A Conversation with the Legends of the Delta Blues
David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Homesick James, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Henry Townsend
By John Sinclair & Bill Taylor
As the blues enters its second century as America’s fundamentally original expressive art form, the music is enjoying its greatest popularity since its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s when the sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and their peers could be heard pounding day and night through the streets and nightspots of the nation’s African-American communities.
Most of the great bluesmen who changed the shape of American popular music in the 20th century are no longer with us, and the number of surviving blues pioneers grows smaller with each passing year. The acknowledged originators — Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Williamson and their contemporaries — are long gone from Planet Earth, and most of the men who electrified the blues in the second half of the century have likewise passed from this sphere, taking their stories and their incredible experiences with them.
It’s a whole different world now — the social and economic conditions that gave rise to the blues have changed shape forever, and the music exists today in the much wider context of mass-market entertainment aimed at suburban white people who are looking for some kind of connection to real emotion and feeling that they don’t get from pop music.
But the blues comes from a very specific place and time: the rural South in the first half of the 20th century, with its feudal agrarian economy, strict racial segregation and fierce denial of educational and social opportunities to the descendents of the African slaves. The men and women who created and developed the blues — each and every one of them —lived and worked within this twisted social construct, and their incredible artistry emerged from its confines despite every possible obstacle placed in their paths.
There are few remaining witnesses to the real history of the blues, and it was our extreme good fortune to be able to meet in the year 2000 with four of the genuine living legends of the Delta blues — David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Homesick James, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Henry Townsend — and record their testimony to share with the readers of BLUES ACCESS.
Through the kind agency of Michael James of the American Legends Music Organization, manager of the group he now calls the Delta Blues Cartel, Bill Taylor and I were allowed to tape two lengthy conversations with the four venerable bluesmen as they swapped stories and observations in a funky little motel room in Elizabeth, New Jersey, before and after their appearance at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Manhattan this past September.
Edwards and Lockwood, both 85; Townsend, who is 91; and Homesick James, who may be 95 or even older, proved to be extremely gracious hosts and fascinating story-tellers whose memories were sharp and carefully detailed. The transcript of our conversations runs to some 16,000 words, from which this composite text has been edited and re-constructed for purposes of clarity and continuity. Bill started things off by asking the age-old blues question:
BA: Who were your influences?
Honeyboy Edwards: My father, he was a musician. He played guitar and violin. I wanted to play, so he bought me a guitar. That was 1929. He paid $4 for it. My father showed me a lot of chords. I hit on ’em, made strokes on ’em. And if I played in a key too long, he’d say, "Boy, don’t you know another tune to play? Get out of that tune." So I would try to play another key, to make it different. And that’s how it went till I learned how to play.
In ’32, my sister married a man who had a guitar, in Greenwood, Mississippi. The boys knocked mine out of my arm, playin’ — you know how kids play. It fell and broke. So when Joe Williams came through there in ’32, I ran away with my brother-in-law’s guitar and never brought it back. I had to have a guitar and didn’t have no money to buy one, so I took his.
Big Joe was kind of crabby — he’d stay drunk all the time. One time we went to New Orleans, and he met a woman down there. A Creole woman. She lost her husband, who had a lot of nice clothes, because he worked on the riverboat. And Joe could wear his clothes. He wasn’t used to no suits, so he’d put them on, get drunk and want to fight me every night.
So I left the bed one Monday morning — he was drunk. I was scared of him, too. I was nothin’ but a kid. And I came to Highway 90 out of New Orleans, passed Gulfport, Biloxi, then I came to Bay St. Louis, where people were on this bridge catchin’ crabs in a net. They said, "There’s a boy with a guitar. Boy, can you play that guitar?" I said, "Well, I can play a little bit." I was by myself, and I was used to playin’ under Joe all the time. So I started playin’, actin’ like Joe, and they gave me nickels and dimes. I said, "I don’t think I need Joe. I can make a little bit by myself now."
Homesick James: I didn’t have no influences. I wasn’t influenced by nobody but myself. When I come into music, I just loved the sound. I heard other people do it, and I wanted to make it too. I taught myself. I just hear what I wanna play, and I’ll play it. I’ll hear it, and then I can see the notes, and the spots. I don’t know where it come from. I heard what I wanted to do. It was my life. I’m not modeled behind nobody. That’s my life, man — you know, whatever I feel, that’s what comes out. Take it or leave it.
