Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Monday 11 April 2011

Blues and Old-Time Artists I Admire: Bukka White

The music of Bukka White (1909-1977), full name Booker T. Washington White, was a revelation when I first heard it. The Chicago blues still zings when it’s done right, but too often the form is pounding, predictable, and drained of meaning. Delta blues recordings like White’s from the thirties and forties draw me in instead, with a combination of the rawness of the recordings, the incredible stories, and the mindboggling guitar playing. 

White’s “When Can I Change My Clothes?” exemplifies the blues for me because it is perhaps the most intensely personal song about suffering I have ever heard. No one will ever be able to play it with power and authority again. In fact, the thought of hearing someone cover it makes me nervous. I wish I could present that one here, but I couldn’t turn up a performance video. I encourage you to look it up –  you can find it on The Complete Bukka White, which remains one of my favourite albums.

In the meantime, I thought I’d post a video of Bukka in action. I considered writing a brief biography, but a quick search will turn up several well-researched bios, so I can safely skip it. Suffice to say that White gave B. B. King his first guitar (the two were cousins), briefly took up a career in boxing, served three years at the infamous Parchman Farm, worked in a tank factory, and was rediscovered by John Fahey in time for the sixties folk revival. You can see him trading jabs with Howlin’ Wolf in the documentary Devil Got My Woman: Blues at Newport 1966. Here is a clip of him playing “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,” in which he performs that guitar-slapping technique that floors me every time:

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