The first time I drove out Bunker Hill Road toward Maryland, I passed a fairly nondescript row of shops on a fairly nondescript block between 20th and 21st streets in Woodridge. The storefronts were a little worn; a daycare center, a dancing school, a barbershop. I didn’t think much more about it except to wonder from time to time why there wasn’t more life there. If only I’d gone by on a late Saturday afternoon and walked past the Alpha Tonsorial Parlor, I might have gotten a different impression.
Inside the barbershop I would have found Archie Edwards, the owner, probably sitting on an old sofa playing some Piedmont blues on his Gretsch resonator, along with a crowd of other musicians joining in when the spirit called. The shop at 2007 Bunker Hill Road may not have looked like much, but it was a shrine of sorts, a mecca, a home for bluesmen and women and a place to preserve their music.
Edwards had grown up near Union Hall, Virginia, learning guitar from his father and other local musicians. He and his brothers chipped in and bought a $5 Sears guitar with a picture of Gene Autry on the front. He also listened to and learned from recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller and was particularly fond of Mississippi John Hurt. During WWII, Edwards served as an MP in the Pacific. After the war, for no particular reason, he decided to become a barber. He went to school, apprenticed, and in 1959 opened the shop on Bunker Hill Road. He cut hair part time, worked as a security guard full time, and sometimes drove a taxi.
But it was the barbershop that gave him the most pleasure, and not from cutting hair. It had become a hangout for local musicians, including his boyhood idol Mississippi John Hurt (right), who had moved to DC when his career revived in the early ’60s. Edwards and Hurt became good friends and performed together for a number of years before Hurt’s death in 1966. “The last three years of his lifetime I was his buddy,” Edwards later said. “I learned quite a few of his songs during the time he and I worked together. But he asked me to learn them and for me to teach them to other people…he asked me not to let his music die, you know. Said if I could learn it and could pass on to somebody else, you know, he would still be alive.”
Edwards did precisely that, performing solo and with many other local blues musicians, including Flora Molton, Phil Wiggins, John Cephas, and Mother Esther Mae Scott. “He’s the best blues player I ever saw in my life,” Mother Scott once said. “If you ain’t cryin’ he can start you to cryin’ and if you are cryin,’ he can make you stop.” He even went on a European tour in 1978. But the barbershop on Bunker Hill Road was where his heart was, especially at the Saturday afternoon jams with any musician who dropped by. When Edwards died in 1998, those jams continued and his friends tried to hold onto the place by giving concerts and selling CDs. It wasn’t enough, and in 2008 the shop was sold, remodeled, and converted to a dentist’s office (though a plaque honoring Archie Edwards is affixed to the side).
But even if the barbershop is gone, Archie Edwards’ legacy continues. His friends and blues aficionados started the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation. They have continued the Saturday afternoon jams and have a regular schedule of workshops and concerts. Check out their upcoming events for a sample of what’s up.
Archie Edwards fulfilled his promise to Mississippi John Hurt. He has passed on the music, and it remains vibrant and real.
(Archie Edwards photos courtesy of the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation. John Hurt photo from the Library of Congress.)