Life and career
Lewis was born a "woodcall" (no known father) in Henning, Tennessee, United States, his birth year being variously cited as 1890 or 1895. Lewis learned to play harmonica as a child and moved to Memphis, Tennessee in his early teens. By the time he first met Gus Cannon in Memphis in 1907, he was already a respected original stylist on the instrument, noted for his liquid tone and breath control, which allowed him to generate enormous volume from the instrument. By then he was also noted for his ability to play two harmonicas at once – one through his mouth and one through his nose, a trick he probably taught to Big Walter Horton, who recorded briefly as a teenager with the Memphis Jug Band some 20 years later. Lewis developed his unusual levels of breath control and volume from playing in local string and brass marching bands on the streets of Memphis. At the 1907 meeting Lewis introduced Cannon to the 13 year-old guitarist and singer, Ashley Thompson, with whom Lewis had been playing in the streets of Ripley and Memphis for some time and the three of them worked together over the next 20 years whenever Cannon was in Memphis, and not away working medicine and tent shows. When Will Shade's Memphis Jugband recorded and became popular in the late-1920s, Cannon added a coal-oil can on a rack round his neck and renamed the trio (Cannon, Lewis and Thompson) Cannon's Jug Stompers, and it was this line-up that recorded for the first time on Victor Records in Memphis on 30 January 1928. The songs from that session included "Minglewood Blues", "Springdale Blues", "Big Railroad Blues" and "Madison Street Rag". By the time of the band's next recording on September 5, 1928, Cannon had replaced Ashley Thompson with Elijah Avery on banjo and guitar. However, by time of the band's third recording session, four days later, Avery had in turn been replaced with an old friend of Cannon's from the medicine and tent show circuit, the six string banjo player and guitarist, Hosea Woods, with the band's line-up remaining unchanged from then on.
With the Jug Stompers, on "Viola Lee Blues", Lewis sang lead vocal and played a melancholy harmonica solo.
He died in poverty of gangrene brought on by frostbite in Ripley, Tennessee, in 1961. Lewis is buried in a cemetery near Nutbush, Tennessee. After his death, several of his songs become part of the repertoire of the Grateful Dead, including "New, New Minglewood Blues", "Viola Lee Blues", and "Big Railroad Blues".
- "Biography by Jason Ankeny". Allmusic.com. Retrieved September 3, 2011.
- "Noah Lewis". Bluesnexus.com. Retrieved September 3, 2011.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
- Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), pp. 214-17. ISBN 0-87722-583-4.
- A History of Tennessee Arts, University of Tennessee Press.
- West, Carroll Van & Duncan Binnicker, Margaret (2004). A History of Tennessee Arts. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 1-57233-239-5.
- Norris, Sharon (2000). Black America Series: Haywood County Tennessee. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-0605-2.