Saturday, March 17, 2018

Requiem for Furry

BY AMANDA SHARP - (MEMPHIS, TN:) Commercial Appeal - 1981
On August 14, 1981, Furry Lewis suffered severe burns in a fire at his duplex. He remained in the hospital, falling into a coma in September. After being in a coma for five days, he died of heart failure less than a week later at the City of Memphis Hospital. “Like a man in a blues song,” journalist William Thomas informed, “he was broke and his guitar was in the pawn shop” when he died.

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. 
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, the 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 in Mississippi, 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.''

Furry Lewis was buried on September 16, 1981. Musician Sid Selvidge informed that the ceremony was not “real elaborate,” because “the family wanted to pay for it without a lot of outside help.” Selvidge joined Lee Baker and Lindsay Butler in singing some hymns, such as “Lay My Burden Down” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”

 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 continue 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 AmericansEditor'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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