Monday, July 11, 2011

Son House's Life Subject of Excellent Preachin' The Blues

Preachin' The Blues: The Life & Times of Son House
by Daniel Beaumont
2011, Oxford University Press

In a year here we have been blessed by biographies about Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt, Daniel Beaumont has provided us a strong portrait of one of the archetypal blues performers, Eddie 'Son' House. I never had the chance to see Son House perform in person, but I recall being at NYC's Museum of Broadcasting to see some fifties television programs featuring jazz and the last one opened up with Son House describing the blues before launching into performance. This black and white video is among the most riveting musical performances I have ever seen.

Beaumont's narrative begins with the rediscovery of House in Rochester, New York in 1964 by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, and his first performances including having Alan Wilson teaching House how to play House's music. From detailing how they located House and the fiasco of a schedule Newport Folk Festival appearance, Beaumont then takes us back to the young House and his early years including being brought up in the church and his early experiences in church becoming a pastor and then married a woman, Carrie Martin, although she died young.

House worked at a number of jobs, shining shoes, sharecropping and working on levee camps (an experience he would recall in song years later), and worked in a steel plant. The temptations of the flesh, women and liquor, left him ready for a change. And the change was becoming a blues musician as Beaumont details House's accounts of taking up guitar and being influenced by Rube Lacy in one account, and one James McCoy in another. It is McCoy who is stated to have taught him "My Black Mama" and "Preachin' the Blues," perhaps his two most important recordings. Beaumont then describes the rapidity into which House engaged in a musical career as well as an incident in which he killed a man and spent time at Parchman Farm.

After serving some time in Parchman, House was released and moved to Lula Mississippi where he came across Charlie Patton, where they struck up a friendship and also met Willie Brown. House then traveled with Patton to Grafton, Wisconsin along with Brown and woman barrelhouse piano player, Louise Johnson, who was Patton's gal at the time but on the drive to Grafton had a fight and then she took up with House. In Grafton, they made what are considered among the classic recordings of DElta Blues. Beaumont goes into detail to discuss House's recordings, copies of a couple only being discovered in recent years.
In the aftermath of the Grafton trip, the most lasting relationship House formed was with Willie Brown.

Beaumont details years he calls "Dry Spell Blues" when he married Evie as well as intermittently took up the pulpit. House's everyday activities, especially his blues playing, was not well received by the congregations. This led him to giving up the pulpit for good and he was to be found with Brown and others in juke joints. Other musicians he associated with included Henry 'Son' Sims and Fiddlin' Joe Martin. House and Brown, at this time, were seen by and influenced such future legends as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.

In 1941 and 1942, House was recorded by Alan Lomax as part of his field recordings for the Library of Congress, initially in conjunction with John Work of Fisk University and made a body of recordings that included performances with small string bands (with Martin and others) and one solo performance, a rendition of Charlie Patton's "Shetland Pony Blues." These sides, issued decades later, displayed a maturation of House's music but also showed him to be as compelling as on his Paramount Recordings.

Not long after the Library of Congress recordings, House relocated to Rochester, NY, probably following a sweetheart as well as work in a defense plant and he even convinced Willie Brown to go there. Brown returned to Mississippi and House even went there briefly for a musical reunion, but Brown died not too long after that, which led House to give up music at the time. Evie at some point joined Son. As Beaumont notes, there is not much we know about these years. For much of this time, House had stopped performing and those who interviewed House after his rediscovery were more interested in the time he was performing music.

Beaumont uncovered an incident when House was involved with the law while in a Long island migrant farm camp. A younger farm worker came looking for money and figuring House might be an easy mark and House knifed him. House was cleared of manslaughter by a Grand Jury, finding he acted in self-defense. Otherwise until the early sixties, and his rediscovery, Son House lived in oblivion.

Beaumont then returns to House's part in the blues revival and reprints an article by a young reporter, Betsy Bues that ran in the Rochester Times-Union. House's career touring and recording is accounted for including his relationship with Dick Waterman. The various recordings House made including the classic Columbia album and a live English performance are considered as well as his years after retirement. Beaumont also discusses House's relationship to and mentoring of Joe Beard and John Mooney, and describes his last years when House's mental and physical abilities had diminished further.

One unusual aspect of the book was the use of footnotes as opposed to chapter notes and end notes, that made it easier to see the sources for the author's statements. This is a concise, yet through, account of one of those artists who left a lasting impression upon so many and whose influence is still felt. Beaumont's marvelous account, of Son House's life and music, does its subject justice which I was glad to have purchased.


Jane said...

Thank you very much for a well-done, helpful review.


bluesandfaith said...

Nice review. Thanks - will buy the book!