Peg Leg Howell

by Mark Forster, UNC Asheville Student

 


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"Peg Leg Howell" by R. Crumb 
from the Heroes of the Blues series.


Musician’s Full Name: Joshua Barnes Howell (Peg Leg Howell)

Born: March 5, 1888, Eatonton, Georgia
Died: August 11, 1966, Atlanta, Georgia

Instrument: Guitar and Vocals

Biographical Sketch

Peg Leg Howell was born Joshua Barnes Howell on March 5, 1888 in Eatonton, Georgia. Howell was a self-taught guitarist who was said to have connected early country blues and the 12-bar styles. Over time, he learned to be skilled in finger picking and slide techniques. The nickname “Peg Leg” was acquired from an incident with a shotgun in 1916, where his brother-in-law allegedly shot his leg off. After this incident, he could not work on a farm anymore, so he packed his things and left for Atlanta, where he pursued a full-time music career. He started off playing on street corners for change. When this wasn’t enough, Howell started bootlegging liquor. In 1925, he was sentenced to one year in prison because he was caught bootlegging. While serving his time, Peg Leg wrote the song “New Prison Blues.” Shortly after his release, he signed with the Columbia record label, and recorded “New Prison Blues.” For the next several months, Howell recorded everything from ballads, such as “Skin Game Blues,” to dance numbers, such as “Beaver Slide Rag.” Howell even recorded some jazz, such as “New Jelly Roll Blues.” Although many of his earlier recordings were solo, Howell was later backed by “the Gang,” which included guitarist Henry Williams and fiddler Eddie Anthony. Finally in 1929, Columbia decided to drop Howell from its record label. At this time, Peg Leg was forced to work the streets of Atlanta, while Williams was imprisoned. Anthony had died in 1934. Howell fell into a slump and disappeared from the blues scene. In 1952, diabetes had taken Howell’s other leg. In 1963, things started to change for the better. The Testament label took Peg Leg in and recorded his first new material in over 40 years. Peg Leg Howell died in Atlanta, Georgia in 1966.

Books

Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Charters, Samuel Barclay. Sweet as the Showers of Rain. Oak Publications, 1977. Contained in the reprint The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.

All music guide to the blues : the definitive guide to the blues, 3rd ed. Ed. by Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003.

Guinness encyclopedia of popular music, 2nd ed. Ed. by Colin Larkin. New York: Stockton Press, 1995

Harris, Sheldon. Blues who's who : a biographical dictionary of Blues singers. New Rochelle, N.Y. : Arlington House, 1979.

Hart, Mary L., Brenda M. Eagles, and Lisa N. Howorth. The blues : a bibliographical guide. Intro. by William Ferris. New York : Garland, 1989

Charters, Samuel Barclay. Country Blues. With a new introduction by the author. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975

Oliver, Paul. The story of the blues. Philadelphia : Chilton, 1969.

The Blackwell guide to blues records. Ed. by Paul Oliver. Cambridge, MA : Blackwell Reference, 1989.

Articles

Karlsson, Kjell. “Peg Leg Howell: Bluesman From Decateur Street, Atlanta.” Jefferson [Sweden] 29 (summer 1975): 14-19.

Key Recordings on CD

Peg Leg Howell and Eddie, Vol. 1. Document, 2000.

Peg Leg Howell and Eddie, Vol. 2. Document, 2000.

Websites

“Peg Leg Howell: AMG Biography” by Jason Ankeny. All Music Guide. <http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll> Accessed Dec. 4, 2003

Joshua "Peg Leg" Howell” by Terry Currier. Cascade Blues Association. <http://www.cascadeblues.org/History/JoshuaHowell.htm> Accessed Dec. 4, 2003

 


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Last updated 18 December 2003.