R. L. Burnside
Not to be confused with R. H. Burnside, stage director.
|R. L. Burnside|
R.L. Burnside performing in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1982
|Birth name||Robert Lee Burnside|
November 23, 1926|
Harmontown, Lafayette County, Mississippi, United States
|Origin||Oxford, Mississippi, United States|
|Died||September 1, 2005
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
|Genres||Blues, garage rock|
|Associated acts||Calvin Jackson (drummer)
R. L. Burnside (November 23, 1926 – September 1, 2005) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who lived much of his life in and around Holly Springs, Mississippi. He played music for much of his life, but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s. In the latter half of the 1990s, Burnside recorded and toured with Jon Spencer, garnering crossover appeal and introducing his music to a new fan base within the punk and garage rock scene.
- 1 Life and career
- 2 Style
- 3 Discography
- 4 Films
- 5 Further reading
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Life and career
1926–1959: Early years
Burnside was born in 1926 to Earnest Burnside and Josie, in Harmontown, or College Hill, or Blackwater Creek. All of which are in the rural part of Lafayette County, Mississippi, United States, close to the area that would be covered by Sardis lake a few years later. His first name is variously given as R. L., Rl, Robert Lee, Rural, Ruel or Rule. His father left home early on, and he grew up with his mother, grandparents, and several siblings.
Although he tried the harmonica, then dabbled in guitar playing ever since he was 16, Burnside has reported he first played in public at age 21 or 22. He learned mostly from Mississippi Fred McDowell, who lived nearby since Burnside was a child. He first heard his playing at age 7 or 8, and eventually joined his gigs to play a late set. Other local teachers were his uncle-in-law Ranie Burnette, who was a popular player from Senatobia, Son Hibbler, Jesse Vortis, and Burnside's brother-in-law. Burnside cited church singing and fife and drum picnics as elements of his childhood's musical landscape, and Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker as influences in adulthood.
In the late 1940s he moved to Chicago, where his father had lived since he separated from his mother, in the hope of finding better economic opportunities. He did find jobs at metal and glass factories, had the company of Muddy Waters (his cousin-in-law), and enjoyed the modern blues scene at Maxwell Street. But things did not turn out as he had hoped; within the span of one year his father, two brothers, and two uncles were all murdered in the city.[n 1]
Three years after he came, Burnside went back south, and married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949 or 1950, his second marriage.[n 2]. The 1950s were characterised by circles of relocation between Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta and the hill country. The time in the Delta allowed him to meet bluesmen Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Aleck "Rice" Miller. It seems it was around that time that Burnside killed a man at a craps game, was convicted of murder and incarcerated in Parchman Farm. He would later relate that his boss at the time had arranged to release him after six months, as he needed Burnside's skills as a tractor driver.[n 3]
1960–1990: Part-time musician
He spent the next 45 years, not unlike his early years, in the Marshall and Tate counties in the north of Mississippi. At first he kept to particularly remote dwellings, working into the 1980s as a sharecropper growing cotton and soybean, and a commercial fisherman on the Tallahatchie River, selling his catch from door to door. Later he moved closer to Holly Springs. Since he came back south he picked more local gigs, playing guitar in juke joints and bars (some under his management), picnics and his own open house parties,[n 4] and an occasional festival. His career boomed in the last twenty years of his life.
His earliest recordings were made in 1967 by George Mitchell, then a graduate student of journalism. Mitchell went with his wife to a 13-day summer trip in Mississippi, that resulted in the first recordings of several country blues artists. He came to Burnside's house near Coldwater on the advice of fife player and maker, Othar Turner. Mitchell wrote that Fred McDowell likely had not told him about Burnside, because he posed "big-time competition". Six of the songs, played on an acoustic guitar lent by Mitchell, were released on Arhoolie Records after two years, while nine other are on later products.
