Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenwood, MS in 1893, or so he claimed. It may have been 1900, or 1903, but who cares. He recorded his first side, ever, for Vocalion Records in Chicago in 1927. After some early success, he slid into obscurity and worked as a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department until he retired. He was 'rediscovered' in the late fifties and gained popularity in the early sixties through re-issues of his original recordings and new studio recordings.
Furry and I met for the first time, as mentioned, in 1972 when I flew him up to Minneapolis to appear at the University of Minnesota's Whole Coffeehouse for a concert. We were close friends and associates until his death some ten years later.
Furry was about as 'authentic' as you can get. He lived a life, in the classic blues tradition, of hardship and joy. He never married and had no children. His closest relative was a niece, Roberta Glover, who lived in Memphis nearby his home on Mosby Street. He lived quietly and played for friends and acquaintances whenever asked. He was able to supplement his meager income through his artistry, but, most importantly, his music gave him an opportunity to express himself in a way that few ever get a chance to do. I came to find that Furry played for himself as much as for anyone else.
One of the first things to strike me about Furry was the fact that he never did the same song the same way twice. In all the hundreds of Furry Lewis gigs I witnessed, never, ever, did I hear an exact repeat. His music was always timely and unique, reflecting how he felt or what he was thinking at a particular moment. Oftentimes, the changes he introduced in his repertoire were done solely to entertain himself. As mentioned, Furry was always his own best audience.
He began his career playing on the Medicine Show circuit selling, among other brands, Jack Rabbit Liniment from flatbed runways in small southern towns. His job was to attract and entertain a crowd so that the more serious business of selling the goods could be done by the Pitchman. The style he evolved was one that did not depend on a microphone to pick up the nuance of his performance, rather it was one that played to the 'back of the house' in broad form, unaided by electronics. Later, after the Medicine Shows were history, he played for dances and picnics where the production values were often confined to a stage, raised two feet or so above a dirt floor. The result was that Furry never learned the fine points of using a microphone and his performances relied on the physical. Dragging his left arm across the top few strings of his guitar and moving it up and down the neck while his right hand kept the beat (check out the video below to see what I'm talking about - albeit fueled by a bit too much Ten High bourbon...), oftentimes resulted live recordings of questionable quality, but drove audiences to cheers. That was the effect he desired. Coming off stage, his vision clouded by cataracts, he would ask, “Are they standin' up?” Nine times out of ten, they were.
The hallmark of any Furry Lewis performance was the emotional intensity he delivered on stage. It was not unusual for him to 'lose it' - breaking down in tears. He was equally as likely to dissolve in laughter at one of his oft-told jokes or an incident that struck him as amusing. When he finished a set, part of Furry the man, as well as Furry the performer, had been shared with his audience. I remember one incident when Furry 'lost it'. Listening to some tapes jogged my memory. We were in Texas, playing to a very enthusiastic house, when Furry, close to the end of his set, launched into “When I Lay My Burden Down”. He always liked to close with “some religious songs” and this was one of his favorites. The chorus begins with the line”I'm goin' home to be with my Jesus...” On listening to the tape, I noticed a shrill and unusual tone to his voice as he began the second chorus. Suddenly he stopped. A chocking sob rose. A second later, he called my name. My hurried footsteps can be heard as I came from the wing to down center. Following is the verbatim exchange as caught on tape. Furry: “I done broke down.” AB: “It's okay...don't worry about it. What do you want to do?” [i.e. which tune do you want to do next] Furry: “I don't know, what should I do?” AB: “Pick “Old Rugged Cross” and we'll hang it up.” I remember thinking at the time that we didn't want to risk another vocal, that it was best to take the set out with an instrumental.
Unaware of the details of this entire exchange the audience, to their credit had the good taste to applaud loudly and appreciatively. Furry picked the “The Old Rugged Cross” slowly and dramatically and, cane in hand, hobbled off stage to a standing ovation.
Furry lost his left leg below the knee in a railroad accident in the late teens or early twenties of the last century. He told me he had been in Chicago and had hopped a freight train back to Memphis. The train was rolling through southern Illinois and was about be begin a climb up a long grade. Furry was riding between cars and lost his footing. His leg slipped into the coupling just as the train started up the grade and was crushed in the mechanism. He spent four months in the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital in Carbondale, IL and was released with a wooded prosthesis which he wore until his death some sixty years later. I have often thought of Furry lying in that hospital,enduring the loss of a limb, alone and uncomforted. I think of it particularly in reference to an incident that happened in Houston, TX in the mid '70's.
I was attending a conference of music buyers from colleges and universities from across the country. As a part of this gathering, certain artists were selected to perform a thirty minute 'showcase' of their talents for the benefit these college entertainment buyers. Furry had been one of those chosen to perform. The only other traditional Blues performers so selected were Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Both Furry and Sonny & Brownie had been placed on the same bill, with Sonny & Brownie going on just before Furry. Evidently, the presenters of the conference thought such a pairing would result in a 'battle of the bands' among geriatric Blues performers. I thought it was idiotic. But what could we do.
I had a meeting with some folks who were interested in presenting the Memphis Blues Caravan at a group of universities and was rushing to get to the auditorium to attend to Furry. In my haste, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. I hobbled into his dressing room. He was very concerned about what had happened to my ankle. I told him it was nothing to worry about and that he should go out there and knock 'em on their ass. He smiled and repeated a line I had heard many times before. “Don't you worry, when I get to pickin', I'm like a rabbit in a thicket...it takes a good dog to catch me.”
After the show Furry would not leave my side. He offered me the use of his cane. He told me to lean on his shoulder for support. He insisted that we go back to my room so I could lie down. I was in no position to argue as the ankle was beginning to look like a small balloon.
It took us thirty minutes to clear the door of the auditorium because of the huge clutch of adoring fans. Furry worked the crowd like a seasoned politician. When we finally got back to my room, he sat on a chair opposite the bed. He said, “I ain't goin' no where. I'm gonna sit right here and sing you some religious songs that's gonna get you well.” He was without his guitar, it had been brought back to his room by one of my associates.
Furry Lewis sat with me and sang, a Capella, one hymn after another. The pain in my throbbing ankle slowly lifted and I fell asleep. I awoke an hour or more later. The room was dark. Furry was still sitting in the chair across from the bed...watching over me.
I often wondered if anyone sang for him, in that hospital in Carbondale.