My obsession with National guitars stems from early exposure to two records as a teenager in the 1980s: 1965’s “The Legendary Son House: Father of Folk Blues” on Columbia, and a 70s reissue of Bukka White’s Takoma sessions on Neil Norman’s GNP Crescendo label. Both records are directly responsible for my fascination with the guitars that Son and Bukka brandished on their respective album sleeves, and led me to seek out anything I could find by them and eventually, by anyone sporting such an instrument. Bukka White is a near-perfect example of a National playing blues guitarist, he used the instrument’s sound to create a personalized style that exploited the single-resonator guitar’s potential for highly percussive rhythm combined with simple but effective slide.
Bukka’s early recorded material, particularly the songs recorded in 1940 after he had served a short prison term at the notorious Parchman penitentiary, dealt with themes of death, illness, incarceration, isolation, depression, and the desire to travel. His lyrics were written in such a way that the overall impression is that of a man unequivocally declaring his determination to overcome hardship and certainty that he is destined to succeed, rather than merely crying out powerlessly in anguish and despair.
Booker T. Washington White was born outside of Houston, Mississippi in the hill country east of the delta on November 12 of either 1906 or 1909, depending on the source. At the age of fourteen, by which time he had already been working grueling physical labor jobs in lumberyards and sawmills for a full five years, he went to live with an uncle in Grenada, close to Clarksdale. From there he ran away to St Louis, where he was able to find employment by disguising his young age with a painted-on mustache and his broad muscular build. Music was only a part-time source of revenue for Bukka, who drifted around but usually returned to farm with his uncle in between temporary jobs.
In 1930, Ralph Lembo, a scout for Victor Records based out of Itta Bena where he auditioned blues talent at his furniture store, recommended Bukka to Ralph Peer, the man in charge of Victor’s “Race Records” series. Bukka was taken to Memphis where he was paired with Napoleon Harriston, a singer and guitar player he had never met before. In addition to two blues songs, he recorded a pair of religious numbers under the moniker “Washington White, The Singing Preacher”. The May 26, 1930 session produced the two train-themed pieces “The New Frisco Train” and “The Panama Limited”, on both of which Bukka is joined by Napoleon Harriston on second guitar according to to the session info, but his guitar contributions, if any, are inaudible. “The New Frisco Train” also features Harriston’s lead vocals backed by Bukka’s guitar. “The Panama Limited” contained a quirky chord change behind its sung refrain which Bukka would recycle in “Special Streamline” 10 years later: V-IV-III-I answered by IV-V-IV-III-I. Bukka also recorded two religious numbers, “I Am In The Heavenly Way” and “The Promise True And Grand”, where he is joined by the vocals of “Miss Minnie” who seems to be Memphis Minnie, her presence in the studio is highly probable as she was doing her own recording for Victor Records at the same time.
This recording session also produced eight blues numbers and two additional gospel numbers that are not accounted for.
Predictably, the Depression all but eliminated any chance of Bukka’s 1930 records selling, and in the years prior to his next recording session he tried his hand at careers in both boxing and baseball. Bukka married the niece of bluesman George “Bullet” Williams, and two years later they moved to the town of Aberdeen. It was there that Bukka shot a man in the leg in a fracas over a woman, and was given a two year sentence. During some free time on bond in 1937, he recorded again for Lester Melrose in Chicago prior to serving his two years at Parchman. Bukka entered the studio on September 2, 1937 to record two more songs, “Pinebluff Arkansas”, a slide number in Spanish tuning, and the powerful anthem “Shake Em On Down”, played in standard tuning out of E position. On this session Bukka was joined by an unknown rhythm guitarist, and the resulting record was released on both the Vocalion and Columbia labels.
Bukka was apparently well liked by inmates and prison officials alike, and described his treatment at Parchman as “better than average”. His skill with the guitar saved him from the most back-breaking work, as he was usually found entertaining the warden in the daytime and fellow inmates at night. Bukka’s ’37 release of “Shake Em On Down” was a minor hit and Lester Melrose tried unsuccessfully to secure his early release for another recording session. It would be Alan Lomax who would record Bukka next, on a 1939 field trip collecting prison work songs. Bukka offered up a lap-style version of the standard “”Po Boy a Long Ways From Home” and the menacing bottleneck number “Sic “Em Dogs On” on May 23, 1939. He refused to record any more material for Lomax when he was notified that they were non-commercial recordings for the Library Of Congress for which he was not to be paid.
Bukka’s popularity at Parchman may have actually hindered his release, as he had to serve the full two year sentence.
