Furry Lewis (March 6, 1893 – September 14, 1981) was born Walter E. Lewis to Greenwood, Mississippi sharecroppers, Victoria and Walter, Sr. His father left before he was born, and his mother moved him and his two sisters to Memphis near the turn of the century. She did wash, cooking and cleaning to provide for them. Young Walter attended school through the fifth grade, where he picked up the nickname “Furry”, before taking work as a delivery boy to help provide for the family.

youtube: Judge Harsh Blues

Furry made himself a cigar box guitar with screen door wires for strings and began playing on Beale Street corners for spare change. He recounted that W.C. Handy noticed the youngster and bought him his first real guitar. A neighborhood man, named Blind Joe, taught him to play “Casey Jones” and “John Henry”— old songs about legendary figures from American tall tales— songs that would become Furry’s staples.

By his teens, Furry Lewis was not only performing on street corners, but also in saloons and for house parties. He left Memphis to join the Dr. Willie Lewis Medicine Show as a comedian hawking oils and medicines. During these travels he was exposed to the guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and fellow Mississippi blues guitarist and compatriot, Jim Jackson.

In 1916, Furry Lewis lost a leg in an accident while hopping a freight train in Illinois. He spent a month in a railroad hospital in Carbondale, and was later fitted with an artificial limb. He returned to performing on Memphis street corners, Beale Street saloons, and in jug bands— along with Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson. He also took work hauling freight from riverboats, yard work and deliveries. In 1923, he became a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Furry held this job, sweeping up around Beale Street, until his retirement in 1966.

In 1927 and ’29 he cut some recordings for the Vocalion label at the Memphis Auditorium, along with a number of his contemporaries. The 23 sides for this label were the most prolific for a single Memphis performer at the time. They documented Furry’s slide guitar technique and humorous songs. The tune “I Will Turn Your Money Green” contained the classic line, “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”.

youtube: Furry’s Blues

Furry continued to play around Beale Street through the Depression and succeeding decades in his flashy style, often playing guitar behind his head. Samuel Charters, noted blues researcher and author of The Country Blues, rediscovered Furry Lewis in 1959. This began a period of popularity spawning performances at folk and blues festivals and recordings for the Prestige and Folkways labels during the 1960s, and opening shows for rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, through the 1970s. He was featured in Stanley Booth‘s book, Rhythm Oil, and the Burt Reynold’s movie, W.W. And The Dixie Kings. This led to many talk show appearances where he would retell funny and poignant stories about his life— and, of course, play “Furry’s Blues”. The State of Tennessee made him an Honorary Colonel in 1973, the first of such among African-Americans.

By the end of the ’70s, he was losing his eyesight to cataracts. Furry Lewis contracted pneumonia and died in 1981 at the age of 88. He was among the most beloved of all Memphis musicians. His grave has two headstones, one larger— purchased by his fans. It reads, “Bluesman”.

youtube: Sid Selvidge on Furry

youtube: When I Lay My Burden Down

image credits: Dan Dalton; Jim Marshall; Alain Frappier

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Comments
  1. Bruce Harpel says:

    Thanks Tim for this well done blog. Sunday afternoons in Overton Park with Furry Lewis was a normal part of life in Memphis in the 60’s . The sounds of WEVL and Sun Records was as much the sound of Memphis as Bossa Nova was the sound of Rio in Brazil.

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