Preaching And The Blues: The Folk Blues Career of Son House Page 2

Waterman arranged for House to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts and begin practicing, trying to relearn his old repertoire with the help of Alan Wilson, soon to be a founding member of Canned Heat. The goal was to help House to become a viable performer on the “folk blues” circuit which Watermen knew meant playing solo acoustic blues in the style of the Paramount and Lomax recordings. House performing more contemporary songs, like “Hello Dolly” which he seemed to like, or only gospel songs and no blues at all would not have been accepted by the young white audience. The electric guitar that House spotted in a Cambridge music store and yearned to use instead of the National, was not purchased by Waterman “because the musicologists and traditionalists would have run me out of town.” Later, Waterman was to comment tellingly, “Al Wilson taught Son House to play Son House.” Wilson, in letters written at the time, described House’s condition; “Son arrived in Cambridge with an old age tremor, making guitar playing impossible unless he was drunk. When drunk he was a gas musically but otherwise incoherent, totally unable to handle a crowd. We put him on medication which helped some…” Wilson described a trial gig at a folk club, “…when sober he was pathetic. When he was drunk, he played the best blues I have heard… [but] gave the crowd ten-minute sermons which were not only nonsensical but nearly unintelligible and took as long as five minutes to tune his guitar.”

Alan Wilson
In early July, Newsweek ran a story announcing House’s rediscovery and that he would be performing at the Newport Folk Festival. Somehow, country blues had become national news. House became ill, was hospitalized, and did not perform at Newport. When he heard of it, Wilson wrote, “Even before this catastrophe, Son was tired, homesick and puzzled, and I guess he must be completely out of it by now… Son is still mentally alert and musically vital, but with age has acquired a certain pathos… Death is an obsession, at least when he drinks.” After he got out of the hospital, House continued to practice intensely with Wilson, and in a few weeks, he had relearned most of his repertoire. Medication was lessening the effects of the tremor so that he could perform while drinking less. “At first, I didn’t feel like I should fool with it because my memory of all the old songs had gone from me. It had been sixteen [sic] years or more since I’d fooled with it and I felt that nobody wanted to hear that old stuff they used to play… I haven’t got it back perfect like I could then, but I keep getting a little better and better.”

Another deacon, he says, Sister, why don’t you hush?”
The other deacon says, “Why don’t ya hush?”
You know you drinks corn liquor and wears a Harlem skirt

On August 4, 1964, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, the murdered civil rights workers, were found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. They were all shot, but Chaney, a black man, was brutally beaten and castrated as well. The resulting horror and outrage is credited with helping to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (since gutted by SCOTUS-Ed.

House made his rediscovery debut at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, August 28- 30, 1964, playing before a crowd of several thousand, made up almost entirely of young white people who listened politely and applauded dutifully. House’s music must have seemed strange to the audience and they equally strange to him. He had never played for more than a few dozen people before and they had been black people, many of whom probably knew him personally, drinking and dancing, urging him on, laughing and yelling out the lyrics, completing the verses before he sang them because they knew them all so well and they understood all the slang and what he was singing about because it was their music—the blues. Now, up north in 1964, far from Mississippi, far from those bygone days and far from the jukes and fish fries, the white people sat and stared at him like he was the two-headed calf in the medicine show. Why were they even listening to him? It wasn’t their music. He had become an educational curiosity; the “Delta Blues” exhibit in the “Folk Museum.” Whether he wanted to be or not, he wasn’t a “blues” singer anymore, now he was a “folk blues” singer which meant a blues singer for the white people and he would soon be crowned “The Father of Folk Blues.” It must have been a perplexing and lonely life.

Son House, Dick Waterman, Philadelphia, ‘64
You know, I grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
Grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
I say, “Farewell, farewell Church, may the good Lord bless your soul.”

The prospects were not propitious for Son House to have a successful career as a “folk blues” musician like the one Mississippi John Hurt, a much more stable, well-balanced person and a more accessible musician, was then currently enjoying. Hurt was not only a brilliant guitarist but had a charming, easy-going stage presence. His music was tuneful, rhythmic, low key and pleasant. He was very popular with young folkies who made learning some of his pieces rites of passage. House’s music was dark, harsh, frequently tortured and so personal as to be inimitable. He was an erratic and unnerving performer, not only due to his alcoholism but also because he was profoundly uncomfortable singing blues.

