“Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill—competence—is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible.” —Stanley Booth
Born in 1893, Furry Lewis was performing by 1908, and in the 1920s would record the seminal blues records revivalists used to restore him to popular memory in the 1960s. Though he played with a variety of techniques, Furry Lewis was best known for his mastery of bottleneck guitar. Elmore James and Muddy Waters popularized bottleneck; rock and roll disciples like Brian Jones and Duane Allman brought it even greater notoriety.
Lewis, though. Booth found Lewis sweeping streets in Memphis, a job the bluesman had by that time held for almost fifty years. Lewis had played as part of the city’s Beale Street scene during its 1920s heyday. But subsequent reform movements closed the dives, brothels, gambling houses, and other stages of ill-repute that provided work for blues musicians, until men like Lewis faded into obscurity:
Furry was sitting back in his chair, holding a drink in one hand and a new cigar in the other, smiling slightly, his eyes nearly closed. I asked him if he had ever been tempted to give up, to stop playing. “Give out but don’t give up,” he said. He tasted his drink and sat straighter in the chair. “No,” he said, “all these years, I kept working for the city, thinking things might change, Beale Street might go back like it was. But it never did.”
“But you went on playing.”
“Oh, yes, I played at home. Sometimes, nothing to do, no place to play, I’d hock the guitar and get me something to drink. And then I’d wish I had it, so I could play, even just for myself. I never quit playing, but I didn’t play out enough for people to know who I was. Sometimes I’d see a man, a beggar, you know, playing guitar on the sidewalk, and I’d drop something in his cup, and he wouldn’t even know who I was. He’d think I was just a street sweeper.”
UIP hasn’t published a book on Furry Lewis just yet—did you write one? shoot us an email—but our Music in American Life series gives you the stories and the history of the blues.
Hard Luck Blues: Roots Music Photographs from the Great Depression, by Rich Remsberg
Farm Security Administration photographers depicted a range of musicians sharing the regular music of everyday life, from informal songs in migrant work camps, farmers’ homes, barn dances, and on street corners to organized performances at church revivals, dance halls, and community festivals. Captured across the nation from the northeast to the southwest, the images in Hard Luck Blues document the last generation of musicians who learned to play without the influence of recorded sound, as well as some of the pioneers of Chicago’s R & B scene and the first years of amplified instruments.
Emmy Award-winning researcher and documentary photographer Rich Remsberg breathes life into the images by providing contextual details about the persons and events captured, in some cases drawing on interviews with the photographers’ subjects. Also included are a foreword by author Nicholas Dawidoff and an afterword by music historian Henry Sapoznik.
Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South, by Michelle R. Scott
Blues culture and the success of female blues artists like Bessie Smith are closely connected to the rapid migration and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Michelle R. Scott looks at the history of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the large industrial and transportation center where Smith was born. Scott explores how the expansion of the Southern railroads and the development of iron foundries, steel mills, and sawmills created vast employment opportunities in the postbellum era. Chronicling the growth and development of the African American Chattanooga community, Scott examines the Smith family’s migration to Chattanooga and the popular music of black Chattanooga during the first decade of the twentieth century, and culminates by delving into Smith’s early years on the vaudeville circuit.
Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920, by Peter C. Muir
Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” is commonly thought to signify the beginning of commercial attention to blues music and culture, but by that year more than 450 other blues titles had already appeared in sheet music and on recordings. In this examination of early popular blues, Peter C. Muir traces the genre’s early history and the highly creative interplay between folk and popular forms, focusing especially on the roles W. C. Handy played in both blues music and the music business.
The first comprehensive examination of the early blues industry and the music it produced, Long Lost Blues exposes the full scope and importance of early popular blues to mainstream American culture in the early twentieth century.
Ramblin’ on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues, edited by David Evans
In this scholarly breath of fresh air, distinguished scholars and well-established writers from such diverse backgrounds as musicology, anthropology, musicianship, and folklore join together to examine blues as literature, music, personal expression, and culture. Ramblin’ on My Mind contains pieces on Ella Fitzgerald, Son House, and Robert Johnson; the styles of vaudeville, solo guitar, and zydeco; blues and African music; blues nicknames; and lyric themes of disillusionment.