Born: November 12, 1909 in Houston MS
Died: February 26, 1977 in Memphis TN
A Memphis contemporary of Furry Lewis, Bukka White was "rediscovered," much like Lewis, just in time for the early-1960s folk-blues revival. Long considered one of the finest of the country bluesmen, White was a familiar festival performer during the 1960s and early-70s, a well-dressed man swinging his National Steel Resophonic guitar. Although his repertoire was limited to traditional blues and a handful of thoughtful original songs, White was a powerful, raw singer and slide-guitar player as well as an authentic throwback to the ghosts of the Delta.
Meeting Charley Patton
White was born Booker T. Washington White in rural Houston, Mississippi, a small farming town south of Tupelo in the Hill Country. White learned to play the fiddle from his dad, a part-time musician, later picking up the guitar. At the age of fourteen, White went to Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta, to live with an Uncle.
While living in Clarksdale, White is said to have met blues legend Charley Patton, who "smartened him" in the ways of the blues. While working as a farm hand, White would play juke-joints and parties, but he would soon leave the Delta to travel the South and play his blues for spare change. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to make a living with his music, White worked in a number of fields; he played ball in the Negro Leagues and tried his hand at boxing for awhile.
The Victor Years
Sometime around 1930 White met Ralph Limbo, a Victor talent scout, who offered the bluesman a deal with the label. White went to Memphis for his initial sessions, recording fourteen blues and gospel songs for Victor under the name "Washington White." The label would release only four of these songs at the time, and White wouldn't record again until 1937.
Chicago blues pioneer Big Bill Broonzy convinced White to come to Chicago in 1937 and record for Lester Melrose. White had reputedly shot a man in Mississippi, however, and he jumped bail while awaiting trial to travel to Chicago. While in Chicago, White recorded two songs for Vocalion before getting caught and shipped off to the notorious Parchman Farm. While he was locked up, Vocalion had a hit with his song "Shake 'Em On Down."
Down On Parchman Farm
While serving three years for assault, White was popular with both his fellow prisoners and the guards alike, earning the nickname "Barrelhouse." In 1939 he recorded two songs for John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress as "Washington Barrelhouse White." By the time of his release in 1940, White had penned a dozen songs that he planned on taking to Chicago.
White quickly made contact with producer Lester Melrose to record what would become his core musical repertoire for the rest of his career. The Melrose sessions are considered by many blues historians to be White's best, and indeed they yielded such blues standards as "Parchman Farm Blues" (not the Mose Allison song recorded by John Mayall, Eric Clapton, etc), "Fixin' To Die Blues," and "Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues" among the twelve songs released by Okeh and Vocalion.
Rediscovered In The 1960s
After his 1940 sessions with Melrose, White simply "disappeared," returning to Memphis and working in factories and as a laborer. When Bob Dylan recorded White's "Fixin' To Die Blues" for his debut album in 1961, however, folk-blues fans were clamoring to find out more about the enigmatic White. In 1963, musician John Fahey and his friend Ed Denson, both enthusiastic blues fans, sent a letter simply addressed to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Abderdeen, Mississippi."
Luckily for blues history, a relative of White's worked in the post office and forwarded the Fahey/Denson letter to him in Memphis. After meeting with the two fans, White resumed his musical career, signing with Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records and quickly recording three albums of materials, included the acclaimed the 1965 Sky Songs album.
White would subsequently make a splash on the college coffeehouse and folk festival circuit, playing the Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and touring with the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe the following year. A sharp dresser and an entertaining and charismatic performer, White would continue to tour and record until his death from cancer in 1977.
Recommended Albums: Like many blues artists of White's vintage, his catalog is in disarray, but a few gems remain in print. The excellent Document Records collection Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues features virtually all of White's recordings from the 1930s and '40s, while Big Daddy, a late-career collection for Biograph, offers White's contemporary take on his classic material
Bukka White Trivia: White was B.B. King's cousin, and he gave the blues legend his first instrument, a Stella guitar. White became known as "Bukka" after Vocalion Records misspelled his name, "Booker," on the label of his first 78rpm release.
Bukka White - Select Discography
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- Mississippi Blues (Takoma Records, 1964 LP/1987 CD)
- Sky Songs, Vol. 1 (Arhoolie Records, 1965 LP/1990 CD)
- Sky Songs, Vol. 2 (Arhoolie Records, 1965 LP/1990 CD)
- Memphis Hot Shots (Blue Horizon, 1968 LP/1995 CD)
- Parchman Farm 1937-1940 (Columbia Records, 1969 LP)
- At Home With Friends - split w/Furry Lewis (Arcola, 1972 LP/2001 CD)
- Big Daddy (Biograph Records, 1974 LP/2004 CD)
- The Complete Bukka White (Sony Legacy, 1994 CD)
- 1963 Isn't 1962 (Genes Records, 1994 CD)
- The Panama Limited (Fabulous Records, 2000 CD)
- Revisited (Fuel 2000 Records, 2003 CD)
- Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues (Document Records, 2003 CD)
- Fixin' To Die (Snapper Music UK, 2004 CD)