The Soul of Son House
"When I found out he was alive, or could be alive, I started looking into it. John Mooney gave me his phone number in Detroit, and I called the number. A woman answered. It was like finding out Superman is real and alive and not just a comic-book character." - Richard Gardner
THE SOUL OF SON HOUSE
A lengthy discussion between several of the people who
knew him and their musical searches for the legendary bluesman
By Jeff Spevak – Democrat & Chronicle - August 2015
|c. Dick Waterman|
Teenage preacher, itinerant laborer, five-time husband, alcoholic. Even two-time murderer. Son House's life took a bewildering series of turns, but the one that resonates to this day is bluesman.
A slide-blues player, frequently howling about the choice between God and the devil, creating an unholy cacophony with his National Steel guitar. Blues scholars consider him one of the founding voices of the blues, making his first recordings in 1930.
But in 1943, he simply disappeared.
To Rochester, where he abandoned music until a trio of young record collectors — Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and Phil Spiro — tracked him down in 1964, living in Corn Hill. An unlikely resumption of his career followed.
He recorded, with tours ranging from Europe to the Charlotte coffee shop, run by House of Guitars founders Armand and Bruce Schaurbroeck. House spent his final years in Detroit, where he died in 1988 at age 86. Maybe.
Journey to the Son: A Celebration of Son House starts Wednesday, with a reading that evening of the new play with music, Revival: The Resurrection of Son House, commissioned by Geva Theatre Center, and written by Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Keith Glover.
Glover says he wrote Revival as a theatrical experience, not necessarily a biography; you'll have to hear the details on the two murders from Daniel Beaumont, who wrote the excellent Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House. He'll be at the four-day festival, in a calendar filled with workshops, lectures and music, including performances by Grammy winners John Hammond and Chris Thomas King.
And it will resonate with voices, people talking about Son House and his times. It is easy to find people in Rochester to tell you about Son House.
Joe Beard, longtime Rochester bluesman, was born and raised in Mississippi. When he moved into a Corn Hill apartment in 1964, by coincidence, his neighbor turned out to be another Mississippi native. "I didn't know too much about Son House at all. He saw me carrying a guitar, we became good friends. We did lots of things together. He started telling me all these stories about his life. About him and Charley Patton, all those guys. I didn't think much about it."
|Dick Waterman in 1971|
Dick Waterman, a young blues enthusiast who would later become Son House's manager, that same year was told by bluesman Bukka White that he'd just seen the long-missing Son House the previous week in Memphis. "We were three Jewish guys in a yellow Volkswagen Bug at a time when George Wallace was running for president, so it was kind of a tense time. Bukka White lied to us — well, he was mistaken, any-way — Son House wasn't in Memphis. But we met an old man whose son had once been married to Son House's stepdaughter. He gave us the phone number of his ex-wife, who was living in Detroit. Son House did not have a phone, but she had the number of a friend in Roches-ter. We called him and asked if he knew Son House, the blues singer who had recorded for Paramount Records, and he said, 'Why, yes, I just saw him at 10 o'clock this morning.' I asked if he could get him to the phone the next morning. I talked to his wife, Evie, and said, 'Is he the blues singer who recorded for Paramount Records?' She said, 'Yes, he is.' I said, 'Don't go anywhere, we're on our way.' "
Joe Beard: "He never really made much out of him-self, to be a famous person, he wouldn't do that. He never said, 'Well, I did this, I did that,' he never spoke like that. Never bragged on himself and how good he was.... He was a nice guy and all. As far as him being what he was, I didn't know until all this happened."
Dick Waterman: "He really hadn't played in a long time. He was physically healthy, and had been working for the New York state railway but was now retired, and he and Evie were living a quiet life. We gave him a guitar and he said he needed a little primer, so we went to the liquor store and Evie started clucking around, 'He's going to start drinking again.' We had a couple of slugs. His guitar playing was rusty, but he had his voice, it was right there."
Brian Williams plays upright bass with many Rochester bands. He was a college student when he first saw Son House. "It was '65 or '64, I was a student at the time, and when I came home from school on vacation, I would go into New York City and catch various folk groups. For me, Son was the most amazing performer I saw. When he sang, it was like he was possessed. No one sounded like him. Within five minutes of seeing him for the first time, I knew this was it. I would see him at clubs like the Gaslight, or maybe the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Newport Folk Festival. I think he was on the same year as Dylan went electric."
