Bukka White – Aberdeen Mississippi Blues
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.
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.
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.