Henry Townsend: My daddy was a musician. He played the button box, which was an accordion. And his associate, Davis, played guitar. And I just loved the way that guitar sounded, so he kind of locked me in on the guitar sound, and I got fastened up with that. I finally got a guitar a few years later.
Robert Lockwood Jr.: Well, I don’t know nothing but music — that’s the only thing I know. I started playing music at eight. They had a pump organ in my grandfather’s house, and I learned how to play three or four tunes on it before I started playing the guitar — when I was 13, when Robert Johnson come into my mother’s life. When Robert Johnson come home with my mama, that’s the day I decided not to play the organ no more. And I kept pickin’ up the guitar every time he set it down, until he finally showed me a few things. And I been playing ever since, yeah.
Robert was my teacher. He never taught nobody else. He didn’t have very much to do after I got started — he didn’t have to show me nothing. I did not have to do nothing but sit and play in front of him. I had the privilege of being around him almost ten years, and that helped me a lot — it helped me to be who I am today.
BA: What about some of the places you used to play with Robert?
Robert: I never played but three places with him: I played one barn dance in Clarksdale, and some places in Gunnison, Mississippi. That barn dance was for white people and, on the way back home, they pulled each other’s hair out and had a highway full of hair. And after we got home, the next day we got some hay, and the people carried us home. It was a little wild.
BA: What kind of places did you start playing at on your own?
Robert: Box suppers. People would start gathering crops, so I stayed on plantations for a couple of months, playing every night. They was gambling and selling food and, you know, selling pot and stuff like that. It wasn’t like nightclubs — we would play in places where there was gambling at and drinking liquor and selling food.
In 1936, I went on the road with Sonny Boy [Williamson, a.k.a. Rice Miller]. That was the first time I’d really left home. We hoboed a few times in Mississippi. Me and Sonny Boy would play in places where there would be 150 to 200 people, for $2.50 and $3 a head. Juke joints, that’s what they were. Yeah, I went all over Mississippi with Sonny Boy, and Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. I went up to Chicago in 1940 and then recorded in 1941, and come down and got on King Biscuit Time.
When we got on King Biscuit Time, we really started making some money, because they were broadcasting everyday, and that way we could draw a lot of people. Sonny Boy and I started that in 1941, and it’s still on the air.
BA: I’ve heard that was the first time electric blues was on the radio.
Robert: We was the first — Sonny Boy and I was the first. It’s been on the air for over 50 years now. Sonny Boy played the first week by himself, then I started helping him. Then I hired [drummer] Peck [Curtis], then I hired [pianist] Dudlow [Taylor], then I hired [pianist] Willie Love, then I hired [guitarist] Joe Willie Wilkins. Then I left King Biscuit Time and started working Mothers’ Best Flour Company on the same station, and I worked for Mothers’ Best for almost two years. When I left King Biscuit Time, I went back to Chicago.
Homesick: I don’t know nothing about plantations. I come from Chicago. I was raised up there as a young man, all the way up. I haven’t been through Mississippi much, anyway. If anybody says that, I’ll tell ’em they’re lyin’.
BA: Henry, you played in the Prohibition era. Could you describe some of the speakeasies you played in?
Henry: Well, when I was just gettin’ started, we would have house parties, and in the early ’30s people were being evicted from their homes, and all of that. So we created a little club, the Musician’s Theatre there in St. Louis. We’d go buy alcohol, white whiskey, for the club that night. So each musician would volunteer their talent for that night, and sell the place out. The next morning, the person would always say they didn’t get evicted.
So that went on for a few years. Over in the evening, when there wasn’t much traffic, we would put our instruments on a flat-bed truck and drive around and advertise for it. We’d draw the police, too — they would come, but if we got four or five hours, it didn’t matter if they come or not, because the money would be made by that time.
I also used to front as a shoeshine boy for E.B. Kuntz — he gave me a shoeshine parlor out in front of the alcohol joint. He would buy whatever I needed, but never come for no money. I got hip, but I didn’t run from it. I stayed right there.
BA: What did you call alcohol back then?
