Furry Lewis – Live At The Gaslight At The Au Go Go
Celebration Hall – 2023
13 tracks; 46 minutes
Walter ‘Furry’ Lewis was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1890’s. He recorded for Vocalion and RCA Victor in the 1920’s but stopped playing music when the depression hit, earning his living as a street cleaner for many years. Rediscovered in the late 1950’s, Furry recorded again but kept working his day job until greater possibilities opened up in the 1960’s. Recordings for Arhoolie, Sire and Blue Thumb brought Furry to a new generation of blues fans and by 1971 he was again a name on the circuit. This album was recorded live at The Gaslight in New York and released at the time but has been out of print for years, so it is good that Celebration Hall has reissued it, complete with the original album liner notes from 1971.
At 80 years of age it is hardly surprising that Furry’s voice sounds frail at times but he continues to play guitar in his distinctive style, quite percussive at times, especially on the tracks on which he is joined by his protégé Ward Schaffer. Certainly the audience seems enraptured by his performance and applauds generously after each track. The program includes a couple of spirituals, songs that Furry recorded in the 1920’s which sold well at the time and a selection of material that is all credited to Furry but, as is common in early blues, takes widely from other popular blues songs; even country giant Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For A Train” is credited to Furry!
After a brief stage introduction Furry opens with “Paer Lee”, using slide to good effect, a song that includes some elements of “Walkin’ Blues”. The comic title “My Dog Got The Measles” is introduced by Furry with a chuckle and goes on to detail some of the ills that befall us in a jaunty presentation that belies the rather ‘down’ lyrics. A short version of the spiritual “Nero (sic) My God To Thee” is followed by the autobiographical “East St Louis” which is a good example of how Furry plays with a walking bass line. “Waiting For A Train” is the Jimmie Rodgers song and has a touch of country rhythm about it. A second spiritual, “When I Lay My Burden Down” is reprized from Furry’s 1960’s recordings before a short break in the program as Furry invites Ward Schaffer to join him for a couple of tunes. Ward’s guitar work allows Furry to adopt a more percussive style and the combination works well. The fuller sound is enjoyable as both men take turns on the vocals on a lively version of “Move To Kansas City” and “Pallet On The Floor” is given a spirited rendition.
“Brownsville” is usually attributed to Sleepy John Estes but Furry played it regularly and made the song his own, so, unsurprisingly, it is here listed as a Furry original. Furry is again solo with his slide and you can hear his foot tapping out the rhythm in a quiet version of the familiar song. Another piece of autobiography follows in “Furry’s Blues” on which Ward again joins in (as does the audience whose hand claps can just be heard in the background): “they arrested me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name, bad luck in my family all fell on me”. Furry concludes the concert solo with three songs that he recorded in the 1920’s: the traditional tale of “John Henry” will be familiar to most listeners from myriad versions over the years and Furry sings and plays it convincingly; “Turn Your Money Green” references Rockefeller’s fortune and personal misfortunes, played at an appropriately funereal pace; the lively “K.C. Jones” is a train song, including descriptions of hoboing and bootlegging.
Furry Lewis died at home in Memphis in 1981, making this one of his last recordings.