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Mon, 11.12.1906

Bukka White, Musician born

Bukka White

*Bukka White was born on this date in 1906.  He was a Black Delta blues guitarist and singer.

Born Booker T. Washington White, he was from south of Houston, Mississippi.  He was a first cousin of B.B. King, whose mother and King's grandmother were sisters.  He played National resonator guitars in an open tuning, typically with a slide. He was one of the few, along with Skip James, to use a cross-note tuning in E minor, which he may have learned, as James did, from Henry Stuckey. He also played piano, but less adeptly.

White started his career playing the fiddle at square dances. He claimed to have met Charlie Patton, who strongly influenced White. "I wants to come to be a great man like Charlie Patton," White told his friends. He first recorded for Victor Records in 1930.  Like many other bluesmen, his recordings for Victor included country blues and gospel music. 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.  From fourteen recordings, Victor released two records under Washington White, two gospel songs with Memphis Minnie on backing vocals, and two country blues. Nine years later, while serving time for assault, he recorded for the folklorist John Lomax.  The few songs he recorded around this time became his most well-known: "Shake 'Em On Down" and "Po'Boy." His 1937 recordings became hits while White served time in Mississippi State Penitentiary, commonly known as Parchman Farm. He wrote about his experience in "Parchman Farm Blues," released in 1940. 

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 into the folk revival 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 that White had thought little until it re-emerged thirty years later.  Fahey and Denson found White easily enough: Fahey wrote a letter to White and addressed it to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi," presuming, given White's song "Aberdeen, Mississippi," that White still lived there or nearby. He was also a mentor to Mose Allison.

The postcard was forwarded to Memphis, Tennessee, where White worked in a tank factory. Fahey and Denson soon traveled there to meet him, and White and Fahey remained friends for the rest of White's life.  He recorded a new album for Denson and Fahey's Takoma Records, and Denson became his manager.  Later in his life, White was friends with the musician Furry Lewis. Bob West recorded the two (mostly in Lewis's Memphis apartment) for an album, Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends: Party! At Home was released on the Arcola label.

Bukka White died of cancer in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 26, 1977.  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 the addition of "Fixin' To Die Blues" to its 2012 list of Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipients.  

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