Bukka White
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

“And I got tired, you know, of looking at them mules,” recalled bluesman BOOKER T. WASHINGTON “BUKKA” WHITE (1909-77). “And I caught the freight train on the Dog… to St. Louis,” where the teenager began his peripatetic musical career. Back in Itta Bena, Mississippi, White impressed Sicilian-born talent scout Ralph Lembo and a subsequent May 1930 recording session in Memphis produced two great but unsuccessful 78s — one secular, one sacred — including “I Am In The Heavenly Way” (below). It would be seven rambling years before White again recorded, this time under the aegis of freelance A&R man Lester Melrose in Chicago. “Shake ’Em On Down” was a hit whose value was more than monetary. Again in Mississippi, White had been convicted of murder and sent to the state penitentiary, Parchman Farm (“I had to burn a guy a little and they gave me a little time” he later explained), where folklorist John Lomax recorded him in May 1939 for the Library of Congress. Freed the next year, White returned to Chicago and made twelve more sides; though brilliant, none were hits. His audience had moved on and White drifted into obscurity undiminished by blues anthologies (which reckoned him “disappeared”) and Bob Dylan, who recorded White’s “Fixin’ To Die” for his 1962 debut album. Was the songwriter even alive? Unaware that he was missing, let alone revered, White awoke in a Memphis boarding house and went to work across the river in a West Memphis, Arkansas storage tank factory.

I AM IN THE HEAVENLY WAY

ABERDEEN MISSISSIPPI BLUES

JELLY ROLL BLUES


***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Roland Barthes.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).

Share

MORE POSTS by

Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.