Booker T. Washington White, “Bukka White”
(1900s, presumably 1905 – February 26, 1977)
Bukka was born in Houston, Mississippi and as a child began playing fiddle and guitar, eventually migrating over to Clarksdale, where he reportedly learned to hone his already good guitar playing abilities from none other than Charley Patton himself. His name, “Bukka”, wasn’t a nickname. it was a phonetic spelling of his name pronounced with thick southern drawl: Booker. He played mean slide on a National guitar, and In 1930 White traveled to Memphis to make his first recording under his middle name, Washington, for the Victor label. Four of those songs were released.
Several years later, Bukka shot a man, and while awaiting trial, he fled to Chicago, where he recorded with Big Bill Broonzy before being caught and sentenced to the notorious Parchman Prison Farm. It was there that he met John Lomax, who recorded Bukka playing “Shake ‘Em On Down”. After his release in 1940, Bukka went back to Chicago before ending up giving up playing to work in a factory, where he remained for a number of years. But During the 1960’s folk revival, Blues enthusiasts John Fahey and Ed Denson ‘rediscovered’ Bukka after Bob Dylan covered his song “Fixin’ To Die Blues”. Bukka quickly returned to the limelight, recording several albums worth of songs and relearning the songs he’d recorded over 30 years earlier, (having given up the guitar, he’d largely forgotten the material.) He was very popular in the folk circuit, and enjoyed years of celebrity and success.
Ultimately, Bukka did much to popularize and continue the traditional, unamplified “country” style Blues, and made compelling contributions to Blues as a whole. He gave his cousin B.B. King his first guitar, a stella. He rubbed shoulders (and was among the ranks) of true original delta Blues performers such as Charley Patton and long time friends Howlin’ Wolf and collaborator and friend Furry Lewis.
Walter “Furry” Lewis
(1893 – September 14, 1981)
Walter Lewis was born in Greenwood, Mississippi and quickly moved to Memphis, where he became enthralled in music thanks to neighborhood musicians. Inspired, he built himself a Diddley Bow out of a cigar box, a piece of wood and string from his screen porch. As he played harmonica and guitar around Memphis, he took on several appearances with the father of the Blues himself, W.C. Handy, as a backup musician in his band. It was here that Handy gave Furry his first “real” guitar.
Like most Delta Blues men, Furry jumped from town to town, hoboing on freight trains as he looked for another venue to play his music. Though in the 19-teens he suffered a severed leg when he was run over by a train. Work was hard to find for crippled black man with no education, and Furry ended back up in Memphis, where he began playing at the emerging Beale Street, collaborating with many of the other early greats and soon-to-be greats that frequented Memphis at the time.
The attention got him a recording session with Vocalion in 1927, where he recorded “Jelly Roll”, and a version of “Stack O lee”, among others. Furry was adept at slide guitar, and used to play with a bottleneck or pocketknife. After this and several other minor recording sessions, Furry vanished into obscurity for nearly 30 years.
The 1960s folk revival brought Furry Lewis back to the limelight, where he was popular in Blues concerts and the coffee shop circuit, and cut several records. In the 70s, he was included in the Memphis Blues Caravan, a travelling group of original Delta musicians that included Bukka White, who became Lewis’s long time friend and collaborator, and Sleepy John Estes. Around this time, he opened for The Rolling Stones and even landed a cameo role in a Burt Reynolds movie! After an illustrious late-life career, Furry passed away in 1981.
“Sleepy” John Adams Estes,
(January 1899 – June 5, 1977)
This influential blues singer first performed at local house-parties while in his early teens. In 1916 he began working with mandolin player Yank Rachell, a partnership that was revived several times throughout their respective careers. It was also during this formative period that Estes met Hammie Nixon (harmonica), another individual with whom he shared a long-standing empathy. Estes made his recording debut in September 1929. He eventually completed eight masters for the RCA Records company, including the original versions of ‘Diving Duck Blues’, ‘Poor John Blues’ and the seminal, often-covered ‘Milk Cow Blues’. These assured compositions inspired interpretations from artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Tom Rush and the Kinks. However, despite remaining an active performer throughout the 30s, Estes retired from music in 1941. A childhood accident impaired his eyesight and by 1950 he had become completely blind. The singer resumed performing with several low-key sessions for Hammie Nixon, before reasserting his own recording career in 1962. Several excellent albums for Chicago’s Delmark Records label followed, one of which, Broke And Hungry, featured a young Mike Bloomfield on guitar. Estes, Nixon and Rachell also made a successful appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and the three veterans continued to work together until 1976 when Estes suffered a stroke.