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http://www.detnews.com/article/20110809/ENT04/108090303/1424/ENT04/New-biography-looks-back-at-nearly-forgotten-music-legend-Son-House

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jN5vqEyV7g

New biography looks back at nearly forgotten music legend Son House

Susan Whitall/ Detroit News Music Writer

The Motor City has been home to more than a few blues, jazz, R&B and rock musicians, but for several years in the 1960s, a blues giant lived here in a modest apartment on Second Avenue.

Son House was one of the original generation of pre-World War II blues masters, born in Mississippi in 1902, a singer/guitarist active in the blues scene in the late '20s and early '30s. After a career revival in the '60s, by 1976 he ended up in Detroit, where, ill and hazy of mind, he lived out his waning years with wife Evie. He died in 1988 and is buried in Mt. Hazel Cemetery on Detroit's west side.

Dick Waterman, who managed House's second career, cherishes the memory of his music. "Son House was the very essence of the blues," he says. "If you took a sea of blues emotion and distilled it down to a lake and then to a pond, then to a tub and finally to a drop on the tip of your finger, that would be Son House. He was an art form in its purest state."

Now a new biography, "Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House" (Oxford University Press) written by Daniel Beaumont, attempts to piece together the bluesman's tangled, mysterious past.

The author had been a fan of House's since he was a teenager, but "it was after moving to Rochester (N.Y.) and getting to know (blues musician) Joe Beard that I got into the story," says Beaumont, 59.

Beard also was a former Mississippian and blues guitarist, working as a superintendant in 1964 at the same Rochester apartment building where House lived. House told Beard stories about his tough life and musical adventures, mentioning names like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It wasn't namedropping, Beard realized — this guy was the real deal.

Years later, he related those stories to an intrigued Beaumont. "I began to realize, it's not all gone … there's a real story left here, on Son House's life," Beaumont says. "It's a really compelling story from a narrative standpoint, apart from his importance to blues musicians. It was a remarkable life of ups and downs."

Not getting his due

In the 1920s, House took up both preaching and the blues at about the same time in rural Mississippi, and his life embodied the conflict between those two worlds. He never seemed entirely at ease in either one.

His music hasn't been as celebrated in the last few decades as Robert Johnson's. As a teenager, Johnson tagged around after House and Charley Patton in Mississippi, begging them to teach him their songs. Watching the wonderful 1960s-era TV clips of House available on YouTube, it's hard to understand why he was so eclipsed.

Beaumont cites a small group of 1960s blues fans who anointed Johnson the father of the blues. "They mythologized (Johnson)," says Beaumont, who scorns the oft-cited story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 (in Mississippi) to earn musical immortality .

"(Johnson) died young (at age 27) and therefore he couldn't talk back. He became a screen on which they could project their fantasies. There's been so much nonsense written about him. If you asked (House) about Johnson selling his soul to the devil, nothing would make him clam up faster."

Many high-profile rock musicians — among them Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin — helped stoke the Johnson legend. But House has his own high-profile musician admirer in Detroit's own Jack White and the White Stripes, who recorded a molten version of his song "Death Letter Blues."

In the documentary film "It Might Get Loud," White declares House's song "Grinnin' in Your Face" to be his favorite record of all time. "This spoke to me in a thousand different ways," White said. "I didn't know that you could do that to singing and clapping, and it meant everything, everything about rock and roll, about expression, creativity and art. One man against the world, in one song."

'Intense' performer

Mississippi juke joints were rough in the '20s; House was convicted of killing a man at a "frolic" outside Clarksdale (he claimed self-defense) and served time on a prison farm. Released in 1930, he settled in Lula, Miss., where he struck up a friendship with bluesman Charley Patton. Patton brought him along to a Paramount Records recording session in Grafton, Miss., and House's recording career was launched.

House's style was to play slide guitar with a bottleneck; he had a strong, pleasing voice, and his songs all had a cohesive story. (He would often chide Patton for playing songs that didn't have a logical narrative.)

"The single word people always used about Son House, I found, was 'intense,'" Beaumont says.

In "Preachin' the Blues," Beaumont describes how House came to be rediscovered during the folk/blues boom of the 1960s by three young east coast folk fans. Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls set off in a Volkswagen Beetle to find House and other 1930s bluesmen in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, a dangerous time for young northerners to be wandering around in the tense, segregated state. The three were in the same area where three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, were murdered in late June.

But by then Waterman, Spiro and Perls were on their way to upstate New York where they'd tracked House, who had moved to Rochester to follow a girlfriend, despite being married to the long-suffering Evie since the '30s. The three discovered a reserved older man, perplexed at their interest in his old music.

"He must have thought those guys came from Mars," Beaumont says.

