As a black youth growing up in the American south, David “Honeyboy” Edwards was too scared to walk the streets of Atlanta.
“I was afraid they would put me in jail, back in the day,” says the 94-year-old bluesman, recalling the 1920s and early ’30s.
“They’d ask me, ‘Why are you not on the farm?’ I was scared to take a chance on going into the city.”
But it’s all different now, says the Grammy Award-winning Edwards, who is considered one of the last original Delta blues musicians.
Atlanta is just like New York, Chicago or any other progressive city in a country run by America’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, adds the guitarist.
“It should have been like that a long time ago.”
Edwards, who performs as part of a trio on Saturday, Aug. 15, at the Central Music Festival, was the son of a poor Mississippi sharecropper. He came of age at a time when skin tone defined everything, including a person’s future — so he still finds it amazing to have Obama in the White House. “I never thought I’d live long enough to see it,” he says.
“I think he’ll be a good president — if they let him. . . . He’s smart enough and he’s got enough education,” adds Edwards.
“If a man’s intelligent and goes to college and has enough degrees then why shouldn’t he be president? People shouldn’t care about colour.”
When Edwards weighed the career choices available to him, he opted to become a musician instead of a sharecropper because it seemed a better way to go.
He recalls his father had to give half the cotton bales he’d picked to white landowners, so there was barely enough money to feed the family.
Music was always a big part of his life. As Edwards was to later write in his autobiography, The World Don’t Own Me Nothing, it was hearing Tommy Johnson perform in 1929, “when I really learned something about how to play guitar.”
Among his childhood pals were Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway, musicians who influenced Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters. Everyone in Edwards’ family played something. “My daddy played the guitar and the violin at country dances and my mother played the harmonica.”
At 17, he hopped a freight train and sought opportunity. “I travelled around St. Louis, Missouri, Memphis, New Orleans, Louisiana. I played in Mississippi, Alabama . . . I’d always go to wherever the music was.”
His husky singing and sharp guitar playing caught the attention of Big Joe Williams and the older musician took Edwards under his wing. Throughout the 1930s, he played with a litany of famous artists, including Charley Patton and the legendary Robert Johnson.
Johnson, who was allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband, was recalled as a nice, easy-going fellow — although he liked whiskey and women rather too well. Edwards remembers visiting Johnson shortly before his death in Greenwood, Miss. “I thought he was going to be all right . . . but he was so sick, they couldn’t do nothing for him.”
There wasn’t money for doctors, says Edwards, and anyway, all the good physicians catered to the south’s whites. Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27.
In 1942, musicologist Alan Lomax came across Edwards and recorded some of his live performances for the Library of Congress. But commercial prospects for the guitarist were scant.
Edwards didn’t record again until 1951, when he sang Who May Your Regular Be for Arc Records. In Chicago, he played small clubs and street corners with musicians Floyd Jones, Johnny Temple and Kansas City Red. In 1953, he recorded several songs that were unissued until a later anthology.
In the early 1970s, Edwards met harpist and Earwig Music founder Michael Frank. Through Frank, he recorded Old Friends with several other musicians. Edwards’ early Library of Congress performances and more recent recordings were later combined on Delta Bluesman in 1992.
Edwards is now credited with writing several blues standards, including Long Tall Woman Blues, Sweet Home Chicago and Just Like Jesse James.
The first song was inspired by a six-foot girlfriend, says the chuckling musician. He was later married to the same woman, Bessie, until she died from complications of diabetes in the 1970s.
While fame eluded Edwards for most of his life, that changed in 2004, when he won a Grammy Award for his contribution to Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.
The album also featured Pinetop Perkins and the late legends Robert Lockwood Jr. and Henry Townsend.
“That was a thrill — an exciting thing, a big, big thing,” says Edwards, who still performs 75 concerts a year across North America when he isn’t spending time with his three children and 12 grandchildren.
Edwards will perform at about 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15, at the Central Music Festival, which also runs on Friday, Aug 14, just north of Red Deer and off the C&E Trail (more complete directions are on the website: www.centralmusicfest.com).
A two-day festival pass is $55 ($45 for students/seniors), a one-day pass is $40 for any age (kids are free when accompanied by a paying adult) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre or Valhalla Pure Outfitters.