Another album of acoustic material was recorded in 1969 for Adelphi Records, not to be released until thirty years later; material from 1975 has had similar fate. These featured Burnside playing acoustic guitar and singing, and a few tracks had harmonica accompanists, namely W.C. Veasey or Ulysse Red Ramsey. Although not recorded, by that time he already played also on electric guitar. In 1969 at Montreal, he played for the first time out of the country, in one program with his models Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Three tours of his solo performances found enthusiastic audiences in several European countries. The 1974 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was the first of nine editions he would play at.
Also in 1974, Tav Falco visited and filmed Burnside in the Brotherhood Sportsmen's Lodge, a juke joint he ran at the time near Como.[n 5] His performance featured the slide guitarist Kenny Brown. Brown was Burnside's friend and understudy, whom he began tutoring in 1971 and claimed as his "adopted son." In 1978 Burnside was filmed by Alan Lomax in what remained mostly outtakes of the TV documentary The Land Where the Blues Began.[n 6]
A 1979 a series of recordings by David Evans for his record label, High Water, was the first to feature Burnside's Sound Machine, an accompaniment from family members on drums (Calvin Jackson, son-in-law), bass (Joseph, son) and guitar (Duwayne or Daniel Burnside, sons). The band was active mostly in home settings, but did join Burnside in Europe in 1980 and 1983. They offered a rare fusion of rural and urban blues, funk, RnB and soul,[n 7] that appealed to young Mississippians. While an EP by the title Sound Machine Groove was released by Evans' label in the US, it had next to no distribution. Apart from it, one full album of the same title, a debut of sorts, was licensed for prompt European release by Disques Vogue, and another hour's worth, was only released by Memphis' Inside Sounds in 2001. When he recorded between 1980 and 1986 for the Old Swingmaster label of Netherlands, and for the French label Arion, Burnside went back to play mostly solo, or accompanied by harpists: Johnny Woods served on some occasions, as he also recorded as lead artist with Burnside's guitar accompaniment; Curtis Salgado served once in a New Orleans session. The results were four more LP releases under his name, in European markets.
In the same decade he retired from farm work and became more busy with the music. For 12-odd years He worked with New Orleans-based harpist Jon (Joni) Morris Neremberg (or Nuremberg), and appeared before American crowds in such occasions as the 1982 World's Fair, 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, and 1986 San Francisco Blues Festival, between international tours. By the mid-1980s he toured about "once a year or maybe twice", and by one report of 1985 he had been to Europe 17 times. Recordings from his time with Morris wound up in two releases, both produced by M.C. Records and Louis X. Erlanger: a session from 1988 as Acoustic Stories, and a 2001 compilation of informal recordings provided by Morris, as Well, Well, Well.
1991–2005: Commercial success and physical decline
In the late seventies or early eighties Burnside was introduced and struck a partnership with Junior Kimbrough. Roughly a decade later, his own "Burnside Palace" had shut down[n 8] and the family lived next to the Kimbroughs' new "Junior's Place" in Chulahoma, Mississippi and collaborated with the counterpart musical family. Music writer Robert Palmer, teaching for a time in the University of Mississippi in Oxford, frequented the scene with some celebrity musicians, which led to the making in 1990 of a documentary that featured Burnside prominently, Deep Blues.
Burnside began recording for the Oxford, Mississippi label, Fat Possum Records in 1991. The label, dedicated to recording aging North Mississippi bluesmen such as Burnside and Kimbrough, was founded by two students who have been catching the elders' performances for some years - Living Blues magazine editor Peter Redvers-Lee and a writer there, Matthew Johnson. Burnside remained with Fat Possum from that time until his death. Their first output was Bad Luck City (1992), featuring The Sound Machine. The next, Too Bad Jim (1994), was recorded at Junior's Place, produced by Palmer and had support from Calvin Jackson and Kenny Brown. After Jackson moved to Holland, Burnside found a new stable band and would usually perform with Brown and drummer Cedric Burnside, his grandson.
