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Peg Leg Howell Biography, Samples & Recordings

Peg Leg Howell Biography, Samples & Recordings

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Peg Leg Howell: Song Samples, CDs and Digital Downloads

Peg Leg Howell was an influential blues guitarist and singer active in the mid to late 1920s. He was born with the name Joshua Barnes Howell on March 5th of 1888 in a farm in Eaton, Georgia. As a tall, strong boy he was quickly swept up to work on the farm, dropping out of school after ninth grade. This kept him from a traditional education, but enabled him to be around a great deal of gospel and soul music growing up. Still, Howell never had a desire to learn music until he was 21 years old. Some say he picked up a guitar one night and did not put It down until he learned to play. There is no way to verify that claim, but Howell certainly did take to the guitar rather quickly.

Columbia Records Ad for "New Jelly Roll Blues" by Peg Leg Howell

Howell kept up with his work on the farm, playing guitar in his limited spare time. One day, after an evening of heavy drinking, Howell had a dispute with a brother-in-law of his. This dispute ended with gunfire, and Howell was shot in the right leg. Howell was unable to get medical care until it was far too late to save the leg, and it had to be amputated. Howell was fitted with a prosthesis, which later earned him his nickname, but it was not sufficient to allow him to continue with physical labor on the farm. Howell did his best to find work, but eventually was forced to pack up and move to the city. There he played music frequently with a steady group of musicians, but made the majority of his money bootlegging liquor in the hills outside Atlanta.

Peg Leg Howell and his Gang, l-r: Henry Williams, Eddie Anthony. New Orleans c.1928

Howell was eventually caught bootlegging and sent to a prison camp. There he listened to various styles of Blues music before he was released. He moved back to Atlanta, and continued playing with the same group. Around this time, Columbia records sent talent scouts to the city to look for blues musicians. There, they recorded Howell and made a record, which sold relatively well. Columbia continued to come down and record Howell until 1929, when they recorded him for the last time. Without the records to make him money, Peg Leg Howell began bootlegging again to supplement the small amount of money he was making from performing. A few years later in 1934, his close friend and fiddle player Eddie Anthony died, which caused Howell to stop playing.

Howell lived a solitary life after Anthony died, and began to age alone. In 1952, Howell lost his other leg to diabetes, which left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to work. He began to live off welfare, working whatever jobs he could to supplement that to make ends meet. He made his last record in 1963, at 75 years old, when he was rediscovered by George Mitchell and Roger Brown, who are subjects of a most wonderful book called “Blues Discovery: Reaching Across the Divide,” By Matthew Ismail.

“Peg” died three years later in 1966 at age 78.