Henry: Well, they had a lot of names for it. It would be called just plain alcohol and water, or white whiskey, and they would call it Sneaky Pete, and some people would call it the Brain Buster, ’cuz it would give some people headaches, you know. It was called just about everything you could think of. It had a lot of different tastes. After the first drink, it didn’t matter. But there was some good whiskey out there. Some of them guys made whiskey better than some of the stuff on the market today.
See, a musician can tell you what tastes the best. I know about his drink [points to Robert], and he know about my drink. The reason I didn’t turn out to be a whiskey-head is because my drink is too expensive. I was drinkin’ that aged Chivas Regal, and I couldn’t afford too much of it, so I didn’t get the chance to be a whiskey-head. Yeah, he and I sat up and killed many bottles together. I know what his drink is.
Robert: I drink Hennessey. I started drinking it about 25 years ago. Really, what started me to drinkin’ it is that it’s kind of hard to get a hangover. So when I found that it was hard to get a hangover, I started drinking it regularly. Then I finally found out, when you have open-heart surgery and have some kind of a back-slide, the doctor will give you Hennessey to drink. So I been drinkin’ it ever since.
Honeyboy: I played at Skin Balls. A lot of people down South used to play Georgia Skin at cards. They would give Skin Balls in the fall of the year, when the people were clearin’ money. They’d go to these big houses and give Skin Balls. They’d be like three or four nights, playin’ Georgia Skins, drinkin’ whiskey, just turnin’ the cards. I played at ’em. There’d be a skin table over there, a crap table over there, and I’d be in the back of the house playin’ the blues and drinkin’ white whiskey.
A fast game of Georgia Skin was the game then. And I used to shoot dice. I was a good crap-shooter. When I sit down to that game, I ain’t gonna leave till I get the money. When you’re gambling, if you get a guy with a couple hundred bucks in his pocket, and he lose $50, he’s gonna keep gambling ’cuz he wants to get that $50 back. But he ain’t never gonna get close with me. I got him stuck. He’s never gonna see daylight
Henry: Play it cool, man, because when you play it cool, you’s a hustler. I know how to gamble. I know how to set a trap. That’s when you put your thing in. ’Cuz that’s when you use your stuff. Let him think, "Oh, he don’t know what he’s doin’. That’s a greenhorn." And when I was in the Army, the sergeant come got me and my buddy and took us over there and put them cards under a microscope. They couldn’t find a damn thing, and every one of them cards had my mark on it. I’m lookin’ right at it, you know, and they couldn’t see it.
Honeyboy: What’d you mark them cards with? Was it sand, or …
Henry: It was a shade pencil. Bicycle packs is the best, and a shade pencil, and you find your spot and then you mark it. You ain’t got no business fuckin’ with it after you fix it. You give it to your buddy and teach him what to look for, and it’s clear as a newspaper then.
Honeyboy: But you know what? You got to play square sometimes. You know when they pull the blanket? I could squeeze them dice with the end of my fingers, and then I turn ’em loose, and the next time, when they stop, they gonna stop sideways. One of them sevens comin’ up — six-ace, five-deuce, or four-three, one’a them comin’, if you know how to squeeze ’em. And after I made me some money, I got outta that stuff, man. But you couldn’t play one place too many times — you make about two trips there and quit.
Homesick: I used to know how to hustle. I used to. I made my living — I’d get a job because, every payday, I’d get their money. Watch the way a man talks, watch the way he walks, you’ll find out what he’s about. You’ll find out anything you want. Watch what he talk about, what he say. … I’m a hopper. I never stayed nowhere long.
Honeyboy: Back then, when I would travel, if I had to go a long way — to 100 or 70 or 80 miles — mostly I’d ride a freight. I’d go in the yard. The train had to come in and take water on and coal up, and the conductors didn’t care about you ridin’. So when they’d be coalin’ up, I’d say, "What time is this train ridin’ out?" He’d say, "Well, we leavin’ about three o’clock this evening."
So I’d go up the hill and lie down in the shade and go to sleep. About quarter to three, they were getting’ ready to pull out — they’d be connecting up the empty cars to pull out to the main yard. So when they connect the cars and get up on the mainline, we’d be back in the bushes watchin’ them. So after straightening up, he’d blow, "Whoa, whoa!" And we’d step out of the bushes. Then the brakeman would throw the line up and give the signal that it was ready to go. When he’d hit the first two licks — "Whuf, whuf!" — we were on there.
