Furry Lewis may be trying to elicit sympathy when he sings: “I was three years old when my poor mother died/If you mistreat me, mistreat a motherless child.” By the end of “Big Chief Blues,” though, he’s trying to up his position in society through marriage: “I said when I marry, gonna marry an Indian squaw/so the Big Chief can be my daddy-in-law.”
Dude’s got some smarts. He’s also got some major-league acoustic guitar chops.
“All of his stuff is written very cleverly,” says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, “so they stand out. They’re certainly not your standard blues lyrics. He seemed to prefer a goofy kind of twist, a cute aside, that made what he wrote more interesting.”
Born in Greenwood, Miss., on March 6, 1893, Walter “Furry” Lewis grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and developed a style of nimble fingerpicking that would influence generations. He built his first guitar from scraps he found around the house. After running away from home as a young teen, he worked gigs wherever he could find them: parties, taverns, dances, fish fries, picnics, shows, the streets. In 1917, he lost a leg in a train accident, but he never succumbed to the temptation to point out his disability in his stage name, as was popular at the time.
Lewis perfected his showmanship and storytelling to delighted audiences of traveling medicine shows. For years, you could see him playing on Beale Street for chump change, many times experimenting with a broken bottle he’d slide across the upper frets, later claiming he invented bottleneck guitar, and who’s to say he didn’t?
He caught a break with the Vocalion label when he recorded “Big Chief Blues” on Oct. 9, 1927. Tefteller estimates there might be only about 15 existing copies of the original 1927 “Big Chief Blues” (Vocalion 1133). “And only five of them are probably clean,” he adds.
Lewis took a turn at the Victor label in 1928 before returning to Vocalion in 1929. Then, he chucked it all away during the Depression, when he went to work in the mid-’30s as a manual laborer for the city of Memphis.
It took almost 30 years for Lewis to be rediscovered after he gave up music because he couldn’t make a living at it. Folklorist Sam Charters found him and convinced him to resume music. This resulted in a 1961 pair of albums for Prestige/Bluesville, which showed Lewis’ complex guitar mastery, voice and sly humor within his lyrics were still intact. Then came the renaissance.
After laboring in obscurity for decades, Furry Lewis became a darling of the folk and blues boom of the 1960s. He was funny, endearing and proved to be quite the capable celebrity, taking to fame easily and naturally. You can see him playing himself in the Burt Reynolds movie “WW & The Dixie Dance Kings.” He appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and thrilled audiences everywhere. He opened for The Rolling Stones in ’76 and ’80, and, still feisty as ever, tried to get royalties from Joni Mitchell after she recorded her “Furry Sings The Blues.” Furry Lewis, 88, died on Sept. 14, 1981.
Despite many more records on many more labels (including Blue Horizon, Biograph, Ampex, Lucky 7 and Southland), it is his strong, muscled early recordings for Vocalion and Victor that still resonate loudly today. Unfortunately, they are very hard to find.
“They’re great records, but they just didn’t sell very well,” Tefteller says. “It would be a rare occasion, indeed, for any Furry Lewis record to show up for sale … They’re all collectible, and folks just don’t want to part with them. When they do, they’re usually really whipped and in bad shape. A whipped one might go for $400 to $500. A mint one would be several thousand.”