Bukka White Blues Festival comes to Aberdeen

ABERDEEN – A rumor that once floated around town regarding Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s third single, “Aberdeen,” was the bluesman was driving through on his way to New Orleans and was struck by the beauty of a girl pumping his gasoline at a local full service station. It proceeds that he asked her to go to New Orleans with him and she refused. He was supposedly so smitten, the experience inspired the song.

While this convincing story seems to fall perfectly in place into the lyrics, it’s not true. Shepherd covered this Bukka White original song, which helped fuel the career of the young blues singer.

Bukka’s influence also gave way to the guitar skills of living legend and cousin, B.B. King. King moved in with Bukka in Memphis for 10 months in the early ’40s. King had trouble using a bottle neck to play slide guitar so King learned to push his fingers together for his playing style.

The influential spirit didn’t end with a guitar and a song as Bukka drove home the principles of respect and knowledge in his family.

“I remember him asking all of us what grade we were in when he’d come down to visit and he would always jokingly ask if that was the same grade we had already been in. He once asked my brother if he liked his teacher and when he replied no, Big Daddy said, ‘Good. You go to school to pay attention; not to make friends with your teacher,’” said Lori White Morton, one of Bukka White’s granddaughters living in the area.

Morton, who now lives in West Point, was the youngest of the trio of Donna White of Aberdeen and Sandra White Marble of Una, Bukka’s granddaughters living close to his home.

The three remember Bukka sitting around talking and playing his guitar when he’d come back home in the spring and summer from Memphis.

“When I was about 7 or 8, he gave me the nickname ‘mama’ and he’d always say, ‘C’mon mama and dance in the kitchen for me.’ Kids never got tired so I’d just keep going and he’d say, ‘Slow down, mama, I gotta take a break.’ I would always dress up in my good Sunday clothes to dance to his music,” Morton said.

Sometimes, the grandkids would put on his hats and dance around in imitation. Marble still likes to impersonate Bukka with a deep and scratchy voice.

“He was okay with us playing around with his combs, clothes or anything else he had except for his guitars. He was always getting onto us for touching them and he’d tell us we would knock them out of tune,” White said.

Regardless if it was Christmastime or just a regular visit, Bukka would always come with gifts of cash for his grandchildren.

“He’d always give us five dollar bills and tell us we couldn’t buy anything with wooden nickels,” Marble said.

Even when the three would visit Bukka in Memphis, his fame never really sunk in, he was always more of just their grandfather.

“My father would always tell me he was real famous and his records were selling and he was traveling around the world. Whenever we’d go up to see him, we would go to the park, sightsee and eat a feast, but going to the clubs to see him play was a big no no. We’d have to wait until the next morning to hear the stories from the night before,” White said.

Though he helped lay the frame work for Beale Street’s blues heritage, hits like “Aberdeen” and “Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues,” proved Bukka never lost sight of where he came from and he was always a part of the community regardless of where his music took him. He loved the local party scene and was often the life of the party as the party, in turn, inspired him and his onstage presence.

“He loved the ladies and he was definitely a big booty, big legs, big thighs and red lipstick kind of man. The older people told me he played in a three-piece suit with a trench coat and nice shoes. He looked really clean, but one night, he spun around on stage and he didn’t have a back in his pants. There was another time he played a house party on Highway 8 and there were too many people dancing and it broke the floor out of the house, but they kept the party going,” Marble said.

Bukka’s popularity seemed to be in and out as he recorded songs for the Library of Congress and his hit, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” while in Parchman in the 1930s. He then submerged himself into the 1940s Memphis blues scene and his popularity was strongly reignited in the ’60s when Bob Dylan covered one of his songs.

“If you look back over the years around here, nobody really knew he was famous. He wasn’t an Elvis or a Michael Jackson, but he’ll always be known for his time on this earth. Regardless of what he was in the world, though, he was always Big Daddy to us. I’m glad for the whole family, he’s finally getting recognized around here,” Morton said.

Even in modern times, his legend lives on in ringtones and soundtracks as “Parchman Farm Blues” was featured in the Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence movie, “Life.”

Locally, Bukka’s memory will be honored beginning Friday at 10 a.m. downtown as Super Talk Mississippi radio personalities J.T. and Dave broadcast a preview of the 4 p.m. unveiling of the blues marker and the Bukka White Blues Festival, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at Blue Bluff and continues through Saturday.

Ray Van Dusen/Monroe Journal