The blues is a music of stories, and many of its exponents are great storytellers, whether singing on stage or reminiscing off it. But when people listened to Honeyboy Edwards talk, they did so with special attention, because he had known, and worked with, awe-inspiring musicians - Big Joe Williams, Charley Patton, Tommy McClennan, the Memphis Jug Band, Big Walter, Little Walter . . . Zelig-like, he keeps showing up in celebrated company, whether in the small burgs of the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta or on the streets of St. Louis and Chicago.
Yet for years his own footprint on the sand of blues history was so faint that it could hardly be seen. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, when blues enjoyed first the exploitation of commercial operators like Chess Records, then the attention of more documentary labels like Delmark and Testament, Honeyboy just kept missing the boat. His only single, credited to "Mr. Honey", is a major-league rarity. He recorded for both Sun and Chess; one track from each date came out, decades later. He even got in on the Fleetwood Mac/Blues Jam At Chess project, but his contribution stayed on the shelf.
With luck like that, even a committed musician might take stock occasionally, and Honeyboy did drop out of music for a while. But he kept on coming back - to play club gigs in Chicago, festivals wherever, and, from the mid-'70s onwards, at venues in Europe, where audiences loved his amiable manner and felt his connection to the primal blues tradition of his home state, Mississippi.
But that wasn't the whole story. Like his contemporaries Johnny Shines and Robert Junior Lockwood, Honeyboy had had the fortune of standing close to a titan. For Shines and Lockwood, both original musicians, to be forever coupled with Robert Johnson became a burden; for Honeyboy, an interpretative artist rather than a creative one, it was less troublesome, and he could express his admiration for Johnson without irony or irritation.
As it happened, he worked alongside Lockwood in their later years, in the quartet of oldsters who were promoted in the early 2000s as the Delta Blues Cartel. The others were Henry Townsend and Homesick James, a similarly uneven pair: Townsend a thoughtful and distinctive musician, Homesick rather loose at the seams. Much was made of the Cartel's Robert Johnson connections, and it's hard to say who racked up more points: Lockwood, who was his stepson, or Edwards, who traveled with him and was the best first-hand witness of his death.
Over the last 30 years Honeyboy established himself firmly in the blues marketplace, with a slew of albums for various labels and a performing career astutely steered by his manager and friend Michael Frank. He became a reliable go-to guy for documentary filmmakers seeking an authentic voice of the blues' past. He even appeared as a version of himself, teaching the basics of blues guitar to the young protagonist, in the movie comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. His own road had sometimes been a hard one to walk, too, but he did not trade on it; as he liked to say (and it became the title of his autobiography), "The world don't owe me nothing."
Photo by Amanda Gresham via Davidhoneyboyedwards.com