Mojo Memoirs

The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards David Honeyboy Edwards, as told to Janis Martinson and Michael Robert Frank Chicago Review Press $24.Create a world, then provide a storyteller to guide us through it, one who speaks not as casual observer but as a witness. Shakespeare did it. Faulkner and Ellison, too. We expect it of master writers. We expect no less of bluesmen when they take us into their world.Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards, in his autobiography The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, doesn't disappoint. This is a guidebook to rural survival, a cultural chronicle on the background and the lowdown of the marvelous and the mundane social mores, and stylistic and amorous habits of everyday people and traveling musicians. He tells of bad times, of murders, lynchings and floodwaters rising. Store-bought white bread came unsliced at a dime a loaf. The plantation and sharecropper systems prevailed. The predominant ethic was, "When a nigger dies, hire a nigger. If a mule dies, buy a nigger."If you were one of the aforementioned, you had few options. You could go to the fields every morning, get a reputation as a good hard worker and waft along to nowhere like a cotton wisp on the wind. You knew you'd never make any headway; the end of the year figures would never come out in your favor. You'd have just enough to get though the winter and be hooked for another year. But, hell, it was the system. What could you do?A second option was you could go for bad. Hurt up some of your peers. Maybe even send one or two on to glory. Make everybody tiptoe when they saw you coming. It didn't ensure a long life, but at least there was some autonomy, a little room to breathe. It beat being property.Or, if you had talent and tenacity, you could be a bluesman. There wasn't a whole lot of glamour there either, but at least you could move about. Feel free. Play your blues on the street with your back against a sunny wall. Perform in good-time houses where they partied all night. Honeyboy took this last option.As a boy, near the end of the Depression, Honeyboy fell in love with the blues. His daddy taught him the basics. Then one night when he was 14, he was pressed into service when the gramophone at a local dance broke down. He played the few little tunes he knew. His pay was praise and a couple drinks of liquor. Honeyboy, bitten by the blues life, was on his way.He learned by listening to local musicians such as Tommy Johnson, Robert Petney, Rube Lacy, Kokomo Arnold, Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James. Big Joe Williams (not the former Basie band singer) heard him sing and said he "could learn" him more about the blues. And did. Big Joe also taught him about hustling and the road-life requisites for a blues musician. Took him to big towns -- Vicksburg and Jackson. New Orleans. And Honeyboy heard the big talk that went with it. Playing and drifting. Drifting and playing. Riding the rails and learning the life. Meeting the high-heeled women and the ones with dust on their feet. Until the liquor made Big Joe meaner than Honeyboy could stand, and Honeyboy, "plumb good" by this time, lit out on his own.He hitchhiked and hoboed through the legendary towns on and off highways 8 and 61 in the birthplace of the blues: Clarksdale, Itta Bena, Tchula, Tullulah, Greenwood, Tunica, Runnymeade, Glendora, Three Forks, Hushpuckena, Shakerag, Sweet Home, Money, Decatur and Tupelo. Places where a good education meant you could read and write, but a world and a time in which mother wit stood you in better stead than a Ph.D.Being with Joe had brought about a change in Honeyboy's life. There was no way the farm could hold him once he'd weighed the benefits of picking the guitar versus picking cotton. Even with the constant threat of getting pulled in by the police for walking the streets when black men were supposed to be working. Even with having to serve a sentence of a few days to a month working on a county farm or somebody's plantation. The lure of the nighttime women and the whiskey and all that wildness sent considerations of convention running like a scalded dog.Always drifting back home to whatever bad news awaited him there. Then drifting away again. Following the money, season to season. Town to town. Woman to woman. Self-described as "young and good-looking, with a mouth full of gold," he had no trouble pulling a woman to him, provided she had a job, a radio and a stove.For a while he worked the streets with a tap dancer. Another time he joined a medicine show, singing songs and selling salve to help a white man with his hustle. Another medicine show featured him with blackface comics and Chief Thunder Cloud. Bootleggers were regular employers. Whatever it took to play his blues, to get enough for a gambling stake so he could work his practiced magic with dice.A part of the interest in Honeyboy's story includes the incidents of his meeting and being mentored by a who's who of the Mississippi Delta's finest: Sleepy John Estes, Big-Eyed Willie B, Big Walter Horton, Yank Rachell, the Memphis Jug Band, Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and many others, including blues-singing women. They all drank too much, played too hard and didn't mind fighting. But it beat doing plantation time or working for 10 cents an hour in town. There's a chapter on Robert Johnson, who went with, among others, Willie Mae Powell, Honeyboy's cousin. Whiskey and women were Johnson's downfall, Honeyboy says. That made him neither unique nor even noteworthy among bluesmen. Johnson was poisoned because of a woman when he was 26. Honeyboy sums Johnson up in his typical, succinct way: "He wasn't out there too long but he changed everything."Honeyboy was out there through the second generation of blues musicians, through the Depression, through the years of World War II, through the migration north, through a love story with a tongue-tied woman named Bessie. A love story so steeped in the blues that Hollywood wouldn't touch it with a pitchfork.He was always a journeyman, never a star, so his story lacks the drive (and cliches) of a rags-to-riches saga. But through it all, Honeyboy Edwards lays it out in a series of short declarative sentences: subject, verb, modifier, period. Each with its own energy, being pushed forward by the one that follows it. There's the temptation, as you go through The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, to read it out loud. As you should do with poetry, as good poetry or the blues should make you want to do. That's the way it is when Honeyboy tells it. And in the true bluesman tradition, his voice is on every page, telling how he had his fun. You'll have yours, too.Detroit playwright Bill Harris is the author of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, a play about the famous bluesman's last days.


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