John Byrd was born in Mississippi in the 1890's, or possibly earlier. After an early career spent mostly in Mississippi, Byrd moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1920's and 1930's, and made much of his living playing 12-string guitar in a band led by Walter Taylor (who may also have worked as "Washboard Walter"). He recorded blues under his own name and also cut gospel music as the Rev. George Jones during the late 1920's and the beginning of the 1930's. Byrd's voice could be rough and raspy, somewhere midway between Louis Armstrong and Howlin' Wolf, and when he did gospel, as on "That White Mule of Sin" or "The Heavenly Airplane," his debut recordings from 1929, the effect is spellbinding (especially when he worked in tandem with Sister Jones aka Mae Glover). Walter Taylor had the more flexible and aesthetically pleasing voice between the two, but even on recordings on which Taylor sang, Byrd's guitar playing displays the kind of dexterity, in its runs and fills, that gives him equal footing and them some (on the break--check out "Narrow Face Blues." As a singer, Byrd had a narrower range than Taylor, but his guitar more than made up for any shortcomings, often sounding like the work of two good players rather than a single extraordinary one. Had he been able to remain active after World War II, and come from a city with more of a blues reputation than Louisville, he might've been remembered at least as well and widely as Blind Willie McTell.
Share this page