There was a conflict in House that tortured him and probably contributed to his alcoholism, that he could never resolve and allowed for no compromise—God or the Devil, the Church or the Blues. Playing the blues for House, the Baptist, was unholy and could only lead to damnation. When Perls, Waterman, and Spiro offered House the possibility of a blues singing career, they didn’t know it, but they were tempting him with a Faustian bargain—money, admiration, fame in exchange for his soul. One, that given his poverty, lack of education and nonmusical skills, he could hardly have refused.

The stress on House’s psyche during his performing career must have been enormous and his regret that he had accepted this bargain was evident in his every performance. The surviving videos and eyewitness accounts make clear that House, or at least some part of him, did not want to be on a stage singing blues. The normal, “let me endear myself to the audience” stage patter of polished performers was not something House was capable of. Instead, he preached long rambling sermons between songs, their comprehensibility dependent on his alcohol consumption.

Onstage, he would often seem confused, almost distraught, like he was in some terrible situation that he had no control over, look upward as if praying, make a non sequitur reference to a Bible passage and then launch into a blues with incredible power, intensity, and emotional command, completely transported to that transcendent place where only the very greatest can go to. At the end, he would hammer out the last chords on his National and then collapse forward exhausted, come back to himself, seeming to shrink, and he was again a confused and rueful old man, embarrassed by what had come over him. He would intersperse religious songs among the blues, always seemed more comfortable singing them and while doing so, he remained that old man. They were heartfelt but lacked the primal, transformative fury of his blues.

In a 1969 performance video, House introduces “Preachin’ Blues” with a near five minute monologue during which he seems to be pleading his case before God. In part, he says, “After I went to doing wrong, I know right ain’t wrong. Wrong ain’t right. You gotta be one or the other. You’re a friend or an enemy. It’s God and the Devil. You can’t sit straddle of the fence and hold to. You gotta give up one side or the other, to make it plain. (He seems overcome by emotion and is nearly whispering. He covers his eyes with his hand.) So, well, I meant to do a little wrong, but I didn’t give up on God. Now, well, since I did go back to playing… (He looks up and struggles to speak.) Make a peace (piece?) about… oh… the Preachin’ Blues…. ” Then he performs a fiery version of “Preachin’ Blues” mercilessly mocking the Baptist Church, churchgoers, and of course himself. House, the preacher and pastor, knew what singing such songs would cost him. For House, the barrelhousing rounder and blues singer, the blues wasn’t a career or entertainment but a deep, personal expression of rage against the religion that told him and made him believe that salvation and heaven were real but far away and probably not for him, that life was to be suffered through to get there, that all the pleasures of life were the snares and traps of divine punishment and that the person he knew himself to be who craved all those pleasures and had sinned, was damned. It was this rage that fueled his passion. Every time he sang the blues, he became that wild and fierce spirit that hated God and religion and was the greatest of all the Delta Blues singers but had also killed two men, the damned person, the “Son House” that “Preacher House” hated and suppressed. Every performance was an exhausting struggle between the two of them.

Son House Performing, Seattle 1969
Then, I say I wished I had me a heaven of my own
Yeah, I wished I had me a heaven of my own
You know, I’d give all my women a long, long, happy home

Dick Waterman became his manager and worked diligently and efficiently to get House booked into the folk clubs, concerts and festivals. House was a difficult client and undependable because of his alcoholism. A blues writer on the scene at the time referred to House as a “hapless derelict.” Waterman once had to turn down a career-boosting five nights at the Fillmore opening for Delaney and Bonnie with Eric Clapton, because House had drunkenly passed out in a snowbank and developed frostbitten fingers. He could not travel alone and his alcohol consumption had to be strictly limited and monitored so that he could perform. But with Waterman’s help, House managed to have a modestly successful career on the club and festival circuit in the US and Europe, despite his alcoholism and near debilitating unease about performing. In 1974, House began displaying signs of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and stopped touring. He lived in Rochester and then Detroit with his wife until he died in 1988.

