Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Peetie Wheatstraw

There is nothing known about the early life of William Bunch, the man known as Peetie Wheatstraw on records from the 1930s, yet there are many biographies of Peetie Wheatstraw that state that Bunch left Arkansas and wandered the South developing his musical style. It is more likely that he came to St. Louis and decided to become a musician when he heard the many other talents in the city. This would seem more accurate since Wheatstraw was both a piano and guitar player, a very common ambidexterity in pre-war St. Louis musicians.

"Big Joe knew everybody. You know he lived in St. Louis for a long time. He knowed Blind Darby, he knowed JD Short, Jelly Jaw. At the time when I was there Yank Rachell was there working in a chicken house. And Yank would play on the weekends. And that's where I met Peetie Wheatstraw. We used to go into East St. Louis and he lived in East St. Louis in the red-light district."
  Honeyboy Edwards, recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax, 1942.
(David "Honey Boy" Edwards: Delta Bluesman, 1994, Available from Earwig Records, CD 4922.)

Wheatstraw was one of the biggest stars in the early blues. His popularity is hard to calculate, but he was one of few musicians in the pre-war period to record through the depression. He is the only bluesman to use the association with the devil as his professional persona, even though the deal-with-the-devil myth is most often associated with Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson. The two unrelated Johnson's did not make any such claims. In both cases, someone else said that they had sold their soul to the devil, and in both cases the rumor began after their deaths – and many years after Peetie Wheatstraw had created the legend in St. Louis.

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