My love affair with David “Honeyboy” Edwards began in my junior year of college. It was a liberal arts college so everyone was required to take a music class. If this was an attempt to prepare students for the working world, then it failed miserably. I can personally attest that water cooler talk usually revolves around reality TV, rather than World Jazz. But at that time, the world was still my oyster, so I was looking forward to it. Some of my favorite tunes had been heavily influenced by the old blues men of years past, so I decided it might be pertinent to take History of Blues. Why not? Outside of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, the blues scene remained mostly a mystery to me. I figured by taking the class I would get a little more insight, and be able to justify the purchase of some new CD’s with what little money I had.
After the first couple weeks I was beginning to question my decision to take the course. Classes consisted of our professor, an older, gravelly voiced black man who had tuned out years ago, popping on a video about how dealing with the Post-Slavery South hardships of poverty and racism influenced music. At the end of the video he would turn to a class of privileged white kids and ask our opinion. Generally discussions would accomplish nothing, and then, it being Boston, break down into a debate about the Sox, Celtics, Pats, or Bruins, and why they were the greatest team ever. During that time, I would give my two cents, and then space out and look down the shirt of the chesty girl across the room.
Eventually some homework was assigned and I had to do a report on the book The World Don’t Owe Me Nothin’, the autobiography of one, David “Honeyboy” Edwards. I’d never heard of the guy, let alone his music, so I was intrigued. In the next two days I couldn’t put the thing down. The book is simply Honeyboy telling his life story. There’s no way I can do it justice here in one short column, but in short, Honeyboy’s life was insane. This nomadic blues man’s style was thievery, gambling, fast women, and death. Judging from Honeyboy’s casual tone in the book, to him it was all business as usual. Leaving home at age 9, riding the rails, learning the guitar from hobos, getting piss drunk, and shooting people; all of it was the norm. Although I guess when you’re a black man living in the “40 Acres and a Mule” South, and the average life span is 35, why bother with longevity? You might as well live it up while you can.
I read this book, without ever hearing a song. After I finished it, I bought his most recent recording Mississippi Delta Bluesman from 2008. The album is a collection of his best songs, mixed with a series of covers by other famous artists. The album really shows you how Honeyboy is the epitome delta blues. The beauty is in its simplicity. The entire record is Honeyboy, his guitar, and a harmonica. Nothing else. Hell, the only real production value is a slight reverb on two songs. Two! But the most astounding thing about this record is that he recorded it, in his mid 90’s. The only thing I’ll be doing at 90 is… well nothing I guess. I’ll probably die by 68. Even at his age, Honeyboy picks his guitar as fast as any renowned guitarist in the game. Never over playing, letting his voice and tapping foot fill the gaps. My favorite song on the album is the Robert Johnson classic, Sweet Home Chicago. Johnson’s version of the track is haunting, while Honeyboy keeps it up beat and hopeful. It was an interesting take that I hadn’t heard before.
In the summer following my blues class, I spent countless nights on the roof of my apartment, sitting, drinking warm whiskey, and starring out at the Boston skyline, all the while, Honeyboy playing on the stereo. It was a strange juxtaposition. These back country songs, bouncing off the brick walls and pavement of the North End. It’s a memory I hold near and dear. Years later, while living in Los Angeles, I googled Honeyboy. I had heard he was touring and I wanted to try and see the legend. Upon my search I was confronted with the sad news that he had just performed two days earlier at the blues club a mere three miles from my house. I vowed next time he came through L.A. I would be there. Sadly there would not be a next time. The last surviving Delta Bluesman died in October of 2011 at the age of 96. So with summer now upon us, I think it’s the time to honor Honeyboy the only way I know how, so I’m heading up to the roof with my Ipod and a bottle of whiskey to watch the sun to go down.