Before actually telling you anything about Furry Lewis, it's probably best to just throw one particular performance at you. This is "When I Lay My Burden Down," recorded in February 1971.
You probably noticed the bizarre way he attacks the guitar neck. I've never seen anyone play quite like that. He flutters his fingers along the neck like he's imitating a butterfly, and doesn't press down on the strings in a conventional way as often as he waggles his fingers over the strings–sometimes not actually touching them as far as I can tell, just waggling above them–or pinching the strings between thumb and forefinger. I also thought it was weird that he rested his entire arm on the neck for a moment, until we hit the three-minute mark and he started throwing down his elbow, and schooling me on what weird guitar playing really is. I also love the way he not only tells his guitar that he's going to ask it some questions, but actually asks it to come over and join him, as if he'd forgotten he was holding it at the time. When you're 78 years old, I guess you've earned the right to do things any damn way you please.
"When I Lay My Burden Down" was recorded at the same session as the clip of Bukka White's "Jelly Roll Blues" I posted a few weeks ago, and that's Bukka again toward the end, taking a deep drink out of a flask in a brown-paper bag while enjoying a song about Jesus. From the same show, here's "St. Louis Blues":
Memphis-raised guitarist Walter Lewis had one of the longest careers of any musician I've ever heard of, spanning nearly three-quarters of the 20th century. "Furry" was a childhood nickname; by the time he was grown he'd completely forgotten why people started calling him that, but by then his fate was sealed. Born in 1893 (at least, I think so; the dates on the various Internet-accessible biographies for these guys almost never completely jibe with each other, and some sources say 1899), he began playing around Memphis at bars and house parties by 1908, and came under the wing of W.C. Handy, the composer and bandleader who probably did more than anyone else to make blues music a major force in wider popular culture. In Furry's case, that included buying the kid his first real guitar—Furry had learned how to play the instrument on a homemade contraption made out of a cigar box and wires stripped off of a screen door. (My research is inconclusive, but I also believe he had to walk uphill for five miles both ways, not like us kids today. And in a blinding snowstorm! Without a decent hat! Not like the coddled, pampered young folk you get nowadays, now get off my lawn.) He quickly began supporting himself as a musician, but in 1916 he slipped while trying to hop aboard a freight train and lost a leg. He kept touring anyway for the next few years, playing with many of the important artists of the early '20s including Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but he eventually settled in Memphis full-time, taking a day job as a street sweeper and playing the clubs at night. He started recording his material in the late 1920s and enjoyed a couple of moderate successes before the Depression came in and wiped out the industry. Furry kept playing on Memphis' Beale Street for the next couple of decades in relative obscurity, but found a new audience when the genre was rediscovered by the folk movement in the late 1950s, enjoying a resurgence that kept him going until his death in 1981.
Here's "Furry's Blues," taken from the DVD Legends of Country Blues Guitar, Vol. Three. It's not quite as eccentric a performance as "Burden," but you do get a little more of the arm-across-the-neck thing, plus a head-scratching new way to spell "Memphis, Tennessee."
"Mmeeayz"? OK, man, whatever you say. (I'm not even gonna touch the line "I've been waiting on you since you've been 12 years old," except to speculate that perhaps he had recently been reading a lot of Nabokov.)
In 1976, after visiting Lewis, Joni Mitchell wrote a tribute, "Furry Sings The Blues," that appeared on her album Hejira. Instead of feeling honored, Furry felt exploited, and angrily demanded royalties. I don't know enough about the situation to judge it, but the song doesn't seem to take much, if any, direct inspiration from Lewis' music in a way that would imply copyright violation; instead, I think Lewis just thought the song was insulting and described him in an unflattering light. Mitchell's site features a Rolling Stone article on the disagreement that's also interesting reading for its insight into Lewis' life at the time, including this catalog of the items Lewis kept within reach of his bed in his tiny Beale Street apartment in Memphis: battered Martin electric guitar and small amp, two half gallons of Ten High, a .38 revolver stashed inside a drawer, his walking stick, a teddy bear and a cigar box labeled "Business". "I'm 83 years old half blind and gots a wooden leg," he says. "But I sure gots a lot of friends."
Here's a mid-1960s performance of his song "Kassie Jones," which he recorded in 1928. The video isn't great; there is a much superior version of the same video at this link, but embedding on that one has been disabled so I can't put the video directly in this post. It's worth a look, as long as you promise to come back. If you don't come back, I'll tell Nathan Rabin, and he'll probably cry.
From the same session, here's "Goin' To Brownsville":
And "Goin' To Kansas City":