The world didn’t owe him nothing

As you may have heard, blues artist David Honeyboy Edwards died recently at age 96, a few months after he finally retired from touring.
I am happy that there was so much news coverage of his passing. But the reports described him as “the last of the Delta bluesmen,” “the last of the first generation of Delta bluesmen” and “the last musician to have played with Robert Johnson.” I don’t really agree with those descriptions.
Was he the last Delta bluesman? When Big Bill Broonzy died in 1958, he was memorialized as “the last of the blues singers.” Certainly there has been some wonderful blues since then. Some might believe Broonzy (or Honeyboy, or someone else) is the last great blues singer, but that is an aesthetic debate we won’t go into here.There are still people in the Delta, and from the Delta, playing the blues.
Was he the last living person to have played with Robert Johnson? Probably not. There are probably several musicians who did not continue with music as a public career who played with Johnson, and some of them might still be alive. Honeyboy was close to Johnson, and was with him at his final performance. But I prefer to remember Honeyboy for his own accomplishments over his long and fruitful life, not for his connection to the short-lived Johnson.
Was he the last of the first generation? Not really. Honeyboy was born in 1914, which I’d say is a generation behind such pioneering figures as Mamie Smith (born 1883), Ma Rainey (1886), Jim Jackson (1886), Sara Martin (1884), Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893) and many others.
Honeyboy is very significant as a great musician and performer; a great rememberer and storyteller (his autobiography, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, is #1 on my list of recommended blues books); and for outliving most of his contemporaries and still touring and performing into extreme old age, making him a living spokesman from an earlier age for the last few decades of his life. Along with Robert Junior Lockwood, Henry Townsend and Pinetop Perkins, he was a survivor of the earliest days of the blues, someone who knew many of the first generation of blues artists, someone who grew up in sharecropping and did everything, knew everybody connected to the blues. All four of those men died in the past few years (Pinetop earlier this year). There undoubtedly still are people around of that age who are not professional musicians who remember sharecropping and the early days of the blues. But probably not anyone else is left who a vital part of the scene. Those four are gone, and Honeyboy was the last of them. It feels like the closing of an era, the death of the eldest member of my tribe, the blues tribe. But hopefully the tribe will go on and continue to make music!

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2 Comments on "The world didn’t owe him nothing"

  1. Jim C
    27/09/2011 at 3:52 am Permalink

    Wow cool article.
    Glad to see you are still writing…last article was a year ago.

  2. Pilk
    09/05/2012 at 4:36 am Permalink

    Steve
    Really enjoyed this piece. I am now going to research this guy and buy that book. Sounds like some excellent reading. Thanks for turning me onto it. I agree with James!…glad to see you are still writing. thoroughly enjoy your style of writing and the content you choose to write about.

    See ya in July
    Pilk

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