In a New York concert around the release of Deep Blues, he attracted the attention of Jon Spencer, the leader of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He started touring with this group in 1995, both as an opening act and sitting in, gaining much new audience. The 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey was recorded with Jon Spencer' band and was marketed for their audience, but was credited to Burnside. It gained critical acclaim and praise from Bono and Iggy Pop; while Billboard wrote "it sound like no other blues album ever released" and an author there picked it to year's end critics' poll, Living Blues opined it is "perhaps the worst blues album ever made."[n 9]
After parting ways with the Blues Explosion, the label turned to produce music in which recorded materials were remixed by producer Tom Rothrock with an eye to techno, downtempo and hip-hop listeners. The experiment started with a track in Mr. Wizard (1997), an album based on a variety of sessions, and matured into a full album with Come On In (1998). The recording artists themselves heard only the final product, but they conceded that with time they came to like it, in part influenced by its popularity.
Burnside continued to tour, perhaps more extensively than ever. A 1999 date in Paris' "New Morning", with Brown and Cedric, was the occasion for filming a 52 minutes documentary by French blues singer Sophie Kay (Kertesz). He warmed for the Beastie Boys, was musical guest in Late Night with Conan O'Brien and HBO's Reverb, provided entertainment at private events such as Richard Gere's birthday party, and participated in shared or showcase bills with other Fat Possum artists, like T-Model Ford, Paul "Wine" Jones, CeDell Davis, Robert Cage and Robert Belfour. An influx of visitors and young musicians were attracted to Junior's Place, but it burned down in 2000.
In short time, however, Burnside was in declining health. He had an ear infection and underwent a heart surgery in 1999. As his tours decreased to a minimum, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (2000) was released, which relegated guitar work to other players (Rick Holmstrom, Smokey Hormel, John Porter) but used Burnside's vocals. After a heart attack in 2001, his doctor advised him to stop drinking; Burnside did, but he reported that change left him unable to play. Fat Possum rebounded with A Bothered Mind (2004), an album that used previously recorded guitar tracks, and included collaborations with Kid Rock and Lyrics Born.
The three remix albums received mixed reviews, some describing the results as "unnatural" while others lauded the playful spirit, or "the way it yokes authentic blues feeling to new technology". Commercially, the remixes were successful; each surpassed its previous in Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart, as they stayed there for 12–18 weeks' periods (but none entered into the more competitive Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs),[n 10] and two tracks from Come On In were included in The Sopranos' soundtrack. "Let My Baby Ride" off Come On In received significant airplay and an ensuing music clip was slotted in MTV's 120 Minutes; the album's "Rollin' & Tumblin'" accompanied a 2002 Nissan TV commercial. But it was the live, unremixed album Burnside on Burnside (2001) that peaked at number 4 of Billboard's Blues Albums chart and was nominated for a Grammy. - the last article to catch Burnside as an active bandleader, recorded in January 2001 with Brown and Cedric.
In between, Fat Possum licensed and released First Recording (2003), comprising George Mitchell's 1967 recordings in its fullest edition yet, in traditional format.[n 11] In addition, the 1990s and 2000s saw release of several recordings from previous decades by other labels (see above), as well as a couple of new recordings by HighTone Records.
