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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Tomorrow - March 22nd - marks the 5th anniversary of the death at a great age of Frank Edwards, the blues singer, whom I met in the course of following in Blind Willie McTell's footsteps. Frank knew Willie in Atlanta in the late 1930s. I write about his brief testimony about McTell in my forthcoming book, but here is the obituary I wrote for The Guardian a couple of days after Edwards died. It is briefer than I'd have liked, but it was written to the paper's required length:

One of the last surviving American blues singers who recorded in the pre-war era has died of a heart-attack, two days after his 93rd birthday. Frank Edwards was not one of the greats - he was a minor, quirky figure on the Piedmont blues scene - but he was a grand old man, his reputation never higher than latterly.

If that in itself was a gratifying position to enjoy, the circumstances in which he died were not bad either: he was on his way home from recording a new album.

With Mr. Frank, as he was affectionately known, on vocals and guitar, enough songs had been completed at the Hillborough, North Carolina studio to round off the record, for which he had written three new songs. Heading back to Atlanta, driven by ex-Atlanta Fire Dept. friend Larry Garret, they stopped for lunch in Greenville, South Carolina. Edwards began coughing. An ambulance was called and arrived ten minutes later. Mr. Frank stood up, climbed into the ambulance and died.

His first recording session had taken place over 60 years earlier, in May 1941. At this first session, in Chicago, Edwards recorded eight tracks and saw half issued, as two 78rpm records: ‘Sweet Man Blues’ c/w the distinctive ‘Three Women Blues’ and ‘Terraplane Blues’ c/w the charming if widely indecipherable patriotic number ‘We Got To Get Together’.

These met with no special success and it would be almost a decade before Edwards recorded again - but he had come a long way to reach Chicago at all. Born in 1909 in Wilkes County, Georgia, he recalled that this “wasn’t nothing then but a farming place. Which I was too little to know too much about. I left when I was fourteen.” Feuding with a father who forbade him own a guitar, he left for Florida on a truck with his older brother. He didn’t return for 25 years.
He settled for a while in St. Augustine, Florida, where he met blues artist Tampa Red. He played slide guitar, adding harmonica on a neck-rack in 1934, after seeing a white man using one in Tennessee. He hoboed around the south, making Atlanta his base from 1937 and sometimes travelling north in summer. He never made it big but he kept going, recording again in 1949 and in the 1970s and performing at festivals until very recently.

Latterly Mr. Frank could be found of an evening at the bar of Blind Willie’s, a pub with live music in a funky part of Atlanta, still enjoying the blues. I met him there four months ago. Described in a 1970s blues magazine as “a dark, taciturn man”, I found him good-humoured and approachable, with kind eyes. When the live act played, he was attentive, smiling and applauding each number. He was by far the most nattily-dressed person in the crowded room.

Frank Edwards, born Washington, Georgia, March 20, 1909; died Greenville, SC, March 22, 2002. He leaves a daughter, three stepdaughters, a stepson, a sister, ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.


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