Rochester was Home to Son House in 1973
Rochester is Home to Son House
But hard times have come to the man from Mississippi who's been called the legendary father of folk blues.
By John P. Morgan - (NY) Democrat Chronicle - 1973
"The way I figured it out after I started, I got the idea that the blues come from a person having a dissatisfied mind and he wants to do something about it. There's some kind of sorrowness [sic] in his heart about being misused by somebody. That's what I figured the blues is based on."
It's difficult to realize that the blues has existed as a defined American music only since the first decade of this century.
It's more difficult to grasp and to explain that one of the most powerful, revered country blues singers in history still lives at 61 Greig Street in Rochester, Son House's home for the last 20 years.
The first recording of the blues is generally dated to the 1920 performance by a Chicago singer named Mamie Smith. The commercial success of “Crazy Blues,” particularly the sales to black buyers, spawned a whole series of race" records on various labels.
Black musicians had been recorded before this time — generally in minstrel routines and overly orchestrated spirituals. However, the period from 1923 to 1926 saw white record producers furiously recording all the blues singers they could find.
Most of these early recordings featured the "classic" blues singers. They were female professional vaudeville and cabaret singers, often with a popular repertoire as well, who recorded with small orchestras or at the least studio piano players.
Some achieved lasting popularity — empty bed" singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and even Ethel Waters, who now sings her spirituals as part of the Billy Graham Crusade.
The exhausting of such talent (Mamie Smith recorded for as many as six companies in a single year) led the early equivalent of artist and repertory men into the field to search for other blues singers from 1927 to 1930. They stumbled onto the intense, highly personal, idiosyncratic singers of the Mississippi Delta.
For reasons still unclear, the area in and around Clarksdale, Miss. (Son House was born in nearby Lyons), has produced not only an astonishing number of great blues singers but it is the tradition of Mississippi blues we hear today.
Not only Son House, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson ( whose -Love in Vain" was recently done lovingly by the Rolling Stones) represent Mississippi country blues, but also Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, despite early moves to Chicago, are clear descendants of the same rough, intense, ironic styles.
Son House was born in 1902 in the Delta but moved to Louisiana as a child. His father was a musician, -a brass horn man" who separated early from his wife. House, after his mother's death, moved back to the Clarksdale area and began to work picking cotton.
He came under the influence of various singers and guitarists, including the already successful Charlie Patton. At first he resisted the temptation to play and sing the blues because it was ( and is clearly the devil's music, and House was early on 'very churchy."
His first music was choir singing and he spent some time as a preacher. His choir experience affected his style of guitar playing. He recalls hearing a Clarksdale guitarist, Willie Wilson, in the 20's. Wilson had a strange zinging" sound which he achieved by sliding a small bottle neck on the strings.
House experimented with this sound. He tuned an old beat-up guitar, which cost $1.50, to an open chord similar to the church choir chords and alternated fretting with his fingers and sliding a bottle neck ( later a metal tube) he wore on his ring finger up and down the neck.
This style, called bottleneck" or jackknife," has become identified as the Delta-style guitar. The strange, often quavering, tremulous sounds came very close to the mournful, sliding, growling vocal style he and other Mississippi singers used. He began playing the Saturday night country balls in Robinsville, Ruleville, and Clarksdale, and often crossed into Arkansas as his reputation spread. Despite the hazards of bad whisky and fights with "owl-headed" hammerless pistols, he worked the 'jukes" from 1927 on.
`I've never seen him sing without an anguished expression.'
That was when I stopped playing. After he (Brown) died, I just decided I wouldn't fool with playing anymore. I don't even know what I did with the guitar."
In 1964 Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro, and Nick Perls finally arrived in Rochester after a 4,000 mile trip to Mississippi and back and knocked on the door at 61 Grieg. The urban folk music boom had arrived and Son House was rediscovered.
Along with Mississippi John Hurt, Skip Jones, Bukka White and others, he returned to the per-forming stage. He had lost some of his repertoire and continued to have trouble with his memory on stage, but in the period from 1965 to 1970 he gave truly memorable performances at the Newport Folk Festival, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, at numerous college concerts and on two European tours.
