What impresses me most about David "Honeyboy" Edwards' album, "Delta Bluesman", and indeed about the country blues tradition in general, is its essential practicality, both in content and in purpose. Honeyboy's songs are largely about real, hard life, but they are also a way to live it. The music of "Delta Bluesman" mingles celebration and suffering, juxtaposes revolt with resignation, and leaves me wondering where the 'blues' gets its color: the limitless expanse of an open blue sky or twilight's somber melancholy.
It seems almost too obvious to mention the passion in Honeyboy's music. That he sings and plays with feeling in every track on the album is undeniable. Regardless of whether or not the music serves as entertainment, or release, or escape, you can hear in his voice that he means what he sings. Beyond the genuine quality of his voice, which to skeptical ears could be thought an act, the unique style Honeyboy brings to the country blues confirms his integrity. He writes in his autobiography, "I found my own style, my own sound". Indeed, the music on "Delta Bluesman", even without the giveaway title, is clearly Mississippi Delta blues, but it does not take a musical scholar to hear that its high, staccato licks are distinct from Robert Johnson's almost desperate edgy style or Muddy Waters' rolling groove. This original voice, as Bernice Johnson Reagon puts it, "gives an indication of whether one is coming from an inner place... It is believed that if the journey is true it is evidenced in the uniqueness of the sound". Honeyboy's unique style, especially together with the sincerity of his singing, is convincing. He means it; he makes the blues his own.
Being truly his, Honeyboy's songs are necessarily about his life, which was a hard one. In 1942, when the tracks on the first half of the album were recorded, he was only twenty seven years old, but he sings in "You Got To Roll", "Oh, I ain't got many mornings, I ought to get up soon". A life rooted in the early twentieth century South, with plenty of sharecropping labor, racism and violence acquainted Honeyboy with his mortality somewhat prematurely. Throughout the album, his lyrics touch these and other aspects of his hard life, but they don't stop there. In "Water Coast Blues", for example, he sings
Baby you know I've been sick,
Baby you know I've been sick and dyin',
Now my health has come back to me baby,
And I'm able to walk around
This juxtaposition of hardship or suffering with its defiance or defeat shows up again and again in the songs on this album. But that defiance never trumps the hardship, and this is the paradox that both "Delta Bluesman" and the Delta bluesmen in general deal with. In "Worried Life Blues", Honeyboy sings about a woman, by far the most common subject matter visited on the album. It begins with the verse:
Oh lordy lord, oh lordy lord,
Hurt me so bad, for us to part,
But some day baby,
You ain't gonna worry my life anymore.
When taken alone, this might suggest triumph: I'm gonna get over you. By the end of the song though, after firmly asserting "all I have to say to you", no progress has actually been made, and the last verse resigns:
So many nights since you been gone,
How much I'm gonna worry myself alone,
But some day baby,
You ain't gonna worry my life anymore.
This song, like most of the songs on this album, at once accepts powerlessness against the plight and revolts against it.
Understanding either of these aspects of the music on the album requires seeing how they are related in this dilemma, and that is as a celebration. As Stanley Booth puts it, "a true blues player's virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible... in celebrating, honestly and humbly, his life". And celebrate it Honeyboy surely does. He plays, well, playfully. His distinctive fills, even if they start with the tension of repeated dissonant slides, end up sounding like laughter. It is not the careless laughter of childhood, though, but rather the deliberate laughter of one who accepts his life and his powerlessness over it, and yet paradoxically exerts his power by celebrating it. This quality of Honeyboy's playing echoes the spoken tracks on the album too, where he reminisces with fondness and humor on the hard times of his life.
This celebration, I think, is what "Delta Bluesman" is really about. So many of the songs on the album are about a woman, which serves as a potent subject both because it is a visceral part of life and because it is a fertile space in which to celebrate the struggle of life, the tension between futility and revolt. It is no wonder that this theme comes out in a genre of music whose roots ultimately reach back to African slavery. LeRoi Jones argues that while the blues certainly derives influence from African music brought to this country by the slaves, "the insistence on blues verse on the individual and his individual trials and successes on the earth is a manifestation of the whole Western way of life". That is, the individual, personal nature of the blues is the special result of the African American experience, of a people first completely displaced and oppressed and then "freed" into a way of life focused almost entirely on self-determination.
It is in this context that the blues is more than just music--it is a way to live, to survive in a world where hope is a paradox. This comes through on Honeyboy's album, and is clearly at least a major part of what the blues are to him. He says on one track, "That was some tough times, then, you know that... And all we could do was play the blues and drink white whiskey--we felt good off of that". The album itself expresses this about him, in that the last half of the album, recorded about forty years after the first half, is different but the same. It's still the blues, and it's still Honeyboy's blues. Though by the nineties he had made a pretty decent life for himself (certainly free of many of the hardships of his earlier life), he continues to celebrate the struggle, to play the blues. Why? Because, I would argue, the paradox that joins struggle and surrender is the source of the deepest fulfillment. He writes at the end of his autobiography: "Way back, I never thought the blues would be like it is now... I felt like playing because I had the blues myself... The blues is something that leads you. I'd always follow it. I'd get up and go wherever it took me. And everywhere the blues took me was home". Honeyboy's "Delta Bluesman" is about his art of living, and living well. For him, that's what the blues are. That is what his music teaches me. One verse from "Water Coast Blues" resonates with the lesson:
I've got apples on my table,
Got fruit on my shelf,
You wanna hear the blues baby,
You sure gotta find 'em yourself