Born between Aberdeen and Houston, Mississippi, White was a first cousin of B.B. King's mother (White's mother and King's grandmother were sisters). White himself is remembered as a player of National steel guitars. He also played, but was less adept at, the piano.
Booker T. Washington White was born near Houston, Mississippi, probably on November 12, 1906. He was one of seven children. White was raised on a sharecropper's farm by his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Punk Davisson. His father, John White, was a railroad fireman and part-time musician; when he was in town, he taught White to play the guitar and took him and his other children to the local Baptist church. Houston was in Chickasaw County, in north-central Mississippi, east of the Mississippi River delta. When White moved to Grenada, Mississippi, to work on an uncle's farm around 1919 (the chronology of his early life is hazy), he found himself in the midst of the vital delta music tradition.
He first recorded for the Victor Records label in 1930. His recordings for Victor, like those of many other bluesmen, fluctuated between country blues and gospel numbers. Victor published his photograph in 1930. His gospel songs were done in the style of Blind Willie Johnson, with a female singer accentuating the last phrase of each line.
Nine years later, while serving three years for assault, he recorded for folklorist John Lomax. The few songs he recorded around this time became his most well-known: "Shake 'Em on Down," and "Po' Boy." White was popular with both his fellow prisoners and the guards alike, earning the nickname "Barrelhouse." In 1939 he recorded two songs for John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress as "Washington Barrelhouse White." By the time of his release in 1940, White had penned a dozen songs that he planned on taking to Chicago.
Bob Dylan covered his song "Fixin' to Die Blues", which aided a "rediscovery" of White in 1963 by guitarist John Fahey and ED Denson, which propelled him onto the folk revival scene of the 1960s. White had recorded the song simply because his other songs had not particularly impressed the Victor record producer. It was a studio composition of which White had thought little until it re-emerged thirty years later.
White was at one time managed by experienced blues manager Arne Brogger. Fahey and Denson found White easily enough: Fahey wrote a letter to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." Fahey had assumed, given White's song, "Aberdeen, Mississippi", that White still lived there, or nearby. The postcard was forwarded to Memphis, Tennessee, where White worked in a tank factory. Fahey and Denson soon traveled to meet White, and White and Fahey remained friends through the remainder of White's life. He recorded a new album for Denson and Fahey's Takoma Records, whilst Denson became his manager.
White was, later in life, also friends with fellow musician Furry Lewis. The two recorded, mostly in Lewis' Memphis apartment, an album together, Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends: Party! At Home.
One of his most famous songs, "Parchman Farm Blues", about the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman Farm) in Sunflower County, Mississippi, was released on Harry Smith's fourth volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4. The song was covered by The Traits/aka Roy Head and the Traits with Johnny Winter in the late 1960s. His 1937 version of the oft-recorded song, "Shake 'Em On Down," is considered definitive, and became a hit while White was serving time in Parchman.
White started his career playing the fiddle at square dances. He claims to have met Charlie Patton early on, although some doubt has been cast upon this; Regardless, Patton was a large influence on White. White typically played slide guitar, in an open tuning. He was one of the few, along with Skip James, to use a crossnote tuning in E minor, which he may have learned, as James did, from Henry Stuckey.
Bukka White's classic Mississippi blues music was simple, intense, and above all, personal. Accompanying himself ferociously with a National steel-bodied guitar played slide-style with a short metal tube, he sang in unvarnished terms about his own life experiences, and he made what are generally considered his greatest recordings after serving two years in the notorious Parchman Farm prison. Forgotten for many years, White enjoyed a career revival during the folk music boom of the 1960s.
White heard the greatest of the early bluesmen, Charley Patton, and was inspired by him, although his musical style was his own. As he worked long hours in the fields, "none of the other boys, they didn't have any idea what I was thinking about," he said in an interview quoted by blues historian Samuel Charters. He learned to play the piano as well as guitar, and he began to perform wherever he had the chance—in delta juke joints and honky tonks, at dances, in pool rooms and bars up the river in Memphis and St. Louis, or on the streets. In St. Louis, working in a roadhouse, White was befriended by an older musician named Johnny Thomas, who gave him some lessons on guitar and piano. Pay for White's performances was scanty, if it was given at all; often, he was quoted as saying by F. Jack Hurley and David Evans, "I played for a rabbit sandwich, piece of egg pie or tater pie and all the water I could drink." In 1925 White married and was given a new Stella guitar by his father as a present. Tragically, his wife died a painful death three years later after suffering a ruptured appendix.