Yeah, I wouldn’t stay nowhere long. I didn’t care how good I was doin’, I wouldn’t stay there long. Makin’ all the money I can make, I’d still leave — still go. Just wouldn’t stay there.
Henry: Get the road blues, and hit the highway, or railroad, one of the two. Yeah, I was kinda like that too, when I was runnin’ around with my old buddy. You know, Roosevelt [Sykes] wouldn’t stay nowhere either, Honeyboy, and I was kinda taggin’ along with him. Boy, and he’d get up in the morning, and he’d say, "Well, Mule," and I’d say, "Yeah, okay, where we goin’?" And he’d say, "I don’t give a damn, but we gonna leave here." [Laughter.]
We’d find a railroad yard, and we’d wait for that train to pull out. Shit, I was as good as the guy who’s out on the yard switchin’ the cars, the brakesman, I was as good as the brakesman, shit, I knowed all the signals when the engine blow. I knew what all of that meant — that he wanted to come up and get on another track, or pick up such and such a car. They talked on that whistle. Long time before I knew that, but I learned it. And they would snitch on you too, if they would see you and the railroad dick didn’t see you, they could signal him that there was a hobo in the yard.
Homesick: You know about that stick thing, too, don’t you? About puttin’ that chip up under that door, to keep ’em from closin’ that door?
Honeyboy: Oh, we’d spike it.
Henry: Keep yourself from gettin’ locked in.
Homesick: That’s right, keep ’em from lockin’ that door.
Henry: You know when St. Louis had that hell of a cyclone? I was on my way down to Memphis when that thing — I got up that morning to go to work with my daddy, and I wasn’t thinkin’ about no work, so I got way ahead of him, and I guess he thought I was hurryin’ up gettin’ down there, and I made my turn and went straight on to East St. Louis and got on that train.
And the clouds had got dark then as midnight, and I went down in one of them ice holes, you know, one of them refrigerator cars? In the corners they had them places where they put them great big blocks of ice. Well, I went down in that, boy, and about two, three hours after I was down in there, man, the lightning started to playin’ around in there, and I could see the walls — just like I’m lookin’ at these walls — in a air-tight place, where nothin’ was supposed to come in — cold couldn’t get out, and heat couldn’t come in — and that lightning was in there with me, playin’ up on them walls. Man, I ain’t never been so scared in all my life! And it finally quit — I don’t know when it quit, I was so scared ’til I just went on to sleep. And when I woke up, I was in the railroad yard in Memphis.
Honeyboy: It’s the IC [Illinois Central] yard now.
Henry: Yeah, and when I got out, I heard a paperboy hollerin’, "Read all about the St. Louis cyclone!" And I come on out and walked right on into the railroad detective’s arms. And he says to me, in words as he said, "Where you think you’re goin’, little old nigger?"
I said, "Well, I ain’t goin’ nowhere now. I’m goin’ back to St. Louis." He said, "Goin’ to St. Louis? How you gonna get back, like you come in here?" And I said, "That was my intentions." He stared at me for about a minute, and then he said, "I’ll tell you what: You’re not gonna ride no train outta here, but I grant you this: You can get up on the other side of that water tank, and you can ride out if you wanna."
Now, that water tank was way up there, and by the time that train made up down there, he thought it was gonna be too hot for me to catch. But he didn’t know I’d been catchin’ ’em a long time — it wasn’t gonna be too hot for me. And I walked on up there — I had to run some first, I wouldn’t run when I first left him, because I figured if I started runnin’, that’s exactly what he’d want me to do, and he’d shoot me.
So I walked, and went on up there, and after I got out of his pocket-gun reach, I started me a little trot, and I made it on up there before that train — beat that train up there, you know — because I know he won’t let me catch it in that yard, like he said. And I got up there by that water tank, and I stood there. And after a while, here come that train, "Whoooah" — you know how them rails sound — and I know that thing was hot.
Man, I caught that thing — I blistered my hand, because I was runnin’ alongside of it, it was goin’ faster than me and I caught it, and it slid in my hand, but I managed to get the other hand, and I was layin’ flat level with that car, just like that. I held on until the gravitation pulled me down. When it pulled me down, I hit the stirrup, and I went on around between the cars, and I crawled up on top after we got away from the yard, and I laid flat on top until I got on in to East St. Louis. I put both my arms up under the walkway on the board …
Honeyboy: Um-hmm, I used to do that …
Henry: … and you can’t roll off. If you go to sleep, you got to tear your arm off to get off. So I locked both my arms up under there, and laid there and nodded until I got to East St. Louis.
