Henry Williams, Eddie Anthony, Peg Leg Howell (l-r).
Perhaps no other musical genre is so full of unusual stories about
musicians as the Blues. The life of legendary musician Robert
Johnson (and somehow in the Blues there are a lot of 'legends')
generated not only influence on countless later artists, but entered
into the American mythos by way of books and movies.
Today, by accident, I came across Joshua "Peg Leg" Howell. Here's a
little bit about him (edited down somewhat):
"Peg Leg Howell was born Joshua Barnes Howell on March 5, 1888 in
Eatonton, Georgia. Howell was a self-taught guitarist who was said to
have connected early country blues and the 12-bar styles. Over time, he
learned to be skilled in finger picking and slide techniques. The
nickname “Peg Leg” was acquired from an incident with a shotgun in 1916,
where his brother-in-law allegedly shot his leg off. After this
incident, he could not work on a farm anymore, so he packed his things
and left for Atlanta, where he pursued a full-time music career. He
started off playing on street corners for change. When this wasn’t
enough, Howell started bootlegging liquor. In 1925, he was sentenced to
one year in prison because he was caught bootlegging…. Although many
of his earlier recordings were solo, Howell was later backed by “the
Gang,” which included guitarist Henry Williams and fiddler Eddie
Anthony. Finally in 1929, Columbia decided to drop Howell from its
record label. At this time, Peg Leg was forced to work the streets of
Atlanta, while Williams was imprisoned. Anthony had died in 1934. Howell
fell into a slump and disappeared from the blues scene. In 1952,
diabetes had taken Howell’s other leg. In 1963, things started to change
for the better. The Testament label took Peg Leg in and recorded his
first new material in over 40 years. Peg Leg Howell died in Atlanta,
Georgia in 1966.
So the poor guy not only lost one leg, but then he lost the other one
Listening to the little track samplings from the Howell albums (see below)
I was struck by two things. The first was the incredible variety of these
songs. The second was that even though this is classic early blues,
there does seem to be a bit of the mountain element in it — a type of
bluegrass influence. Atlanta isn't that far away from the mountains of
eastern Tennessee. In general, Howell's music is classified as Piedmont
Incredible stuff. I found the whole premise of "Long, Tall, Disconnected
Mama" very cool indeed. I'm not sure what he means by "disconnected,"
but my imagination takes off like crazy on that one.
Peg Leg also did a song called "Beaver Slide Rag." According to one
source, many people thought this was a song about actual beavers, so
much so that a minister actually used a reference to it in one of his sermons
including stuff about beavers. In reality, The Beaver was a juke-joint that
Howell played at.
"Coal Man Blues" brings back a piece of history. My grandmother Piercy
told me when I kid that the small metal door in the basement to her house
was from the "old days" when they would deliver coal. And of course the
coal was delivered by people who made a little money off of doing that kind
of job. It wasn't a great job and it didn't pay very much. In "Coal Man
Blues" we find him singing of a guy that does such a thing — "I sell it
to the rich and I sell it to the po' ." Everybody needed coal.
According to Find A Grave, he is buried at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery
in DeKalb County, Georgia.
Anyway, here are the albums if you want to check them out.
Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Just plug in the name "Peg Leg Howell.")