Death and legacy
Another heart attack in November 2002 resulted in a surgery in 2003, and sealed any career plans he had. Yet Burnside continued as guest singer on occasions, such as Bonnaroo Music Festival, 2004, his last public appearance. He died at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on September 1, 2005 at the age of 78. Services were held at Rust College in Holly Springs, with burial in the Free Springs Cemetery in Harmontown. Around the time of his death, he resided in Byhalia, Mississippi and his immediate survivors included:
- His wife: Alice Mae Taylor Burnside (1932-2008), married 1949;
- Daughters: Mildred Jean Burnside (1949-2010), Linda Jackson, Brenda Kay Brooks, and Pamela Denise Burnside;
- Sons: Melvin Burnside, R.L. Burnside Jr. (1954-2010), Calvin Burnside, Joseph Burnside, Daniel Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, Dexter Burnside, Garry Burnside, and Rodger Harmon
- Sisters: Lucille Burnside, Verelan Burnside, and Mat Burnside
- Brother: Jesse Monia
- 35 grandchildren
- 32 great-grandchildren
Members of his large extended family continue to play blues in the Holly Springs area or in wider circles. Son Duwayne Burnside has played guitar with the North Mississippi Allstars (Polaris; Hill Country Revue with R. L. Burnside). He has operated a row of music venues named after Burnside and Alice Mae: in Chulahoma and Memphis, Waterford, and Holly Springs. Grandson Cedric Burnside has released six albums with four musical partners, and toured with Kenny Brown and others. Son Garry Burnside used to play bass guitar with Junior Kimbrough, North Mississippi Allstars, and Hill Country Revue; in 2006 he released an album with Cedric. Son in law Calvin Jackson (died 2015) recorded with blues musicians of Burnside's generation and younger. Grandson Kent is a musician, as was Cody (died 2012). Kenny Brown has released four albums and toured with the family and his own band.
Burnside won one W. C. Handy Award in 2000 (Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year), two in 2002 (Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year; Traditional Blues Album of The Year: Burnside on Burnside), and one in 2003 (Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year); he had 11 unsuccessful nominations in 8 years for the awards, starting in 1982, as well as one for a Grammy. Several of the Mississippi Blues Trail markers, which have been erected since 2006, mention him. In 2014 he was induced to the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis.
Burnside had a powerful, expressive voice, that did not fail with old age but rather grew richer, and played both electric and acoustic guitar, with and without a slide. His drone-heavy style was more characteristic of North Mississippi hill country blues than Delta blues. Like other country blues musicians, he did not always adhere to strict 12- or 16-bar blues patterns, often adding extra beats to a measure as he saw fit. His rhythms are often based on the fife and drum blues of north Mississippi.[n 12]
As was the case with his role model John Lee Hooker, Burnside's earliest recordings sound quite similar to one another, even repetitive, in vocal and instrumental styling. Many of these songs eschew traditional chord changes in favor of a single chord or a simple bassline pattern that repeats throughout. Burnside played the guitar fingerstyle—without a pick—and often in open-G tuning. His vocal style is characterized by a tendency to "break" briefly into falsetto, usually at the end of long notes.
Like his contemporary T-Model Ford, Burnside favored a stripped-down approach to the blues, marked by a quality of rawness. He and his later managers and reviewers maintained his persona as a hard-working man leading a life of struggle, a heavy drinker, latent criminal singing songs of swagger and rebellion.
Burnside knew many toasts—African American narrative folk poems such as "Signifying monkey" and "Tojo Told Hitler"—and fondly recited them between songs at his concerts and on recordings. He narrated long jokes in concerts and social events, and many sources noted his quick wit and charisma.
