Jump to content

Bukka White

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Bukka White
White playing slide guitar
White playing slide guitar
Background information
Birth nameBooker T. Washington White
BornNovember 12, 1900–1909
between Aberdeen and Houston, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedFebruary 26, 1977 (aged 67-76)
Memphis, Tennessee
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • Vocals
  • guitar
Years activeLate 1920s–1977

Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White (born on November 12, between 1900 and 1909; died February 26, 1977) was an American Delta blues guitarist and singer.

Life and career to the 1950s


Booker T. Washington White was born on a farm south of Houston, in northeastern Mississippi.[1] He was born on November 12; various years between 1900 and 1909 are recorded – census data suggests 1904.[1] Bukka is a phonetic spelling of White's first name; he was named after the African-American educator and civil rights activist Booker T. Washington. White was a first cousin of B.B. King's mother (White's mother and King's maternal grandmother were sisters).[2] His father John White was a railroad worker,[3] and also a musician who performed locally,[1] primarily playing the fiddle, but also mandolin, guitar and piano. He gave Booker a guitar for his ninth birthday.[4] White started his career playing the fiddle at square dances.[citation needed] He got married at 16 years old, with his father giving him a new Stella guitar as a wedding present. He and his wife lived at Houston, but after a few years she died of a burst appendix.[5]

White moved from the hill country to work on a farm at Swan Lake in the Mississippi Delta.[6] He was a fan of Charley Patton, telling friends, "I wants to come to be a great man like Charlie Patton".[7] He said he never met Patton,[8] though he also claimed to have done so, although this is doubted.[9] White was approached by Ralph Lembo, a white store owner and talent scout, who saw him walking past his store in Itta Bena with a guitar. Lembo took him and his friend Napoleon Hairiston to Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1930 for White's first recording session, with Victor Records.[10][11] Like those of many other bluesmen, the recordings comprised country blues and gospel music. The gospel songs were done in the style of Blind Willie Johnson, with a female backing singer accentuating the last phrase of each line.[12] From fourteen songs recorded, Victor released two records under the name Washington White, two gospel songs on one released in 1930 and two country blues on the other, released in 1931. Victor published his photograph in 1930.

White's mother died in 1933 and in 1934 he married Susie Simpson, a niece of George 'Bullet' Williams, a harmonica player who White had started playing with at Glendora in 1932. White and his second wife started farming near Aberdeen, back in the Mississippi hill country east of Houston.[13] He probably first went to Chicago in 1935, travelling from St. Louis with Peetie Wheatstraw, where he made friends with Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Slim and Tampa Red.[14]

"Parchman Farm Blues" was about the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

He was in Chicago again for a recording session with producer Lester Melrose in early September 1937, where he recorded two songs, "Pinebluff Arkansas" and "Shake 'Em On Down". Back home in Aberdeen in October, he was arrested and charged with murder over shooting a man in the thigh. He was tried on 8 November, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, to be served in Mississippi State Penitentiary, commonly known as Parchman Farm.[15] His Chicago recordings were released on a 78 record by Vocalion while he was serving time and "Shake 'Em on Down" became a hit. His version of the oft-recorded song[16] is considered definitive. The folklorist John Lomax visited Parchman Farm in 1939 to record White.[17] As a professional musician who had recorded commercially, White was reluctant to be recorded for free and allowed Lomax to record just two songs, "Po' Boy" and "Sic 'Em Dogs On". "Shake 'Em On Down" and "Po' Boy" became his most well known songs.

White was released from Parchman Farm after serving two years. Soon after, in early 1940, he went to Chicago to record for Melrose again. He arrived with transcripts of the songs he intended to record, but Melrose dismissed them as they were songs that others had recorded, so there would be little money in them. Melrose put him up in a hotel and told him to produce some original songs. White returned to Melrose with twelve songs, and recorded them on 7 March.[18] They included two relating to his experience in prison – "Parchman Farm Blues" and "When Can I Change My Clothes"[17] – and "Fixin' to Die Blues". After returning to Mississippi, where he and his wife decided to permanently separate, he went back to Chicago, playing in small clubs with his own four-piece band.[19]

In 1942, he settled in Memphis, where he worked for two years as a laborer at the Memphis Defense Depot, and then started a job in manufacturing storage tanks at the Newberry Equipment Company, where he remained for 20 years. He continued part-time with professional music, playing small gigs with Frank Stokes for several years, and also playing with Memphis Willie B. (Willie Borum).[20] In the second half of the 1940s his younger cousin B.B. King moved to Memphis and lived with White for a number of months. White helped introduce King to the Memphis music community and to get a job at Newberry Equipment.[21]

