On a hot Saturday night in the summer of 1938, bluesman David Edwards arrived at a juke joint called the Three Forks Store outside of Greenwood, Mississippi. The party was already in full swing by the time Edwards got there, but Robert Johnson, the featured performer, was slumped over in a corner, unable to play. Edwards soon found out what had happened: “Robert was going with this man’s wife,” he told Living Blues in 1990. The husband gave his wife some whiskey for Johnson. “But the whiskey was poisoned.” Soon Johnson was “moaning, screaming, crawling around yelling. . . . I had a sister killed over there too. Yeah, her husband killed her. The same area where Robert died.”

After his death Johnson came to represent the archetypal Delta bluesman–haunted, poetic, and doomed. Edwards, meanwhile, continued to perform. By the late 30s he’d already played with such Delta luminaries as Charlie Patton, Big Joe Williams, and Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert, but who likewise was said to have sold his soul to the devil for his talent).

Edwards crisscrossed the south with a restlessness that rivaled Robert Johnson’s: “I kept on moving,” he told Robert Neff and Anthony Connor in 1975. “There was never any telling where I’d stop at . . . made a lot of money, too, but I spent it up as fast as I got it. Cadillacs and clothes–you got to make a good appearance.”

Like fellow Mississippian Muddy Waters, Edwards first recorded for the Library of Congress. In his memoir The Land Where the Blues Began, folklorist Alan Lomax remembered visiting a bar called the Dipsie Doodle in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1942. He encountered Edwards, a “laughing minstrel” with a black felt hat cocked rakishly on the back of his head who “made his harmonica whinny like a stud stallion.” Lomax set up a field recording session, and the results “virtually summarized what Delta musicianship of the decade had to offer,” in the words of blues historians Stephan Calt and Gayle Wardlow.

In 1945 Edwards migrated north to Chicago where he hoped the gigs and the money would be more plentiful. He went back south often; in Houston in the early 50s he cut a few sides for the American Record Company as Mr. Honey. He recorded in Chicago for Chess as well. Those records weren’t issued at the time–Edwards has claimed the company was afraid he’d compete with Waters, their biggest star–but his “Drop Down Mama,” which was finally released in 1970, is a classic example of the kind of primal country blues the new Chicago style had already largely displaced when Edwards recorded it in 1953.

Even today Edwards’s lyric creations are often more a collage of Delta blues history than carefully crafted statements, and his guitar patterns can depart radically from the rhythms of his singing. But he retains the emotional fervor associated with the Delta tradition. He rarely plays harmonica anymore, but when he’s inspired he tears notes from his fretboard as if mining them from the tortured Mississippi earth–searing slide work punctuated by flurries and percussive, string-snapping leads.

At this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, Edwards showed that he’s lost none of his gladiatorial spirit. Performing alongside folklorist David Evans on what was billed as a tribute to Tommy Johnson, he refused to concede the closing number to his stage mate–he interrupted the MC’s spiel and, with a determined scowl, tore into a final Delta-styled burner that brought the crowd to its feet.

Honeyboy Edwards will be celebrating his 81st birthday this Sunday at B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted. Call 528-1012 for info.

–David Whiteis

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Honeyboy Edwards by Cedric Chatterley.