- Sound Machine Groove (Vogue, 1981)
- Plays and Sings the Mississippi Delta Blues (Swingmaster, 1981)
- Hill Country Blues (Swingmaster, 1987)
- Skinny Woman (Lollipop, 1989) - re-released as Acoustic Stories (MC, 1997)
- Bad Luck City (Fat Possum, 1994)
- Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum, 1994) - produced by Robert Palmer
- A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Fat Possum, 1996) - featuring the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
- Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum, 1997) - including two tracks with Jon Spencer
- Come On In (Fat Possum, 1998) - remixed material
- My Black Name A-Ringin' (Genes, 1999) - recordings from 1969
- Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (Fat Possum, 2000)
- A Bothered Mind (Fat Possum, 2004) - remixed material
- Mississippi Blues (Arion, 1984)
- Burnside on Burnside (Fat Possum, 2001) - a critically acclaimed 2001 live album recorded in the Crystal Ballroom on Portland, Oregon's Burnside Street
mostly first releases of previously recorded materials
- Going Down South (Swingmaster, 1999) - split album with Johnny Woods and Ranie Burnette, recordings from 1984/86
- Well, Well, Well (MC Records, 2001) - songs and interviews from 1986–1993
- Raw Electric (Inside Sounds, 2002) - compilation of recordings from 1979-1980
- No Monkeys on This Train (Hightone, 2003) - compilation of songs from Sound Machine Groove, live material and stories
- First Recordings (Fat Possum, 2003) - recorded in 1967 by George Mitchell
- Rollin' And Tumblin' (Wolf, 2010) - posthumous compilation of recordings from 1975, 1989 and 1991
Extended guest appearances
- Duwayne Burnside and the Mississippi Mafia. Live at the Mint (1999)
- North Mississippi Allstars. Hill Country Revue: Live at Bonnaroo (2004)
- Honky Tonk (1974), by Tav Falco
- The Land Where the Blues Began (1979) by Alan Lomax, John Bishop, and Worth Long in Association with the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television
- American Patchwork: Songs and Stories of America, part 3: "The Land Where the Blues Began" (1990). North Carolina Public TV: A Michael Dibb Direction production for Channel Four. This is a lightly re-edited version of "The Land Where the Blues Began" (1979)
- The Land Where the Blues Began (2010). Restored original version, DVD contains two additional R.L. Burnside performances.
- Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads (1991). Directed by Robert Mugge
- Un jour avec... R. L. Burnside (1999/2001). By Sophie Kertesz. Produced and distributed by Ciné-Rock, Paris. OCLC 691729826
- You See Me Laughin': The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen (2003; released by Fat Possum Records in 2005). Produced and directed by Mandy Stein. Oxford, Mississippi: Plain Jane Productions, Inc; Fat Possum Records.
- Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour (2005) Directed by Max Shores, Alabama PBS, featuring interview with Burnside and information about the Holly Springs music community.
- Big Bad Love (2001), Directed by Arliss Howard. Soundtrack songs by R.L. Burnside plus a cameo in the film performing live. MGM/IFC Films.
- Holy Motors (2012), Directed by Leos Carax. Accordion and drum cover by Docteur L of "Let My Baby Ride".
- The real deal: experiencing authenticity in the music of R.L. Burnside. Matthieu Dessier. Thesis (M.A.)--University of Mississippi, 2006. OCLC 82143665
- The Oxford American book of great music writing. Smirnoff, Marc, editor. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2008.
- Burnside would later draw upon in his work, particularly in his interpretation of Skip James's "Hard Time Killing Floor" and the talking blues "R.L.'s Story", the opening and closing tracks of Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (2000).
- His first marriage is apparently reflected in a little story he would tell, in response to questions of the type "What is the blues about?': "It's when you get to your house, late at night, and the first thing you meet out there in the driveway is the cat, sayin'—[in a well imitated cat's voice] 'She-ain't-here, She-ain't-here.'—You got the blues then. Your wife done gone." (Cited from "New York Magazine". 11 September 1995: 94. ISSN 0028-7369.; similar versions on "Have You Ever Been Lonely" from A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996) and the opening of You See Me Laughin')
- About the incident he would recite, "I didn't mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord."
- Evans provided a few more details at: Chris Nelson (1997-08-02). "Classic R.L. Burnside 'House Party' Style Recordings Reissued". MTV News. Retrieved 2015-06-17., to which the Mississippi Blues Commission adds at: "Tate County Blues". Mississippi Blues Trail.
- Some of The 26 minutes of footage is included in You See Me Laughin'. Burnside was instrumental in Falco becoming a guitarist, and Tav Falco's Panther Burns were probably the first to cover, and name, a Burnside composition on record: "Snake Drive" on Behind the Magnolia Curtain, 1981.
- Later released on a 2010 DVD, and the Alan Lomax Archive's Youtube channel: playlist
- In Burnside's words, "they can play rock 'n' roll and disco too".
- Like many joints that were abandoned in response to the crack epidemic.
- His work with Jon Spencer was later cited as an influence by Hillstomp and covered on record by The Immortal Lee County Killers.
