802 Bookshelf: A Blues Life

by Henry Townsend, as told to Bill Greensmith, University of Illinois Press, 1999, 145 pages, $24.95 hardcover

Volume C, No. 2February, 2000

Bill Crow

Bill Greensmith is a photographer from England who now lives in St. Louis. He has been a record producer, host of a weekly blues radio program, and co-editor of the magazine Blues Unlimited. When he realized that Henry Townsend was one of the last remaining bluesmen representing the early development of that music in St. Louis, he began tape recording Townsend’s recollections, going back to his arrival in St. Louis in 1919 and his early attraction to playing the guitar. Townsend’s collaborations with pianist Walter Davis typified the piano-guitar duos that were so prevalent in the St. Louis area before World War II.

This book is drawn from over 30 hours of tape-recorded interviews with Townsend, which Greensmith has edited into a chronological story of his life. He has also provided notes that explain some of Townsend’s comments and has compiled a bibliography and a discography of Townsend’s recordings. And he has included 20 pages of interesting historical photographs.

Townsend’s narrative has an easy, conversational flow and is full of good humor and detailed recall. His family migrated from Mississippi to Tennessee to Missouri to Illinois, farming different plots of land. Along the way his father, who played accordion, got together at home with a friend who played the guitar. “I was in bed at night,” says Townsend, “and he and my dad would get making them sounds . . . The sound of that guitar just went through me, just penetrated me like a bullet . . . I knew then that I wanted to play the guitar.”

He says the word “blues” wasn’t used for the music then. “People called them reels back then. You’d get scolded about singing one of them. Ungodly songs . . . but we’d do it.” He and a friend started out in music as children, playing “harps” (harmonicas) at parties and get-togethers at people’s houses. “We didn’t play on no street corners. It wasn’t permitted, because I was much too young to be doing what I was doing.”

To avoid a whipping by his father for a childish prank, Townsend jumped a freight car on the Illinois Central line and rode to St. Louis. Among his survival adventures there, he operated a shoe-shine business that fronted for a bootlegger. By sneaking into the Booker Washington Theatre he was able to hear the musicians who influenced him, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Lonnie Johnson.

Even though a guitar could be bought for a couple of dollars in those days, it took Townsend a while to get his hands on one. When he finally did, he worked hard to teach himself to play it, picking up ideas from the other players he heard around town. He also learned to play the piano, and began recording in 1929. Over the years he recorded by himself and with Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes, Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lee McCoy, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Henry Spaulding.

The most interesting part of Townsend’s narrative is his description of life in the St. Louis venues where he developed his music. In the speakeasies and honky-tonks, the red-light district and the bootlegging business, Townsend gives colorful details that paint an interesting picture of those times. And his stories of personal dealings with the police present a sobering depiction of life as a young Black man in St. Louis.

I found his comments on the other musicians in the blues world most enjoyable, and am only disappointed that the book ended so soon. Townsend is still active as a performer and a recording artist, and is a recipient of the NEA National Heritage Award.