Shortly after his release, Bukka recorded another dozen songs which would be subsequently released on the Vocalion and Okeh labels. These came from a two-day session held May 7 and 8, 1940, where Bukka was accompanied by the popular Washboard Sam, playing his namesake instrument. For a guitarist so inextricably associated with open-tuned slide guitar, Bukka offered up a surprising amount of standard-tuned songs on these dates. “District Attorney Blues” and “When Can I Change My Clothes”, both played in standard tuning out of E position borrowed an accompaniment he’d used previously for “Shake Em On Down”. “Strange Place Blues” and “Sleepy Man Blues” were both played in standard tuning, G position, “Black Train Blues” in A, and “High Fever Blues” played in C. On his post-rediscovery recordings, Bukka would limit his standard tuning playing to the key of E.
“Fixin’ to Die” and “Good Gin Blues” both used a similar Spanish tuning accompaniment, and the remaining four tunes, “Parchman Farm Blues”, “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues” (played without the flamboyant guitar slapping that Bukka would embellish it with in later years), “Special Streamline” and “Bukka’s Jitterbug Swing”, were in E minor tuning.
In spite of the wealth of standard tuning material and nods to previous blues “hits” in some of the vocal melodies (for example, “Sleepy Man Blues” paraphrases Leroy Carr’s “In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down”), and even the presence of Washboard Sam, at the time one of the Bluebird Era’s most successful recording stars, the overall sound on these recordings was as “down-home” as Bukka’s debut from ten years earlier. It is surprising that Lester Melrose had so much faith in the commercial potential of Bukka’s antiquated sound at a time when popular blues trends had shifted towards smoother vocalists backed by combos which featured piano and trumpet with increasing frequency.
In the following years, Bukka curtailed his wandering and settled down to a steady job and family life in Memphis, putting music on the backburner as trends shifted away from the country sounds to a newer, more sophisticated and amplified style of blues. He offered early encouragement to his young cousin B.B. King and even purchased an electric guitar for him when he first arrived in Memphis. Bukka’s wife died in 1946 and he briefly worked as a rhythm guitarist in a dance band, playing electric guitar in the early 50s until another scrape with the law resulting in 6 months of incarceration put an end to his musical activities. He got a day job at a Memphis tank factory, and was living in a rented room near Beale Street when he was “rediscovered” by two young blues enthusiasts, Ed Denson and John Fahey.
Inspired by the discovery of Mississippi John Hurt who had been found in his hometown of Avalon that he had immortalized in a song, Denson and Fahey sent a letter to “Bukka White, blues singer” care of “General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi”. Though Bukka was long gone, he was fondly remembered by a mailman who forwarded the letter to relatives of Bukka’s and it eventually found its way to him in Memphis. Denson and Fahey promptly recorded him playing guitar and piano for their Takoma record label, and Bukka was soon playing the festival, college, and coffeehouse circuit with Denson as his manager.
The “comeback” recordings of 1963, released the following year, would be repackaged and rereleased under a variety of titles by a bunch of different labels over the years, much like the 1930-40 material. Bukka recorded new renditions of some of his old material, a few piano numbers, a cover of the popular blues standard “Baby Please Don’t Go” and a monologue about growing up wanting to be a “great man like Charley Patton”. Although free from the constraints of the 3-minute 78 rpm format, these recordings were not as improvised as the collection of stream-of-consciousness ramblings he would record for Arhoolie in 1965 as “Sky Songs” vol 1 and 2.
Bukka’s style had changed subtly but noticeably since his 1940 recordings. Although he had maintained some of his signature tunes in his performing repertoire, many of his poignant vintage pieces were long forgotten. In spite of the stark power of their lyrics, much of his 1940 material had been composed on the spot immediately prior to being recorded, and Bukka had long lost the sense of urgency that drove him to create songs like “Fixin’ To Die” (which he had to relearn from his own record, and reproduced with an entirely different guitar arrangement in a different tuning than the original) or “Strange Place Blues” two and a half decades earlier. Bukka seemed to come to accept the world around him and settle into a more tranquil lifestyle, his newer material reflected this and focused more on good times and women than the doom’n’gloom subject matter of his previous work. It is no surprise that the spontaneous songwriting process Bukka used for some of his lyrics would produce different results when drawing on the experience of a changed man living a different life in a very different time.
While his 1930-40 material was being routinely re-released on LPs compiling vintage classic country blues recordings, it wouldn’t be until 1968 that Bukka would make another full-length record. The “Memphis Hot Shots” record on Blue Horizon was a well-intentioned but not altogether successful or coherent experiment teaming Bukka with a full band including drums, bass, piano, harmonica and second guitar. While a handful of live recordings offer a glimpse of Bukka still at the height of his powers, he did not record much during the remaining years of his life.
