[29 April 2008]
Honeyboy Edwards is a hopeful musician: Not in the sense that he adheres to a particularly optimistic mantra, but in so far as he inspires hope in traditionalists and die-hard blues fans. As one of the last living people to know the prolific Robert Johnson, Edwards is about as real as they come. His tightly grizzled croon is the same now as it was in his beleaguered youth and his Delta picking is sharp and clear, cutting through his recordings as it would have the smoky jukes of Mississippi. His latest release, Roamin’ and Ramblin’ is a testament to this legacy.
The majority of Roamin’ and Ramblin’ is comprised of his recent 2007 sessions. Employing the help of blues harpists Billy Branch, Johnny “Yard Dog” Jones, and most famously Bobby Rush, much of the disc centers on the tension created between intermittent harmonica blasts and Edwards’ yelping cries and smooth guitar. The washboard driven “Maxwell Street Shuffle” fights this tension through its entirety. As Edwards treads along a 12-bar blues shuffle, Branch attacks the track with his boisterous harp play. You can hear the guitar and harmonica battling back and forth in search of the perfect groove while the washboard stands as the mediator and grounding force. Similarly, “Riding the Rails”, featuring the same supporting cast as “Maxwell Street Shuffle “, forefronts the harp in exchange for interspersed guitar licks.
We’re also given a mass of tracks blending the acoustic, Delta sound of Edwards’ past and the electric sound he later used. “How Long” is a subtle jam that comfortably hovers over a brushed ride and Bobby Rush’s understated electric musings. However, it’s this track that proves Edwards has still got some bite. He often explodes with twanging fills, briefly taking the spotlight before settling back into the groove.
But while the new recordings are undeniably cut of the Honeyboy cloth, they seem to lack something in comparison to the truly affecting early recordings Roamin’ and Ramblin’ also presents. Taking center stage is the 1942 Alan Lomax clip “The Army Blues.” Recorded during Lomax’s legendary trip through the Delta, recording bluesmen for the Library of Congress — a venture that also documented such artists as Leadbelly, Son House, and Willie Brown — the track has the grainy quality and muddied production of early recordings, giving it a (even if only perceived) authentic quality that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Likewise, his voice is fuller and dripping with the soul that so accented his early career.
Even the previously unreleased tracks from the ’70s have an intangible quality about them that has been lost in the more recent recordings. The trotting guitar and muffled vocal accompaniment of “Low Down Dog” gives the otherwise hollow track an air of raucousness. Meanwhile, “Trouble Everywhere I Go” and “I Was In New Orleans Last Night” hark back to the hopelessness of the Delta blues and carry a sullen, downtrodden sentiment that seems nearly impossibly to recreate in contemporary times.
In a sense, Roamin’ and Ramblin’ is as close as anyone will come to replicating the Delta blues of the early 1900s. Though this is to be expected from someone like Honeyboy Edwards, it’s still an incredible feat; the occasional trouble he had finding the sound on the record shows how impressive Roamin’ and Ramblin’ truly is. In the end, though, we can only hope that Edwards produces more material in the coming years because, unfortunate as it is, he may not be making music for much longer. And with the eventual loss of Honeyboy Edwards, so too will come the loss of America’s last true bluesman.