Saturday, December 3, 2011

Son Up

Over the course of four decades the wider world in a sense met a different Son House each time the Delta Bluesman’s distinctive performances were captured on disc. House was first heard-from in several hair-raising, wailing-and-flailing, brute-force 78s he recorded up in Wisconsin for Paramount Records one fine day in May 1930--fiery two-parters
“Preachin’ the Blues,” “Dry Spell Blues,” and “My Black Mama,” a couple others maybe issued, maybe not, but never found--all of them instant classics, both plaintive and powerful. (Paramount did call him back for more recording, but Son chose to continue driving tractor instead.)

When Eddie James House Jr. (called “Son”) resurfaced in 1941-42 down in Mississippi as one among many rural musicians being “cut” onto the glass “masters” produced by Alan Lomax during the series of field recordings he conducted for the Library of Congress, this elusive genius of the Blues had toned down his
performances considerably, trading intensity for subtlety and a more contemplative approach. Many of the tunes were also performed by a stringband group comprised of Son, Willie Brown, and one or two others--pleasant enough but not really compelling. And that was it for another quarter century.

Then a loosely connected group of white Blues musicians, ethnomusicologists, and college dropouts (John Fahey, Dick Waterman, Al Wilson, Nick Perls, David Evans, others) in the early-to-mid Sixties became determined to find as many Blues elders as might still be alive; and whoa back, buck, not too long thereafter, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and, yes, Son House were limbering up their arthritic fingers and regaling younger, mostly white
audiences with terrific songs and stories. Son’s trail had stretched from Mississippi to upstate New York, where he’d moved in 1943; he had quit the music game, worked as a Pullman porter, regained religion and so, enjoying his retirement, was reluctant to pick up the guitar again.

But House relented, and soon was appearing at Newport Festivals and on stages from Washington, D.C., to WA's Seattle. And with Son among the several rediscovered Bluesmen who one by one came West on tour, that’s where I saw him in March of 1968, mesmerized by his singing and playing, his shy attempts
at humor and serious admonitions on life and the end of it. I was a true fan of the Blues, in the midst of researching and writing a screenplay on the story of Robert Johnson, and here right before me--me and maybe four dozen others in this small community hall--was one of Johnson’s own mentors and heroes. I'd still rate that concert and Son‘s presence as one of the greatest experiences of my life.

If you think that’s hyperbole, I invite you to listen--available to you and me now, suddenly, just 43 years after the fact--to the recently issued 2CD set on Arcola Records,
Son House in Seattle 1968. (Available through Amazon even.)

A few years into his comeback and still just in his middle 60s, Son was at or near his late-creative peak: playing his slidin’-Delta, National steel guitar with controlled ringing abandon; shout-singing several House specialties (“Death Letter Blues,” “Empire State Express,” “I Want to Live So God Can Use Me,” plus those named earlier); telling stories tall and short and laughing merrily (“Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face”); philosophizing and gently sermonizing—another side of preachin’ the Blues, you might say.

Where Bukka White, say, was big and bluff and jovial, and Skip James (admittedly battling cancer) seemed edgy and withdrawn, maybe suspicious of white attention,
House just calmly went with the flow, scorching the stage with his guitar and (sometimes) still powerful vocals, then speaking so softly and gently as to seem a spiritual guide set down in our midst. (Listen to him talk about the difference between burn-out “Fox Fire Love” and real “Natural Love.”) As years piled up, Son drank more and performed less surely, and his thoughts and words sometimes came mumbled and jumbled. He was way more cool and confident in 1968.

So put on CD 1 to hear his splendid concert and conversation, then switch to CD 2 for a good interview recorded during the Seattle stay by Bob West (in photo with Son), cleverly interspersed with representative 78s by other important Delta Bluesmen from Son’s circle (Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson) plus both halves of Son’s own signature
piece “My Black Mama.” The two CDs give you a good taste of what was then living history, and the lengthy and truly excellent liner notes essay by Bob Groom, Brit expert on the Blues, is better than frosting.

Considering how close I was sitting to the mic Son was singing into that day, my clapping and cheering must be mixed in there somewhere… But I’m haunted by another matter. My family lived in upstate New York from 1946 until 1951, and we had close kin residing near Chicago, so we traveled to visit them a few times via the New York Central railroad, riding the real Empire State Express. House was a porter on that train during those same years, and I remember well one porter who seemed to love
kids; he entertained my little sister and me with stories like the tale of Hendryk Hudson bowling at nine pins (creating thunder), gave us crayons and pictures to color, and just generally looked after us… Could that kind black gentleman have been Son House?

Memory may be an unreliable witness but, impossible or no, Son’s is the face I remember—the smallish, slightly square-headed guy with a neat mustache that I see in dreams still.


Steve Provizer said...

Nice story... I too saw Son in the late 60's, but I confess that I wasn't really open to his sound. I took my blues mostly via the Chicago crowd-Guy, Muddy, DIxon, Hutto, etc. and callow youth that I was, let his seeming frailty bias my ears.

I Witness said...

Checking in from Arizona... Sure, Chicago Blues was a powerful force, quickly replacing the rural originals, but as you and I know now, Muddy and thus all who followed his style or combo instrumentation or whatall, had learned much more from House than from Johnson, Son being father to all those later sons, so to speak.