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Born in Mississippi sometime in the first decade of the 1900's, it has variously been cited that he was born in Houston, Mississippi, in 1909, in Aberdeen, Mississippi in 1902, or possibly even 1906. Whatever the true date, Bukka White was fortunate to be born into musically talented family. (A younger first cousin was Riley “B.B.” King). His father, John White, was a railway worker and part-time musician who played the mandolin, piano, drums and saxophone. He bought Bukka his first guitar for his ninth birthday and taught him how to play. His mother Lula was a singer in the choir of the local church where her father was preacher. Bukka claimed Charley Patton as his earliest influence and it is possible that he met Patton when he was a young man and may even have had lessons from him. As a teenager White worked on the plantations and played the juke joints, parties and on street corners in his spare time, even playing in St. Louis for a while when he was only fourteen years old. When he was sixteen years old he married Jesse Bea and as a present his father gave him a new Stella guitar. (Years later White was to give the guitar to B.B. King to help launch his career.) Sadly he’d been married for less than three years when his young wife died from a burst appendix.

He first recorded in 1930 in Memphis for the Victor label, these first releases having a religious flavour and White was billed as “Washington White - The Singing Preacher”. As with so many artists the 1930’s ‘Great Depression’ brought hard times and White spent these years jumping trains and wandering the south looking for work, often in the company of George "Bullet" Williams. In 1934, White married Susie Simpson, the niece of Williams. He played as a pitcher for the Birmingham Black Cats baseball team for two years and also did some boxing. It was while boxing in Chicago that he met up with Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie. Through them he linked up with Lester Melrose and was due to record again but he decided to return to Mississippi first. Whilst there he was attacked on the road by a man with whom he had a long standing feud and White shot the man in the leg. As a consequence he spent two years in Parchment Farm Penitentiary although sources claim that White first jumped bail in order to fulfil his recording commitment with Vocalion in Chicago. 

Whilst in prison White recorded two songs for Alan Lomax, and on his release in 1940 he also recorded again for Vocalion in Chicago. White spent the 1940’s and 1950’s in Memphis where he worked as a labourer in a steel plant, playing only on demand. The resurgence of interest in the blues in the 1960’s brought White back to prominence, successfully playing the College circuit and recording again in 1963. In 1967, White toured Europe and in 1968 he even sang at the Olympic Games in Mexico. In 1973 he played with cousin, B.B. King, at the New Orleans Heritage Festival and in the same year he was nominated for a ‘Grammy’ award. His health began to deteriorate about this time and he died in Memphis in 1977.