Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation

Archie Edwards may be gone, but Archie's Blues Barbershop lives on

The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation gathers every Saturday afternoon in Riverdale, Md., to play music together and remember the legacy of local blues legend Archie Edwards.
By Whitney Shefte
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Folks kept saying it wouldn't be the same. They kept predicting the death of Archie Edwards's legacy. Shows what people know.

The first time they said it was when the last snippet of hair hit the floor at Archie's Alpha Tonsorial Parlor in Northeast Washington. For nearly 40 years, Archie Edwards had cut hair in that barbershop on Bunker Hill Road. Opened in 1959. But hair wasn't the thing.

The thing was: Blues legends such as Mississippi John Hurt would stop by for a trim, then play blues with Edwards till late in the night. It got to be the place to go if you had blues in your soul, at least Piedmont blues, with its roots reaching to the woes of slavery and sharecropping. "Ultimately, Saturday afternoons became known to people who were tight in the blues community as a place you could go play some acoustic blues," says Jim Lande, a regular and an economist for the federal government.

When Edwards died at 79 in 1998, some said that's that. But grieving regulars wouldn't give up the ghost. They formed the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation to keep the shop open for the Saturday jams, sans haircuts. The rent was cheap, about $100 per month, and was paid through donations and benefit concerts.

"People who had known Archie, been friends with Archie and had spent a lot of Saturdays there said, 'Gosh, we don't want that tradition, that part of Washington, to just disappear with Archie,' " Lande says.

Crowds came with mandolins, washtub basses, harmonicas, rhythm bones, whatever, and played around Archie's barber chair for 10 years.

But it got to be a struggle financially, and the shop had to be let go. A dentist set up business there, and some said -- again -- that's that.

A year or so went by, and the Washington blues folks were missing their music dearly. Last year, they found an old bookstore in Riverdale, and Archie's Blues Barbershop was reborn.

The weathered beige-brick building feels like a destiny fulfilled, humbly residing beside a stretch of train tracks. A sign on the door reads "Jam Tip: If somebody is playing, take your conversation someplace else." A deer head is mounted on one wall. Photographs of Archie cover another. It feels like he's watching, maybe even playing along.

Today, in addition to Saturday jam sessions, regulars and foundation members play occasional concerts and host workshops teaching newcomers how to play the blues. The group has CDs to sell, and it has created a small exhibit in the back of the old library paying homage to the original barbershop. The old barber chair, with shoeshine seat, is there.

"Well, the mission of the barbershop is to pass the blues on, and I feel like that happens here every Saturday," says harmonica player Pearl Bailes.

One recent Saturday, Willie Leebel donned his quintessentially cool blues shades and announced to a circle of old friends and new faces that the next song would be played in 12 bars. He strummed his acoustic Gibson guitar and lamented the misconduct of farm animals, his croon colored with the slightest bit of twang.

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