The voice of blues singer Bukka White is so evocative, whenever a song of his comes up on my iTunes rotation, I stop and listen1. A cloudy tenor, with resonating overtones. His guitar playing may or may not be excellent2, but I often find myself focusing on his voice. Such power, such emotion.
Uncle Dave Lewis writes a bit of Bukka White’s history at Allmusic:
Bukka White (true name: Booker T. Washington White) was born in Houston, Mississippi (not Houston, Texas) in 1906 (not any date between 1902-1905 or 1907-1909, as is variously reported). He got his initial start in music learning fiddle tunes from his father. Guitar instruction soon followed, but White’s grandmother objected to anyone playing “that Devil music” in the household; nonetheless, his father eventually bought him a guitar. When Bukka White was 14 he spent some time with an uncle in Clarksdale, Mississippi and passed himself off as a 21-year-old, using his guitar playing as a way to attract women. Somewhere along the line, White came in contact with Delta blues legend Charley Patton, who no doubt was able to give Bukka White instruction on how to improve his skills in both areas of endeavor. In addition to music, White pursued careers in sport, playing in Negro Leagues baseball and, for a time, taking up boxing.
In 1930 Bukka White met furniture salesman Ralph Limbo, who was also a talent scout for Victor. White traveled to Memphis where he made his first recordings, singing a mixture of blues and gospel material under the name of Washington White. Victor only saw fit to release four of the 14 songs Bukka White recorded that day. As the Depression set in, opportunity to record didn’t knock again for Bukka White until 1937, when Big Bill Broonzy asked him to come to Chicago and record for Lester Melrose. By this time, Bukka White had gotten into some trouble — he later claimed he and a friend had been “ambushed” by a man along a highway, and White shot the man in the thigh in self defense. While awaiting trial, White jumped bail and headed for Chicago, making two sides before being apprehended and sent back to Mississippi to do a three-year stretch at Parchman Farm. While he was serving time, White’s record “Shake ‘Em on Down” became a hit.
Bukka White proved a model prisoner, popular with inmates and prison guards alike and earning the nickname “Barrelhouse.” It was as “Washington Barrelhouse White” that White recorded two numbers for John and Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm in 1939. After earning his release in 1940, he returned to Chicago with 12 newly minted songs to record for Lester Melrose. These became the backbone of his lifelong repertoire, and the Melrose session today is regarded as the pinnacle of Bukka White’s achievements on record. Among the songs he recorded on that occasion were “Parchman Farm Blues” (not to be confused with “Parchman Farm” written by Mose Allison and covered by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Blue Cheer, among others), “Good Gin Blues,” “Bukka’s Jitterbug Swing,” “Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues,” and “Fixin’ to Die Blues,” all timeless classics of the Delta blues. Then, Bukka disappeared — not into the depths of some Mississippi Delta mystery, but into factory work in Memphis during World War II.
Bob Dylan recorded “Fixin’ to Die Blues” on his 1961 debut Columbia album, and at the time no one in the music business knew who Bukka White was — most figured a fellow who’d written a song like “Fixin’ to Die” had to be dead already. Two California-based blues enthusiasts, John Fahey and Ed Denson, were more skeptical about this assumption, and in 1963 addressed a letter to “Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi.” By chance, one of White’s relatives was working in the Post Office in Aberdeen, and forwarded the letter to White in Memphis.
[Click to read more history of allmusic Bukka White Biography ]
for some youTubery.
Additional tidbit: Led Zeppelin credited Bukka White on the BBC Sessions release of a 1971 13 minute version of Whole Lotta Love, along with several other blues magicians (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Bernard Besman, Bukka White, Arthur Crudup, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)
If you don’t own any Bukka White music: go for it.
The tracks in which White is accompanied by Washboard Sam are really fantastic, representing some of the best country blues one can find, rhythmically snappy and melodically clear. In terms of the musical styles that White employed, they are all here: The basis for every single song he ever recorded, if not the song itself, is included among these 14 tracks. “Where Can I Change My Clothes,” one of the best songs about prison, is included along with White’s unique version of “Parchman Farm.” The former song was one he re-recorded in the ’60s, releasing it under the latter title: Neither song is the same as the “Parchman Farm” blues standard that was later satirized by Mose Allison and obliterated by Blue Cheer. One of the great things about White’s style is his vocals. His pronunciation and accent are fascinating. Take the way he pronounces the title of “district attorney” in the song of the same name. As well, he could be the only blues singer to deliver the following couplet and make it sound like it actually rhymes: “Doctor, put that temperature gauge under my tongue/And tell me, all I need is my baby’s lovin’ arms.”
- especially Parchman Farm Blues [↩]
- mostly I think it is, driving rhythms on a national steel guitar that compel a listener to dance, but I’ve never tried to emulate anything from his songbook, so I can’t say for certain anything specific about his technique, other than it appears to use a lot of open tuning [↩]
- though, the publisher must have changed the cover, mine doesn’t have the same photograph as the one Chadbourne talks about [↩]