- From a hip-hop perspective the Fat Possum efforts were among the very first to incorporate the blues, but ultimately did not alter the younger genre's landscape. One clear precursor is found in The Wolf that House Built from Little Axe, others are by Chris Thomas (King). Contemporary projects, that used archival blues samples, included Moby's extremely successful Play (1999), Tangle Eye's remix of Alan Lomax material (2004), and with a broader mix, Alabama 3's Exile on Coldharbour Lane (1997).
- In interviews Watson and Johnson of Fat Possum have indicated that Burnside was the label's best seller and enabled them to finance less commercially-assured projects, and sign new artists.
- Compare Burnside's vocal imitation of fife and drum music: You See Me Laughin' (see filmography), min. 25:55ff.
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- Filmed interview. You See Me Laughin' (see filmography), minutes 25-30.
- David Evans (1978), Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi [booklet] (PDF), Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress, p. 16
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- "R.L.'s Story", interview clip from Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (2000)
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- "Charleston interview" (audio clip, rec. May 1986), in Well, Well, Well (2001)
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- Booklet of The George Mitchell Collection (2007), FP 1114. Quoted in Jeff Harris (2008-03-23). "A Look At The George Mitchell Collection - Part 2". Big Road Blues. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
- Wolf LP 120.917 leaflet (scan)
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- New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Archive - performers list. See also 1975 setlist
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- Michael Koster; Carter Grice (Summer 1999). "Kenny Brown - America's Finest Slide Guitar Player? [interview]". Thirsty Ear Magazine. Archived from the original on 2013-09-09.
- Cedric Burnside and Kenny Brown. Interview. Jefferson Blues Magazine, Issue 141, March 2004. Swedish original, via Google Translate
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- "New Blues Label Founded at Memphis State Univ.". Billboard. 6 September 1980. p. 8. ISSN 0006-2510.
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- Cited in Dan DeLuca (1996-12-08). "This Is A Blues Band Of Another Color Purist? Not The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Spencer Calls Its Music "white Suburban Punk."". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 2015-05-03.
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- OCLC 36765619
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- Andria Lisle (2004-06-12). "local beat: If the juke joint's a-rockin'". Memphis Flyer. Retrieved 2015-06-06.
- Richard Skelly. "Duwayne Burnside". Allmusic.
- "Burnside Blues Cafe, Waterford MS | The Frontline". Thefrontlinemusic.wordpress.com. 2011-05-22. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
- "Alice Mae’s Cafe | The Frontline". Thefrontlinemusic.com. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
- "2000 - 21st W.C. Handy Blues Awards". PastBlues.
- "2002 - 23rd W.C. Handy Blues Awards". PastBlues.
- "Buddy Guy Wins Three W.C. Handy Honors". Billboard. May 24, 2002. Retrieved May 11, 2015.
- "2003 - 24th W.C. Handy Blues Awards". PastBlues.
- "[Blues music awards, all years]". PastBlues.
- "The Blues Foundation Announces 2014 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees". American Blues Scene Magazine. February 12, 2014. Retrieved 2015-06-17.
- Fusilli, Jim (2015-10-06). "‘St Germain’ Review: Bamako by Way of Paris". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
- Lou Erlanger. Liner notes to Acoustic Stories (1989/1997)
- David Evans (2003). "Fife and drum Band". In John Shepherd; David Horn; Dave Laing; Paul Oliver; Peter Wicke. Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Part 1, Performance and Production. A&C Black. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-1-84714-472-0.
- Arhoolie 1042 (1969) leaflet (scan)
- Ross Haenfler (8 October 2013). "Who are the "authentic" participants and who are the "poseurs"?". Subcultures: The Basics. Routledge. pp. 89–90. ISBN 978-1-134-54763-0.
- E.g. on Well, Well, Well (2001) and Burnside on Burnside (2001)
- R. L. Burnside at AllMusic
- Fat Possum artist website
- Slade's R. L. Burnside page
- Illustrated R. L. Burnside discography