Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #3: Bukka White

This time out, let's check in on a few songs by Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White, who sang like a raspy bullfrog and was one of the early masters of the National Steel resonator guitar. White was born sometime in the 1900s in eastern Mississippi–1909 according to his gravestone, 1902 according to other sources, and 1906 according to his profile on allmusic.com. He got his first guitar at age nine, whatever year that was, and decided to be a bluesman after hearing the great Charley Patton. His first recording sessions in 1930, from which four songs survive, are a mix of blues and gospel, with a particularly strong Blind Willie Johnson influence on "I Am In The Heavenly Way." The gospel element went away in his later work, but otherwise his style was already evident.

Here's a stellar version of his "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues," recorded sometime in the 1960s; the clip, unfortunately, cuts off just before the end:

White did a lot of things besides music in his life: He played baseball in the Negro Leagues, was a professional boxer, was married twice, and did long stretches working in farm fields and factories, spending most of the 1950s in obscurity building tanks in Memphis. (He also gave his younger cousin, B.B. King, his first guitar.) Because of the Depression, White didn't record again until 1937, when he was invited to Chicago for a new studio session. The problem was that he was awaiting trial for a fight where he'd shot another man in the leg. He jumped bail and headed north anyway, where he laid down two of his signature tunes, "Shake 'Em On Down" and "Pinebluff, Arkansas." The legend is that the cops caught up with him while he was still in the middle of recording them. He spent two years at Parchman Farm penitentiary, during which time "Shake 'Em On Down" was a hit—and also resulted in the "Bukka" nickname he's now known by, thanks to Vocalion Records misspelling his name on the label. In 1939, folklorist John Lomax visited him at Parchman and recorded two more songs, both classics: "Sic 'Em Dogs On" and "Po' Boy Long Way From Home."

From the same session as above, here's "Po' Boy." This version's not bad, but doesn't hold a candle to the '39 version; it also cuts off before the end:

His most definitive studio session was in 1940, cutting 12 songs that ranged from the party tune "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing" to haunting and dark material like "Strange Place Blues" and "Fixin' To Die Blues." By the early 1960s, though, he'd disappeared into factory work and was actually assumed to be dead when Bob Dylan revived interest in him by covering "Fixin' To Die" on his first album. White was active on the folk-blues circuit after that for the rest of his life, until his 1977 death. Here's "Jelly Roll Blues," filmed c. 1971. (Sitting in the audience is another bluesman, Furry Lewis; I plan to show a couple of his songs from this session sometime down the road.) Once again, the damn thing cuts off before he finishes playing the song.

Here he is goofing around with Howlin' Wolf on "Please Don't Put Your Daddy Outdoors":

To my knowledge, there's no single compilation that covers all of Bukka's best stuff—the dreadfully misnamed Complete Bukka White only covers his 1937 and 1940 recordings, but it's still a good place to start. Also check out Stefan Wirz's invaluable Bukka White discography.


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