The 1950s were lean years for White musically, as new styles of music had largely supplanted the country blues he played.[22]

Folk blues revival


In 1959, White's recording of "Fixin' to Die Blues" was included on the album The Country Blues, compiled by Samuel Charters to accompany his book of the same name, and a key element in the American folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bob Dylan included a cover version of the song on his first album, released in March 1962. Dylan's cover aided a rediscovery of White in 1963 by guitarist John Fahey and his friend Ed Denson, which propelled him into the folk music revival. Fahey and Denson found White when Fahey wrote a letter to White and addressed it to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi", assuming from White's song "Aberdeen, Mississippi", that White still lived there. The postcard was forwarded to Memphis. Fahey and Denson traveled there to meet him, and White and Fahey remained friends for the rest of White's life.[23]

Photo of Bukka White performing with his National steel-bodied guitar, at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1968.
Bukka White, University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1968

White went to California later in 1963, where he played at university folklore classes and club gigs. He made new recordings of many of his early songs for the Mississippi Blues: Bukka White album, which Denson and Fahey released on their own Takoma Records. He also recorded new material for two LPs, Bukka White: Sky Songs Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, released on Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records.[24] Denson became his manager. White was at one time also managed by Arne Brogger, an experienced manager of blues musicians.

White toured North America and Europe for the rest of the 1960s and up to 1975.[3] He was friends with musician Furry Lewis, and the two were recorded (mostly in Lewis's Memphis apartment) by Bob West in 1968 for an album, Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends: Party! At Home, released on the Arcola label.[25] White recorded two more albums in the 1970s.[26]

He died of cancer in Memphis on 26 February 1977.

White played National resonator guitars, typically with a slide, in an open tuning. He was one of the few, along with Skip James, to use a crossnote tuning in E minor, which he may have learned, as James did, from Henry Stuckey. He also played piano, but less adeptly.

Awards and legacy


In 1990 White was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (along with Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson). On November 21, 2011, the Recording Academy announced the addition of "Fixin' to Die Blues" to its 2012 list of Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipients.[27] In 2011, White was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Houston, Mississippi.[1] The Bukka White Blues Festival is an annual music festival on Columbus Day Weekend in Aberdeen, Mississippi.[28]

The Led Zeppelin song "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper", on the band's 1970 album Led Zeppelin III, was based in large part on White's "Shake 'Em on Down". "Custard Pie", a song on their 1975 album Physical Graffiti, also references "Shake 'Em on Down."[29]

White's 1963 recordings of "Shake 'Em on Down" and spoken-word piece "Remembrance of Charlie Patton" were both sampled by electronic artist Recoil (mostly a one-man effort by Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode) for the track "Electro Blues for Bukka White" on the 1992 album Bloodline.[30] The song was reworked and re-released on the 2000 EP Jezebel.

In 1995, White's "Aberdeen, Mississippi" was covered as "Aberdeen" by guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd on his debut album, Ledbetter Heights. It reached number 23 on the Billboard (North America) Mainstream Rock Tracks in 1996.[31]

On January 26, 2010, Eric Bibb released Booker's Guitar (TEL 31756 02) through Telarc International Corporation, after being inspired by playing White's National steel guitar.[32] White's "Parchman Farm Blues" was recorded by Jeff Buckley, and was released posthumously on the bonus disc of Buckley's album Grace: Legacy Edition.[33]

In December 2024, the University Press of Mississippi will publish David W. Johnson's biography The Life and Music of Booker "Bukka" White: Recalling the Blues. An excerpt from book, "Transatlantic," will appear in the September-October issue of the British magazine Blues & Rhythm.




