Henry Townsend was born in Shelby, Mississippi, in 1910, and after living for a while in  Illinois with his family, he ran away to St. Louis as a 9-year-old to avoid a beating from his father.  His father played a button box accordion, but Henry loved the guitar, teaching himself to play the instrument as well as learning the piano. He worked on the streets of St. Louis as a shoe shine boy, listening and learning from ragtime piano players and the developing guitar blues of artists such as a young Lonnie Johnson, who was making a name for himself in St. Louis at that time. Townsend, who during his career wrote and published many songs, was first recorded in 1929 by Paramount Records. The label recorded almost  a quarter of all the blues material produced between 1929 and 1932, including the so-called "race records", recordings by black artists for black audiences. In fact Townsend was the last surviving artist who had recorded with the old Paramount Records label.


During the 1930's, Townsend played with artists such as Roosevelt Sykes and  Robert Johnson whenever they were in the St. Louis area, performing at house parties, fish fries and in local juke joints. He decided to stay in St. Louis as interest in the blues declined and his recording career faltered. He was "re-discovered" during the folk revival of the 1960's and for the first time he left St. Louis for an extended period when he toured the U.S. and Europe. Remaining a St. Louis stalwart and often referred to as the 'patriarch of St. Louis blues', he frequently performed with his wife during his later years. He died in Grafton, Wisconsin, in September 2006, aged 96, where he was on a visit to be honoured by a local blues association.