Homesick: The guy I always remember … Remember Mr. Whitney? Buddy, you go through there, you better not be peepin’ out. Guy made a record about that: Sleepy John Estes. Centralia, Illinois. You better not peep out.
Honeyboy: They used to be pretty rough coming out of Cairo, you know that? Yeah, they put ya in that pea farm down there. Yeah, Red and them got messed up down there.
Homesick: Kansas City Red?
Honeyboy: Yeah, they pulled me and Big Walter [Horton] off the train, and Washboard [Sam], and another guitar player off the train. There was a whole band was on the train. We had come up to Chicago and went back early, and they pulled us off in the Cairo yard there. He said, "Looky here, you got a band on the train here." This was in the wintertime too.
We had to go up to this little place they had, it was warm in there. He said, "Can y’all boys play them things?" We thought he was gonna arrest us, because that’s what they generally do, and we just knew they was gonna put us on the pea farm. We scared, our hearts beatin’, and stood there playin’, and he said, "I tell you what y’all do: Y’all take these damn things and go up that hill and go downtown and make y’all some money and get on outta town."
Henry: Yeah, I been did like that. I’ll never forget it. I was in the jail — they didn’t lock me up, but they carried our ass to jail. Carried us to the jailhouse, and then, I sit on the outside and played my guitar, and this other guy, we just grouped up together and started playin’, ya know, and they let us go.
Honeyboy: One time in Glendover, Mississippi, the police pulled seven of us off the train. Put me on the County Farm. I wasn’t nothin’ but 16 then. Gave me 60 days at a place called Vance, Mississippi. I was the youngest one on the County Farm. The County Farm was a penitentiary, but it wasn’t a State penitentiary. You had round stripes around your leg. The State penitentiary had straight stripes up and down your leg. So, my father heard that I was there. He was a sharecropper, and he come to get me, but I had served my time. They turned me loose one Friday, and that Saturday my father and the bossman come to get me. But I left. I’m glad I did, because the man would have charged my daddy for me — but I was gone, you know. So I came back to Greenwood and worked for white folks, cuttin’ yards and picked cotton. That was 1931. I was 16. I can remember.
We got by many times — we was supposed to be arrested, but had the police turn us loose. I come into Blytheville, Arkansas, one time. I got to Blytheville on a Friday evening and was playin’ the guitar on the street, had the people all gathered around, and the police was over up there — I thought he was gonna arrest me. He looked over there at me and said, "Y’all get off the streets. Get back in that alley over there. Get off the streets, boy!" I said, "Yessir." I got on back in that alley and started playin’ the blues.
So that Saturday, the polices give a stag party at the jailhouse — nothin’ but men, polices. So they come down there askin’ about me, and I was scared, I thought they was gonna arrest me, do somethin’ to me. Said, "Where that boy playin’ that guitar down here yesterday evening?"
So the girl said, "I don’t know, sir, I saw him not two hours ago," said, "I don’t know where he at." He said, "Well, we just givin’ a stag party down here, and we want him to play it for us tonight." She said, "Well, I’ll see can I find him," so he left, and she told me, come back and say, "Yeah, he made it back." I got in the car with them and went down there, and I made more money than I ever made in my life off them polices. About 25 of ’em there, and all of ’em give me a dollar apiece.
Henry: That was big-time money then.
Honeyboy: Yeah, all of ’em give me a dollar apiece. Wasn’t nary a woman there — they was kickin’ each other aside the legs, fallin’ down drunk — that’s the stag party! Falling down drunk, kickin’ each other, that’s all they were doin’. They had all the food that they wanta eat — they had a nice time, stag party. I had a pocket of money when I left there.
Me and Sonny Boy was in Jackson, Mississippi, playin’ one time, in ’31 or ’32. Sonny Boy came and got me to go to Jackson with the intention of recording for a man by the name of H.C. Spier. He ran a grocery store there, and he recorded Tommy Johnson and all them. So we stayed around Jackson for about a week, and then we decided to come back to Tchula, Mississippi — that was about 60 miles from Jackson.
