An important figure in the development of blues music, Josh Howell was born in Georgia 1888 and taught himself to play the guitar. However this wasn’t until he was 21 years old, and although he was required to pull his weight as a farm hand, he also stayed on at school until he was 16. He continued to play guitar locally and work on the farm until he was 28 years old. Then after an argument with his brother-in-law he was shot in the leg and, eventually, his leg was amputated. Unable to do heavy farm work, he took various jobs and supplemented his income by running illicit alcohol.

In 1923 he went to Atlanta and began playing regularly with a group of musicians who became known as "Peg Leg" Howell and His Gang. However his career was interrupted in 1925 when he was sent to prison for one year for running alcohol. He returned to Atlanta on his release and was signed up by Columbia, his first release, and Columbia Records first country blues release in 1926, was "New Prison Blues" which it is said Howell learned in prison. Columbia began to visit the American South twice a year thereafter to record blues artists. Howell was recorded, sometimes solo, sometimes with his ‘Gang’, every six months for the next three years before he was dropped by Columbia.

For the next few years Howell and his group played Atlanta’s Decatur Street area but gradually the ‘Gang’ split up, prison or premature death claiming members. Howell himself then faded into relative obscurity, became dogged by ill health and began running illicit alcohol again. In 1952 he lost his other leg as a result of diabetes and became confined to a wheelchair, making even street corner playing almost impossible. He was recorded again when, in 1963 and living on welfare, the Testament label tried to recapture the old magic. The importance of Howell’s music lies in the way it bridged the early country blues from the plantations, with a later 12 bar style and demonstrates the emergence of slide and finger picking techniques. Howells recordings are some of the earliest examples of this. He died, impoverished and largely forgotten, in Atlanta in 1966 aged 78.

Broke and Hungry Blues