Archie Edwards (1918-1998) was a bluesman, teacher, barber, and storyteller. The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation was created to preserve his memory and to carry on the work he began at his barbershop in Northeast Washington, DC, to keep the tradition of acoustic blues alive.
The biography below by author Richard Burton tells a rich story about this remarkable musician, educator, and friend.
Archie Edwards in His Barbershop
A biography by Richard Burton
Sally Edwards, Willie Edwards, Pearl Spencer Edwards (Archie's mom), Mary Smith Edwards, and Thelma Edwards
Archie Edwards was born the third son of Roy and Pearl Edwards on September 4, 1918, on a farm near Union Hall, Virginia. His first musical memories centered around his father, who was respected locally for his banjo, harmonica, and slide guitar playing. Roy Edwards' repertoire was primarily pre-blues ballads, including “Stagg O'Lee,” “ John Henry,” and “Cumberland Gap.”
Archie was attracted to the music, especially guitar, from an early age. His interest was piqued early on by local musicians (all unrecorded, unfortunately) who would stop by the house to play with his father. With Union Hall's rural location, much of the entertainment revolved around tobacco harvest, corn shuckings, and so on, and local musicians would play these events.
Edwards decided he would play guitar, too, and he started playing in the early 1930s.
He and three brothers got their first guitar a couple of years later, with Archie being the one who played the most. He learned songs from his father, neighbors, and itinerant musicians. However, Archie and his brother Robert also learned to play the
songs of professional musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, and especially, Mississippi John Hurt, from the record player.
This skill, which their father never developed, enhanced their reputation around Franklin County. Archie's older brother Willie would go to house parties and brag about him to the musicians who were playing. Willie would then drive back, pick up the twelve-year-old Archie, and take him back to the party. Edwards would play with or above the older local or itinerant musicians, earning valuable experience, the musicians’ respect, and (more importantly) the partiers' tips.
In spite of his being a good student, Archie's education ended with the eighth grade; rural educational opportunities in the 1930s weren't what they are today. (One of his classmates was John Tinsley, who became a fine Piedmont guitarist in his own right.) Edwards and his brother James went to work in a nearby sawmill. In his spare time, Archie played guitar with other musicians in the lumber camp, increasing his skills
and expanding his repertoire. On weekends, the two would work half-days on Saturdays, then walk home and play at Saturday night house parties. Sunday
mornings were devoted to the church, then it was back to the mill. After a while, Edwards tired of this and headed out into the world in 1937 to make his own way. Through his sister, he found a job as a cook and chauffeur for a family in New Jersey.
He worked there for about two years before moving on. Edwards returned briefly to Virginia and eventually wound up working in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio.
The War Years
Archie and a friend decided to sign up for the military and serve their year before World War II came to the US. However, just before his year was completed, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Edwards was in for the duration as a military police officer in the Pacific theater and was in Okinawa in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, when Truman gave the okay to drop the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Archie and Mississippi John Hurt
After leaving the military, Edwards settled in Washington. With the GI Bill, he learned masonry but decided it wasn't for him. He went to Richmond to become a barber, then returned to DC. (Eventually he would earn his master's.) Edwards went to work as a truck driver and security guard for the federal government, retiring in 1981. In 1959, he opened his barbershop on Bunker Hill Road in Northeast DC. The shop became a regular hangout for many local down home musicians, including his musical hero, Mississippi John Hurt. After his re-discovery, Hurt had moved to Washington and was playing regularly at Ontario Place in the District. Edwards introduced himself to Hurt, and the two became close friends for the few years until Hurt's death. (Hurt's granddaughter even stayed with Edwards and his wife Frances when she was going to college in DC.) The two would often play at each other's house or in Edwards' barbershop for his customers. Edwards also began performing around town with Hurt and Skip James, getting exposure before the new white blues audience.
However, Edwards put down his guitar for two years after Hurt passed away in 1966. Hurt had told Edwards to carry on his work, and Archie Edwards has a personality that made him feel uncomfortable claiming this to others. He has said he didn't want people to think he was trying to steal Hurt's glory. To prove he knew Hurt, and possibly to prove something to himself, Archie wrote “The Road Is Rough and Rocky” and was ready to face the blues audience again.
Eleanor Ellis, Flora Molton,
and Archie Edwards
Back in action, Edwards hooked up with The Traveling Blues Workshop, a loose amalgum of DC blues artists that included, at various times, John Jackson, John Cephas, Flora Molton, Phil Wiggins, and Mother Scott, among others. Edwards also played solo gigs at local clubs and at a few festivals around the country, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, meeting many other bluesmen.
Then, in 1978, Edwards got a much-deserved break when Axel Küstner “discovered” him. Acting on a tip from Flora Molton, Küstner came back to DC from a festival in New Orleans. He met Edwards in his barbershop, along with Leroy and Willie Gaines, two local musicians. Küstner made arrangements for Edwards to tour Europe with The
American Folk Blues Festival. This led to his first album, The Road Is Rough and Rocky:
Living Country Blues Volume 6, for the L+R label. After returning from Germany, Edwards decided to seek out a musical partner and hooked up with Eleanor Ellis and Flora Molton (or “Miss Flora”, as Archie called her). The trio played all over the US, Canada, and Europe, where they toured with Charlie Musselwhite in 1987.
