Requiem for Furry

BY AMANDA SHARP - (MEMPHIS, TN:) Commercial Appeal - 1981

Walter 'Furry' Lewis, a wooden-legged Memphis street sweeper who helped keep country blues alive, went to his grave with a brand-new suit, a clean shirt and the tears of his mourners on his casket.

'He would have loved it,' said Harry Godwin, a blues historian and good friend of the 88-year-old bottleneck guitarist.

Lewis, who once told an interviewer that 'You just live as long as you can and you die when you can't help it,' succumbed Monday to a heart attack as he was recovering from burns received in a fire at his ramshackle apartment.

About 200 people crowded into the J.C. Oates & Son funeral home to see him off Wednesday.

They passed the casket one-by-one, many in tears, to see him wearing clothes he rarely could afford in life. Over the funeral home's sound system his gruff recorded voice sang his old songs -- 'Good Morning Blues,' 'Take Your Time, Baby' 'Judge Boushe', 'Pearlee Blues' and 'Brownsville Blues.'

Ranged behind the casket for the service, two guitarists, a pianist and a harmonica -- harp to the bluesman -- player churned out 'The Old Rugged Cross' and 'When I Lay My Burden Down,' and sent the casket out to the hearse with 'When the Saints Go Marching In.'

Those who knew him took turns speaking -- of his legendary generosity, the music he passed on to them, and his hard times.

'Furry would give you his right eye if he thought it would make you see better,' said one woman. A young girl sprinkled rose petals on the casket.

'It was tough, it was hard, and that's what he sang about,' said a musician named Vic Conwill bitterly. 'He sang the blues, and he had every right to sing the blues.

'When Furry Lewis got down, nobody cared 'til right now,' said Conwill. 'Look at all these people -- big deal, and you can take that to the bank.'

The Rev. James Ramey, associate pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church, delivered a remarkable eulogy. Noting the 44 years Lewis spent working for the city as a street sweeper, Ramy announced that 'from this sweeping of his city's streets, Memphis received many 'Cleanest City' awards.'

'Thank God for this legend who went about doing good under adverse circumstances,' Ramey said. 'He exhibited to us that we can make it if we try.'

Exactly how Lewis had 'made it' was hard to understand. Toothless, in ill health, he often had to hock his guitar for food money.

Born on a Mississippi plantation, he was the last surviving member of the great W.C. Handy's band. He played across the United States and Europe. He played himself in two movies, 'W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings' with Burt Reynolds and 'This Is Elvis,' the semi-documentary on the rock 'n' roll legend.

But he lived, and died, a poor man -- in part because when he had it, he spent it on his friends. Arne Brogger, an agent, told of the time Lewis was on the road with the Memphis Blues Caravan, which included Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes, and the group stopped for lunch.

'Well, the bill came and old Furry slapped down a $50 bill. 'This one's on me,' he said,' recounted Brogger. When he was asked why, Furry replied, ''Well the way I figure it, maybe someone will buy me a lunch someday.''


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