The recordings that make up Best of Eddie Bowles are remarkable for a number of reasons. They capture the distinctive fingerstyle guitar playing that Eddie Bowles (1884-1984) learned at the turn of the last century during the birth of blues and jazz. They also wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of those who documented Eddie Bowles’s music and life (and the good fortune that many materials were archived and still retrievable). Finally, all of the songs on this album were recorded between 1976 and 1982 when Bowles was in his nineties. Incredibly, he lived to be 100 and continued playing guitar—and playing well—throughout his life.
Eddie Bowles grew up in New Orleans, and he learned to play guitar alongside Louis Armstrong (whom he called “Pug”) and Kid Ory (from whom he took music lessons). As a young man, Eddie played in two different bands that worked the circuit in and around New Orleans. But when he got married in 1911 to Sarah Blanche, he quit playing in search of more stable work. That search led him up to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he initially was employed to build some of the first paved roads in the city. He remained in Cedar Falls, working a series of manual labor jobs and eventually returning to the guitar, playing a distinctive 12-bar blues style and sentimental favorites for friends and neighbors. During the Blues Revival of the 1960s, Bowles was sought out by young guitarists eager to learn his unique picking style of guitar playing. In the 1970s, Bowles was a regular performer at the annual Cedar Falls Folk Convention, and, remarkably, he continued playing for local audiences well into his 90s before his death in 1984.
The recordings in this collection come from three sources. The first is a field recording session conducted in Cedar Falls, Iowa, by Art Rosenbaum in 1976. The album’s first track is titled here as “Eddie Bowles’s Blues,” though it is listed elsewhere as “Eddie’s Blues” or just “Blues.” As was the case with Bowles’s other original compositions, he didn’t give his songs titles. “Eddie Bowles’s Blues” was released as a part of Rosenbaum’s Art of Field Recording Vol. 1 collection, which won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Historical Album. Up until now, that song had been the only Eddie Bowles recording released.
A number of other songs on this album come from two 1981 KUNI public radio shows hosted by Phil Nussbaum—Folk Voices of Iowa and Music in the Air. In a series of programs, Nussbaum alternated between performances and interviews with Bowles about his life, honoring him as a “living legend.” Three of the songs from these shows are original Eddie Bowles blues compositions that he did not title and which are listed by first lyrics of the songs— “Everything I Do,” “I Sat Up All Night,” and “You Stayed All Night.”
The last song on the album, “Memories,” was a favorite of Bowles’s, and this version was recorded at the end of a 1982 cable television interview session coordinated by the Cedar Falls Historical Society. Bowles was 98 at the time of this interview and his fingering remained notably nimble.
At the opening for the recent Eddie Bowles’s Blues exhibit at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, it was striking that many in attendance were people who knew Eddie Bowles when they were growing up. Some had been children who would come to his front yard after school to listen to him play until Sarah shooed them away for dinner. Others remembered a friendly neighbor whose door was always open. The exhibit—which will be available online Summer 2022—documented a life well lived by a man who was fondly remembered and whose music was appreciated by those who had the opportunity to hear it. It is my hope that this album will broaden that circle of admirers.
Cedar Falls, Iowa
Copyright by Final Thursday Press. Cover photograph by Margo Newmark Rosenbaum. Audio editing and mastering by Tom Barry.
“Eddie Bowles’s Blues” was recorded in 1976 by Art Rosenbaum. Originally appeared on Art Rosenbaum’s The Art of Field Recording Vol. 1. Additional songs recorded during that session: “Untitled,” “Crawdad Song,” “St. Louis Blues (instrumental),” “Sorry, Dear,” “Strolling Waltz” and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” Used by permission.
The following songs were broadcast originally as part of 1981 KUNI episodes of Music in the Air: “Everything I Do,” “I Sat Up All Night,” “St. Louis Blues,” “I Get the Blues When It Rains,” “Fishing Blues,” “Don’t Fence Me In” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.” Produced by Phil Nussbaum for Iowa Public Radio. Used by permission.
“You Stayed All Night” was broadcast originally as part of the 1981 KUNI program Folk Voices of Iowa. Also featuring Jimmy Price on guitar. Produced by Phil Nussbaum for Iowa Public Radio. Used by permission.
“Memories” was broadcast originally in 1982 as part of an episode of the Cedar Falls Cable Television Commission’s Our City Cedar Falls. Produced by Kirk Eastman. Used by permission.
This project was made possible by the University of Northern Iowa, the Cedar Falls Community Foundation’s Saul and Joan Diamond Arts & History Fund, Humanities Iowa and the National Endowment for the Humanities.