We don’t know much about the man, and what we know is all word of mouth. What we’ve got is that Hambone Willie Newbern played with Yank Rachell at fish fries, and taught Sleepy John Estes to play guitar at Mississippi medicine shows.
Newbern only cut six tracks for Okeh records during his only recording session in 1929. And he can lay claim to being the first to record “Rollin and Tumblin,” a song Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Clapton, Johnny Winter, Dylan and everybody else would later rework and imitate.
Hambone Willie only managed to record just that once. Seems he couldn’t escape his nasty temper. Arrested in a gambling raid, he died in a prison yard brawl in 1947.
Muddy Waters made the song famous, but there’s nothing like the gritty, temperamental bottle necking of Hambone Willie Newbern on the original “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”[soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99422963" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
Almost nothing is known about country-bluesman Hambone Willie Newbern. It is thought that he was born in 1899 somewhere along Tennessee State Route 19 near Brownsville, Tennessee. Allegedly, he taught Sleepy John Estes how to play guitar at Mississippi Medicine shows, and frequented fish fries with Mandolin-picking Yank Rachell. The recollections of these two men contribute to the entirety of our knowledge about Newbern. There is no known photograph of Hambone Willie in existence—the photo that is often said to be him is actually an impish-looking Son House.
As for audio evidence, he only participated in one recording session. In April 1929, he entered the Okeh Records studio in Atlanta, laying down six tracks on his guitar. Most of these are medicine show traditionals, but Newbern had the ability to pen some serious personal blues. The 1929 Okeh session gives us the earliest known recording of Rollin’ and Tumblin’. After this session, he disappeared. Rumor has it that Newbern’s hot temper landed him behind bars, where he died in a prison yard brawl in 1947.