Born Walter Lewis, March 6, 1893, Greenwood MS, (died September 14, 1981, Memphis TN); married to Versie.
Furry Lewis, the bluesman who eventually came to personify the Memphis blues, was born Walter Lewis in Greenwood Mississippi in the last decade of the 1800s March 6, 1893 is usually given as his birthday. His father disappeared completely before his birth and little Walter was raised by his mother. When he was about six years old, he and his mother moved to Memphis where he attended school until the fifth grade. His childhood friends in Memphis gave him the nickname "Furry", but by the time he was rediscovered in the 1950s not even Furry himself could remember why.
His interest in music began at an early age, possibly in part because of exposure to a guitarist named Blind Joe who Lewis frequently saw around his home on Brinkley Street in Memphis. Lewis later recorded two of the songs Blind Joe played, "Casey Jones" and "John Henry." Like so many black children of the time who loved music, Furry made himself a primitive instrument. "I loved guitar," Lewis later told Bengt Olsson, in Memphis Blues, "[I] made my own guitar. I taken [sic] a cigar box and cut a hole in the top of it and taken another little piece of thin wood like beaverboard and made the neck. And I taken some nails and nailed them in the end of the neck and bent them down and taken wire off a screen door. And that's what I made my strings out of. Of course, I wasn't playing nothing, but that's just the way I got a start."
Eventually he obtained a real guitar, but in the meantime he learned harmonica and began playing in the streets of Memphis. Lewis told Olsson that his first professional job had been with the W.C. Handy band sitting in for absent musicians. He also credited Handy composer of the "St. Louis Blues," known as the "Father of the Blues," and probably the most well known black musician of the day with giving him his first good guitar. "I kept that guitar until I absolutely wore it out completely. I kept it for twenty-five or thirty years. It was a Martin."
Lewis played his way from town to town up and down the Mississippi River as a young man. In the course of his travels, around 1916, he suffered a debilitating accident. Train hopping near Du Quoin, Illinois, his foot got stuck in a railroad coupling and a train ran him over, severing his leg. "I had just caught a freight," he later told blues researcher Samuel Charters, in Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain, " 'cause I didn't feel like spending the money for a ticket."
Around 1920 Lewis got an important break when he met Jim Jackson. Jackson was a popular performer in the medicine shows variety shows that traveled from town to town selling patent medicine and with his help, Furry joined the Dr. Willie Lewis medicine show. By 1923, though, he had settled back in Memphis and found a secure job with the city sweeping streets. When he returned, he formed a band of his own and before long he had made a place for himself in the Beale Street musical scene that was just beginning to thrive. It was a period on intense cross-fertilization in Memphis blues. Besides Lewis and Jim Jackson, Memphis Minnie, Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes, and Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band were actively performing. Musicians accompanied one another in street concerts, at house parties, on medicine show trips and eventually on records. Lewis played regularly with the Memphis Jug Band before it started recording, and he continued to perform with Jim Jackson. Lewis later told Bengt Olsson that he had played at one time or other with most of the blues greats of the 1920s, including, Memphis Minnie, Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Bessie Smith but it is impossible to establish just how accurate these claims are.
Lewis' association with Jim Jackson seems to have led to his first opportunity to record. After being contacted by Vocalion Records, Lewis took the train to Chicago in May 1927 for his first session. He recalled the hospitality he received, "I made two or three records for Mr. Jack Kapp," he told Charters, "he know'd [sic] what I like and so he had a whole gallon of whiskey sitting there." Somehow the session came off despite the alcohol and the following fall Vocalion called him back for a second session.
Although blues was very much in vogue in 1927 Lewis did not limit himself to recording just blues. In addition to "Rock Island Blues," "Jelly Roll," "Everybody's Blues," and "Mr. Furry's Blues," he recorded old-time popular ballads that pre-dated blues music. And his versions brought a unique sensibility to songs that were already chestnuts by the 1920s. For example, in "John Henry" and "Kassie Jones," songs about larger than life figures whose ambition leads to their deaths, he sings from the perspective of the dead men's wives and children. It was an approach that made their deaths less heroic but ultimately more tragic.
Lewis was unique among bluesmen in the way he prepared his songs before a recording session in that he never improvised his lyrics on a particular theme in the studio. "I used to get me a tablet," Lewis is quoted by Stephen Calt in the liner notes to Furry Lewis In His Prime, "and attempt to sit down and make up verses. Then after I do [sic] that, I used to take it down to Johnson's Printing Shop and he'd typewrite it out for me." When performing, he fingerpicked his accompaniments on a guitar tuned to an open G or D chord. He was one of the rare Memphis musicians who used a bottleneck or pocketknife when he played, one reason he may have made the farfetched claim that he "invented" slide guitar.