In 1989, Edwards recorded Blues and Bones for the Mapleshade label, getting help from Mark Wenner on harmonica and Richard "Mr. Bones" Thomas on the bones. The collaboration worked so well that Thomas and Edwards began touring together on a regular basis.
Archie Edwards' music, whether his own composition or someone else's, is very much within the Piedmont tradition. He drew inspiration from several different sources. His father and brother were certainly his biggest musical inspiration, followed by Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, and Furry Lewis. He also had a fondness for Barbecue Bob, Frank Hutchinson, Sleepy John Estes, and Buddy Moss (or "all those old-timey dudes," as he used to put it). Edwards would learn their songs by playing along with records over and over again. Then when he played at parties, he was able to play the latest hits, which not every local musician could do.
and Mance Lipscomb 1970
Edwards was a great interpreter of others' songs and traditional songs. He played wonderful versions of “John Henry,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagg O'Lee,” and others. Most of these he learned from his father, but John Hurt, live and on record, was another source; he learned “Monday Morning Blues” from Hurt. Not surprisingly, Edwards learned some songs from records by the most popular East Coast blues artists, like Barbecue Bob and Blind Boy Fuller, but he also interpreted songs of blues artists outside the Piedmont tradition, bringing other styles into the fold. He does nice covers of Leroy Carr's “How Long How Long Blues” and The Mississippi Sheiks' “Sitting on Top of the World.” (As far as I know, he hasn't recorded his version of “How Long”; “Sitting on Top of the World” is on an L+R compilation album.) These two songs, while no “Sweet Home Chicago,” have been more or less covered to death; Edwards, though, puts his own stamp on them, as he does on any cover, and breathes life into them.
Edwards was also a gifted songwriter. Though he may not have written as many songs as some lifelong performers, those he did pen are well-crafted, uniquely his own, and well within the Piedmont tradition. Like many blues, most of his songs are based on real-life experiences and incidents. “Saturday Night Hop,” for example, comes from those nights long ago when his brother would pick him up and Archie would have to hop out of bed to play guitar at a house party. “Duffel Bag Blues” is based on his army experience, and while on the road, he wrote “I Called My Baby Long Distance,” a great bottle-neck number, after he called his wife from a hotel room.
One thing that I noticed about Edwards is that, especially for a bluesman, his music is pretty colorblind, something in which Edwards takes pride. He has covered Jimmy Rodgers and has played songs by Riley Puckett and Uncle Dave Macon, among others. Edwards did not know that Frank Hutchinson, one of his influences, was white until he saw a picture on an album cover. If the song is good, Edwards will keep it, regardless of whose it is. To him, it is the individual, not the individual's pigment, that matters. Not surprisingly, this is an attitude shared by his close friend John Hurt. Before he passed away, Hurt told Edwards “Brother Arch, whatever you do, teach my music to other people. Don't make no difference what color they are, teach it to them. Because I don't want to die and you don't want to die. Teach them my music and teach them your music.''
Archie Edwards did just that, playing, singing, and spreading the message of the Piedmont blues tradition in his barbershop, on recordings, and on tours all over the world up until his death at the age of 79 in June of 1998.
Like most Piedmont artists, Archie Edwards was under-recorded; he has had only two albums released. Not that this is anything new of course. Blues, in general, is under-recorded; Piedmont blues, especially so. The first is the hard-to-find and long-titled The Road Is Rough and Rocky: Living Country Blues Volume 6 (LR 42.036) on L+R Records. I have not been able to find this on CD, but I have heard that Evidence may be bringing out some L+R material on CD. Hopefully, this will be among the re-releases. Rough and Rocky is a great album, featuring Archie's originals (title cut, “My Old Schoolmates,” “Pittsburgh Blues,” etc.) as well as his versions
of older songs (“John Henry, “Stagg O'Lee”). Archie is in fine form, and it's surprising no one recorded him before this. However, as long as this disc remains unavailable on CD, look for his newer releases on Mapleshade, Blues and Bones (56282). Here, Edwards is teamed with Mark Wenner on harmonica and Richard "Mr. Bone" Thomas on bones. Some of the songs overlap with Rough and Rocky, but Blues and Bones would be a fine addition to any blues collection. (I particularly like the version of “T for Texas” on the ukulele.)
The following written resources were used in creating this biography:
Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition of the Southeast. The University of Illinois Press, 1986 (ISBN 0-252-06521-2).
Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who. DaCapo Press, 1979 (ISBN 0-306-80155-8 .)
Herzhaft, Gerard. Encyclopedia of the Blues. The University of Arkansas Press, 1992 (ISBN 1-55728-253-6).
Pearson, Barry Lee. Liner notes. Blues and Bones. Mapleshade 56292.
Pearson, Barry Lee. Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen. The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990 (ISBN 0-8122-1300-9).
Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues. Penguin, 1993 (ISBN 0 14 01.5939 8).
Zolten, Jerry. "Archie Edwards: Roots, Rights, and Rhythm," Living Blues. March/April 1996.
Discography and Videos
Wirz American Music website includes Archie Edwards in an illustrated discography of recordings by acoustic blues artists. The site links to recordings of two of his songs, “Bear Cat Mama Blues” and “Sellin’ That Stuff.”