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Henry Townsend (musician)

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Henry Townsend
Townsend performing in St. Louis, 1983
Background information
Birth nameHenry Jesse James Townsend
Born(1909-10-27)October 27, 1909
Shelby, Mississippi, United States
DiedSeptember 24, 2006(2006-09-24) (aged 96)
Mequon, Wisconsin, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, musician
Instrument(s)Guitar, piano
Years active1920s–2000s

Henry "Mule" Townsend (born Henry Jesse James Townsend; October 27, 1909 – September 24, 2006)[1] was an American blues singer, guitarist and pianist.



Townsend was born Henry Jesse James Townsend in Shelby, Mississippi[1] to Allen and Omelia Townsend. His father was a blues musician who played guitar and accordion. When Henry was young, his family moved near Cairo, Illinois.[2] Henry left home at the age of nine because of his abusive father and hoboed his way to St. Louis, Missouri.[3] He learned guitar while in his early teens from a locally renowned blues guitarist known as Dudlow Joe.[4] With aspirations to earn a living with his guitar, Townsend also worked as an auto mechanic, a shoe shiner, a hotel manager, and a salesman.[2]

By the late 1920s he had begun touring and recording with the pianist Walter Davis and had acquired the nickname Mule, because he was sturdy in both physique and character. In St. Louis, he worked with some of the early blues pioneers, including J. D. Short.[4] During this time period, he also learned to play the piano.[3]

Townsend was one of the only artists known to have recorded in nine consecutive decades. He first recorded in 1929,[5] for Columbia Records in Chicago,[6] and remained active up to 2006. He performed on 35 recordings in 1935 alone.[2] By the mid-1990s, Townsend and his one-time collaborator Yank Rachell were the only active blues artists whose careers had started in the 1920s. He recorded on several different labels, including Columbia, Bluesville Records, and Folkways Records.[7]

By the mid-1950s, the popularity of the St. Louis style of blues had begun to wane in the United States, so Townsend worked in Europe where he felt his music was more appreciated. His European concerts drew large audiences, and he also appeared at many festivals. Townsend said wryly that he has been "rediscovered three or four times".[2]

Articulate and self-aware, with an excellent memory, Townsend gave many invaluable interviews to blues enthusiasts and scholars. Paul Oliver recorded him in 1960 and quoted him extensively in his 1967 work Conversations with the Blues.[8] That book was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, in the Classics of Blues Literature category.[9] Thirty years later, Bill Greensmith edited thirty hours of taped interviews with Henry to produce a full autobiography, A Blues Life, giving a vivid history of the blues scene in St Louis and East St Louis in its prime.[10]

In 1979, Bob West recorded Townsend in St. Louis. That recording was released on CD in 2002 on Arcola Records as The Real St. Louis Blues.[11]

Townsend died on September 24, 2006, at the age of 96, at St. Mary's Ozaukee Hospital, in Mequon, Wisconsin, just hours after having been the first person to be presented with a "key" in Grafton's Paramount Plaza Walk of Fame.

     While [Henry Townsend] did not scorn his old recordings, he had no taste for spending his later years simply recreating them.
     Blues, for him, was a living medium, and he continued to express himself in it, most remarkably in his songwriting.
          —Tony Russell, The Guardian

Having served as a private in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, Townsend was interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on October 2, 2006.[12]

Selected discography

  • 1966: Blues Rediscoveries (Folkways Records)
  • 1970: The Country Blues: Vol. 2 (Folkways Records)
  • 1973: Henry T. Music Man (Adelphi Records AD1016)
  • 1980: Mule (Nighthawk)
  • 1984: The Blues in St. Louis, Vol. 3: Henry Townsend (Folkways Records)
  • 1998: The 88 Blues (Blueberry Hill Records)
  • 2001: The Real St. Louis Blues (Arcola Records, recorded 1979)
  • 2003: Classic Blues from Smithsonian Folkways (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • 2004: My Story (APO Records)
  • 2007: Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas (Blue Shoe Project)
  • 2008: Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • 2015: Original St. Louis Blues Live (Wolf Records, recorded 1980)


  • 1970, reissued 1986: Blues Like Showers of Rain[3][13]
  • 1999: Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson (directed by Robert Mugge)[14]
  • 2007: 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads[13]
  • unknown date: The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues[3]

Awards and honors


In 1980, Townsend's album Mule was nominated in the first national Blues Music Awards in the Traditional Blues Album category.[9]

In 1982, his album St. Louis Blues (with his wife Vernell Townsend) was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the Traditional Blues Album category.[9]

Townsend was a recipient of a 1985 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.[15]

In 1995 he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[16]

On February 10, 2008, Townsend was posthumously awarded a Grammy, his first, at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards. The award, in the category Best Traditional Blues Album, was given for his performances on Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas,[17] released by the Blue Shoe Project. Townsend's son, Alonzo Townsend, accepted the award on his behalf.

On December 4, 2009, a marker commemorating Townsend was added to the Mississippi Blues Trail.[18]

See also



  1. ^ a b Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 189. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  2. ^ a b c d Govenar, Alan, ed. (2001). "Henry Townsend: African American Blues Musician and Songwriter". Masters of Traditional Arts: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2 (K-Z). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio. pp. 628–629. ISBN 1576072401. OCLC 47644303.
  3. ^ a b c d "Henry Townsend: Blues Musician/Songwriter". Arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  4. ^ a b Barlow, William (1989). Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. pp. 268–269. ISBN 9780877225836. OCLC 17981033.
  5. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  6. ^ Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  7. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. pp. 177–178. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  8. ^ Oliver, Paul (1997). Conversations with the Blues (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521591812. OCLC 35849110.
  9. ^ a b c "Award Winners and Nominees [search]". blues.org. The Blues Foundation. Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  10. ^ Townsend, Henry; Greensmith, Bill (1999). A Blues Life. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252025266. OCLC 41002654.
  11. ^ "Arcola Records, Traditional Jazz Blues, Henry Townsend". Arcolarecords.com. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  12. ^ "Henry James Townsend". Veterans Legacy Memorial. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved May 31, 2024.
  13. ^ a b "Henry Townsend (I)". IMDb. Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  14. ^ Govenar, Alan, ed. (2001). "Selected Bibliography". Masters of Traditional Arts: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2 (K-Z). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio. p. 738. ISBN 1576072401. OCLC 47644303.
  15. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1985". Arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on September 20, 2020. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  16. ^ "Henry Townsend". Stlouiswalkoffame.org. Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  17. ^ "Artist: Henry James Townsend". National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. 2019. Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  18. ^ "Henry Townsend – Shelby". Msbluestrail.org. December 4, 2009. Retrieved January 31, 2010.