Monday, November 27, 2017

Remembering Furry Lewis in 1981

 Ernest Herndon - September 21, 1981

[Editor's note: In this personal recollection, Ernest Herndon pays tribute to pioneer blues guitarist and singer Furry Lewis of Memphis.] 

MEMPHIS — Furry Lewis died this month, and the tradition of the blues has lost a major force. Furry was up in years, in poor health, with a wooden leg, and he died after lapsing into a coma following a heart attack. But he was well-known among Memphians and among aficionados of the blues as one of the founding fathers of the Beale Street sound. Furry started out, he used to say, with a cigar box and broom handle for a guitar. By the time he was in his 80s, which was when I knew him, he played an old six-string with frequent use of the bottleneck, which he developed to a high art. A so-called bottleneck is actually a steel cylinder which fits around a finger and is slid up and down the strings for a whining, haunting effect. When used poorly it has been said to resemble cats fighting. But I never heard Furry use it poorly.

HE LIVED in a small house in one of the poorer parts of town, not far from downtown Memphis. Despite the fact that he made a number of albums and even had a part in a Burt Reynolds movie, Furry, like most master bluesmen, never accumulated much money. I have heard tales that such a state resulted from greedy and dishonest managers who gobbled much of the profits — but I really can't say. [Then let me chime in. The truth is often obscured by the impetus to ignore racial segregation, it's pernicious effects that continues to linger into the late twentieth century, and the benefits of white privilege. By disavowing white privilege, white America can view itself as the victim of such initiatives to bring about equality as affirmative action. The same can be said about the "greedy and dishonest manager." By placing the onus on one unknown and evil individual, blues pilgrims blinded themselves to the larger problems of white society and it's long-term effects on the financial status of African Americans. Editor's note]

We used to go to Furry's house on cold winter evenings. I would carry my guitar in hopes of learning a few techniques from a master of that instrument. The tradition was to bring Furry a quart of beer or pint of whiskey — he liked Jack Daniels. He'd say, "Go get us some glasses in there in the kitchen and pour us a little." Furry would be propped up in bed, his wooden leg leaning against a chair. I would hand him the whiskey and then, after chatting a few minutes, he'd ask for his guitar.

CHANCES ARE, if Furry were alive now he wouldn't remember me. I suspect I was one of many pilgrims who came irregularly to see this master of the blues, to sit at his feet, as it were, and listen to him strum and sing "John Henry," "Going to Brownsville," and "My Dog Blue."  His version of "St. Louis Blues" remains perhaps the most chillingly beautiful versions of that classic I have ever heard. He played it slow, sliding out the graceful notes with his bottleneck.

Summer 1983
"I hate to see that rising sun go down," he would sing. I'd sit in the chair across from his bed and listen, maybe strumming an uncertain backup to his lilting bottleneck licks. Then he might ask me to play. I watched his bottleneck style closely, and I practiced it myself at home until I could match the notes on some of his easier songs. Then one day he gave me a great honor when he said, "Say, that boy's pretty good."

OLD FURRY had a lot of friends. He was soft-spoken in a gentle manner. He knew the blues. And he knew how to sing them and play them.  I read that at his funeral several hundred persons attended. I didn't make it, but maybe tonight sit down and play the "St. Louis" blues and think about him for a while.

Sid Selvidge and Arne Brogger were two of the contributors and music lovers who funded both the upright marker and the smaller footer in the summer of 1983. The marker remains atop his grave. In 2016, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund marked another grave inside the cemetery and straightened the thick marker of Furry Lewis.


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