March 6, 2013
“Why should I marry,” replied Walter “Furry” Lewis (1893-1981) to Johnny Carson one night in 1974, “when the man next door to me’s got a wife?” Such was the clever mind of a beloved bluesman soon to appear as “Uncle Furry” in John Avildsen’s W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and, on July 4, 1975, to open for the Rolling Stones in his hometown Memphis Memorial Stadium. His was quite a journey: from Beale Street to the traveling Medicine Show circuit and — less his right leg, lost in a 1917 train-hopping accident — back to Memphis. From 1927 to 1929, Lewis recorded twenty-three sides for the Victor and Vocalion labels, including the two-part “Kassie Jones,” an apotheosis of American mythopoetics:
I left Memphis to spread the news
Memphis women don’t wear no shoes
Had it written on the back of my shirt
Natural born eastman don’t have to work
Despite his superb guitar playing and often loopy ebullience, when the Depression hit, Lewis fell into local obscurity as a Memphis sanitation worker. In 1947, Alan Lomax included “Billy Lyons and Stack O’ Lee” on his American Ballads anthology but a Billboard notice for current information on Lewis brought no response. In 1952, Harry Smith included “Kassie Jones” on his Anthology of American Folk Music but again the revivalist and the living remained apart. Finally, in 1959, Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band led musicologist Sam Charters to the corporeal Lewis, who took his rediscovery with an affable nonchalance and an enlarged repertoire, including the Jimmie Rodgers-derived “Old Hobo.” If white folk can even pretend to sing the blues, then black folks surely can yodel.
“When My Baby Left Me,” 1961
“Old Hobo,” 1967
“When I Lay My Burden Down,” 1968
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.