Dick Waterman: "I had him in August of '64 at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and from there, I two-finger typed an incredible number of letters, trying to get him shows. I was seeing for the first time just what Son House was like. He was always low-key, the butt of his own jokes, but when he set the slide down on the neck of his guitar, it was an electric, riveting performance. He'd go on with one song for five minutes, eight minutes, 10 minutes. After he finished the song he'd slump back in his chair and say, 'Well, that's a piece of the blues for you.' "
Brian Williams: "In 1967, I moved to Rochester, and I had no idea Son House was around here until I met John Mooney and Joe Beard. John and I would go over to his house and try to get him out, much to his wife, Evie's, consternation. She knew he would ask for primer. He'd say, 'Have you got the primer?' And she knew he would come back liquored up. Sometimes we just did it on the front stoop of his house. Mooney would always bring the guitar, Son didn't have a guitar. If he did, he would have pawned it in order to get money for booze."
John Mooney is a Louisiana singer and guitarist who was raised in Honeoye Falls but dropped out of high school to play the blues. Last year, he released Son and Moon, a tribute album to Son House. "Joe Beard and Red Palmer and I had been playing together in '70, '71, and Joe said, 'You're doing a bunch of his stuff, do you want to meet him?' I said, 'Yeah, sure.' I took a little half-pint of brandy, figured we'd have a little nip. He handed me back the bottle without anything in it. That was the first thing I learned about Son House, don't hand him the bottle first. I started going to Son's house every other day. We couldn't play the blues in his house, that was the rule, Evie was real into the gospel church. So we sat on the front steps or went to the park."
Joe Beard: "I was in a band, Friends of the Blues. I was the bass player, and John Mooney started playing guitar with us. And that's when I introduced him to Son House. He used to go with me to my gigs. His wife didn't want him to come home drunk; she was very particular about who he went out with. I was one of the people she didn't mind he went out with. Yeah, sometimes he'd play. 'John the Revelator,' he would always do that."
Nick Langan is a Philadelphia cardiologist, originally from Syracuse, who has played keyboards, accordion and harmonica in Mooney's bands for years. "In the summer of '71 or '72, I went to Record Runner up on Marshall Street in Syracuse and there was a sign in the window, 'Son House in Thornden Park Today.' I had all my harmonicas in the car, and made a beeline over there. I asked his manager if I could sit in and pulled out my harmonica and played. He said, `OK, you can play the whole gig.' It took a long time to tune his guitar to the harmonicas. He was doing his thing, and I tried to not get in his way. He was pretty quiet, but he must have liked what I was doing because if they don't, they'll ... turn to you and say, 'Thank you very much,' and send you on your way. He was a voice of authority, powerful, testifying with every song, so it sounded like he was pouring out his soul. Big-voiced, powerful guitar and soul-felt songs."
Rockin' Red Palmer, a Rochester blues-harp player and singer. "I met him through John, I used to go up to Son's house. We had a band with Joe Beard, Friends of the Blues, and we brought him to the Fairport Village Inn a few times. Ninety percent of the time he was a solo artist; we'd have him open up for us. That show we started out with the Little Walter instrumental 'Juke,' and Son was sitting at a table with his wife, and as soon as we got to the second measure, he stood up and started boogeying. We had one show there, and the place was full of bikers, where Son had gotten a little inebriated and Mooney tried to help out and tune his guitar." Brian Williams: "But Son didn't really care if the guitar was tuned, he started retuning it. Making it, quote, `Better.' He just basically tuned it out of tune."
Rockin' Red: "There was a bar, the Wine Press, up by Norton Street, I was playing with John Mooney, and I think Brian Williams. I remember Son playing there, doing 'Grinning in Your Face,' a cappella, with hand claps and stomping. It was the perfect blues performance." John Mooney: "He'd get into a groove and he would sing verses I'd never heard before, throw in verses from all over. Mix and matching. He'd be on the same song for half an hour." Dick Waterman: "The drinking? That worried me 100 percent. He had a mean drinking problem, but he couldn't play without it. He had tremors in his hands if he didn't get a drink. I carried around some of those small bottles of liquor that you get on airplanes and filled them with some big bottles I kept in my car."
Joe Beard: "Son, he lived a lot, but it was not some-thing that I would say was bad. In a way, he was sad. His big thing was the devil. That's why he became a preach-er, he was afraid of going to hell."
Dick Waterman: "After 10 years of guitar playing, from 1964 to 1974, he started to go mentally; he was losing his recollection. He'd sing and the audience would clap, he would look at me, run his fingers over the strings on the neck of the guitar to see what key he was in, so he could remember what song he had just played. It was getting very awkward. I could see he had to stop playing."