In 1965 he recorded a superb album in New York City, produced by John Hammond. This Columbia record, • The Legendary Son House, Father of Folk Blues," can still be found. It brought to current view all the facets of the lost Paramount sides; the driving, often anguished, dark melancholy voice and the percussive shining, sliding guitar.
. . . he received $40.
largely because of the sale of 'race" and hillbilly" records back to the folk. But the post-1930 down period was not so easily overcome.
Son House returned to Mississippi and continued as a tractor driver and Saturday night singer until Charlie Patton died (1934); then House -up and quit them country balls."
In 1942 Allen Lomax located Son House and recorded a number of songs for the Library of Congress. Some of these have been released on a Folkways record and some on an Austrian label, Roots. Dick Waterman, the rediscoverer and currently House's manager, began his listing of abuses of his artist with the Folkways release.
Library of Congress recordings are not to be issued commercially without permission and arrangement with the artist. No one is sure, or owns up to being sure, how the Lomax tapes got into commercial hands, but it is a familiar and depressing story.
In 1943, Son House came to Rochester to work a series of jobs, as a section man and porter on the New York Central Railroad, as a Howard Johnson's grill cook, and as a veterinary assistant.
His good friend Willie Brown, who played second guitar on some of the Paramount sides, came here also. In 1948, on a trip back to Mississippi, Brown died. Charley Patton had been gone a longtime, Robert Johnson died in 1937, poisoned or stabbed by a lover in San Antonio, Texas. Son House laid down his guitar.
House has walls full of mementos at his Grieg Street apartment.
The story probably should end _here, but sadly doesn't. The ravages of time have stolen Son House's voice and spirit. He gave a strong performance at a benefit for J. D. Wilson last May (although both he and his wife worried about the political overtones of the benefit), but he could hardly get through a number when he performed for a Rochester School Without Walls class in the blues.
Watching him perform reminds one of the stark and horrible perceptions the great bluesmen must have of the world. I've never seen him sing with-out an anguished, contorted expression.
One is tempted to believe that these perceptions, if not assimilated and made into personal musical expressions, have to be defused, and alcohol is the usual answer.
Waterman now finds it difficult to book Son House because of his inability to do a complete set. He has some tapes of live performances that he hopes to sell to a major label, but this hasn't yet worked out.
Meanwhile House, now 70, who supported himself and his wife as a professional musician for the last five or six years, has fallen again upon hard times.
Howling Wolf (Chester Burnette) still credits House as an important influence. Muddy Waters, who recorded country blues for the Library of Congress as McKinley Morganfield, before his ascendance as the king of Chicago electric blues, has been more explicit.
He told Paul Oliver, Seem like everybody could play some kind of instrument and there were so many fellers playin' in the jukes around Clarksdale I can't remember them all. But the best we had to my ideas was Sonny House. I was really behind Son House all the way."
JOHN P. MORGAN is an assistant professor of pharmacology and medicine at the University of Rochester College of Medicine, a contributing editor of Rock magazine, and frequent writer on country music.
SON HOUSE PARTIAL DISCOGRAPHY*
Biograph 12040 "Son House - Blind Lemon Jefferson." Contains 5 songs from the 1930 Paramount Sessions.
Folkways Flag 31028 Son House - J. D. Short. "Delta Blues." Contains 6 sides from the Library of Congress, including "Country Farm Blues," "My Black Woman" and a non-blues "This War Will Last You for Years," a 3/4 time WWII song.
Columbia 2417 "The Legendary Son House: Father of Folk Blues." A superior record with "Preachin' the Blues" (new words), "Empire State Express" and "John the Revelator." The late Al Wilson, formerly of Canned Heat, played a little back-up guitar and harmonica.
Roots 501 "Son House and Robert Pete Williams." Live. House and Williams never met, and this is certainly not a live performance. The canned applause is ludicrous, but these 1965 recordings taped by Nick Perle are of good quality and include House's version of Charlie Patton's "The Pony Blues."
Roots 504 "The Vocal Intensity of Son House." These tapes were made on Creig Street in September 1969 and are simply terrible. Waterman feels that this release in Europe hurt the second (1970) European tour.
*These records may be difficult to obtain locally. A good source for all obscure and limited circulation labels is Rounder Records, 65 Park St., Somerville, Mass. 02143.