So when we come into Tchula, there was a place called Gwen’s, where you come into the yard. And when you come in there, the special agent would be there, the polices — railroad polices. They would pull you off the train and put you on the County Farm — make you get out there and work. Put you in prison.
Sonny Boy, by him being older than I was, he was slicker than I was. So he jumped off the train and run across the woods. There was water and snakes and everything, and I didn’t know where he was. So I was out there lookin’. I got out in that water, off the railroad where the police couldn’t find me. I heard him blow his harp, "Whaa," to let me know where he was, you know.
"Hey!" I said, "Where are you?" He says, "I’m over here!" He was way over there on a little gravel road. When I got over there, I had water up to my knees. I was all wet, but I made it to him. It was about 11 o’clock. We didn’t have nowhere to stay, nothin’. Didn’t know what to do. And he pulls his harp — he had an old belt around his waist, with rubber loops. He pulled that harp out, and we started to walk slow, playin’ the blues.
People’s doors started to fly open. "Come on over here and play the blues. Come on!" And one man by the name of Mr. Davis, I’ll never forget, he was about 60 years old. And his wife, Annabelle, was about 25, good-lookin’. And she was my woman, you know, later. He had a gallon of white whiskey. The old man was a good-timer.
So we played the blues there. He said, "You boys don’t got to go nowhere tonight, you can stay right here. Play the blues, drink and get drunk." And we stayed there all night, got up in the morning and Annabelle cooked us breakfast. And we went to Greenwood, but I would come back to Tchula about every other week to visit. And I got a son by his wife. He knowed it. He couldn’t get mad.
Henry: Did you ever ride when ridin’ got to be a free deal? See, Hoover stopped ’em from botherin’ you, in the ’30s. President Hoover.
Honeyboy: Yeah, I remember Hoover. He did open ’em up, didn’t he?
Henry: He opened it up: Anybody could ride a train, anywhere they wanted to go. And some of the leaders of the country wanted to know why he do that. He said, "Well, let ’em ride." Say, "Ain’t a damn thing nowhere to go, they might as well ride anywhere they wanna go, because there ain’t nothin’ here, and ain’t nothin’ where they goin’." ’Cuz it was Depression time, you know. Women, and children, everybody was hoboin’.
Honeyboy: I remember when they had children and everything on the freight train. I saw some white folks, they had put a mattress in the boxcar and had a family. I said, "Where ya goin’?" and they said, "I don’t know, but we goin’ some damn place." [Laughs]
Henry: And people would get off a train just like they’re getting’ off at the train station. Yeah, wait ’till it stop and unload the train. In my wisdom, that’s what started all these cardboard houses and things. I know down on the riverfront there in St. Louis, people used to hustle cardboards and any kind of good thing they could get to build homes with, down on the riverfront, the government property. City wouldn’t let ’em come up in there, but there was a lot of space between there and the river, you know, and they’d go down there and build tin shacks and cardboard houses. It was full of that.
Honeyboy: That was PWA days. Remember PWA days?
Henry: Yeah, yeah, my daddy had a job on PWA, or WPA, whichever it was. He got ill and I had to take his job, you know, to keep a little family income for him and my mother. I took the job — against my will — but I had to find out a way not to work.
So I got the little break number one: They had one of them old one-cylinder pumps in there, and when it rained, that water would come in, and they had to get the water outta there so the crew could work — could lay them rip-rap rocks up on the river repair, you know. They had a couple guys down there workin’ on that pump, and they had worked and worked like hell, and they couldn‘t never get that pump to start.
Well, I knowed how to do it, because I had been in that little old mechanic thing, and I was talkin’ to one of my buddies. I said, "Shit, I could start that damn pump." And I didn‘t know that the foreman was standin’ behind me. Later on in the day he come by and said, "Townsend, didn’t I hear you say you could start that pump?" I said, "Yeah, I believe you did." He said, "Well, okay, that’s gonna be your job." Say, "You go down there and start that pump."
And I went on down there, and I told him, I said, "You better give me a man to crank it," said, "because I ain’t gonna pull that." So he said, "Okay," and he sent me two men up there, and one of ’em, we called him Red, and I put Red on there while I adjusted that magnet on that thing, and Red got it goin’, and it said "Buk." And I adjusted it a little more until I got the cycle balanced, and "Buk. … Buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk."
