Archie Edwards, master of acoustic blues, 79


Archie Edwards, who played acoustic guitar and sang the blues for more than 70 years, died Thursday of cancer at his Seat Pleasant home. He was 79.

His last performance in Baltimore was two months ago, when he performed for students at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Cherry Hill.

For nearly 40 years, he owned the two-chair Alpha Tonsorial Barbershop in Northeast Washington, where musicians and blues aficionados gathered Saturdays for jam sessions with "Brother Arch."

Dressed in a three-piece suit and wearing a fedora or cap, he would listen to the young musicians and offer encouragement. "God gave you 10 fingers; use them," he'd say to those of limited picking ability.

Comfortably seated in one of the barber chairs, he'd pick up his "steel pan" Gretsch guitar and begin singing the "old songs" in a high-pitched voice.

"He was certainly an old-time bluesman and one of the last of a dying breed of traditional acoustic storytellers, and audiences loved him," said Dale Patton, founder and former president of the Baltimore Blues Society.

"He had more than a little Mississippi John Hurt in his music," said Ron Weinstock of Mr. Edwards' idol and mentor.

"When he played, he had a halting attack. He never displayed a ragtime or fast finger style and preferred more mellow tempos. He was very much in the Piedmont tradition or style," said Mr. Weinstock, who writes a column for the "Calendar," published by the D.C. Blues Society.

Mr. Edwards was founding director of the society in 1987.

In 1990, Mr. Edwards explained to biographer Barry Lee Pearson, author of "Virginia Piedmont Blues," why he liked the blues.

"I say, oh, no, this is deep enough. This is actually deeper than you think. See, most people don't know actually how deep blues is, and once you know how to do it yourself, you'll know how deep it is 'cause it's the next thing to a spiritual," Mr. Edwards said.

Born and raised on a farm near Union Hall, Va., he grew up listening to his father, a sharecropper, play the banjo, harmonica and slide guitar and sing.

"I started playing when I was five or six years old," Mr. Edwards said. "See, when I was a kid, my father played, and he had some friends that would come past the house on Saturday nights and play the guitar. In those days, people didn't have nothing to do but walk five or six miles and come by his house and eat dinner, drink whiskey and play the guitar."

After leaving school in the eighth grade, he worked in sawmills, as a chauffeur in New Jersey and at a hotel in Ohio. During World War II, he served in the Army as a military policeman in the Pacific and was discharged in 1945.

He recorded two albums. "Blues 'N Bones" was made in the 1980s. "Living Country Blues, Volume Six: The Road Is Rough and Rocky" was recorded after a tour of Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in the 1970s.

Concerned that future generations might not appreciate the blues, he told his biographer:

"So I'm trying to keep the blues, what you call black heritage, I'm trying to keep it rolling. Yeah, and it doesn't matter who I teach it to because Mississippi John Hurt asked me, he said, 'Brother Arch, whatever you do, teach my music to other people.' He said, 'Don't make no difference what color they are, teach it to them. Because I don't want to die and you don't want to die. Teach them my music and teach them your music.' "

Services for Mr. Edwards will be held at 11 a.m. today at the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, 6801 Sheriff Road, Seat Pleasant.

He is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Frances Reed; two sons, Robert C. Edwards of Forestville and Alonzo Southerland of New Carrollton; four daughters, Gloria Hedrick of Fort Washington, Theresa Slaughter of Upper Marlboro, Rayjan Southerland of Capitol Heights and Maryann Edlin of Kentland; two brothers, Willie Edwards of Rocky Mount, Va., and Oliver Edwards of Oxon Hill; three sisters, Eunice Edwards, Christine Chewning and Agnes Price, all of Washington; and 10 grandchildren.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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