Born with the Blues: Walter “Furry” Lewis

Born with the Blues: Walter “Furry” Lewis

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Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenville, Mississippi on March 6 in either 1891 (according to hi) or 1899 (according to historians finding based on his 1900 census entry). He was one of the first of the active players from the 1920s to be brought out of retirement during the 1960s Folk Blues Revival.

Movin’ to Memphis

Although Lewis was born in Mississippi, he and his mother moved to Memphis by the time he was six. His childhood friends in Memphis gave him the nickname “Furry”, but by the time he was rediscovered in the 1950s not even Furry himself could remember why. He took an early interest in the guitar by the playing of a guitarist named Blind Joe who Lewis frequently saw around his home on Brinkley Street. Lewis later recorded two of the songs Blind Joe played, “Casey Jones” and “John Henry.” Lewis’ first guitar was homemade. “I loved guitar,” Lewis later told Bengt Olsson, in Memphis Blues, “[I] made my own guitar. I taken [sic] a cigar box and cut a hole in the top of it and taken another little piece of thin wood like beaverboard and made the neck. And I taken some nails and nailed them in the end of the neck and bent them down and taken wire off a screen door. And that’s what I made my strings out of. Of course, I wasn’t playing nothing, but that’s just the way I got a start.”

“Furry” Lewis learned harmonica and began playing in the streets of Memphis. His first paying gig as a musician was with the W.C. Handy band as a sit in. Eventually he obtained a real guitar, given to him by Handy himself. “I kept that guitar until I absolutely wore it out completely. I kept it for twenty-five or thirty years. It was a Martin.”

Street Sweepin’

1n 1920, Lewis met Jim Jackson. Jackson was a popular performer in the medicine shows variety shows that traveled from town to town selling patent medicine and with his help, Furry joined the Dr. Willie Lewis medicine show. By 1923, being tired of the road, he had settled back in Memphis and found a job with the city sweeping streets.

When he returned, he formed a band of his own and made a place for himself in the Beale Street musical scene that was just beginning to thrive. Memphis Minnie, Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes, and Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band were actively performing. Musicians accompanied one another in street concerts, at house parties, on medicine show trips and eventually on records.

First Recordings

Lewis’s association with Jim Jackson gave him his first opportunity to record in 1927 with Vocallion Records. Recalling that experience Lewis said “I made two or three records for Mr. Jack Kapp, he know’d [sic] what I like and so he had a whole gallon of whiskey sitting there.” He did two sessions with the label, but they did not sell well and Vocalion did ask him back.

In August 0f 1928, a Victor Record representative, Ralph Peer, came to Memphis and recorded Lewis. Lewis recorded eight sides, including “Kassie Jones Part 1,” “Kassie Jones Part 2,” and “I Will Turn Your Money Green.” None of those recordings had any better sales, and after a brief recording in 1929, Lewis hung his hat and returned full-time to his job as a street sweeper.

Anthology of American Folk Music

In 1952 Harry Smith released Anthology of American Folk Music which included “Kassie Jones, Part 1 & 2.” The Anthology inspired historians, storytellers, and folklorists alike to seek out the musicians who had recorded in the pre-war, pre-depression eras. Samuel Charters, a blues historian, went to Memphis in 1958 to visit Will Shade. It was during this visit Shade’s wife mentioned Lewis. After a bit of sleuthing, Charters found himself in Lewis’ small furnished room, listening to the long-lost bluesman play “John Henry.”

Lewis not only recorded blues, which was in vogue at the time, but also recorded old-time popular ballads that pre-dated blues music. His versions brought a unique sensibility. In “John Henry” and “Kassie Jones,” songs about larger than life figures whose ambition leads to their deaths, he sings from the perspective of the dead men’s wives and children, making the stories less heroic but ultimately more tragic.

“Furry” Lewis died in Memphis on September 14, 1981.

born with the blues
Born With the Blues is a weekly Series covering an influential blues artist born on this date. Graphic by Don Hill