Bukka White Biography

Booker T. Washington White, 12 November 1906, Houston, Mississippi, USA, d. 26 February 1977, Memphis, Tennessee, USA. White learned guitar and piano in his teens, and hoboed from 1921, playing blues with artists such as George ‘Bullet’ Williams. In the mid-30s White was a boxer and baseball pitcher. He recorded for Victor Records in 1930, a largely unissued session including spirituals and the first of his breakneck train imitations. Returning to Vocalion Records in 1937, he recorded his composition ‘Shake ’Em On Down’ and was given the misspelled billing which he always disliked. By the time ‘Shake ’Em On Down’ was a hit, White had been imprisoned in Parchman Farm for assault. There, he recorded two songs for the Library of Congress, and claimed to have had an easy time as a prison musician. However, when he recorded commercially again in 1940, he was clear that he had been traumatized by his experience. The result was a remarkable series of recordings obsessed with prison, trains, drink and death. The songs were poetic, complete and coherent, often with deep insights into their topics, their heavy vocal delivery perfectly complemented by fierce, percussive slide guitar.

After his US Navy service during World War II, White settled in Memphis from 1944 onwards. In 1946, his second cousin, B.B. King, lived with him, learning perhaps less about music than about the blues singer’s life. As white interest in blues increased, ‘Fixin’ To Die Blues’ and ‘Parchman Farm Blues’ became cult songs. Rediscovered by John Fahey in 1963, White had retained most of his abilities, and was extensively recorded (including, for the first time, on piano). At his best, he could still produce stunningly inventive lyrics. White joined the folk club and festival circuit, performing across the USA, Canada, Mexico and Europe until the mid-70s, when illness enforced his retirement.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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