The Blues Poetry of Bukka White / 28 September 2014
Blues songs reflect their artists’ backgrounds and personal experiences. One of the many fine blues songwriters and musicians is Bukka White.
Bukka White was born Booker T. Washington White in Mississippi, in 1909. ‘Bukka’ was a misspelling on one of his early recordings. His father worked on the railways, and was also an accomplished musician who taught Bukka how to play the guitar. Bukka’s mother was the daughter of a preacher. Bukka worked as a field-hand by day, at night he played in juke joints and at parties. His recording career began in 1930. He recorded both blues and gospel songs.
In 1937 Bukka travelled up to Chicago where he recorded ‘Pinebluff’, ‘Arkansas’ and ‘Shake ‘em on Down’. Afterwards, Bukka travelled back down south. He was ambushed and shot his attacker in the hip. He spent three years in the Mississippi Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. In later years Bukka played down the harshness of his prison experiences. While he was in prison, the single ‘Pinebluff/ Arkansas/ Shake ‘em on Down’ became a hit. In 1940 Bukka returned to Chicago to record again.
When Bukka returned, he was playing covers of popular songs of the time. Bukka’s producer was unimpressed, and paid for him to spend two nights in a hotel to come up with some new songs. In the resulting album, Bukka sings two songs about his prison experiences: in ‘When Can I Change My Clothes?’ Bukka wonders when he will be able to get back into his civilian clothes again. The other ‘prison’ song is ‘Parchman Farm Blues’. ‘Fixing to Die’ is a song Bukka wrote after watching his mother die. Bukka’s mother also appears in ‘Strange Place Blues’. Here we find him at her graveside wishing he could see her again. ‘High Fever Blues’ deals with sickness, but is also a love song. As its title suggests, ‘Good Gin Blues’ is sung in praise of good gin.
Bukka then retired from music, but in the early 1960s a new audience started listening to his music. Bob Dylan recorded ‘Fixing to Die’ on his first album. Folk guitarist John Faye tracked Bukka down, and brought him back to the music world. Bukka started performing again, playing at folk and blues festivals, and also touring Britain. Towards the end of the decade Bukka recorded for Blue Horizon, the top British blues label of the time.
Bukka carried on performing until his death from cancer in 1977. Along with his contemporaries he showed that blues lyrics have a depth to them, and in their subject matter cover a wide range of topics.
The Legacy of the Blues by Samuel Charters is essential reading and puts the blues in a contemporary context.
There is also quite a bit about Bukka White on the internet.