Aside from a few informal tracks from the home of Furry Lewis and a handful of live recordings, there would be only one more full-length release of new Bukka White material: 1974’s “Big Daddy” on the Biograph label. While the “last recordings” of most blues artists in their twilight years are usually a pitiful affair compared to their earlier work, “Big Daddy” is testimony to the fact that Bukka should have been recorded far more extensively in his final years. His voice sounds rougher and deeper than it did ten years earlier, but his guitar playing is focused, forceful and undiminished by age and unhampered by a guitar in poor playing condition (apparently these recordings were made using a perfectly set up Triolian belonging to the producer). Along with his Takoma recordings and the live “1963 Isn’t 1962” set, “Big Daddy” is as essential as his early material.
Please visit Stefan Wirz’s Illustrated Bukka White Discography page for the most complete list of Bukka’s recordings I have ever seen online.
From 1963 until illness slowed him down in 1975, Bukka would play concert stages, colleges, and festivals all over the United States and Canada. The American Folk Blues Festival package tours took him to Europe in 1967 and again in 1970, and he made a few film and television appearances. Luckily some great video footage survives from this period, and his unique playing style is documented in great detail. The “Masters Of Country Blues” video (also featuring Son House) is must-have material for any self-respecting fan of Bukka White, and additional footage appears on the “Legends of Country Blues Guitar Vol. 2”, “Legends of the Delta Blues”, and “Devil Got My Woman” DVDs.
From this footage we can see that Bukka used a thumbpick and picked primarily with his thumb and index finger, employing an extremely forceful but perfectly controlled touch. The tone he produced is a direct result of the force with which he attacked the strings, there is nothing remotely delicate about his picking technique. He favored an unwound G string on his guitar and must have used fairly light strings, as his guitar is often tuned as much as a full tone above standard pitch! When playing in D minor tuning, Bukka generated an overwhelmingly “major” sound, muting the G string whenever he was unable to fret the major third at the first fret. By the 60s he had also developed a flamboyant “drumming on the guitar” style that he incorporated into “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues” which he referred to as “spanking the baby”. There is also an interesting video on the Adelphi Records website which shows Bukka playing “Mama Don’t Allow” on a Gibson flattop.
Bukka White died of cancer in the City Of Memphis Hospital on February 26, 1977, and was buried at New Park Cemetery.
Some invaluable information for this article about Bukka’s guitars and his playing style came from the late Maynard Silva (Feb 20, 1951-July 16, 2008), who had spent a lot of time with Bukka in the 70s. Maynard cleared up a few myths regarding Bukka’s guitar style for me, including the often-repeated one about Bukka adapting the D minor tuning sometime after his last commercial recordings of 1940. I had seen a few articles suggesting the switch to minor tuning being inspired by Bukka’s supposed admiration of Lightnin’ Hopkins and the desire to emulate a lick Lightnin’ often did: a minor third-to-major third hammer-on on the G string. Maynard told me how Bukka had explained the tuning came from his father who had taught him guitar in his early teens, and scoffed at the notion that Bukka would emulate Lightnin’. “Bukka and Lightnin’ did not get along,” Maynard said, “Bukka thought Lightnin’ was an arrogant pot head, and from the experiences of my friend who played a lot with Lightnin’, that wasn’t far off. The minor tuning was from his daddy, Fiddlin’ John White,” Maynard told me, “and even though it was D minor he called it ‘open G’, Muddy called it cross note. Open G they called Spanish.”
Maynard was also able to clarify some details about the instruments used by Bukka. I had long assumed that the “exploding palm trees” squareneck Tricone that you see Bukka photographed with was a prop for the picture, but it was actually used on the Takoma sessions even though it did not belong to him. He was also able to confirm what my ears have told me all along: Bukka’s early recordings were not made with a National. I’ve listened to these tracks for years paying close attention to detail, and I do not hear the sound of a resonator instrument, only that of Bukka’s relentless rhythm style that we have all come to associate so closely with Nationals. “The 30’s stuff, Pine Bluff and Shake ‘Em On Down were a Gibson, maybe Broonzy’s, but that session was cut short by legal proceedings! The big session from 1940 was a Gibson that Lester Melrose gave him. His guitar playing when I met him in 71 was strictly open tuning largely because of the condition of his old Duolian. Early recordings with a more viable neck enabled him to play in standard tuning, however he could perform all his signature pieces in a couple of open tunings. The actual pitch of those tunings would vary from D up to nearly F# for the D tuning and then G to B in the Spanish tuning. The times I went to his home he had three guitars, an American made Epiphone flat top, a National solid body electric with a National amp, and “Hard Rock”, his Duolian. When he came to Boston and had the stroke, he had Lovene, the O style. I never saw him play that guitar, but it was beautiful (note: this is likely the Style O that appears in the color 70s era footage of Bukka playing “Poor Boy” and “Aberdeen” in his home).”
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