Rediscovery of Son House
Mississippi Delta blues icon Eddie James “Son” House became one of the most heralded figures in the blues revival of the 1960s, when he and his wife Evie lived in an apartment building here on Greig Street. House moved from Mississippi to Rochester in 1943 and had retired from music until a new career unfolded for him across the country and in Canada and Europe. Audiences were often stunned by the passion and intensity of his performances.
Son House embodied the deepest elements of the blues. In the words of his manager, Dick Waterman, “If the blues were an ocean distilled …into a pond… and, ultimately into a drop …this drop on the end of your finger is Son House. It’s the essence, the concentrated elixir.”
House was born in the cotton country of the Mississippi Delta, one of the crucibles of the blues, near Lyon, just outside the town of Clarksdale. Most historians concur with documents that cite his birth date as March 21, 1902, but he gave the year as 1894 when he applied for a Social Security card in 1943, and sometimes said he was even older. Describing himself as “ramblified” during his early years, he moved between Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Memphis and St. Louis. He sang in a church choir as a youngster and became a preacher before taking up the blues in the late 1920s, influenced by local guitarists such as Willie Wilson, Rubin Lacy and James McCoy. The conflict between the sacred and the secular profoundly affected House, and in his later concerts he bared his emotional tension in both blues and gospel songs. “The blues,” he told interviewer Julius Lester in 1965, “come from a person having a dissatisfied mind . . . some kind of sorrowness in his heart about being misused by somebody.”
House’s first recordings, made for the Paramount label in 1930, are considered masterpieces, but his records sold poorly during the Depression. While he was working as a tractor driver on a cotton plantation, he recorded again in 1941-42 for a Library of Congress-Fisk University project, but none of those historic recordings were issued until 1962. In 1943 he and a girlfriend moved to Rochester, and with help from a friend who had relocated here from Mississippi, he found a job at a foundry. He worked for the New York Central Railroad for years, followed by assorted jobs in town and around the state, but gave up the blues after the death of his musical partner Willie Brown (who lived here briefly before returning to Mississippi). House lived on Oregon, Atkinson and Adams Streets, among other addresses, and in 1964 he and his wife Evie moved to Apartment 9 on the third floor of 61 Greig Street. He was unemployed and owned neither a guitar nor a telephone when three young blues enthusiasts, Phil Spiro, Dick Waterman and Nick Perls, tracked him down after first searching for him in Memphis and Mississippi. The “rediscovery” made national news, and soon House was traveling the blues revival circuit under Waterman’s management. He recorded the landmark album Father of Folk Blues for Columbia in 1965, as well as several tapes in live or informal settings that resulted in albums. His last concert was in Toronto in 1974. In 1976 he moved to Detroit, where he died on October 19, 1988.
House left his mark on the music of blues masters Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the Delta, and locally on a new generation of Rochester musicians, including fellow Mississippi native Joe Beard, John Mooney and many others. He was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, 1980, and into the Rochester Hall of Fame in 2013. His biography, Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House (2011), was written by University of Rochester professor Daniel Beaumont.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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