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Oxford and Ole Miss: R. L. Burnside of Lafayette County

Photo by David Haggard
Photo by David Haggard

He was born Robert Lee Burnside on November 23, 1926 at Harmontown in Lafayette County, near Oxford, Mississippi. R.L. Burnside was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who spent most of his life in North Mississippi, working as a sharecropper and a commercial fisherman, as well as playing guitar in juke joints and bars. Around 1959, after spending some time up north, Burnside left Chicago and came back to Mississippi to work the farms and raise a family.

But he killed a man at a dice game and was convicted of murder and sentenced to six months’ incarceration in Parchman Prison. Burnside’s boss at the time reputedly pulled strings to keep the murder sentence short, due to having need of Burnside’s skills as a tractor driver. Burnside later said “I didn’t mean to kill nobody…I just meant to shoot the son-of-a-bitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”

Although he played music for most of his life, R.L. Burnside did not receive national attention until the early 1990’s when a documentary film based on author Robert Palmer’s book “Deep Blues” featured R.L. as one of its highlights. Subsequently Palmer produced R.L.’s “Too Bad Jim” for the fledgling Oxford, Mississippi label, Fat Possum Records. In the latter half of the 1990s, Burnside repeatedly recorded with Jon Spencer, garnering crossover appeal and introducing his music to a new fanbase within the underground garage rock scene.

One commentator noted that R.L. Burnside, along with Big Jack Johnson, Paul “Wine” Jones, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes and James “Super Chikan” Johnson, were “present-day exponents of an edgier, electrified version of the raw, uncut Delta blues sound.” Burnside was first inspired to pick up a guitar in his early twenties, after hearing the 1948 John Lee Hooker single, “Boogie Chillen”.

–John Cofield

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