Furry Lewis' birthday was March 6th. On March 11th, Omnivore Records will release Sid Selvidge's album The Cold of the Morning — originally released in 1976 on his Peabody label. Selvidge's son Steve recalls growing up with Lewis and his father's admiration for Furry and his music.
Furry Lewis was a country blues legend. I almost killed him. Well, sort of, but we'll get to that.
Born March 6, 1893, Walter "Furry" Lewis is a towering figure of the country blues world. Raised here in Memphis, he performed on Beale Street in its heyday. He played with W.C. Handy. He recorded crucial blues classics such as "Cassie Jones," "John Henry," "Billy Lyons and Stack-O-Lee," and "Judge Harsh Blues" (also known as "Judge Bouché"). Furry had a finger picking style that was exquisite, complex, and downright funky. His slide playing was otherworldly; at times it would take over the vocal and sing for him. Years playing in medicine shows (where snake oil salesmen and the like would hawk their wares) gave him the chops of a vaudeville entertainer.
Furry's recording career was over
by the 1930s. He took a job with the city of Memphis, working as a street sweeper. He did all this on a prosthetic leg. Years later, shortly after he retired from his street-sweeping job, he was one of the first of his generation of bluesmen to be "rediscovered" by young, white musicians caught up in the emerging folk scene of the early-mid 1960s.
Around this time is when my family enters the picture.
My dad, Sid Selvidge, first encountered Furry around 1964 at The Bitter Lemon in Memphis. Located on the corner of Humes and Poplar, The Bitter Lemon was the epicenter of the burgeoning folk/blues/coffee-house scene in town. Owned and operated by John McIntire, one of the city's original beatnik artists, this was also where my dad, Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, and Jimmy Crosthwait began to form their musical relationships.
It was in this environment that they found themselves in the unique position to learn firsthand from the masters of the music they were just discovering. Baker became a student of Furry's, eventually backing him up on gigs. My dad, in addition to learning all his music, developed a bond with Furry that meant more to him than just the music and the scene.
While not exactly a father figure (my dad's father died when my dad was a kid), Furry Lewis was one of the most significant men in his life. A graduate of Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes), my dad came from the typically homogeneous background of a white child who grew up in the Mississippi Delta. Furry opened his eyes and gave him a more graceful introduction into the integration that was happening all around him. Dad had many funny stories about Furry's escapades and sayings. But behind all of that was a deep respect and an even deeper gratitude for helping him into a musical world that was more raceless than what he had known before. From then on, Furry loomed large in our house.
Furry's music is some of the first I can remember. "Cassie Jones" in particular — hearing my dad, Baker, and Dickinson playing and singing that song. They would trade verse after verse, with Jimmy Crosthwait always behind the washboard, everyone showing what they learned from Furry. But even prior to that, I remember being really little, maybe two or three years old, and going over to just hang out at Furry's house. He kept a couple of gerbils or hamsters; I forget which. We would bring cabbage for them and a pint of Ten High bourbon for Furry. I loved going over there. The whole atmosphere just seemed really laid back and fun, and he was always really nice to me.
My clearest memory of hanging out there started pretty much the same as any of our other visits. When he was home, Furry would leave his prosthetic leg off and just keep to his bed. So we came in, fed the gerbils (or hamsters), and gave Furry his Ten High, and I crawled up onto his bed to sit next to him like I always did. He kept a little cigar box on his bedside table that held his cigarettes and lighter. Next to that was a small glass for his whiskey. He would keep it covered when he was drinking for fear that a spider might drop in. But the first thing that I noticed when I sat on his bed that day was a pistol on that same bedside table. I don't know if it was always there and I just hadn't noticed it before, or if he had accidently left it there this time, but it definitely caught my eye.
I can clearly remember thinking that it would be funny to pick up that pistol and point it at Furry's temple. Keep in mind; I'm of a generation brought up on Looney Tunes reruns: Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and such. This kind of joke seemed like fair play to me. So, my dad looked up to see his youngest son holding a gun to his good friend's head.
Now, I doubt that I was big enough to really physically pull the trigger, but nonetheless, my dad was smart in that he didn't shout or jump to me in any kind of panicked manner. He just calmly got up and asked if I would let him hold Furry's pistol. So I did. Blues crisis averted.
Years later, Furry's house caught fire, and he was pretty badly injured. He was hospitalized but quickly started to show signs of improvement. The last time my dad saw Furry, he was in the hospital room along with Lee Baker. Furry was in great spirits, laughing and clowning around. The three of them were going back and forth making up their own verses to "You Gonna Look Just Like a Monkey When You Get Old." Dad said goodbye and left. Later that night Furry developed pneumonia. He died the next day. Dad recorded a version of "The Monkey Song" on his final album I Should Be Blue in 2010. The credits are listed as (W. Lewis, S. Selvidge, L. Baker).
These days, Furry Lewis means so many things to me. He's a familiar voice that always puts me at ease. Musically, he's a continuing inspiration to me, as well as a centering force. I guess most of all now, he just helps to keep me close to my dad's memory. He was an important man in his life, and he influenced my dad and all of his close musical friends in a way that will continue to provide me with musical guidance and inspiration.
I always smile when I see or hear Furry Lewis. And I'm glad I didn't kill him.