Stories that end with a moral are satisfying and we like them, but happy endings are best. Three young men go to search for an elderly and legendary blues singer, they find him, help him overcome various obstacles, and establish a successful career. When he walks out onto the stage of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, carrying his guitar, the audience rises to applaud his triumphant return, and the credits roll. That’s a nice story and even true as far as it’s told. But it’s not this story, which is more complicated. House’s “folk blues” career did allow him to attain some comfort and security for himself and his wife which he would never have been able to do otherwise and for that might be counted a success. Still, in 1977, when asked about his blues career for a television interview at his apartment, he said “Well after I started to do it, got to do it, went to doing it with a success and went on in there and then I wasn’t too satisfied. No way. An unsatisfied life.” A few minutes later, he was singing and playing the blues for the camera with undiminished passion. “I’m preaching on this side and the blues on that side. I says, well, just put ‘em together and name it ‘Preachin’ Blues.’” “Son House” and “Preacher House” there would never be an end to their struggle.

What is best for art and what is best for the artist, sometimes are not the same. Being a great artist can be a curse and a tragic and sad destiny. House was one of the cursed. His art might bring him the small reward of a modest lifestyle but never peace or self-satisfaction. If he had remained in Rochester, he might have stayed in the church, kept sober, and enjoyed whatever amount of happiness he was capable of. Then again, maybe not. Returning to blues singing meant that he would certainly not go back to the church, that he would keep drinking and be tormented by guilt. Only House could say whether his folk blues career was worth the cost, but like the choice between God or the Devil, the Blues or the Church, he was profoundly conflicted and could never make up his mind. Those of us who listen in 2020, maybe we are like Perls, Waterman, and Spiro in 1964, we love the music of Son House and wish there were more, but should contemplate the cost to him to play blues. But House did return to the blues and the recordings that exist, and I admit I wish there were more, contain music of such heartrending beauty and sadness that awe and gratitude can be the only response.

You know, I’m gonna preach these blues
And I’m gonna choose my seat and sit down
I say when the spirit comes, I want y’all to jump straight up and down

[Note: all song quotes are from the Father of Folk Blues Columbia LP version of “Preachin’ Blues.”]


rshak47's picture

Can't wait to read Part 2.

Steelhead's picture

Very enjoyable and nicely researched article.

Timely for this listener as I just spun the AP vinyl copy of Father of the Folk Blues and what a great spin.

My copy is superb, flat, quiet, and wonderful detail and depth.


DeepSix's picture

What an enjoyable piece. Thank you! It is a pity that he didn't get to play the electric guitar, which he had wanted to use. Is there any particular reason why the 1941/42 recordings are not there in the records list? It is one of my personal favourites and the few tracks where he appears with a small string band are fascinating.

Happy Will's picture

Maybe one day you will get your wish with Living Legends - Verve are you listening?

And maybe Columbia will go back the their "Father.. Complete 1965 Sessions" and do the same magic Chad did with the original album, which IMO is a "must have" record. Alas the Vinyl Me, Please issue of the Complete Sessions is very dissapointing and the SQ just lost something critical (maybe in the original digital transfers?), and my vague recollection of the Pure Pleasure double lp was the same (it went straight into my resale box and left me wondering what the fuss was about.

Tasingegade's picture

This is a fantastic article, well written and fascinating story and it adds so much to learn this history when listening to his music. Joseph, Michael et al., would love to read more articles like this. The gear is a means to an ends, this is a good reminder of what matters in music making.

JohnG's picture

...for this enjoyable and excellent article.

zimmer74's picture

at a kind of folk concert, part of the"Winterfest" celebration at the John Hynes Auditorium in Boston. Mimi & Richard Farina (just a few months before his untimely death), Phil Ochs, the Chambers Brothers (when they were still a gospel group), and amazingly, Sgt. Barry Sadler, who had just had a Top 40 hit with "Ballad of the Green Berets." I had never heard of Son House. Anyway, sitting in the fourth row, the intensity of his performance was unforgettable, harrowing at the time.

mdt's picture

More articles like these, please.

Jonnyg's picture

Saw Son House at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He was so obviously drunk, he wasn’t coherent. It was a very sad thing to see.

Jim Tavegia's picture

You can find a few tracks on the Lomax archive page if you search House, Eddie (Son).

Jim Tavegia's picture
RVG Edition's picture

There is a great interview of Stefan Grossman on YouTube where he shares some insightful stories about his experience with Son House (Remembrances of Son House with Stefan Grossman). If you enjoy that, there are more interviews with him sharing stories about Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and others. Very highly recommended.

GuitarNut's picture

Fascinating read, thanks.

kruhlin's picture

Thanks for passing this on. Well done!

kruhlin's picture

Thanks for passing this on. Well done!

Fsonicsmith's picture

is among the very best every published on this site and there have been a lot of very fine ones. Thank you.