Joe Beard: "A couple of months before he did leave, he was living in the Tower apartments by then. I never heard anything from him after he left."
Richard Gardner owns Brighton-based Upstate Resume and Writing Service and once had a blues radio show on the old WGMC. He blogs for the Democrat and Chronicle and recently published a book, Finding Son House: One Searcher's Story, describing how he and a friend, Mark Sampson, found Son House in 1981 after the ailing, 79-year-old bluesman moved to Detroit to be around family members. "I was a depressed divorce who took comfort in the suffering of others. I got into the blues to the extent I started a blues show. I knew nothing about the blues or Son House until my own problems, kind of like a baptism of fire. I wanted to see the man. I'd listened to his music, I was blown away by his attitude. When I found out he was alive, or could be alive, I started looking into it. John Mooney gave me his phone number in Detroit, and I called the number. A woman answered. It was like finding out Superman is real and alive and not just a comic-book character."
Dick Waterman: "I don't think I've ever told this story before. But Bill Graham, the famous promoter, had some shows at the Fillmore with Delaney & Bonnie. And Eric Clapton had had his years with Cream, and his years with Blind Faith, and he just wanted to come off the road for a couple of years and play behind Delaney & Bonnie, be a rhythm guitarist, because he liked them. And they told Graham how much they liked Son House. So Graham thought, what better opening act could he get for them than Son House? So he offered Son major money, $500 for 15 minutes, five or six nights. But Son had fallen drunken into a snowbank and frozen his fingers. So I had to turn it down. Bill called me and said, `He's got to do it.' And I told him, 'Bill, it's not the money, he's got frostbite, he can't play.' Ultimately, Son got back his ability to play, but he lost an incredible career opportunity."
Richard Gardner: "We knocked on the door and his wife came to the door. I'm sure she was thinking, 'Another middle-aged white guy wanting to talk to my husband.' It was a sterile environment; there were no clues or suggestions that he ever did anything in his prior life. Nothing other than sit in that La-Z-Boy rocker, other grandfatherly things. A handmade afghan, pictures of grandkids. We wanted to see old whiskey glasses or a battered Bible from his previous life. Mark and I were probably one of the few times fans spoke with him where there wasn't a lot of swearing and alcohol and music in the background. He was suffering from dementia, but otherwise seemed OK. He was not at the top of his game in terms of remembering, but he remembered instantly who John Mooney and Joe Beard were. He could not remember any country he had played in. Right away he fired off 'Africa,' because it started with an A."
John Mooney: "I went and saw him in Detroit a few times. They were missing a lot of their day-to-day friends; when you get older you lose that support group, things slow down. Dementia started coming in. It would take him a few minutes to recognize me. Eventually, I called Evie and she said, 'Don't come out of your way to come here. He doesn't even recognize people.'
Dick Waterman: "Most of the dates for his birth say he was born in 1902, which would make him rediscovered at 62. But I think he was born well back into the 1800s. I'd ask him, 'What were you doing during World War I?' and he'd say, 'I was grown up and married by then.' He at various times gave me hints he was born in the 1880s. Which would make him into 100 when he died."
Richard Gardner: "I felt like a disciple going to see Christ. My life changed, I got out of my bad stuff. I be-came, I don't want to say better, but I became a different person, more understanding of the world around me. I could see he was not just a performer, he was a very unique person out of which came this enormous music that spoke for so many other people besides him-self."
Brian Williams: "What did I learn from Son House? That middle-of-the-road performances are middle of the road. That's why I enjoyed so much playing with John, he has a lot of that music-is-possessing-me characteristic of when he is playing. That idea of don't be afraid to push it to a new limit."
John Mooney: "A lot of my playing style was developed around the way he played. In a lot of ways, it's the Delta style of Son, mixed it with Louisiana, what I call second-line blues. He had certain ways of playing a National Steel guitar to get it to sound a certain way. Like in banjo playing, what they call frailing, where you hit the strings on the downstroke, using the backs of your fingernails. It's more of a brushing kind of rhythmic playing. I incorporated that, and just these little idiosyncrasies. In the juke joints where he learned to play, it's got to be rhythmic, people want to get up and dance."
Richard Gardner: "His wife told me over the phone to not bring a guitar, so we brought two, for props for photos. He picked one up and started tuning it to an open G, then he went away to a different place. He was no longer in the room with us. But he couldn't play."