Music shook the cluttered recording studio. All morning, the great John Lee Hooker and a couple of his Detroit neighbors, playing backup for a day, had dished out Delta blues -- songs about toil, hope and empty days on rural porches.
"Wait a second," the record label owner said suddenly from a corner in the stuffy room. He motioned curiously at Hooker's harmonica player, 20-year-old Eddie Burns, who remembers the moment like it was yesterday. "I like the way you blow, boy. What you got?"
Burns looked stunned: Who, me? He was new in Detroit, fresh from a few years' work on midwestern railroad lines and struggling as a house-party musician who had done most of his harmonica playing on Great Depression street corners in Webb, Miss. The tiny country town, tucked in the frying-pan flatlands of the Mississippi Delta, was surrounded by fields filled with cotton and Burns' relatives. "I got 'Bad Woman Blues,' " he replied anxiously. It was the only song he had ever written. But he was pretty proud of that.
"You need two tunes to cut a record." The owner's voice was flat and cold.
"Hold on," Burns said. Sweat raced down his back. "I got another new one, too, called, uh, 'Papa's Boogie.' Goes something like this ... " Burns leaned forward confidently and sang in with a sluggishly soulful cadence: "Oh-ho baby, now lookee here what you then gone and done ... " His lips slid across the harmonica. His eyes shone with desire.
And a career began.
It's been almost 39 years since that smooth improvisation, but Eddie Burns is still singing blues music with eager intensity. He is performing with "Dr." Isaiah Ross, the Harmonica Boss, as part of Michigan's 150th anniversary program at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife on the Mall.
"Back then, I didn't think anyone was interested in me. So you bet I was surprised when that producer asked me to play," Burns remembered this week, relaxing shortly before he was due on stage. "I just made everything up at the microphone. And I thought it sounded real good. When I was done, the producer asked me and my friend playing backup for John Lee what our group name was. I said, 'Uh, the Swing Brothers,' but I just made that up right then, too."
Less than two years later, Burns was a pro. He had released his first blues album -- "Detroit Black Bottom" -- which he performed all over town, and would soon tour the blues circuit in Europe. He had come a long way from Mississippi, but the rough, sweet power of his songs kept him close to home.
"You can never forget the culture from which you came," Burns said, wiping his brow with a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. His voice is slow and deep. "And these kind of blues hold the key to understanding the black man's roots. It comes straight from the struggle of slavery, and the hard times we all had after that. I can't forget that."
Burns said his father, a sharecropper who was almost always away "working for the white folk," played the guitar and harmonica once in a while, and his grandfather ran a local juke joint. As a teen-ager, Burns spent countless weekends playing harmonica on corners and collecting change scattered around his feet.
"The people there would work hard all week, then half of Saturday too, so when they got off, they were ready to go," Burns said, quietly laughing. "They'd go out Saturday evening and stay out till Monday morning. And I'd know where they'd go. So I'd just hang outside and play."
Street-corner singing was a rite of passage to many of the town's youths. As a 10-year-old, Burns received his first harmonica from a teen-ager who had been playing long enough to buy a new one. It was free. And it was exciting.
"See, it was really great because the older guys would get rid of their harmonica and give it to us when they popped a key," Burns said. The memory lights his face and widens his smile. "Well, now when you played a harmonica with a popped key, it sounded to the people like you had been doing some things -- like you had experience, and they ought to stick around and listen to what you could do."
Blues from the Mississippi Delta are unique because of the experiences they express, said Horace Boyer, a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who is organizing the Michigan blues and gospel performances at the festival.
Delta blues usually speak of travel, work and unrequited love, but rarely death, Boyer said. "These are words that needed a tune, not a tune that needed some words. In the old black communities of the South, there was a great appreciation for sharing how you felt -- which was often all you could do about anything."
Burns, formerly billed as Big Daddy, Little Eddie and Big Ed during his career, said he is concerned that too many people today are only using the blues commercially. The legends are dying, and appreciation of the music is fading among most young blacks, who are more interested in charting new musical paths.
"I'd love to have a workshop or something, with blacks and whites, to tell them what this music means," Burns said.
"I hate to see it slip away, and as long as I am around it ain't going nowhere. I'm 59 and I'm fine. Fact is, I think I am getting better all the time."