The boss come on back over there, he said, "I heard it. You got it runnin’ now." He said, "Okay, now this is your job: Keep this water outta this riverbank." And he told me, he said, "Now, you can’t work when the crew’s here." Say, "You gotta come in here in the night, and have it ready for in the morning."
And I went and got my crew, and I guess two, three big bottles of whiskey, and we lit on out down there. Boy, we had that whiskey goin’, and that pump runnin’, and we’d have it clean when he got there. We’d have a ball, but we got too bold with it — we got so we was carryin’ our gals down there, man. Nobody didn’t get fired, but we got cautioned about it, you know.
Yeah, man. But from then on, I didn’t have to work no more again. I was duckin’ work, man. Shit! Because I didn’t wanna work. [Everybody laughs.] Today I don’t wanna work.
Homesick: How many years we been knowin’ one another?
Henry: Well, I don’t keep up with the years like you guys do. How long it’s been? A long time, that’s all I can say.
Homesick: The first day, 1937, I was at that train station — they called it a depot then — I was comin’ out from Texas, and I stayed all night. I come over into Memphis, and look, this man here carried me home with him. 1937. Honeyboy Edwards. Carried me home, I stayed all night — I didn’t have nowhere else to stay. I had missed the train, and he carried me home with him. Am I lyin’?
Honeyboy: I was 22 years old then. You was about 28, wasn’t you?
Homesick: No, I was 34, comin’ up 34 — comin’ up 34 years old. I’m tellin’ y’all gentlemens the truth, but I ain’t sayin’ how old I am. But I’m gonna tell you something: That man there saved the skin off my back. Because I didn’t have nowhere to go, and I didn’t know nobody.
I went to his house, and the next morning, before they could get out of bed, that auntie of his calls me — I thought it was his sister — she says, "Somethin’ profane about that man." Now, everybody know about me, anyway — I was somethin’ else. I was. [Laughs.] They knew somethin’ was goin’ on. I wasn’t stealin’ — I ain’t never stole nothin’ in my life — but somethin’ else they knew wasn’t good, not to be around him.
I’ll never forget: I got up early that mornin’, and I got my guitar — I had an old Stella, didn’t I? — and I had some overalls on, four buttons … wasn’t it? And I had a good gun stuck down in it, too, up under those overalls. His auntie was smart, too, man — she knew there was somethin’ wrong, somewhere. She said, "This boy ain’t got no discipline. That man ain’t got no business foolin’ with Honeyboy."
But, I’m gonna tell you the truth: The next morning I got up and hit the road, and they don’t know when I left there, do they? Nobody! And I didn’t see him no more until he got to Chicago. That’s the truth. I left there at his house and come right into Memphis, and left Memphis, and from Memphis into St. Louis, from St. Louis into Chicago. That was my route, and I did that in lesser than a week.
Honeyboy: Most of the musicians did it, that come from the South, they’d stop in St. Louis, but they wouldn’t stay there, some of ’em wouldn’t, they’d come on to Chicago, but they’d stop in St. Louis.
Henry: Yeah, all of ’em stopped in St. Louis for a minute. I been in St. Louis since in the ’20s. I come in there, I believe it was ’20, ’22, somewhere in there. What year was it that, Edwards — what year was it that you was over there in St. Louis? That’s when I first knowed ya.
Honeyboy: It was about ’39, I think. When Big Joe Williams stayed on 22nd — down there on 22nd?
Homesick: 707 East 22nd Street.
Honeyboy: Yeah, 22nd Street. He used to live with his mammy then. About ’38 or ’39, somewhere along in there. Jelly Jaw, he stayed on the corner up there, up on Lucas there. You know, they called him Jelly Jaw —he supposed to’ve been my cousin, he worked for the City, and he played with Joe Williams a long time, guitar with him — J.D. Short. J.D. Short, I know him, yeah. He come from Port Gibson, Mississippi.
Henry: I don’t know what for today, but he sneaked up on me and cut me, J.D. did. And that’s the scar right there, on my hand.
Honeyboy: He cut you?
Henry: Yeah, I was standin’ up in one of them little speakeasies, and I was talkin‘ to some people over there, and one of the guys in front of me, the guy must’ve saw him pull his knife out, and the guy hollered to me, say, "Henry, look out!" And I just done that [ducks], and that’s when he hit me on the arm. I caught it to keep it from hittin’ my neck, and he caught me on the arm.
