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Pair o’ Dice and the Blues

DAVID HONEYBOY EDWARDS
The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing (Earwig Music)

THE WORLD DON’T OWE ME NOTHING: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards
By DAVID HONEYBOY EDWARDS
As told to JANIS MARTINSON and MICHAEL ROBERT FRANK
Chicago Review Press
224 pages
$24 hardcover

Time has a way of bestowing eminence upon those who have managed to survive enough history. Blues singer-guitarist David Edwards — known as "Honey" in his Mississippi youth and now known to aficionados as "Honeyboy" — is one of those semiobscure figures for whom lightning has struck. Edwards was unknown to all but the most devoted blues fans until 1970, when his 1953 recording "Drop Down Mama" became the title cut on a Chess Records reissue devoted to the citified country blues the label released in the early ’50s. Honeyboy, who made his first sides in 1942, when folklorist Alan Lomax waxed him for the Library of Congress in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, schoolhouse, recorded for Sun, Jewel and Peacock, but most of his tracks lay unissued until the blues boom of the ’60s led labels to empty their vaults. Since his enlistment by Fleetwood Mac for the British band’s 1967 sessions in Chicago, Edwards has recorded sporadically as a leader. However, because he has managed to outlive almost all of his Delta-bred contemporaries, the 82-year-old bluesman endures as a kind of living page of musical history. That history gets a timely recounting in Edwards’ rich and delightfully candid new memoir, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing , and on the spontaneous, uneven new album of the same title released by Earwig Music, the Chicago-based blues label operated by the musician’s manager and co-author, Michael Frank. It’s hard to think of a Delta bluesman who has told his story in as much firsthand detail as Edwards does in his book. He emerges as perhaps the ultimate blues journeyman. Born in Shaw, Mississippi, on June 28, 1915, Honey took up the guitar at the age of 14 and stayed with music as a tough but viable alternative to plantation work. Life on the farm, and its attendant racism and violence, is depicted at length and harshly in the book. Edwards recalls, "The boss always said, ‘When a nigger dies, hire a nigger. If a mule dies, buy a nigger.’" For de c ades, Edwards sidestepped the brutality of plantation life by hoboing around the country, making a living in the jukes with his guitar and another important set of tools, a pair of dice. Edwards’ autobiography tugs at the imagination with its cameo portraits of dozens of nearly mythical blues figures he encountered on the road. As a youth, he saw the great Charlie Patton and Tommy Johnson perform, and rambled through the South with Tommy McClennan and his mentor Big Joe Williams. In Memphis, he briefly joined the Memphis Jug Band. He met Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King when they were still Delta farm boys. (He implies somewhat bitterly that after he moved to Chicago, Muddy derailed his career at Chess because the two men’s guitar styles were so similar.) He was partnered with harmonica aces Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs. An annotated list of the musicians Edwards knew or performed with fills over 30 pages in the back of his book. Edwards’ most famous association is with Robert Johnson; he met the young blues legend-to-be in 1937, and the pair became close after Johnson learned that his girlfriend was Edwards’ cousin. Honeyboy was among the last to see Johnson alive, and his brief chapter about their relationship offers a frightening depiction of Johnson’s deathbed agonies after he was poisoned by a jealous man at a Mississippi country dance in August of 1938. He says of Johnson, "He wasn’t out there too long but he changed everything. Everyone tried to follow Robert Johnson’s style." That "everyone" would include Edwards himself: His sleekly played 1942 Library of Congress work, and to a lesser degree his ’50s recordings, bear the indelible stamp of Johnson’s sophisticated picking. While Honey’s playing has grown rougher and more rhythmically eccentric with the passage of time, he still sits, probably happily, in Johnson’s shadow. The new Earwig album includes three Johnson covers among its 15 cuts, as well as a lengthy retelling of the story of Johnson’s death. The new set is probably not the place for a newcomer to Edwards’ music to begin; I’d recommend the lovely 1988 solo album White Windows , available on CD from Evidence Music. On The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing , Edwards ambles through some familiar repertoire, accompanied by harmonica players Rick Sherry (who also bangs on a washboard) and Carey Bell. Edwards himself is in messy yet gutsy form. He cruises through a couple of his own derivative tunes; essays numbers by Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Petway, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Rogers and even Freddie King (the instrumental "Hideaway," no less); and spins relaxed tales about Robert Nighthawk, Little Walter, and his accompanist Bell, who used to play with him in the heyday of Chicago’s "Jewtown" — the outdoor Max well Street market. Edwards’ slide-guitar work strikes only occasional sparks, but the record retains a relaxed charm. Like the memoir with which it shares its name, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing plays like an evening spent sitting at the foot of a charmingly garrulous elder, hearing old tales being retold by a lamp’s dimming glow.