Townsend was born in Shelby, Mississippi and grew up in Cairo, Illinois. He left home at the age of nine because of an abusive father and hoboed his way to St. Louis, Missouri. He learned guitar while in his early teens from a locally renowned blues guitarist known as “Dudlow Joe”.
By the late 1920s he had begun touring and recording with pianist Walter Davis, and had acquired the nickname “Mule” because he was sturdy in both physique and character. In St. Louis, he worked with some of the early blues pioneers, including J.D. Short.
Townsend was one of the only artists known to have recorded in every decade for the last 80 years. He has recorded on several different labels including Columbia and Folkways Records. He first recorded in 1929 and remained active up to 2006. By the mid 1990s, Townsend and his one-time collaborator Yank Rachell were the only active blues artists whose performing lives stretched back to the 1920s.
Articulate and self-aware with an excellent memory, Townsend gave many invaluable interviews to Blues enthusiasts and scholars. Paul Oliver recorded him in 1960 and quoted him extensively in his 1967 work Conversations with the Blues. Thirty years later, Bill Greensmith edited thirty hours of taped interviews with Henry to produce a full autobiography, giving a vivid history of the Blues scene in St Louis and East St Louis in its prime.
In 1985 he received the National Heritage Fellowship in recognition of being a master artist. In 1995 he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Townsend died, at the age of 96, on September 24, 2006, at St. Mary’s Ozaukee Hospital, Mequon, Wisconsin, just hours after having been the first person to be presented with a ‘key’ in Grafton’s Paramount Plaza Walk of Fame.
On December 4, 2009, Henry Townsend was added to the Mississippi Blues Trail.
On February 10, 2008 Henry Townsend received a Grammy Award at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards in the Best Traditional Blues Album category for his performances on Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas released by The Blue Shoe Project.
Edited by midlifefanclub on 18 May 2011, 19:17
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