Career revival

Under the direction of Waterman, who managed him, and guitarist Al Wilson (later of Canned Heat), who helped him relearn his old songs, House got back into performing his blues live. Waterman booked him on a steady stream of college and coffeehouse gigs that made the bluesman some decent money, although he was overwhelmed at having to continually monitor House's alcohol consumption.

Beaumont argues that because House influenced Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf so profoundly and through them, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck, he is a vital thread in popular music that would have been lost had Waterman and company not found him.

"At that point, he was the most important survivor and witness to the movement that was about to change popular music," says Beaumont.

Suffering from dementia and other ailments, House ended up in Detroit in 1976 because his wife, Evie, found it increasingly hard to care for him and needed the help of her children, based in Detroit.

A passage from the book describes two young blues fans who made a pilgrimage in 1981 to see House in Detroit. They found that dementia had rendered him almost mute. It was a brief, uncomfortable visit in which Evie lectured them about the sins of music. But as they were leaving, House leaned forward and sang, "Don'tcha mind people grinnin' in your face…"

Son House monument

When Son House died in 1988, he was buried in a modest grave at Mt. Hazel cemetery in Detroit, with a marker that didn't acknowledge his role as a blues musician.

In the 1990s, House's former manager Dick Waterman contacted a friend in Detroit, Detroit Blues (now Big City Blues) magazine publisher Robert Whitall Jr. to ask if he knew where House was buried. The Rev. Robert Jones helped steer Whitall to the gravesite. Whitall and a group including Jimmy Lessnau of Sully's in Dearborn and George Seedorf held a series of fundraisers, including a Sully's concert in 1994, to raise money for a Son House Memorial Fund.

Finally, in 1997 a black African stone monument was installed at Son House's grave, complete with photo and inscription by Waterman. There fans can read about the blues achievements of the musician who lived so quietly in our midst.

swhitall@detnews.com

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http://www.detnews.c...egend-Son-House

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jN5vqEyV7g

New biography looks back at nearly forgotten music legend Son House

Susan Whitall/ Detroit News Music Writer

The Motor City has been home to more than a few blues, jazz, R&B and rock musicians, but for several years in the 1960s, a blues giant lived here in a modest apartment on Second Avenue.

Son House was one of the original generation of pre-World War II blues masters, born in Mississippi in 1902, a singer/guitarist active in the blues scene in the late '20s and early '30s. After a career revival in the '60s, by 1976 he ended up in Detroit, where, ill and hazy of mind, he lived out his waning years with wife Evie. He died in 1988 and is buried in Mt. Hazel Cemetery on Detroit's west side.

Dick Waterman, who managed House's second career, cherishes the memory of his music. "Son House was the very essence of the blues," he says. "If you took a sea of blues emotion and distilled it down to a lake and then to a pond, then to a tub and finally to a drop on the tip of your finger, that would be Son House. He was an art form in its purest state."

Now a new biography, "Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House" (Oxford University Press) written by Daniel Beaumont, attempts to piece together the bluesman's tangled, mysterious past.

The author had been a fan of House's since he was a teenager, but "it was after moving to Rochester (N.Y.) and getting to know (blues musician) Joe Beard that I got into the story," says Beaumont, 59.

Beard also was a former Mississippian and blues guitarist, working as a superintendant in 1964 at the same Rochester apartment building where House lived. House told Beard stories about his tough life and musical adventures, mentioning names like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It wasn't namedropping, Beard realized — this guy was the real deal.

Years later, he related those stories to an intrigued Beaumont. "I began to realize, it's not all gone … there's a real story left here, on Son House's life," Beaumont says. "It's a really compelling story from a narrative standpoint, apart from his importance to blues musicians. It was a remarkable life of ups and downs."

Not getting his due

In the 1920s, House took up both preaching and the blues at about the same time in rural Mississippi, and his life embodied the conflict between those two worlds. He never seemed entirely at ease in either one.

His music hasn't been as celebrated in the last few decades as Robert Johnson's. As a teenager, Johnson tagged around after House and Charley Patton in Mississippi, begging them to teach him their songs. Watching the wonderful 1960s-era TV clips of House available on YouTube, it's hard to understand why he was so eclipsed.

Beaumont cites a small group of 1960s blues fans who anointed Johnson the father of the blues. "They mythologized (Johnson)," says Beaumont, who scorns the oft-cited story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 (in Mississippi) to earn musical immortality .

"(Johnson) died young (at age 27) and therefore he couldn't talk back. He became a screen on which they could project their fantasies. There's been so much nonsense written about him. If you asked (House) about Johnson selling his soul to the devil, nothing would make him clam up faster."

Many high-profile rock musicians — among them Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin — helped stoke the Johnson legend. But House has his own high-profile musician admirer in Detroit's own Jack White and the White Stripes, who recorded a molten version of his song "Death Letter Blues."

