Master of the National Steel Guitar

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Bukka White had his first name misspelled by the record label, Vocalion. This might give us a little insight about the social nature of his professional relationship with them. We can only speculate why he kept that spelling of his name for the rest of his music career. But Bukka White was no fool and as his career progressed, anyone that came around with recording and performance promises had to earn his trust.

Born on a farm near Houston, Mississippi, Booker T. Washington White introduced his younger cousin B.B. King to his first guitar, a Red Stella. He and B.B. King would later share the same stage and reminisce about that experience. Bukka White was introduced as “Master of the National Steel Guitar”. The song he was known mostly for was Aberdeen Blues, and when he played it audiences would go wild as he hit the neck and strings of his guitar with emotional force.

In the 1930’s Bukka was a professional prize fighter in Chicago and a baseball pitcher for the Birmingham Black Cats. At that time during a stay in Memphis he had the opportunity to record 14 songs. The sessions produced two 78s, released to the public with no commercial success. Around that time, he was sent to Parchman Farm for shooting an assailant in the thigh. Before going off to jail he recorded Shake ‘Em on Down which sold 16,000 copies. Unfortunately, Bukka couldn’t feel that song’s full impact while serving behind bars. While there, he recorded  two songs with Alan Lomax in 1939 for the Library of Congress. They were Sic ‘Em Dogs On and Po’ Boy.

When Bukka White was released from prison in 1940 he recorded follow-up sessions to Shake ‘Em On Down that resulted in a compilation of powerful tunes reflecting on his prison life, Jim Crow justice, isolation, and the freedom of hobo life on the rails.

In the 1960’s, Bukka White reemerged with the folk revival scene and gained much notoriety. He had a reputation with promoters to be professional, punctual and to the point. He was always the first one on the bus even for a 5 a.m. wake up call, one promoter would later say. Bukka’s presence on stage was the real deal and everybody who came to see him play felt his magnanimous presence. He continued to play live and record until his death in Memphis on Feb 27, 1977.

Aberdeen Blues – Bukka White

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