Heritage Search

Richard "Big Boy" Henry
Folk/Traditional Music Beaufort
1995 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient

"I think you can live a life and sing blues. Even doctors, lawyers, and preachers, I tell them, I say 'Y'all have the blues at times.' You lose a loved one and you're sad--that's blues. Lose your money, that's blues. Through our lives somewhere seems like we all have the blues."

Richard "Big Boy" Henry knew a lot about the blues, for he sang them as a boy. Born in Beaufort in 1921, he moved with his family to New Bern when he was twelve. Bluesmen who played on street corners and in juke joints were part of a rich African American musical culture that thrived in the town during the Depression. One itinerant South Carolinian, Fred Miller, had a profound influence on young Richard Henry. "He was a great guitarist, but he couldn't sing," remembered Mr. Henry. "And he said 'Richard, why don't you come go around with me. We might could pick up a few pennies at the house parties and dances and fish fries.'"

To Miller's accompaniment, Mr. Henry sang popular blues songs that he picked up from records or other singers. From his partner, he also learned the rudiments of blues guitar. After Miller moved to New York, Big Boy began visiting the city to continue their partnership. There he met other Piedmont bluesmen, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who accompanied Henry in a recording session in 1951. Disappointed that these recordings were never issued, Big Boy returned home to New Bern and laid his guitar down.

During the 1950s and '60s, Mr. Henry supported his family by working on menhaden crews, fishing his own nets, oystering, and running a grocery store. He also preached in local churches, though he never accepted money for his services. In 1971, he moved back to his family home in Beaufort, where some younger musicians recognized him and encouraged him to return to playing. "If you love something, it's hard for you to quit," he explained. "And that's the way it was with me about the music. The minute I picked it up, it all come back to me."

Though arthritis diminished his abilities as a guitarist, Mr. Henry's voice remained forceful and expressive. He was a creative singer, re-interpreting blues standards as well as composing his own songs about current events and local happenings. "Mr. President," written in response to cuts in social welfare programs in the 1980s, earned him a W.C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation.

To help preserve blues music, Mr. Henry took many young musicians under his tutelage. In addition, he encouraged older members of his community to maintain and record an important worksong tradition once heard along the coast. Interested in folklorists' attempts to document the worksongs sung by himself and other African Americans who fished on menhaden boats, he helped organize a group of retired fisherman to re-create the singing. He also encouraged the group, known as the Menhaden Chanteymen, to share their music with a wider public.

Such acts of selflessness gave him a reputation as a kind-hearted and generous man, quite different from the popular image of the restless and self-focused bluesman. For Mr. Henry, singing blues was a blessing rather than a curse. "They're in my heart, not because I'm troubled that much now. But I just love to look back. And things that are happening to other people, I like to sing about."