In the documentary film "It Might Get Loud," White declares House's song "Grinnin' in Your Face" to be his favorite record of all time. "This spoke to me in a thousand different ways," White said. "I didn't know that you could do that to singing and clapping, and it meant everything, everything about rock and roll, about expression, creativity and art. One man against the world, in one song."

'Intense' performer

Mississippi juke joints were rough in the '20s; House was convicted of killing a man at a "frolic" outside Clarksdale (he claimed self-defense) and served time on a prison farm. Released in 1930, he settled in Lula, Miss., where he struck up a friendship with bluesman Charley Patton. Patton brought him along to a Paramount Records recording session in Grafton, Miss., and House's recording career was launched.

House's style was to play slide guitar with a bottleneck; he had a strong, pleasing voice, and his songs all had a cohesive story. (He would often chide Patton for playing songs that didn't have a logical narrative.)

"The single word people always used about Son House, I found, was 'intense,'" Beaumont says.

In "Preachin' the Blues," Beaumont describes how House came to be rediscovered during the folk/blues boom of the 1960s by three young east coast folk fans. Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls set off in a Volkswagen Beetle to find House and other 1930s bluesmen in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, a dangerous time for young northerners to be wandering around in the tense, segregated state. The three were in the same area where three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, were murdered in late June.

But by then Waterman, Spiro and Perls were on their way to upstate New York where they'd tracked House, who had moved to Rochester to follow a girlfriend, despite being married to the long-suffering Evie since the '30s. The three discovered a reserved older man, perplexed at their interest in his old music.

"He must have thought those guys came from Mars," Beaumont says.

Career revival

Under the direction of Waterman, who managed him, and guitarist Al Wilson (later of Canned Heat), who helped him relearn his old songs, House got back into performing his blues live. Waterman booked him on a steady stream of college and coffeehouse gigs that made the bluesman some decent money, although he was overwhelmed at having to continually monitor House's alcohol consumption.

Beaumont argues that because House influenced Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf so profoundly and through them, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck, he is a vital thread in popular music that would have been lost had Waterman and company not found him.

"At that point, he was the most important survivor and witness to the movement that was about to change popular music," says Beaumont.

Suffering from dementia and other ailments, House ended up in Detroit in 1976 because his wife, Evie, found it increasingly hard to care for him and needed the help of her children, based in Detroit.

A passage from the book describes two young blues fans who made a pilgrimage in 1981 to see House in Detroit. They found that dementia had rendered him almost mute. It was a brief, uncomfortable visit in which Evie lectured them about the sins of music. But as they were leaving, House leaned forward and sang, "Don'tcha mind people grinnin' in your face…"

Son House monument

When Son House died in 1988, he was buried in a modest grave at Mt. Hazel cemetery in Detroit, with a marker that didn't acknowledge his role as a blues musician.

In the 1990s, House's former manager Dick Waterman contacted a friend in Detroit, Detroit Blues (now Big City Blues) magazine publisher Robert Whitall Jr. to ask if he knew where House was buried. The Rev. Robert Jones helped steer Whitall to the gravesite. Whitall and a group including Jimmy Lessnau of Sully's in Dearborn and George Seedorf held a series of fundraisers, including a Sully's concert in 1994, to raise money for a Son House Memorial Fund.

Finally, in 1997 a black African stone monument was installed at Son House's grave, complete with photo and inscription by Waterman. There fans can read about the blues achievements of the musician who lived so quietly in our midst.

swhitall@detnews.com

He is in my opinion THE GREATEST BLUESMAN TO WALK THE EARTH.

He's a legend tbh I don't see whats so special about RJ Son House is just so godlike

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Robert Johnson died young and under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He was then adopted as the spiritual and musical leader by the 60's British Blues guys. Legends either deserved or not always get the most publicity.

There are a ton of Delta Blues legends though, Son House being one of the best of them all. Mississippi John Hurt is another, so is Bukka White..........

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This is one of my favorite Joe B songs- thanks for posting!

(And if this was from the Saturday night Beacon show I was there :) )

You should get to re-live that show sometime in January as the DVD recording of those shows will be released. Will we see you somewhere on there?

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That was a very good cover. Looked up some tracks of theirs, good stuff.

They've opened for Drive-By Truckers and the North Mississippi All-Stars on a lot of dates in the past few months but I have a feeling that by this time next year (if not sooner), they'll be headlining their own shows. I saw them open for the North Mississippi All-Stars at the Lincoln in Raleigh a month or so ago and they blew the roof off of the dump. They'll be playing the third night of the Truckers' three night NYE run at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC on the 31st along with Booker T. That should be one for the ages. BTW, in case you haven't run across it yet, the Alabama Shakes' debut EP is streaming at Bandcamp.com.

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