It was 1961. The very beginning of the folk blues revival. An up and comin’ young folk singer recorded a track for his debut album called “Fixin’ to Die.”
Bob Dylan’s version sparked the interest of another young folkie- John Fahey. He wanted to know where the man was who wrote that song, whether he was living or dead. All John knew he got from a few recordings from the late thirties. The man’s name was Bukka White. He’d been slammed in Parchman Farm Prison for some of his life. And he had once written a song about a little town called Aberdeen, Mississippi.
So Fahey did the only thing he could think of. He wrote a letter and addressed it like this: Bukka White (Old Blues Singer) care of General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi, Post Office. And it worked.
Bukka was living in Memphis, but the letter got forwarded on to him. He responded—and the rest is history.
Turns out, the man who’d written “Shake ‘em On Down,” was in fine form. Since his brief recording career in the late 1930’s Bukka had been a boxer, a baseball player, a prisoner, a member of the US Navy. And now, thanks to John Fahey, over 20 years later he was back behind his National Resonator guitar.
Here’s the track Dylan did so well—Bukka White, “Fixin’ to Die”.
(November 12, 1909 – February 26, 1977)
Bukka White was born on a farm near Houston, Mississippi on November 12, 1909. He was named after the famed educator Booker T. Washington. Bukka became interested in music at an early age. At nine his father taught him guitar, and a chance meeting with Charley Patton galvanized his passion.
White first recorded 14 songs during a 1930 stay in Memphis, three of which were gospel numbers featuring Memphis Minnie. Only two 78s were released, and neither met with commercial success. Over the rest of the decade, Bukka worked as a pro boxer, as well as played baseball in an all black league. In the summer of ’37, Bukka shot an assailant, and was sentenced to Parchman Farm prison. Shortly before reporting to jail, he recorded for Vocalion. One of these tracks was Shake ‘Em On Down—a now classic which sold well in its time.
Following his three-year prison stint, White travelled to Chicago for a follow-up session. His career was slowed when he enlisted in the US Navy during WWII. After the war, he occasionally played gigs in the Delta, and settled in Memphis. There he was able to influence countless young musicians, including his little cousin B.B. King.
Bukka disappeared from popular conscience until 1963, when folk singer John Fahey wrote a letter to
“Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi.”The postcard was forwarded to Memphis, where Bukka worked in a tank factory. Fahey travelled to meet White, and the rest is history. They became lifelong friends.
Bukka’s career saw resurgence during the blues revival. He remained a mainstay on the folk circuit until his death in 1977.