  • "The Promise True and Grand" / "I am in the Heavenly Way" (Victor, 1930)
  • "The New Frisco Train" / "The Panama Limited" (Victor, 1931)
  • "Pinebluff Arkansas" / "Shake 'Em On Down" (Vocalion, 1937)
  • "When Can I Change My Clothes" / "High Fever Blues" (Vocalion, 1940)
  • "Special Stream Line" / "Strange Place Blues" (Vocalion, 1940)
  • "Black Train Blues" / "Fixin' to Die Blues" (Vocalion, 1940)
  • "Good Gin Blues" / "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing" (Okeh, 1940)
  • "Parchman Farm Blues" / "District Attorney Blues" (Okeh, 1940)
  • "Sleepy Man Blues" / "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues" (Okeh, 1940)

Studio albums


Live album

  • Country Blues (Sparkasse in Concert, 1975)[34]

Compilation albums

  • Parchman Farm 1937–1940 (Columbia, 1969)
  • Baton Rouge Mosby Street (Blues Beacon, 1982)
  • Aberdeen Mississippi Blues 1937–1940 (Travelin' Man, 1985)
  • Parchman Farm Blues (Orbis Records, 1992)
  • Shake' Em on Down (New Rose, 1993)
  • The Complete Bukka White 1937–1940 (Columbia, 1994)
  • 1963 Isn't 1962 (Adelphi, 1994)
  • Good Gin Blues (Drive, 1995)
  • Shake 'Em on Down (Catfish, 1998)
  • The Panama Limited (ABM, 2000)
  • Revisited (Fuel, 2003)
  • Aberdeen Mississippi Blues: The Vintage Recordings 1930–1940 (Document, 2003)
  • Mississippi Blues Giant (EPM, 2003)
  • Fixin' to Die (Snapper, 2004)
  • Parchman Farm Blues (Roots, 2004)
  • Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues (Sunset Blvd Records, 2019)[34]




  1. ^ a b c d "Bukka White". Mississippi Blues Trail. Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved May 31, 2023.
  2. ^ Kostelanetz, Richard; Reiswig, Jesse, eds. (2005). The B. B. King Reader: 6 Decades of Commentary (2nd ed.). Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard. p. 4. ISBN 0-634-09927-2.
  3. ^ a b Harris, Sheldon (1991). Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. Da Capo. pp. 552–554.
  4. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 157.
  5. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 163.
  6. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 164.
  7. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  8. ^ Hay, Fred J., ed. (2005) [2001]. Goin' Back to Sweet Memphis: Conversations with the Blues. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780820327327.
  9. ^ Stephen Calt, in I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (2008), suggested that White claimed to know Patton merely because John Fahey was a fan of the (by then long-dead) bluesman.
  10. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 164–165.
  11. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  12. ^ In the liner notes for American Primitive, Vol. 1, which features White's "I Am in the Heavenly Way," Fahey stated that White "... had no particular interest in religion. Victor went and hired the woman from a local Baptist church for this recording. Trying to imitate Blind Willie Johnson."
  13. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 167–168.
  14. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 170.
  15. ^ Wardlow, Gayle Dean (1998). Chasin' That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. p. 103. ISBN 0-87930-552-5.
  16. ^ Furry Lewis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Wade Walton, and R. L. Burnside, among others, have recorded a version of "Shake 'Em on Down".
  17. ^ a b Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 195/6. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  18. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 177–178.
  19. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 186.
  20. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 187–189.
  21. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 190–193.
  22. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 194–195.
  23. ^ In his collection of autobiographical sketches, How Bluegrass Music Ruined My Life, Fahey reminisced about his and White's time catching catfish together. He also remarked that White had, by the time of his rediscovery, largely forgotten how to play guitar, but had become a more adept lyricist.
  24. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 196–197.
  25. ^ "Arcola Records, music cds, Traditional Jazz Blues, Furry Lewis and Friends". Arcolarecords.com. Archived from the original on 28 October 2019. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  26. ^ Hurley & Evans 1981, p. 199.
  27. ^ "The Recording Academy Announces 2012 Grammy Hall of Fame Inductees". Grammy.org. Retrieved June 14, 2014.
  28. ^ "Bukka White Blues Festival". bukkawhitebluesfestival.com.
  29. ^ Lewis, Dave (1994). The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin. Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  30. ^ "Bloodline - Recoil | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 12, 2021.
  31. ^ "Aberdeen". Billboard.com. Archived from the original on September 9, 2016. Retrieved March 13, 2015.
  32. ^ "Booker's Guitar - Eric Bibb | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 12, 2021.
  33. ^ "Grace [Bonus CD + DVD] [RMST] - Jeff Buckley | Release Info". AllMusic. Retrieved March 12, 2021.
  34. ^ a b c "Bukka White | Album Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved March 12, 2021.

Works cited

  • Hurley, F. Jack; Evans, David (1981). "Bukka White". In Burton, Thomas G. (ed.). Tom Ashley, Sam McGee, Bukka White: Tennessee Traditional Singers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. pp. 143–203.