Lewis' records apparently did not have high sales and Vocalion did not ask him to record in 1928. In August of that year, however, Ralph Peer, a representative of the Victor Record Company, came to Memphis and Lewis recorded eight sides, including "Kassie Jones Part 1," "Kassie Jones Part 2," and "I Will Turn Your Money Green." Those records didn't sell any better than the earlier ones and he did not record for Victor again. He cut his last 78s in the fall of 1929, just before the Great Depression decimated the blues industry. After that last session he faded into the utter obscurity known only to the poor. He continued to work his street-cleaning job, and before long that was how his neighbors in Memphis knew him; his musical past was obliterated. He played his guitar for his own entertainment when he had one. As often as not though, the instrument sat in the pawnshop, traded for money to buy a bottle.
The next time Lewis' name surfaced was on Harry Smith's monumental Anthology of American Folk Music, a set released in 1952 which included "Kassie Jones, Part 1 & 2." The Anthology inspired folklorists and musicians to search out the musicians who had recorded on the other side of the great divide created by the Depression and World War II. In 1958, Charters was in Memphis visiting Will Shade, whom Charters had recently tracked down. Shade's wife mentioned to Charters that Lewis lived in the same neighborhood and that she frequently met him working out on the street. Charters called around to some Memphis city departments and eventually found Lewis. Shortly afterwards he was in Furry's small furnished room, listening to the long-lost bluesman play "John Henry."
Lewis began making records again almost immediately. Charters recorded him first in February and October 1959, and the result, songs and story telling, was released by Folkways on Furry Lewis Blues. In 1961 he signed a contract for two albums with Prestige Records. Recorded at the Sun Studios in Memphis, and like in the 1920s Lewis had to take time off from his street cleaning job, or go to the studio after work. Finding Lewis inspired Charters to make his film, The Blues. In Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain, he wrote "mostly because of Furry and the flashing pattern of his fingers as he picked 'John Henry.' It seemed that film was the only way to capture what he was doing." Charters filmed Lewis at work cleaning Memphis streets, then at home playing a guitar decorated with a colorful ribbon.
Like other old-time musicians, like Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes, Lewis discovered a brand new career in the 1960s and beyond. He began regularly recording albums, appearing at folk and blues festivals, and playing clubs. Most of his life Lewis believed he had been born in 1900 and kept his city job until 1960 when he believed he had reached retirement age. Afterwards, a student searching through old school records to help Lewis qualify for Medicaid, uncovered evidence that he had in fact been born seven years earlier.
In 1972 he was the featured performer in the Memphis Blues Caravan, which included the likes of Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes & Hammy Nixon, Memphis Piano Red, Sam Chatmon, and Mose Vinson. Around the same time he had a role in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. Lewis was the opening act on one of Leon Russell 1970s tours, and performed and recorded with the rock group, Alabama State Troupers. He lived out the last decades of his life as the pre-eminent representative of the old-time blues. He died in Memphis on September 14, 1981.
by Gerald E. Brennan
Furry Lewis's Career
Met singer/guitarist Jim Jackson and began playing medicine shows, around 1920; performed with early line-up of Memphis Jug Band, around 1926; cut first records for Vocalion May 1927; second Vocalion session held fall of 1927; recorded eight sides for Victor August 1928; "Kassie Jones, Parts 1 & 2" appeared on Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952; two recording sessions with Sam Charters for Folkway, February and October of 1959; signed contract with Prestige, 1961; appeared in Charters' film, The Blues; toured with Blues Caravan 1972; cameo role in W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings.
- Selected discography
- Furry Lewis Blues , Smithsonian/Folkways, 1959.
- Back on My Feet Again , Prestige/Blues, 1961.
- When I Lay My Burden Down , Biograph, 1970.
- Fourth & Beale , Lucky Seven, 1975.
- In His Prime (1927-1928), Yazoo, 1988.
- Complete Works (1927-1929), Document, 1990.
- Blues Magician , Lucky Seven, 1999.
- Barlow, William, Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989.
- Charters, Samuel, The Country Blues. Da Capo, New York, 1975.
- Charters, Samuel, Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain, Oak Publications, New York, 1977.
- Additional information provided by the liner notes to Furry Lewis: In His Prime by Stephen Calt.