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Henry Speller was born in the settlement of Panther Bum in the Delta country of central Mississippi. Raised by his maternal grandmother and her husband, Speller dropped out of school at the age of twelve and helped support her when, as a consequence of an altercation with a white employer, her husband was forced to flee the region. Speller grew up working on Delta farms and on the levees of the Mississippi river, where he often drew pictures during his lunch breaks. He left Mississippi for Memphis in 1939. There he worked in a succession of odd jobs-- landscaper, sanitation worker, janitor-and lived within a few blocks of Beale Street, the musical heart of Memphis. In the early 1960s he met Georgia Verges, who also loved to sing and to draw, and who became his third wife.

Speller was an accomplished blues musician who played guitar with such legends as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Speller turned down offers to leave the region and play in their professional bands. The imagery and insistent rhythms of the Delta blues flow through Speller's work, but his iconography also hints of the social, economic, and racial exclusions he observed throughout his life.