He was born Booker T Washington White, and the man we came to know as Bukka White, recorded for the first time in 1930 and between then, and his final recording session in 1940, he released 9 records. Born in 1909, Booker was the son of a railroad worker, and appropriately his first record was ‘The New Frisco Train’, coupled with ‘The Panama Limited’ – both are the names of American trains and White’s guitar captures the moving train to perfection.
Booker was a musical veteran by the time he first recorded having left home at 13 and gone to Chicago where he played on the streets with a blind guitarist. By the late 20s he returned to the Delta, and inspired by fellow bluesman Charley Patton he was back with the Blues.
As his one and only release did not sell very well Victor did not bother to release any more of the dozen songs he cut at his 1930 session. White made a living as an itinerant musician, as well as a baseball pitcher and a boxer. In 1937, Booker went to Chicago and cut ‘Pinebluff Arkansas’ and ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’ for Vocalion. Unfortunately it was not success that was banging at his door, it was the police. He had apparently shot a man, sometime before the recording session, he was sent to Parchman Farm Prison. In 1939, while he was in there John Lomax recorded two songs with White.
Bukka White was B.B. King’s mother’s cousin and he fondly remembered him. “Well I liked his playing and I admired him. I loved to hear him play but he was not my idol as a guitarist but as a person though, as a person I was crazy about him. He loved to have fun, loved his drinks and so on but I liked him because when I was a small boy he used to come visit my mom and he’d always bring us candy or something and he was a good talker, he always had something nice to tell you and he’d make us laugh.”
By late 1939, White was out of prison and able to record and in an effort to ‘modernise’ White’s sound Washboard Sam was drafted in to accompany him. Bukka and Washboard recorded 12 wonderful sides including ‘Bukka’s Jitterbug Swing’, ‘Parchman Farm Blues’ and ‘Special Streamline Special’ that are diamonds amongst pearls.
Despite this amazing music, White disappeared back to obscurity, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s. He then received the adulation he deserved, but never could he have imagined what would have happened back in 1939, while he was in Parchman Farm Prison. Bukka White passed away on 26 February 1977.
Led Zeppelin’s ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’, on their album Led Zeppelin III was based in large part on ‘Shake ‘Em on Down, ’ while ‘Custard Pie’, on Physical Graffiti, also references ‘Shake ‘Em on Down.’ It was also brilliantly covered by the North Mississippi all Stars. ‘Parchman Farm Blues’ was recorded by Jeff Buckley, and posthumously on the bonus disc of, Grace.
Listen to Bukka White and other iconic blues songs on the Dreaming Of The Delta playlist.