Performing in Memphis, White met Ralph Lembo, a white Mississippi furniture dealer who served as an agent for the Victor label, and he enthusiastically stepped into Victor's Memphis studio to record 14 sides in 1930. Several of them were gospel pieces; one, "I Am in the Heavenly Way," was billed as a "Sermon Sung for You by Washington White, 'The Singing Preacher,' with Guitars and Women Singers." With the Depression underway, Victor released only four of White's recordings. After wandering the country as a freight-train-riding hobo for a time, White returned to Mississippi and married again, settling near Aberdeen and performing occasionally with his wife's uncle, singer and harmonica player George "Bullet" Williams. Pitching for the Birmingham Black Cats of baseball's Negro Leagues, stepping into the ring as a boxer occasionally, and making moonshine liquor, he managed to eke out a living during extremely hard times.
The world of Mississippi's honky tonks was a violent one, and White, claiming self-defense, shot a man after being ambushed by a group on a dark road. Sentenced to two years at Parchman Farm on assault charges, White traveled to Chicago to record two sides for the Vocalion label before beginning his sentence in the fall of 1937. According to legend, which surrounds White even more thickly than it does many other early blues figures, he jumped bail and was re-arrested by a Mississippi sheriff in the recording studio. It is likelier that he benefited from the intervention of agent Lester Melrose, an industry figure who did much to help White's career in the Windy City. One of White's two 1937 recordings, "Shake 'em on Down" was a hit and became part of the repertoire of Chicago blues.
White's musical skills helped keep him off the prison's field and work gangs for the most part; he was allowed to organize a prison band that, he recalled, entertained the visiting governor of Mississippi. He recorded two songs for Library of Congress investigator Alan Lomax. Still, life at the prison was a harsh, isolating experience, and White had little to do but think about new songs as he watched other prisoners give in to loneliness and feelings of impending death, and suffered through those fears himself. White's music deepened, and as urban blues began to take on elements of good-time party music around 1940, he headed in an entirely different direction creatively.
After his release, White headed for Chicago with the idea of resuming his recording career. He wrote out lyrics to some famous blues songs like "Sittin' on Top of the World" and went to see Melrose, hoping to impress the agent with his preparation. But from Melrose's point of view there was more potential profit in copyrighting original songs, so he sent White to a hotel room with instructions to come up with new material. For White, who had brooded over his music for two years in prison, that was the perfect assignment.
Featuring light accompaniment from a musician named Washboard Sam, the 14 sides that White recorded in Melrose's South Side studio on March 7, 1940, released on the Vocalion and OKeh labels, are considered some of the very greatest classics of the blues. Melrose was the first person to realize the magnitude of White's achievement. "I never had a man, black or white, kiss me dead on the mouth before, but that's what he done," White was quoted as saying by Hurley and Evans. "He say, 'Lord man, you done 100 percent. I've been on this job 35 years and I never seen a man do what you done in two days.' He said, 'Just how the hell did you get it? Where did it come from?'" Several of White's 1940 sides, such as "When Can I Change My Clothes?," were stark representations of prison life, and others, such as "High Fever Blues" and "Fixin' to Die Blues," spoke of the bitter end to which the life of an African American in the South would often come. On just a few songs, such as "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing," White lightened the mood and showed off his intricate slide guitar style.
The renown these records deserved had to wait for many years; only modest numbers of his records were sold, and they are valuable collectors' items today. White returned to Memphis and took a job in a defense plant. His second marriage broke up. Though he occasionally performed with the older Memphis musician Frank Stokes after the war, his rural style was now of interest only to older listeners. Most of his musical energy was devoted to encouraging his cousin, a Mississippi musician and disc jockey named Riley King who went by the title "Blues Boy," soon shortened to "B.B." Through the 1950s, White worked quietly in Memphis and remained almost completely unknown in the musical world.
By the end of that decade, however, folk music enthusiasts and scholarly investigators were beginning to uncover the treasures of the country blues, and young, mostly white musicians soaked up their findings. The youthful Bob Dylan recorded White's "Fixin' to Die Blues" on his first LP in 1961, and rare copies of White's 78 rpm discs circulated among collectors. In 1963 two University of California students, John Fahey and Ed Denson, addressed a letter to "Booker T. Washington White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." The letter found its way to White, who headed to the West Coast in the fall of that year. He performed for folklore students and played some gigs at one of the centers of the West Coast folk revival, the Ash Grove in Los Angeles.
