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How Sweet It Is 

There is a recurrent problem in trying to interview living legends — which 93-year-old blues guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards certainly is — and that is that they have already been asked everything under the sun. In trying to set up a phone conversation with Honeyboy, I was gently warned by his longtime manager and bandmate Michael Frank to read up on the bluesman, so as not to ask questions he'd already heard a million times. Fair enough, but what to do? I was almost glad when the interview fell through " Honeyboy and Frank were touring in Germany " and I did not have to follow the intimidating act of Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist who recorded and interviewed Edwards for the Library of Congress 35 years before I was born.

Edwards was born in rural Mississippi in 1915 and in his teens started listening to blues by legends like Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Sunnyland Slim and others. He also started touring in the early '30s with Big Joe Williams' band, though he recorded infrequently. Besides the 15 sides Lomax recorded, Edwards did not record again as Honeyboy until 1951, cutting two records for the Arc and Artist labels. After he moved to Chicago in 1953, he apparently recorded a few songs for the Chess label that never came out, although much later some were released on an anthology.

Edwards met Michael Frank in Chicago in the early '70s, and since then, Frank has been his constant musical collaborator and manager. Frank's Earwig Music label re-released the Library of Congress recordings in 1992, along with some new material, on a record called Delta Bluesman. In 1997, Edwards published his autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing. In 2004, he joined Pinetop Perkins, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Henry Townsend for an astonishing group show in Dallas. Both in their 90s, Townsend and Lockwood passed away in 2006, but this year, a live album recorded at that show won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. And Edwards is still going strong, playing a fairly rigorous touring schedule in and out of the United States.

To grasp how amazing it is that you can still hear Honeyboy play, it might be necessary to go to the Mississippi Delta itself — near Clarksdale, where Lomax recorded him in 1942; or Shaw, where he was born; or rural, empty Dockery, where his onetime collaborator Charley Patton worked endless hours picking cotton for pennies. A two-lane state highway winds through cotton fields and past the mean-looking whitewashed shacks of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. There the Delta feels quiet, timeless and unchanged. That is where Edwards was born, where he lived, played and recorded — where he met Tommy Johnson in 1929 and took his first cues on how to really play; where he hooked up with Big Joe Williams' touring band a few years later; and where, in the latter part of the decade, he went to a house party where Robert Johnson drank the poisoned whiskey that put him in his grave days later. (The question, 'What was it like the night Robert Johnson died?" is presumably one of the questions journalists are gently discouraged from asking Edwards.) It makes you shiver " like a ghost story from the secret, creepy, magical soul of the disappearing South.

The daylong Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday on two stages in Lafayette Square Park, featuring a cavalcade of Louisiana and Mississippi blues artists including Marc Stone, J. Monque'D, Marva Wright, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Little Freddie King, Guitar Lightnin' Lee, Washboard Chaz, Smokey Greenwell, Kenny Neal, Anders Osborne, Cedric Burnside and Lightning Malcolm and others. There will also be a bazaar of local crafts and, of course, tasty barbecue and other snacks for sale.

click to enlarge David "Honeyboy" Edwards won a 2008 Grammy and is still going strong at 93 years old - STEVE MANNHEIM
  • Steve Mannheim
  • David "Honeyboy" Edwards won a 2008 Grammy and is still going strong at 93 years old
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