David “Honeyboy” Edwards, a guitarist and singer who was present at the creation of the Mississippi Delta’s folk-blues style and was one of its most enduring practitioners, has died. He was 96.
Edwards died yesterday in Chicago “while resting peacefully at home,” according to a statement on his website. No cause of death was given. He suffered from a weak heart, his manager, Michael Frank of Earwig Music Co., told the Associated Press. Edwards canceled his schedule of concerts when his health declined in late April, according to the statement.
Edwards, son of a sharecropper, began his career by crisscrossing the U.S. South on freight trains as a teenager. His circle of friends included Robert Johnson, the legendary blues artist.
During the 1950s, Edwards joined a musical migration to Chicago and found his place in the city’s electric-blues scene, which included Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He began recording albums in his 60s and performed into his 90s.
“Edwards embodies the continuity of the blues tradition and the various pathways it has taken,” University of Maryland Professor Barry Lee Pearson wrote in the liner notes for “Mississippi Delta Bluesman,” a reissue album from 2001.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammy Awards, gave Edwards a lifetime-achievement award in 2010. He won his only Grammy three years earlier for performing on the album “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.”
Other honors included a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Blues Foundation’s W.C. Handy Award, now known as the Blues Music Award.
Edwards was born on June 28, 1915, in Shaw, Mississippi. He was the oldest of four children of Henry and Pearl Phillips Edwards. His father had three boys and two girls from a previous marriage.
“When I started to recording, I gave the name of Honeyboy, but my people only knew me by Honey,” Edwards said in “The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing,” a 1997 autobiography. He got the nickname from a half-sister, Lessie, who called him Honey while trying to get him to walk.
As a nine-year-old, he worked alongside his parents, plowing fields and picking cotton. The family moved east to Greenwood, Mississippi.
At 14, he learned to play a second-hand guitar that his father had bought for himself. He performed locally and got to know musicians such as Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Pinetop Perkins and Sonny Boy Williamson.
Edwards left home at 17 with another blues guitarist, Big Joe Williams, to find work playing music. They traveled through the South for months as hobos, hitching train rides from city to city, and ended up in New Orleans.
When he went back to Mississippi, he didn’t return to the cotton fields. He moved at 19 to Memphis, Tennessee, where he backed Big Walter Horton, a blues harmonica player. They performed on Beale Street, the hub of the city’s music scene.
Edwards came home the next year, and found out that his father had died days before his arrival.
“I just run astray after that,” he said in his book, a collection of stories compiled by Frank and writer Janis Martinson. “I run all through the country, hoboing and playing my guitar.”
Robert Johnson, who would inspire Eric Clapton, was performing in Greenwood when Edwards visited in 1937. They met and became friends. The next year, he went to see Johnson play there and saw the musician was sick, according to the book. Johnson had drunk poisoned whiskey and later died.
Edwards made his first recordings in 1942 with Alan Lomax, who recorded blues and folk artists for the Library of Congress, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The session consisted of 15 songs.
Nine years would pass before Edwards got a chance to record again. He played four songs for Artist Record Co., a Houston-based label known as Arc. Two of them, “Build a Cave” and “Who May Your Regular Be,” were released and credited to “Mr. Honey.” The single, sold locally, was Arc’s only release.
Sun Records, based in Memphis, recorded his version of Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” in 1952. The song went unissued for years, as did “Drop Down Mama” and three others he performed for Chess Records in Chicago the following year.
Chicago, which he first visited during the late 1940s with blues harpist Little Walter Jacobs, became his home in 1956. He played in the city’s blues nightclubs and appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s “Blues Jam in Chicago,” an album released in 1969.
‘I’ve Been Around’
Edwards’ music was available only on compilation albums for years. After stints with the Milestone, Adelphi and Blue Horizon labels, he released his debut solo album, “I’ve Been Around,” in 1978 on Trix Records. The follow-up, “Old Friends,” featured him with Horton and three other blues musicians that he knew, Floyd Jones, Kansas City Red and Sunnyland Slim.
“Old Friends” came out on Earwig, a label founded by Frank, who met and befriended Edwards in 1972. Frank backed him in the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band and performed with him as a duo.
Earwig released most of his Library of Congress recordings on “Delta Bluesman,” released in 1992. Edwards had albums on the APO, Document, Evidence, Folkways, Genes and Testament labels as well. He was featured in “Honeyboy,” a documentary from 2001, and appeared in the 2007 movie, “Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story.”
Edwards’ wife, Bessie, died in 1972 after two decades of marriage. The couple had a son, David, and a daughter, Betty.