White remained a resident of Memphis for the rest of his life, often sitting on a stool on Mosby Street that he called his office and negotiating the concert offers that now came in regularly. Several albums of White's music were released; Fahey and Denson issued Mississippi Blues: Bukka White on their Takoma label, capturing White's older material, and roots music collector Chris Strachwitz released two volumes of new White compositions, Sky Songs: Vols. 1 and 2, on the Arhoolie label. The title "Sky Songs" was White's own, meaning that he could just reach up and pull them out of the sky. In "1963 Ain't 1962 Blues," White reflected wryly on his newfound success.
During the1950's Bukka's musical career was fairly dormant. Bukka became a common laborer and worked with Newberry Equipment in Memphis. His job consisted of laying out steel for welders to make tanks for the war. Fortunately, White was "re-discovered" in 1963 by John Fahey and Ed Dawson, two blues enthusiasts. In the same year White traveled to California to play for several folklore classes at the University of California at Berkeley (Hurley and Evans 196-197). With several re-recordings, White's blues career was kicked off once again. In 1967, White toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. The next year he was invited to sing at the Olympic Games in Mexico City (Eley). In 1973, White played with his first cousin, B.B. King, at the New Orleans Heritage Festival. That same year, White was nominated for a Grammy award (Eley and Historical Tour). Another outstanding performance given by Bukka White was at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. There Bukka played with other musicians such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King .
By the '70s, however, Bukka White couldn't help getting a little bored with his celebrity status as an acoustic bluesman. White's tastes had grown with the times, and he would have loved to have played an electric guitar and fronted a band, as his old acquaintance Chester Burnett (aka Howlin' Wolf) and Bukka's own cousin, B. B. King, had been already doing successfully for years. But he only needed to look at what happened to his friend Bob Dylan's career for a lesson on what happens to folk blues artists who try and "go electric." So, Bukka White stayed on the festival circuit to the end of his days, beating the hell out of his National steel guitar, and sometimes his monologues would go on a little long, and sometimes his playing was a little more willfully eccentric than at others. Patrons would wait patiently to hear Bukka play "Parchman Farm Blues," although some of them were under the mistaken impression that they had paid their money to hear an artist who had originated a number that Eric Clapton made famous.
White contacted with producer Lester Melrose to record what would become his core musical repertoire for the rest of his career. The Melrose sessions are considered by many blues historians to be White's best, and indeed they yielded such blues standards as "Parchman Farm Blues" (not the Mose Allison song recorded by John Mayall, Eric Clapton, etc), "Fixin' To Die Blues," and "Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues" among the twelve songs released by Okeh and Vocalion.
Ultimately, Bukka did much to popularize and continue the traditional, unamplified "country" style Blues, and made compelling contributions to Blues as a whole. He gave his cousin B.B. King his first guitar, a Stella. He rubbed shoulders (and was among the ranks) of true original delta Blues performers such as Charley Patton and long time friends Howlin' Wolf and collaborator and friend Furry Lewis. Late in his life White became a figure known to music fans worldwide. He sang at the premier venue of the folk music movement, the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He appeared at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and toured Europe several times, releasing two albums in Germany. Despite poor health in the 1970s, White continued to perform until shortly before his death in Memphis.
Bukka cut an album with Furry entitled "Party! At Home" which is a quirky album he and Lewis recorded while at home. It's highly recommended for any Bukka / Delta enthusiast, as it provides som efun and interesting insight into the lives of these Bluesmen. Much of the album was recorded via tape player while they drank and chatted and occasionally sang and played.
White died in February 26, 1977 from cancer, at the age of 67, in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1990 he was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (along with Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson). On November 21, 2011, The Recording Academy announced that "Fixin' to Die Blues" was to be added to its 2012 list of Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipients.
Mississippi Blues (Takoma, 1964)
Memphis Hot Shots (Blue Horizon, 1968)
Big Daddy (Biograph Records, 1974)
Country Blues (Sparkasse in Concert, 1975)
Parchman Farm 1937-1940 (Columbia, 1969)
Baton Rouge Mosby Street (Blues Beacon, 1982)
Aberdeen Mississippi Blues 1937-1940 (Travelin' Man, 1985)
Parchman Farm Blues (Orbis Records, 1992)
Shake' Em On Down (New Rose, 1993)
The Complete Bukka White 1937-1940 (Columbia, 1994)
1963 Isn't 1962 (Adelphi, 1994)
Good Gin Blues (Drive, 1995)
Shake 'Em On Down (Catfish, 1998)
The Panama Limited (ABM, 2000)
Revisited (Fuel, 2003)
Aberdeen Mississippi Blues: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940 (Document, 2003)
Mississippi Blues Giant (EPM, 2003)
Fixin' To Die (Snapper, 2004)
Parchman Farm Blues (Roots, 2004)