David “Honeyboy” Edwards: The blues at 95
David Honeyboy Edwards, at age 94 and a half one of a dwindling handful of surviving practitioners of first generation Delta blues, gigged at B.B. King’s Blues Club on NYC’s 42nd St. last week. He held the stage with little help from his two sidemen for nearly an hour, after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Guitar Museum. His voice a warm burr reaching for a high, tight little cry, his acoustic guitar playing quirky but deliberate, Edwards was completely at ease delivering songs he’s performed most of his long life. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
“You’re in love with another man, but that’s alright,” he crooned, “I can’t keep from wonderin’ who’s lovin’ you tonight.” And “Woke up this mornin’, looked ’round for my shoes/Guess I had those mean old walkin’ blues.” Then: “Baby, don’t you want to go, to that same old place, sweet home Chicago?” Honeyboy’s dialect and delivery may have made the words hard for some to understand, but they were familiar to most of the audience, having been passed along from singer to singer since the days of Robert Johnson — and Honeyboy claims to have sat at Johnson’s bedside while he suffered his fatal poisoning in 1938.
Honeyboy’s voice expressed resignation, perhaps a touch of longing, but no bitterness. His guitar work was steady and thoughtful, with a steely twang. He took special care with endings, frequently going rubato to carefully arpeggiate a 9th chord. He had his own sense of time — developed it decades, worthy of respect. If he dropped a beat, it didn’t bother him, he knew just where he was. Neither was he affected by the chunky chordal rhythm a second guitarist provided (that poor fella had to watch Honeyboy closely, so as not to mess up) or the vague but atmospheric harmonica-playing of Michael Franks, who produces Honeyboy’s albums and other projects with a preservationist agenda for his Chicago-based Earwig Records.
NARAS gave Honeyboy a special merit Lifetime Achievement award in January. In 2008 he and his fellow Delta bluesmen Pinetop Perkins and Henry Townsend shared a Grammy for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen — Live in Dallas. He published an autobiography titled The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing in 1997, and more recently Honeyboy the film has been making the round of film festivals. Here’s a clip from his performance at Deke Dickerson’s Guitar Geek Festival in Anaheim, California last January:
Honeyboy has further engagements on his calendar including a tour of British Columbia through the end of March, a dip down to Clarksdale in April, the Chicago Blues Festival in June and the fifth annual T-Bone Walker Blues Festival in Linden, Texas (T-Bone’s hometown) June 19. He’ll be at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans come September.
At least those are his plans, and he didn’t give any reason to doubt he’ll fulfill them. At B.B. King’s Honeyboy included “Goin’ Down Slow” with its lyrics, “I’ve done had my fun/If I don’t get well no more/All my health is failing/Lord, I’m goin’ down slow.” Well, there was no evidence of that. The man’s no spring chicken, but he seems to be easin’ along gracefully. Can one ask for anything more?