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Henry Townsend, 96; Blues Guitarist Went From Odd Jobs to Master Artist

September 29, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Blues guitarist Henry "Mule" Townsend, who fled home for St. Louis as a boy and then stayed for a prolific career that spanned eight decades, has died. He was 96.

Townsend died Sunday of pulmonary edema in Grafton, Wis., said John May, chairman of the St. Louis Blues Society.

Townsend was being honored at a blues festival as the last surviving musician from the old Paramount Records, May said. The label recorded much of the blues material produced from 1929 to 1932, including "race records" by black artists for black audiences.

Townsend, who won a National Heritage Award in 1985 as a master artist, was born in Shelby, Miss., but grew up in Cairo, Ill. He was only 9 when he hopped a train for St. Louis to avoid a whipping from his father for pulling a prank on a cousin, he told the Associated Press in an interview in June.

To support himself, he did odd jobs, including shining shoes, selling whiskey and cleaning theaters.

He learned guitar and piano, and decided on a career in blues guitar after hearing budding bluesman Lonnie Johnson, considered the Jimi Hendrix of the 1920s, perform in the old Booker T. Washington Theater in St. Louis.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Townsend returned to St. Louis and recorded "Tears Came Rolling Down," which became one of his best-known songs.

In the early 1960s, he recorded his first album, "Tired of Being Mistreated." He recorded at least nine others.

He also became a popular fixture at blues festivals around the country. He never stopped performing.

After an engagement in New York in 1993, New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote: "Townsend sang epic-length blues, many stretching far beyond 10 verses, that presented a landscape of unending desolation and betrayal.

"He sings in weary, plaintive tenor, with quavers and slides that make remembered pain sound immediate. His gentle vocal lines, and a silently tapping left foot, hold together music that always seems on the verge of shattering."

He is survived by four children and seven grandchildren.

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