Bukka White - steel guitar, vocals
Hearing this historic recording of Mississippi Delta blues icon, Bukka White, is akin to witnessing the birth of the blues in New Orleans at the turn of the century. Though he was already 57 when this recording was captured, White gives an emotional performance evidenced by the despair and hopefulness in his voice.
Born in 1906 near the small town of Houston, Mississippi, his stage name came about when his Christian name, Booker T. Washington White, was misspelled as "Bukka White" on the label of recordings released by his second label, Vocalion. He began as a fiddle player doing country blues in juke joints and at outdoor fairs, but after meeting blues pioneer Charlie Patton he switched to the guitar, using a National Steel Dobro as his instrument of choice.
While developing his musical style, White befriended his nine-year-old first cousin by giving him one of his older guitars, a red Stella model acoustic six-string. The cousin would later become world famous as B.B. King, and he continually paid tribute to White as the blues artist that was probably his greatest influence.
White was signed to Victor Records in 1930 and recorded a number of songs. His career was sidelined, however, when the Great Depression hit. He re-emerged in 1937 on Vocalion, where the art director misheard his name as "Bukka" instead of Booker. When his early records became popular, Washington was stuck with the nickname.
Not long after signing to Vocalion in 1937, White was involved in an altercation with another man, whom White killed. "I hated to do it, but I had to," he later told a biographer, "it was self defense." White was convicted of manslaughter and sent to the notorious Parchman Farm State Prison in Mississippi. A model prisoner, he was permitted to have his guitar, and he often performed for his fellow inmates and the guards. In 1939, while still in prison, he was visited by famed music archivists John Lomax and son, Alan Lomax. The Lomax's recorded "Shake 'Em On Down," among other titles, a number which became classics in the blues canon.
Upon his release in 1940, White continued to record for a number of labels and issued several influential songs, including his testimony to his brutal prison life, "Parchman Farm" (later recorded by Mose Allison, John Mayall, and Cactus, among others) and "Fixin' To Die Blues," which re-emerged in 1962 when Bob Dylan cut it for his Columbia Records debut.
In the mid-1940s, White stopped performing for a more stable life as a factory worker. He had moved to Memphis, and it was there, after his song's appearance on the Dylan album, that folk/blues guitarist John Fahey and his partner, Ed Denison, re-discovered White and his legacy. With the help of manager Arne Brogger and Fahey, he quickly became a "must-see" country blues artist on both the folk and blues circuits. He died in 1977, performing right until the end.
This recording of Bukka White was made in August, 1967, at the historic Ash Grove club in Los Angeles. Between 1958 and 1973, Ash Grove was known as a musical sanctuary for some of the greatest and most influential folk, blues, gospel, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll acts ever to perform in the U.S.
Among the highlights of this show are "Midnight Blues," "Driftin' And Driftin'" and his blues classic, "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues."
Written by Alan Bershaw