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HENRY WOODRUFF - Blues Guitarist, Granddaddy and Garden Grower
By Jean Metcalfe
Henry Woodruff is a fine blues guitar player. He raises a great vegetable garden, too.
Despite the popularity and expertise of his band, however, and even though they are available, Henry and the Noisemakers haven't played a gig in two or three months.
The garden is busy, however, producing many cabbages, onions, collards and other tasty vegetables that Woodruff finds so enjoyable.
"I just retire around and try to raise the garden during the summer, and in winter I just sit and hold my hand," Woodruff said somewhat wistfully.
In an enjoyable visit with him at his home in Louisville's west end on May 14, Woodruff spoke of his music, his grandchildren and his garden.
(Later as I was preparing to leave, Woodruff invited me to have a look at the garden, and I gladly accepted his invitation. As he identified each differents kind of vegetable, I vividly recalled the days when a visit to my mother and father's always ended with a "look at the garden.")
Woodruff learned to play music in the cornfields of Alabama when he was about ten years old.
"I mainly blew harmonica, but I used to steal my cousin's guitar. I'd get it when he wasn't home, and go out in the cornfield. I'd break two or three strings on it and my uncle would replace the strings ... he was kinda interested in me learning."
Woodruff started out "blowing harmonica" at "suppers" in Alabama, but when he came to Louisville in 1939 and "started to running around a little bit," he forgot about the harmonica.
Woodruff's mother had come to Louisville in 1937 during the flood, but it wasn't until 1939 that Woodruff was able to join her.
Woodruff tried to play the piano at one point in his life, but said that he could never quite get the hang of it. When his brother came out of the Army, he bought Henry a six-string guitar and Henry started "playing around with it."
Woodruff became interested in playing guitar after hearing a Lightnin' Hopkins record. "I was crazy about his music," Woodruff said.
Back in the Fifties, Woodruff had a couple of friends who liked guitar music. One of them had an electric guitar, but neither could play it, so they would stop by Woodruff's house to get him to play for them.
"Oh, and I'm telling you, that just went to my head," Woodruff exclaimed. "It just sounded so good, I mean, I really hit it right off on that.... The music was louder ... everything was new.
"So I started out doing that, and one of the owners -- he knowed me -- of one of them places where I started playing at ... he come down to the house one day (while) I was out playing guitar and said, 'Why don't you come up to the joint and play a little bit tonight or tomorrow night ... so I said 'okay.' So I run into a guy with a harmonica -- his name was Fred Murphy -- and me an him went down there and started to blowin' and playin'. Then another guy come in and played the piano -- his name was Thomas Bridgeford -- and he was from Alabama, too, and he could really play piano ... and we got together then and started to playin'.
"And every week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from that night on this guy would have us come there and play and we just kicked that place back."
The "joint" was the Sunset Bar, located at Eight and Liberty Streets, and the band members called themselves The Sunset Royals. It was Woodruff's first gig in Louisville.
When things started to slow down at the Sunset Bar, the owner got the group booked for "one-nighters" (such as dances and house parties) in Bardstown, Danville and other small towns in Kentucky.
"I was supposed to have been the leader, but I didn't want to be no boss. But my harp blower, he wanted to be boss, and I had a drummer, he wanted to be boss. It just got so till we just couldn't agree on nothing and we just split up," Woodruff related.
The group lasted from the late Fifties until the early Sixties -- about three or four years, Woodruff estimated.
He had a job working at a garage every day, practicing music at nights and playing on weekends as a "sideline."
Woodruff didn't play music for several years in the mid-Sixties. In 1967 he started to play at a place at 16th and Prentice, the name of which he has since forgotten.
In September of 1969 Woodruff was seriously injured in a shooting incident, and had to give up his job and his music for quite a while.
"I almost left here," Woodruff said of his close call with death from the shoulder wound. His left hand hasn't returned to normal yet, he said, and he doesn't think it will ever be the same again since it has been twenty years since the shooting occurred. When he started to get back the use of his fingers Woodruff resumed playing the guitar. He went back to work at the garage in 1973.
In about 1979 Woodruff put together Henry and the Noisemakers. They played at the Pleasure Inn four or five years, and it was while performing there that they met and signed on with their present agent. He lined up performances for them at The Rudyard Kipling, the Cherokee Pub (now the Cherokee Blues Club) and at wedding receptions and birthday parties.
"We started making money then and I said, 'Well heck, I can't handle no Pleasure Inn no more.'"
They played regularly at the Cherokee Pub and other local venues, and were featured on a Louisville Homefront Performances concert early last year. Their most recent performance was at Barry's on Frankfort Avenue.
(Louisville Music News covered Henry and the Noisemakers' appearance on the Homefront stage in its April 1989 edition. Woodruff's photograph accompanied the story. That April edition marked the debut of Louisville Music News, and Woodruff's photograph was the only photograph in that issue.)
Woodruff retired from his job at the garage in 1982 and is now drawing social security. He shares a home with his brother. Together they manage to keep a roof over their head, he said. And the garden helps cut down on the grocery bills.
"I used to just crave playing (music) all the time, but since I've got older I've just started to slowing up for one thing, and the business got slow."
