|If Archie Edwards hasn't been forgotten, it is only because we never really knew him in the
first place. Introductions are sorely in order and come courtesy of the Toronto-based NorthernBlues label, which
has just released The Toronto Sessions,a selection of tracks recorded more than 15 years ago. Edwards, who died
in 1998 still an unknown quantity, is about to become known.
An obscure figure in a field ripe with anonymity, Edwards was an old-time Piedmont bluesman, known as much for his barbershop in Washington as his finger-picking guitar style. He was talented enough, but his recorded output consisted of three albums cut in the early 1980s on the German L & R label.
The albums slipped in and out of print over the next few years. By the time promoter Serge Sloimovits brought him to Toronto in December, 1985, Edwards was 67 years old, underappreciated and virtually unheard of outside his home turf.
Edwards's stay in Toronto was brief, just long enough to squeeze in three shows at the Rivoli, the Queen Street West venue where Sloimovits held an acoustic blues series that showcased legends Honeyboy Edwards and Homesick James, among others.
It was there that Edwards shared a table between sets with members of Irish rock band U2, whom he'd met on the plane to Toronto, and a young Paul Reddick. At the table, U2 bassist Adam Clayton, and guitarist The Edge did most of the talking. Edwards, fuelled by Heinekens on the U2 tab and a captive audience, played deep into the night, relying heavily on the catalogues of Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson, with a few of his own compositions thrown in for good measure. He sang of The Candyman and Tea for Texas while pulling crisp, clean guitar lines from his antique steel-pan Gretsch guitar, all in the East Coast, or Piedmont, blues tradition -- a style characterized by a complex finger-picking technique, and lighter than the anguished, heavy-thumped Delta blues.
After the show, Reddick, a singer and harp player, hailed a cab and later went on to form the Sidemen, a top Toronto blues band that has recently released it's own album (Rattlebag) on NorthernBlues. U2 hailed a cab and later went on to release Rattle and Hum, an account of the band's journey into America's heartland and the music they found there.
And Edwards? He went on home to Washington -- he had a barbershop to run, after all.
If Edwards was unfamiliar to most, he was not to Sloimovits, who had met the guitarist a few years earlier. It was his idea to bring Edwards to Toronto, his idea to get him into the studio.
"He had just the albums made in Germany," Sloimovits explained recently. "I decided to do one just in case nobody did any more on him, and to keep his style of music alive."
Sloimovits brought Edwards back to Toronto on two more occasions. Once for a stint at the Hotel Isabella, and once, in the the summer of 1986, at the Pine Tree tavern. It was during that visit that Sloimovits got Edwards into the studio.
The tapes rolled and so did Edwards, recording enough material for two CDs that drew hard on a repertoire honed from countless weekend jam sessions held at the barbershop he had bought back in 1959. During the 1960s, men like Hurt (a friend of Edwards) would come in for a shave, and stay for the music.
The tradition continued through the seventies and eighties, drawing an older rural crowd who talked about plowing mules or corn-husking parties, as well as younger, urban players, guys like Phil Wiggins and Diamond Jim Greene. Both learned at the feet of Edwards, who in turn would put down the shears, open a beer and break out the Gretsch for long afternoon stretches.
After the studio session, Sloimovits stayed in touch with Edwards, and held on to the masters, waiting for the right time to release them. That time came after a chance meeting with Fred Litwin, the owner of NorthernBlues. Litwin started up the label last year, and was looking for material. He hadn't heard of Archie Edwards, but was impressed enough by the quality of the recordings to put out the CD.
"I realized there was some really good stuff," Litwin said. "And over the last year I decided to really do justice to Archie by hiring a good scholar to write the liner notes, and getting the best graphic designer to do the CD cover. . . . We spared no expense."
The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation still meets every Saturday at the Alpha Tonsorial Parlor, better known as Archie's barbershop. They start at 1 p.m., and play until they get tired. They never get tired of talking about Archie Edwards, mind you. And now, although the man is gone, he is a little less forgotten.