Born during the first decade of the 1900s near the town of Houston, Mississippi, Booker T. Washington White was one of seven children raised by his grandfather on a sharecropper farm in Chickasaw County, east of the Mississippi River delta. Booker's father, John White, was a railroad fireman and part-time musician who taught him to play guitar. In his teen years, he relocated to Grenada, Mississippi to work on his uncle's farm, where he was first exposed to the delta music traditions. Most significantly, White became aware of Charley Patton, one of the greatest and most influential of all the early blues men. He first began performing at local dances and functions as well as in delta juke joints and honkytonks, by traveling up the Mississippi river to Memphis and St. Louis, where he often worked for food. While performing in St. Louis, White was befriended by an older musician named Johnny Thomas, who gave him lessons on guitar and piano. Later, while performing in Memphis, White met Ralph Lembo, who served as a talent scout for the Victor label. In 1930, Lembo arranged for White to cut his first recordings, several of them gospel numbers and the label initially marketed him as Washington White-"The Singing Preacher," but with the depression underway, only four sides were released. In addition to performing at every paying opportunity, he also pursued sports, pitching for the Birmingham Black Cats baseball team, occasionally boxing, and making moonshine to make ends meet during extremely difficult times.
In 1937, claiming self-defense, White shot a man after being ambushed on a dark road. He was sentenced to two years at Parchman Farm on assault charges. Prior to the sentencing, White traveled to Chicago to record two songs for the Vocalion label. According to legend, he jumped bail and was re-arrested by a sheriff while in the recording studio. While serving his time on Parchman Farm (soon to be the source of his most covered song), "Shake 'em on Down," one of the two 1937 recordings, became a hit. Vocalion's art director misheard his name as "Bukka" instead of Booker and misspelled it on the records, which is how he got his stage name, a name he actually despised.
While serving his two years, White organized a prison band, which helped him stay off the work gangs, but the harsh conditions and isolation left him little to do. He passed the time notating song lyrics he knew and creating new songs, many of them reflective of the loneliness and impending death that surrounded him. Upon his release, he headed straight for Chicago and tracked down Lester Melrose, an agent who had helped him during the 1937 recordings, with hopes of resuming his recording career. Melrose gave White a hotel room and instructions to write new material. For White, who had spent the last two years contemplating his music, this was the ideal assignment. On March 7, 1940, White entered Melrose's South Side studio, where he recorded 14 songs, featuring accompaniment by a musician named Washboard Sam. Released on the Vocalion and OKeh labels, these songs are now considered classics of the blues. However, the times had changed and with little interest in White's older style of country blues, the recordings went largely unnoticed. White returned to Memphis, took a job in a defense plant and played music primarily for his own enjoyment. Most of his musical energy was directed toward his cousin, Riley King, who went by the title "Blues Boy," soon shortened to "B.B." White gave B.B. his first guitar and provided constant encouragement, while he himself worked in obscurity throughout the 1950s.
During the folk and blues revival of the early 1960s, White's early recordings were rediscovered by a new generation of blues enthusiasts and rare copies of his early 78s began circulating among collectors, including Bob Dylan, who recorded White's "Fixin' To Die" on his first album. In 1963, two University of California students, John Fahey and Ed Denson, mailed a letter addressed to "Booker T. Washington White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." A much simpler time, the letter actually found its way to White and that fall; he headed to California to perform for the folklore students. Fahey and Denson had a small label, Takoma Records, and they issued Mississippi Blues: Bukka White, capturing his older material, soon followed by music collector Chris Strachwitz, who released two further volumes of new White material called Sky Songs: Vols. 1 and 2 on his Arhoolie label.