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BUKKA WHITE biography

Predominately an electric Delta blues singer and guitarist, BUKKA WHITE (born Booker T. Washington, November 12, 1909, Houston, Mississippi – or before) had a brief tenure with the folk fraternity in the mid-late 60s. Note that some biographers say they’ve proof that he was born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in 1902 (sourced from his friend Anne Brogger) and others say it might’ve been in 1906.

Having spread himself thinly on a couple of 10” shellacs for Victor Records in the early 30s, as Washington White (`The Promise True And Grand’ and `The New ‘Frisco Train’), post-Great Depression hobo/busker BUKKA WHITE re-surfaced in 1937 with a Vocalion-endorsed 10”, `Pinebluff Arkansas’; it’s thought that only the paper-sleeve of a “Washington White” album exists as the metal parts were destroyed. Famous folklorist John Lomax taped singing convict Washington “Barrelhouse” White at the State Penitentiary, Parchman, MS in May 1939 as part of his Library of Congress duties; it might’ve helped that Bukka (slang for Booker) was the cousin of the mother of another blues giant, B.B. KING, whom he helped to break through from 1948 onwards.

Vocalion and splinter label OKeh Records issued a string of 78s cut March 7/8, 1940, and more or less released them in the months to come; featuring Washboard Sam, the twelve sides were divided equally between both labels:- `When Can I Change My Clothes’ (b/w `High Fever Blues’), `Special Stream Line’ (b/w `Strange Place Blues’) and `Black Train Blues’ (b/w `Fixin’ To Die Blues’) from the first batch, and `Good Gin Blues’ (b/w `Bukka’s Jitterbug Swing’), `Parchman Farm Blues’ (b/w `District Attorney Blues’) and `Sleepy Man Blues’ (b/w `Aberdeen Mississippi Blues’) from the Okeh batch.

But once again, BUKKA WHITE duly disappeared into the ether, raising his two children alone after obtaining a legal separation while in Memphis from his wife of several years, Susie Simpson (his first wife Jesse Bea died of a burst appendix in 1928). The 50s were just as barren musically as he went from one menial job to another, firstly as a labourer and then a metal worker in a steel factory.

Rediscovered by the likes of folk-blues artists BOB DYLAN and JOHN FAHEY and music enthusiast Ed Denson, WHITE was encouraged to teach at seminars in Berkeley University, California. The album for FAHEY’s Takoma imprint, MISSISSIPPI BLUES (1964) {*7}, gathered together re-workings of his great songs from 1940, while fresher narrative tracks picked out his boozing times with one CHARLEY PATTON. Worth also searching out are 2 Volumes of SKY SONGS (1965) {*7/*6}, showcasing stretched-out numbers including the 14-minute `My Baby’ and the 12-minute `Sugar Hill’.

In 1967, Bukka toured Europe and performed at the American Folk Blues Festival, while the following year he played at the Olympic Games in Mexico City and delivered his fourth bona fide LP, MEMPHIS HOT SHOTS (1968) {*7}. Augmented by guitarist Bill Barth, drummer Joe Gray, bassist Anchor, Harmonica Boy and a few others, Bukka delivered pure blues in a way only he could portray.

Married for a third time, his wife Leola bore a handful of children, while the ex-boxer-come-storyteller kept recording sporadically. 1974’s BIG DADDY {*6} was understandably croaky, but his formula of mixing fresh blues renditions (many of them traditional) with his golden oldies seemed to work fine; check out `Jelly Roll Morton Man’, `Shake My Hand Blues’ and `Black Cat Bone Blues’.

While age didn’t seem to bother Bukka to a certain degree, a gig in Bremen, Germany, for the Sparkasse series on March 11, 1975, and released as COUNTRY BLUES (1975) {*6}, seemed to wear him down. Several strokes later, BUKKA WHITE died of cancer in Memphis on February 26, 1977. His legacy will cite `Fixin’ To Die Blues’, `Parchman Farm Blues’, `Shake ‘Em On Down’ and `Po’ Boy’ as his lasting memories; DYLAN, LED ZEPPELIN, KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD and others would lay testament to the blues man in song.