His voice might crack like a granddaddy’s from tune to tune, but his fingers retain the swiftness of a teenage boy’s as they whip along the strings of his electric guitar. He sings songs of unrequited love and of growing up a country boy and moving to Chicago. The New York Times asserts that he “is among the last authentic performers in the blues.”
“You’re the one,” a young man calls out, as if in agreement with the venerable Gray Lady, from the front row of this makeshift theater-in-the-round.
“Nope, I used to be,” he replies to this audience of music aficionados, most of whom sit perched on the edges of their seats. Some of them snap pictures of this living tribute to American music with their state-of-the-art 4+ mega-pixel digital cameras.
The onstage seating arcs around the old man. The red velvet and gold-painted expanse of the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial in New Jersey blazes behind, contrasting with his down-home style and bluesman cockiness.
He croons, “C’mon baby, don’t you want to go…to sweet home Chicago.” Feet tap in anticipation and heads nod in surrender. The crowd is diverse in every way imaginable: Black, white, young, old, clean-cut professionals in button-down white shirts and long, silver-haired hippies in vintage blue jeans that, should they be sold, would make someone a killing on e-Bay.
At more than 90 years of age, David “Honeyboy” Edwards is considered one of the innovators of Chicago Blues, a style that developed alongside the Great Migration, when many Blacks left their small, segregated towns in the South for the industrialized big cities of the North. References in the music to Mojos and Black Cat Bones (both good luck charms) and characters like the Hoochie Coochie Man (a voodoo love doctor) gave way to references to the Killing Floor—the slaughterhouses of the Chicago Stockyards—where many Blacks found employment. Symbolic-ally, being on the Killing Floor came to mean being so down-and-out that redemption seemed impossible.
A contemporary of the legendary Robert Johnson, who reputedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to become a better guitarist, “Honeyboy” Edwards channels the Mississippi Delta blues of the 1920s and, ’30s.
Blues music itself is grounded at a kind of cultural crossroads: music and myth brought from Africa to coexist with the realities of America. Even the concept of the crossroads is borrowed from West Africa’s ancient Yoruba theology, and carried over to the experience of the Middle Passage. The guitar, call-and-response, A-A-B rhyme scheme—all are rooted in African aesthetics. The music of “Honeyboy” Edwards, therefore, not only links modern Americans to their folk history, but also links African-Americans to the cultural tradition of their ancestors before they were brought to this country as slaves.
Blues music, as did jazz, started as an authentically African-American art form and has developed over the years into other uniquely American genres, such as rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, and rhythm and blues. As the music evolved, white audiences started to make up an increasing proportion of the fan base. White musicians still adopt blues-music style elements in contemporary incantations of rock ‘n’ roll, rock-a-billy and country.
“No doubt, at shows [today] you see more white folks in the audience than back in the day,” observes John Cephas of blues duo Cephas & Wiggins.
Does this trend, which arguably could be called the gentrification of music, pose a risk to the art form’s survival into the 21st century? Twenty years from now, could the so-called “old-timey” style Cephas is known for become as outmoded as poodle skirts and chewing tobacco?
“The commercial success of [blues music] is definitely being propped up by middle-class, middle-aged white fans,” says Mark Puryear, an ethnomusicologist and folk arts consultant with the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., who also teaches the history of blues and jazz music at the University of Maryland.
Moreover, with the success of white blues artists, or those who rely heavily on blues tradition in their music, such as Eric Clapton and Blues Traveler, the genre is in danger of slipping further into the homogenous ambiguity that is American pop culture. Puryear’s concern, then, is that contemporary white performers are “not playing [the blues] from a cultural standpoint [but] more out of a technical appreciation of the music.” Not that it’s bad for blues to be co-opted by white artists, he says. But, he warns, “there is a certain authenticity of the music, something in the vocals, that white singers don’t necessarily have.”
That something is a grittiness and life experience that is now commercially packaged by record executives as gangster rap. But the familiarity, artistic expression and cultural significance of the blues could be lost if young African-Americans let it slip away.
Puryear does note, however, that performers like 19-year-old Shemekia Copeland, daughter of famed Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, and 36-year-old Corey Harris are among today’s trailblazers in blues music. He also praises hip-hop artist Mos Def’s newest album, The New Danger, for successfully fusing old-time blues with an eclectic mix of jazz, hip-hop and rock, imparting to and preserving the art form for younger fans.
Still, he contends, relying solely on African-Americans to continue the blues tradition will not ensure its future. “Young people are the key to keeping this music alive,” he says. Working with the NEA’s Folk Art department, Puryear ensures this by overseeing the distribution of grants and fellowships to emerging artists.
For Cephas, “The music is in the people who play it.” Played by Black, white, yellow or otherwise, “music is music. As long as [it’s] good, I don’t care who plays it,” he declares. Cephas, who recently taught a workshop in Finger Style Blues at the Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp in southeast Ohio, admits to a wide range of musical influences, but echoes Puryear’s sentiments of the importance of African-American youth culture continuing the tradition of Delta blues. “There are kids in Memphis, all over Arkansas, Mississippi…who perform this music like the old days,” he says.
The proof, it’s said, is in the pudding, and in the music business, the pudding is measured in records sold and dollars made. Contemporary crossover performers, like Mos Def and Norah Jones, sell records no matter how they’re packaged. Blues-infused rock icons such as the U.K.’s Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin continue to make money hand over fist. Although Ray Charles has passed on, he remains immortal, along with Jimi Hendrix, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and, of course, Robert Johnson.
Blues music will forever be at the cultural crossroads of this nation, indeed, at the crossroads of the world. It is also a living cross section of Americana: the iconic South, Chicago Blues, Elvis Presley, county and western music, bluegrass and classic rock ‘n’ roll.
“I grew up out of the tradition of folk music,” says Woody Mann, the internationally renowned guitarist responsible for gathering the hodge-podge of old-timers and youngsters on the Patriots stage to hear the music of David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Calm and soft-mannered, Mann seamlessly harmonizes with Edwards through the latter’s catalogue of Delta blues tunes.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says. The audience seems to agree. “Just because I don’t hold you, baby…doesn’t mean I don’t love you.…” Edwards sings in classic A-A-B rhyme. “I just gotta be a rolling stone.”
A bluesman is almost always on a journey. Time will tell where he goes next.
By K. Emily Bond