The last surviving Paramount Records blues artist, Townsend had traveled to Wisconsin, where he was slated to perform as the showcase artist at the inaugural Paramount Blues Festival. Townsend's breathing became labored upon arrival, and he died two days later of pulmonary edema, a build-up of fluid in the lungs often caused by heart failure.
Known for his prodigious songwriting talents, Townsend had more than 350 published songs to his credit, including such blues standards as "Tears Come Rolling Down." But that figure hardly describes the bluesman's total body of work. Townsend recorded music in each of the past nine decades (his first recording was in 1929), and he accompanied musicians on countless other recordings.
His real talent, though, lay in his ability to compose lyrics on the spot. Drawing on material ranging from recent conversations to experiences dating back more than 95 years, Townsend's improvised songs many of them profound meditations on life, love and loss were often performed only once, lost to history if someone in the audience didn't happen to record them.
"He was a great lyricist a real blues poet. These tunes were literate. They had a beginning, middle and end, just like a short story. Very few musicians could do that," says Ron Edwards, a bottleneck-guitar player who performed with Townsend for more than 30 years. "The song was for the moment, and we'd probably never hear it again. It was really remarkable to play with him."
Townsend's voice, a haunting tenor lacquered with nearly a century's experience, brought an emotional immediacy to his performances as if his pain, though a memory, were as fresh today as when it first washed over him. His singing voice did not have the same cavernous expanse that marks great blues vocalists such as Muddy Waters. But Townsend's quiet intimacy and ability to improvise pulled the listener close, making each member of the audience feel as though he was speaking only to them.
"Part of the strength of being improvisational was that people felt that he was really talking to them," says blues guitarist Leroy Pierson, a Townsend protégé. "He didn't sound like he was reciting lyrics he was talking."
Following the birth of their son on October 27, 1909, in Shelby, Mississippi, Townsend's parents soon moved to Cairo, Illinois. Townsend fled home at the age of nine to avoid a beating. He caught a train and landed in St. Louis, where he learned to play the piano and the guitar from the likes of Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes and Henry Spaulding all the while supporting himself by shining shoes and selling whiskey.
In 1937 Townsend was involved in two recording sessions that profoundly affected blues music the so-called Aurora Sessions. As the story goes, Townsend, Robert Nighthawk, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Walter Davis and four other musicians strapped their instruments to the roof of Townsend's ailing Model T and trekked along the two-lane dirt road from St. Louis to Aurora, Illinois.
Although the recording studio was located in Aurora's Leland Hotel, the hotel's management didn't allow black guests. After making music during the day, the bluesmen were forced at night to stay in the hotel's "crow's nest," a series of top-floor rooms reserved for blacks.
Townsend fell ill during the first session. He played during the second, and the music he helped create proved a watershed moment for the blues. Previously, blues music consisted of solo guitarists, perhaps accompanied by a piano. But during the Aurora Sessions, the bluesmen played as an ensemble a style of music that years later would be electrified and become known as "Chicago Blues."
"Primarily it was solos and duos in the early days of blues," says John May, president of the St. Louis Blues Society. "That particular recording session was interesting because they had drums, guitar, bass and piano. That recording session and that format created the template for the Chicago Blues."
Upon returning to St. Louis after a stint in the army during World War II, Townsend supported himself through a series of odd jobs. He continued to record music during the '50s and '60s, but he rarely played publicly until 1972, when he participated in a benefit concert for Johnny Shines.
Townsend was a private musician who devoted much of his creativity to recording sessions. His firm convictions, simple wisdom and at times abrasive demeanor earned him the nickname "Mule." But those who knew him well say the nickname only described a part of the man.
"People talk about Henry being the Mule. But that was really only with producers and promoters; he'd do anything for another musician," says Pierson, who first met Townsend in the early 1960s. "Among musicians his generosity was really kind of legendary."
During the 1980s Townsend embarked on a years-long campaign to secure the publishing rights to his vast body of work. He managed to gain rights to more than 350 of his songs, including "Tears Come Rolling Down," but he never managed to win rights to "Everyday I Have the Blues" and "Baby Please Don't Go," two blues standards he insisted were his creations. The ruling always troubled Townsend, though in later years he seemed to accept the loss.
"I didn't know no better. I didn't know that you had to tie it down and all that," Townsend told the Riverfront Times earlier this year (see "Going Down Slow" in the April 26 issue). "I know deep in my heart that I was messed over in a lot of ways. But if I go on with it, I don't fight the other fellow for it. I fight me for being so weak in my knees to bend down."
In 1985 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Townsend a National Heritage Fellowship, recognizing his status as an "American Master Artist." He was also honored with several other awards, including a mayoral proclamation and a star along University City's "Walk of Fame."
The awards confirmed what musicians had known for a long time. Namely this: "Henry was a hell of a good songwriter and a hell of good person," says blues musician Robert Lockwood Jr. "I dearly miss Henry. He'd been hanging on for a long time, and he's well loved all over the world. He'll be very missed."
Townsend is survived by a daughter, Deborah King, sons Lawrence Garnett, David Townsend and Alonzo Townsend, and seven grandchildren.