Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in 1899 in Greenwood, the son of Walter Lewis and Victoria Coleman. His father left the family before Walter was born, and when the boy was six, his mother moved him and his two sisters to Memphis. At an early age Lewis learned both a country and ragtime style of blues from an obscure bluesman named Blind Joe. Lewis attended school through the fifth grade before taking up work as a delivery boy to help his family financially. He acquired the nickname Furry from a childhood friend, and following a train-hopping accident as a teenager, Lewis lost a leg, pushing him into music full time.
While still a teenager, Lewis left Memphis to work in a traveling medicine show, crisscrossing the South first as vaudeville comedian and later playing his particular strain of blues to gather crowds for the show’s medicine barker. He also played for house parties and family picnics in and around Memphis and as far away as southern Arkansas.
Lewis became an expert in the “bottleneck blues” style particular to Mississippi bluesmen, which involves slide slapping and string muffling along the guitar neck with a pocketknife or other blade or a bottleneck slide. In the 1920s blues musician W. C. Handy discovered young Lewis in Memphis and bought him his first manufactured guitar. From this start, Lewis sang his own versions of folk songs, including “Kassie Jones” (“Casey Jones”), “Stack-o-Lee” (“Stagger Lee”), and “John Henry.” Lewis’s renditions of these folktales first brought him to the attention of Vocalion Studios. The better-known Victor label signed Lewis in 1928, and he recorded eight songs. Lewis returned to Vocalion to record four more songs before the Great Depression pushed him back into obscurity, where he remained until 1959.
Lewis lived in Memphis and worked odd jobs as a laborer until he was rediscovered during the same blues resurgence that brought many other older musicians to world attention. Lewis gained notoriety as part of the Blues Revival, making some new recordings and performing as part of the Memphis Blues Caravan. He was not pleased with folksinger Joni Mitchell’s portrayal of him in her 1976 song, “Furry Sings the Blues,” in which she describes “Old Furry” as “Fallen to hard luck / And time and other thieves.” Lewis never attained the fame of some more celebrated blues artists, but he opened twice for the Rolling Stones, appeared on The Tonight Show, and had a part in a 1975 movie, W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings, starring Burt Reynolds. His recordings document the unique jackknife slide, his low string–high vocal harmony, and his use of the oral tradition of black American heroes. He died in Memphis on 14 September 1981.
- Arne Brogger, Blue Highway website, www.thebluehighway.com
- Ian Eagleson, Smithsonian Folkways (2002)
- Greg Johnson, Blue Notes website, www.cascadeblues.org