Honeyboy: He would cut ya.
Henry: Um-hum. And then, I got away from him, and I run all out the alley, and when I got out the alley, through the gangway, there was a brick, and I stumbled over the brick, I kicked the brick, and when I kicked it, over in front of me, when I got to it, I picked it up.
Now, and I was quick thinkin’, I said, "Now, I can’t miss him if he start down this little gangway," ’cuz it was — you know, ’tween houses, they used to have little gangwalks ’round between ’em. And sure enough, he started down through there, and I hit him one time, and the brick hit him somewhere around the chest, and he folded up a little bit, but he kept on comin’, and I turnt that other half a-loose with him, and I got him right there in the temple. And he went back. ’Cuz I figured, "If this don‘t get him, I’m gonna make some tracks for him again, ’cuz he got a knife and I ain’t got none."
But I got him. And when he did get up, he turned around and run and jumped the fence. And I walked on across the street — oh, this ain’t the only cut, he stabbed me in the back — he stabbed me in the back, and I was bleedin’ pretty bad, so I went on across the street and called the ambulance, and they sent me to the hospital.
But, yeah, I settled the score with him. Yeah, I stopped him from havin’ intercourse. I took that .38 and cut his nuts out. One day down there — it was right down by the police station, too — I heard him, he was playin’ and I heard him, and I can remember this clearly, ’cuz I had a little doubts about goin’ and gettin’ that pistol, and I had to run about three or four blocks to get to where the gun was.
So I ran all the way to a boy’s house named Johnny Walker, he’s my buddy, and I knew where he kept his pistol at. In his kitchen, he had them old bowls that lap over one another, and I knew them cookin’ bowls was a-loose — that’s where he hid his alcohol and stuff at — and I went and lifted that bowl up where that pistol was, and I got it. And I come and run on back, and when I started back through the gangway I stopped running, and I walked.
And I walked through there, and he was sittin’ out, "Waaaahhhh," Jelly Jaw, playin’. And I come and I say, "Hey, Short!" And he looked up and he seen me and he throwed that guitar down and jumped straight up and got that knife again. I said, "It ain’t gonna work this time, buddy." [Laughs.] I told him to drop it. He wouldn’t drop it. I probably wouldn’ta shot him if he hadda dropped it. I thought I woulda bust him upside the head five or six times with that pistol, but he wouldn’t drop the knife, and the second time I asked him and he kept comin’ towards me, I wasn’t gonna let him get too close to me, so I — twice — "Bang! Bang!" And each time I hit him right in the groin.
Oh, yeah, I am a good shot. I am a good shot. I can take — now — I can take, let me shoot it five or six times, and I can take a pistol and keep a beer can rollin’. A pistol. Short-barreled gun. And with a rifle or a shotgun, I just don’t see no need to miss. I’m tellin’ you the truth.
BA: Robert, when you got to Chicago, did people recognize your style as unique?
Robert: No. They recognized Robert Johnson’s style, ’cause that’s what I was playing. Well, yeah, it’s mine now. After I put my own band together, then I started playing like I wanted to play. Blues have gone a long way since I started playing, and it’s made a lot of changes.
Homesick: Pushin’ up on them strings, that’s an old style. That man right there [indicating Honeyboy] used to do it way back. Like Lonnie Johnson? That style come from us from years ago. Like B.B. King — you hear how B.B. King play? All that come from us, from years ago. Years ago!
Henry: As time pass, you progress whether you tryin’ to or not. Down through time, it applies to everybody: The more you work at it, the better you gotta get. I progressed because I wanted to do it, day by day. And if you play for earnest, you automatically get better.
Honeyboy: You know, everybody had different styles, but you had to learn your own. Do your own thing. You can’t just jump down and mark people, you know. ’Cuz you’ll never be like one man who done got famous. You had to be over average. That’s why you got to start your own style, and stick with it. Then you might make something of yourself.
BA: What about being remembered in history?
Robert: Well, I ain’t never really cared nothing about that. Music don’t never go nowhere — all the recordings that they make, they don’t never throw them away. They will be here — your children and somebody else’s children, they will be digging them up and playing them. Yeah, they didn’t never go away.