He still enjoys playing music. "But I don't get no enjoyment out of playing ... if the crowd ain't right ... it gets me a little 'flustrated' and I can't enjoy it."
If the people are having a good time listening to Woodruff play, then he has a good time playing for them.
Woodruff does not write his own songs, but performs material that he hears on records. He said he used to try to remember some songs he heard a guy who "came off of the railroad" sing.
"He came to our house when we were living over in Congress Alley -- a guy called 'St. Louis' -- and he used to sing some ... I never heard of 'em ... I never did think too much of 'em .... Oh, I could play 'em good while he was singing, and eventually it (one of the songs) just went on out of my mind and now all that comes back is just some of the words in it. And I've been trying my best to write that song down, the words of it. It was a pretty nice blues ..."
Woodruff's early influences were Blind Lemon Jefferson ("that was way back"), Stick McGhee, Lightnin' Hopkins ("he was my favorite") and Muddy Waters.
"And I used to try to play a little of Bill Gates, Little Walter and B. B. King," he added.
"I never did care too much about John Lee Hooker's music 'cause he'd never rhyme his verses, you know. He'd always sing and never had no rhymin' to 'em. That's one reason that I never did care too much about trying to learn none of his records. I couldn't handle Bo Diddley too much, either."
Woodruff will have a cut on the KYANA Blues Society's compilation album that has been recorded but not yet released. All of the songs on the album are original tunes, with the exception that Woodruff will be performing Lightnin' Hopkins' "Greyhound Bus Station."
I asked Woodruff to tell me about some of the highlights of his music career. The 67-year-old gent responded with a vivid description of the time when he and the Sunset Royals went to Lebanon, Ky. and participated in a "battle of music" with a man named Edgar Porter "back when Bill Doggett's 'Honky Tonk' first came out (1956).
"We had a battle of the music that night ... I really enjoyed that ... and we really had a good time. I enjoyed that because, I mean, when he'd get up and they would play a session, and after their session, we'd get up behind 'em and we'd play a session, trying to beat 'em. ... I'm telling you, I really got a kick out of that."
His eyes twinkled and you could tell that he had indeed enjoyed the "battle."
The KYANA Blues Society surprised Henry Woodruff with its first annual Sylvester Weaver Award on October 14, 1989, at the Garvin Gate Blues Festival. The plaque is prominently displayed in Woodruff's front room, and it is apparent that he is proud of the award.
"My garden is the main event (in his life) now, through the summer, and course I like playing, too. Whenever something comes up, why I'm always ready."
Woodruff has a son and daughter in who live in New York and two sons who live in Louisville.
"I have my hands full with a bunch of little grandchildren," Woodruff related.
Woodruff described several of the grandchildren and their fun visits with him, smiling and displaying that special look of pride that seems to be reserved for grandparents.
"They run their granddaddy out of the house sometimes, but I come back in 'cause they're a lot of fun," he chuckled. "They're trying to break a string and pick the guitar every time they come up here."
I suggested that since a musician's instrument usually represents a major investment, he usually doesn't want anyone messing with it.
"I try to keep them away from it," Woodruff said. "I got two guitars -- the one right there, that's my favorite -- and when they come in the little one will come and say, 'Granddaddy, let me play your guitar.' One of my granddaughters, she's kinda learned how to play the violin, she comes in here from school of an evening and she gets on that (her violin) and the little one gets on the guitar, and, oh, my gosh ... that one little one, she ain't big enough to do nothing but dance yet."
The only time the grandchildren get interested in hearing their granddaddy play his guitar is when he is playing one of his tapes.
"They will ask, 'Granddaddy, is that you?' I say, 'Yeah, that's me,' and they will say, 'Play the guitar, granddaddy. Cut that (the tape player) off, and play the guitar. Let's see if you sound like that.'"
Woodruff doesn't often sit and play guitar for his own enjoyment at home. Occasionally he will think of a song that he wants to play and he will play for "five or ten minutes or sometimes for half an hour."
Besides Woodruff, the current personnel of Henry and the Noisemakers are Nate Bass (who recently replaced James Warfield on bass), drummer Nathaniel Bunton and, on occasion, keyboardist Gary Grisel.
Although Woodruff says he has had several offers to join bands out of state, he always turned them down. If he couldn't take his band, he would stay in Louisville with them. As a result, he has never traveled outside the state to play. Nor has he played with any big-name musicians.
But that's of no consequence. Henry Woodruff is a famous Louisville blues player and is well respected by his fellow players. He's got four children and about a dozen grandchildren who come to visit and want to play his guitar. And then there's that great garden out back. He's proud of all of them.
How would Henry Woodruff like for people to think of him? "Well, I would hope they would think I was a great guy, and trying to make it through a musician's life, cause I love music, I love playing guitar, and I would hope that they would think the best of me."
I'd guess that pretty accurately sums up how people do indeed feel about Henry Woodruff.
About the cover . . .
Local bluesman Henry Woodruff plays his guitar on the front steps of his home in Louisville's West End. His music, his grandchildren and his vegetable garden are "a few of his favorite things."
Story on Page 2.
Photo by Jean Metcalfe