from the 1940s, and then you can tell us a little bit about it. I should mention this is from a field recording by Alan Lomax who recorded blues and folk music in the 1930s and '40s, especially in the rural areas. And I'll just play a short clip. Here it is.


HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) So many nights since you've been gone. I've been worried, grieving my life alone. But someday baby you're going to worry my life anymore.

MARTIN: That's called "Worried Life Blues," if you're wondering.


PURYEAR: Well, that's a perfect example of "Honeyboy's" guitar style, which is classic Delta-style playing. Very rhythmic, this was dance music in a sense. This was music that was played at country dances and at house parties. Another fact that I think, you know, is with the younger generation who might not understand that this is really impactful. This was acoustic music, had to have music, had to have a flow, but wasn't the hard, you know, steady, driving rhythm some people might associate with the blues today. It definitely had a rhythmic feel.

Lomax, of course, recorded this music. He did a lot of fieldwork in the Delta recording the music at a point in postwar, mid-war years - '42 I think this was. So this was a time when again, technology was changing, people had Victrolas. People were listening to a wide variety of music. "Honeyboy" really kept to the Delta sound.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Mark Puryear. He curated this year's Rhythm and Blues Program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and he's telling us about blues legend David "Honeyboy" Edwards who passed away on Monday at the age of 96 in Chicago.

You know, we were asking you are there some blues musicians today that we could look out for. And there was one person you mentioned that would be - you mentioned Corey Harris. So we'll just play a little bit of him and then you can tell us why this is somebody to listen out for. Here it is.


COREY HARRIS: (Singing) Got a roots woman with roots on me. Roots woman, yeah, with roots on me. Never thought I'd leave, I'd leave New Orleans.

MARTIN: So what should we be looking out for in the world of blues today?

PURYEAR: Well, it depends on your taste. I mean there's something for everybody. The reason I referenced Corey Harris is you can hear it, he's really working with that same, really the same sound palette that someone like a David "Honeyboy" Edwards was working with. Playing acoustic instrument would be one, another working with the same sort of sonic and melodic palette and harmonic palette. Very sparse playing in the guitar as opposed to really filling up the space with the guitar. A lot of feeling in the music.

MARTIN: But the difference though, I'm just wondering, David "Honeyboy" Edwards can't really be, he can't be replaced. I mean no artist can really be replaced. But part of it is is that he was reporting, right?


MARTIN: I mean he was like CNN. He was reporting on what was going on around him at that time. And as a blues artist today, what is his or her role going to be? Are they still, do they still do the same job in a way?

PURYEAR: Well, I think they do some of the same job. Some of the repertoire they're doing is keeping the historical repertoire alive. So in a sense they are tradition bearers. The other is if they're writing their own music and writing in a contemporary style, they are reporting because that is part of the blues aesthetic is that you're speaking about your current times and your current conditions. So if people are working and being creative in the same style, they would be talking about what's going on today and maybe making commentary about not only their personal life but a larger world.

MARTIN: But it is a loss isn't it?

PURYEAR: It is a great loss. I think it's also - I think we have to be mindful of the time and as I mentioned, technology. So much has changed between the time "Honeyboy" was a 14-year-old listening to, you know, some of the folks in the Delta, you know, like a teenager listening and working with Big Joe Williams. So much has changed. I can't say that enough. That, you know, that he was able to work through that life of being a 94-year-old and still maintain something of relevance.

MARTIN: That was Mark Puryear. He was the curator of this year's Rhythm and Blues Program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He's a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you Mark Puryear. Thank you so much for joining us.

PURYEAR: You're so welcome, Michel. Thank you.


HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) The woman I'm loving...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: (Singing) The woman I'm loving, she worries me all the time.

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