Furry Lewis, Rural Blues Performer
This article originally appeared as an Artist Spotlight on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings website.
Walter "Furry" Lewis (1893– 1981) personified the relaxed and intimate character of the early blues. A master of multiple guitar techniques, he was most notably an impressive bottleneck guitarist who echoed his vocal phrasings with an expressive set of sliding notes. He was able to give his performances a spontaneity, subtlety, and feeling that made him, in the words of blues historian Sam Charters, one of "only a handful of singers [of his era] with the creative ability to use the blues as an expression of personal emotion."
According to most sources, Lewis was born March 6, 1893, in Greenwood, in the Mississippi delta. Around the turn of the century Lewis' family moved the hundred and fifty or so miles upriver to Memphis, Tennessee. The boy his friends and family called "Furry" (for some long forgotten reason) grew up in an atmosphere charged with the energy of nascent African American musics. It was an era in which ragtime and the first incarnations of jazz met the folk songs of Appalachia and the spiritual and "work song" vocal traditions of former slaves. The intersection of these forms created a diverse and vibrant cultural landscape in the Southern USA, as migrations of rural agricultural laborers spread what were once regional musics far beyond their initial origins. The city of Memphis, and the Beale Street neighborhood in particular, developed an almost mythical status as a musical mecca. In a time when recorded music was rare, Beale Street served as a kind of marketplace for music and musicians, where performers of various styles and techniques could go to inspire, and be inspired. It was this climate that nurtured the young Furry Lewis' talent, exposing him to the repertoire and techniques that he would eventually make his own.
Influenced by the fiercely emotive styles of early Memphis blues, which typically involved stories of heartache sung by solitary, working class men, Lewis began performing at house parties, fish fries, dances, and other gatherings, becoming popular with both black and white audiences. As his popularity as a local performer grew, Lewis began to travel around the South, often with itinerant "medicine shows" that included him in vaudeville acts. Paying a respectable $2 a night, these shows developed his talents as a performer, and taught him a number of guitar and vocal styles that would later define his unique musical inflection. After the shows (which usually ended before midnight), a world of juke joints, speakeasies, and late night parties provided ample opportunities for a young Furry Lewis to play more and improve his art.