HENRY TOWNSEND / My Story
With a professional performing and recording career spanning over seven decades, legendary St. Louis blues guitarist, pianist and singer Henry Townsend has seen and done it all. Shortly after his 20th birthday, Henry, now 93 years old, recorded for Columbia and then for Paramount and RCA Victor. Between 1931 and 1938, Henry recorded dozens of titles for RCA as both leader and accompanist, lending his distinctive guitar sound to classic recordings of other St. Louis-based artists like Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Walter Davis, Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Williamson) and Aaron "Pinetop" Sparks. During the same period, Henry was regularly performing in St. Louis with those same artists and other luminaries such as Clifford Gibson, Henry Spaulding, Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. After a stint in the army during World War II, followed by three years in Chicago, Henry returned to St. Louis where he began playing again with Walter Davis. During the early 50s the pair recorded again for RCA, waxing Henry's "Tears Came Rolling Down" which was later covered by John Mayall. During the later part of the decade, Walter suffered a stroke that disabled his left hand, and Henry took a job as a debt collector. It seemed as if Henry's musical career was over, but in 1960 he was "rediscovered" by young blues enthusiasts and he recorded his first album, Tired Of Being Mistreated. Over the next two decades, many other albums followed, and Henry made appearances at all the major blues and folk festivals in both the United States and Europe. In 1985 by an act of Congress, he was given the prestigious Heritage Award, the highest honor that can be paid to a traditional artist. In addition to all these accomplishments, Henry has further ensured his legacy by influencing, advising and patiently teaching a whole new generation of St. Louis blues artists.
Henry Townsend has had some time to perfect his craft. The 92-year-old elder-statesman of blues recordings has decided that what works best for him - what evokes the most emotion of true blues from his fingers and voice - is to wing it. Now, let's be certain, it takes immense talent to pull off effective improvisition. Townsend's tunes, while generally rehearsed, are anything but simple. With My Story, Townsend has put out records in every decade since the 1920s, a feat no other musician can claim. Still, he hasn't been able to come up with an explanation of where his on-the-spot originals come from. "I just don't know," Townsend said to a television reporter who asked him to explain that intangible during this recording session. "You're asking me a question I can't answer."
For this recording Townsend sat perched over the piano or cradling a guitar in his lap, and simply verbalized to music the happy or sad thoughts that crept into his mind. As the songs took firm, and with tape rolling the whole time, he'd invent new lyrics and verses. The accompanying musicians - Sho Komiya on bass and Townsend's long time partner Ron Edwards on guitar - could not anticipate. Playing with Townsend requires a sympathetic ear and quick adjustment. The songs that stuck to this record are nothing short of genius with rough edges. It's Townsend's choice of timeless topics that keeps each song fresh.
Since running away from his native Mississippi at the age of 9, Townsend has been playing guitar and piano on the St. Louis scene. His most famous musical pairings were extended gigs with Roosevelt Sykes and later with Walter Davis. Townsend is also one of the few surviving musicians to have played with Robert Johnson. The 1999 book, A Blues Life, chronicles his vast experiences. My Story should serve most aptly as the audio documentation of this legendary life. Just as it is a general practice of the wise to heed the suggestions of their respected elders, so goes with My Story. A lot can be learned here, if only the lesson of what an exposed soul sounds like.
"...The Sound is pure country blues, not much different than the kind Townsend played in the '30s...In some ways, the blues don't ever change, and, apart from the superb interplay between Townsend and Edwards, much of the beauty of My Story lies in being able to look back at close to a century of blues with one of its first practitioners." - Tom Hyslop, Blues Revue, Dec./Jan. 2002
"Robust piano notes, occasional guitar licks and a thoughtful and carefully executed vocal line works through these timeless laments and universal tales of loneliness, lost love and rural poverty which have been a staple diet for blues men since Henry began recording back in the twenties. Themes that were so innovative all those years ago still prickle with gritty and irreplaceable observations...It proves that Townsend is no dinosaur."
Recording = 9.5/10 Music = 9.5/10
- Reuben Parry, Hi-Fi+, Issue 31, page 136
1. Less Than A Man
2. Tell Me
3. World Full Of People
4. No Fuss And Fight
6. You Should've Told Me
7. My Story
8. Help Me Darling
9. Screaming And Crying
10. Put Me On Hold
12. Repentance Blues
Henry Townsend - Piano/Guitar/Vocals
Sho Komiya - Acoustic Bass
Ron Edwards - Slide Guitar
Jimmy D. Lane - Dobro on "Help Me Darling" and "Repentance Blues"