Now Spinning: Bukka White

The real Mississippi blues

One of those summer nights…. thunderstorms have cooled the day’s suffocating humidity down to a near-balmy 80 degrees and I trot out to my backyard for some gardening work, a favorite hobby to pass the time, with the sounds of Bukka White echoing from my turntable inside. It’s a Friday night and the world is out, so I crank up the volume, open the windows and sit back in my garden as Bukka’s sharp guitar cuts through the percussive dull roar of air conditioners and the first ringing buzzes of cicadas. I sit back, take in the sounds… and decide these are just about the best damn Delta blues out there.

The story and legacy of Bukka White is a journey through America’s 20th century history of the Delta blues and racism. Not quite a household name like Robert Johnson or his cousin B.B. King, Bukka White is generally considered a tier below, perhaps unfairly. His career suffered from plenty of bad luck early on – from the lack of opportunities for a musician emerging during the Great Depression to spending three years in jail at Parchman Farm during what should have been the prime of his career, with a self-defense shooting sentence likely influenced by race.

White recorded a handful of songs in prison for John Lomax (including his most famous, ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’) and one session immediately following his 1940 prison release before fully dropping out of music and any public consciousness for the next twenty years. Bob Dylan, a nearly anonymous young blues and folk junkie at the time, recorded Bukka’s now legendary ‘Fixin’ To Die’ on his debut album, which caught the ear of a young folk collector, guitarist John Fahey. Transfixed with his collection of Bukka’s limited recordings, Fahey sent a desperate letter to Aberdeen, MS and through a little help and a ton of luck, managed to find Bukka working in a factory in Memphis, his musical past now all but forgotten.

Which brings us up to date with the above Mississippi Blues album, produced by Fahey and released on his own independent Takoma label. Though Bukka had long given up on his music career by the time Fahey found him, his skills had eroded remarkably little with age, if at all. The versions of his classic songs cut here certainly rival his earlier recordings in performance quality, but with the drastically improved recording quality, Bukka’s percussive guitar strumming has never sounded sharper.

Though, ‘Fixin’ To Die,’ the song that led to Bukka’s rediscovery, is ironically omitted, several classics are brilliantly rerecorded here including ‘Aberdeen, MS’ (Fahey’s clue for tracking down Bukka) and ‘Shake ‘Em On Down,’ which Led Zeppelin boldly ‘borrowed’ for ‘Custard Pie’ and ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’. Meanwhile ‘The Atlanta Special,’ a rambling blues made up on the spot featuring some of Bukka’s most jaw-dropping country picking, hints at Bukka’s future – two volumes of these on the spot improvisational songs immediately followed with ‘Sky Songs’ releases the following year, though the material doesn’t match the intensity of ‘The Atlanta Special’ here.

Bukka’s guitar work is stunning throughout, and fortunately, John Fahey’s liner notes precisely describe the secrets behind each sound – from tunings and fingerpicking styles to ‘an additional technique which is unique, and almost impossible to describe: he alternately bangs and frets the strings with both hands.’ Sometimes even a legendary guitarist like Fahey struggles to find words to describe White’s playing, though fortunately we have some archival video of this nifty rhythmic trick:

I’ve wondered if perhaps Bukka’s underrated legacy is a result of a ‘what could have been?’ question since Bukka did abandon music for twenty five years in his prime, but what Fahey captured in these sessions should rank as one the very best Delta blues albums out there. These sessions have been released several times under a variety of names, so find yourself a copy in your local record store or on Discogs for when you need some muggy summer night Delta blues.

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