Delta Blues

Jenni WernerLiterary Director, Geva TheaterInterview
Dan BeaumontAuthor of Preachin'
the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House
Steve GrillsMusicianInterview
Son House Levee Camp Moan Son House With Studs Terkel, Chicago 1965
Son House Don't Mind People Grinnin' In Your Face Son House With Studs Terkel, Chicago 1965
Son House My Black Mama, Pt. 1Blues Images Vol. 2
Son House My Black Mama, Pt. 2Blues Images Vol. 2
Son House Death LetterFather of the Delta Blues
Son House Mississippi County Farm Blues Blues Images Vol. 4
Son House Walkin' Blues Legends of Country Blues
Son House Louise McGee Father of the Delta Blues
Son House Empire State ExpressSon House With Studs Terkel, Chicago 1965
Son House Pony BluesLegends of Country Blues
Son House Preachin' The Blues Part 1Legends of Country Blues
Son House The Jinx Blues Part 1 The Real Delta Blues
Son House Delta Blues Screamin' & Hollerin' The Blues

Show Notes:Son House Geva Banner

This week Geva Theatre presents Journey to the Son: A Celebration of Son House from August 26 through August 29th. The four-day festival weaves together music, theatre, film, audio recordings, storytelling and lectures to celebrate the life of Son House. There will be musical performances by John Hammond, John Mooney, Chris Thomas King, Joe Beard, Steve Grills as well as musical workshops. Another highlight will be the dedication of an official Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Friday, August 28 near the site where Son House resided in the Corn Hill Neighborhood of Rochester. There will also be the debut of the play, Revival: The Resurrection of Son House, by Keith Glover. In addition there will be lectures by author Dan Beaumont, Son's old manager, Dick Waterman, and Jim O'Neal founder of Living Blues magazine. On today's show we  have several folks involved in this event in the studio including Geva's Literary Director Jenni Werner, Dan Beaumont author of Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, and musician Steve Grills.

When I was a teenager discovering the blues one of the first albums that really captivated me was Son House's Death Letter – I still have it – (the UK equivalent of Father of the Folk Blues), his stunning return to the studio after dropping out of sight for nearly twenty-five years. As author Dan Beaumont wrote: "In 1943 Son House left Mississippi, and, for all that is known of his life over the course of the next twenty-one years, he may well have fallen off the face of the earth. But this he did not do-instead he did the next best thing. He moved to Rochester, New York." As a teenager living in the Bronx I too knew nothing of Rochester outside the fact it was in some nether region of New York State – the farthest I had been was the Catskills, one hundred miles upstate. But as I read Dick Waterman's liner notes, Rochester and the address 61 Greig Street was burned in my memory. That was where Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls finally tracked Son down on June 23rd, 1964. Waterman became Son's manager and the following year he was signed to Columbia and played the Newport Folk Festival. Son had several good years on the comeback trail; he toured the US playing folk festivals and the coffeehouse circuit and did tours of Europe as well. He also performed locally in Rochester at several different venues, all of which are long shuttered. Memories of Son's local performances are vividly burned into the memories of all who had a chance to witness him in action.

Son House rediscovery
The men who found Son House: Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, Son House, Phil Spiro.
Photo taken June 23, 1964 in front of 61 Greig Street.

Son's rediscovery in Rochester was newsworthy, making it into Newsweek, Downbeat and the May 29, 1965 edition of the Rochester afternoon newspaper, The Times-Union, with a story titled Son House Records Blues Again and a follow-up article and interview in July titled Hunt for 'Blues' Singer Of Thirties Ends in City. It must have been a bit bewildering to Son who was living a very low-key life in Rochester as Dan Beaumont notes: "There for twenty one years he lived amidst almost total obscurity. Indeed, what is known of his life in that city from 1943 to 1964 is so slight, so slender, that his biographer's task becomes well nigh impossible."

I came to Rochester in the late 1980's for college and have been up here ever since. Over the years I met numerous people who fondly recalled Son House and when I started doing my yearly radio birthday tributes to Son, it brought more people out of the woodwork who gladly shared their memories with me. So it's puzzling that the City has never honored Son in any way. At least Cab Calloway (born in Rochester in 1907) has a plaque honoring him, albeit tucked away on a nondescript side street in an equally nondescript park. For years myself and others thought someone should rectify this sorry state of affairs; a plaque, a statue or something to honor one of the pivotal figures in blues history, a major influence on both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and who's recordings are among the most powerful in blues history. It would be a shame to let Son's memory slip back to the years before he was rediscovered in Rochester, but the sad fact is there was nothing tangible that shows he ever made this city his home for a good part of his life (1943-1976). This year finally marks a change as a Mississippi Blues Trail marker (only the 13th outside of Mississippi) will be dedicated to Son at the Corner of Grieg and Clarissa St., close to the spot where he was rediscovered. Son's actual residence at the time, 61 Grieg Street, no longer exists, a causality of urban renewal.

Son House Times-Union
Article from Rochester's Times-Union, July 14, 1964

Back in 2007 myself and others launched the modest Hot Blues For The Homeless concert which evolved into Hot Blues For The Homeless …A Tribute To Son House. The concert was successful, raised a good amount of money for the Rochester homeless and raised some local awareness of Son House with good coverage in the local media. Out of the concert rose the Son House Apartments which provide housing for the homeless. After a few years I got burned out on the project but I'm glad a major institution like the Geva is picking up the torch.


Sonny Boy Williamson IIMr. Down ChildCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Joe Willie WilkinsMr. Down ChildJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Sonny Boy Williamson IICool, Cool BluesCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIEyesight To The BlindCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIWest Memphis Blues Cool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Albert WilliamsHoodoo ManSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Albert WilliamsRhumba ChillenSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Honeyboy EdwardsSweet Home ChicagoSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Willie NixSeems Like A Million YearsSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Willie NixBakershop Boogie Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Joe Willie WilkinsMe & The Devil BluesJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Joe Willie WilkinsSad LetterJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Sonny Boy Williamson IIStop Crying Cool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IICome Back HomeCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IINine Below ZeroCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Joe Willie WilkinsWalkin' Blues/Feel Like Goin' HomeJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Joe Willie WilkinsIt's Too BadJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup Gotta Find My BabyCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Willie Love Everybody's Fishing Cool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson III Cross My HeartCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIStop NowCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIPontiac BluesCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Roosevelt Sykes She's Jailbait Roosevelt Sykes Vol .10 1951-1957
Roosevelt Sykes Sputnik BabyRoosevelt Sykes Vol .10 1951-1957
Houston StackhouseCrying Won't Help YouMemphis Blues Caravan Vol. I
Charlie BookerNew Moonrise BluesMemphis Blues Caravan Vol. II
Sonny Boy Williamson IICat HopCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIShe Brought Life Back To The DeadCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Houston Stackhouse Cool Drink Of Water The Devil's Music
Houston Stackhouse Mean Red SpiderThe Devil's Music
Joe Willie WilkinsHucklefingerJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys

Show Notes:

Joe Willie Wilkins
Joe Willie Wilkins, Ann Arbor, 1973. Photo by Sandy Sutherland.

Joe Willie Wilkins spent the majority of his career in the shadows as a session guitarist, playing behind Sonny boy Williamson II, Willie Love, Will Nix among others and off record with bluesmen such as Robert Lockwood Jr., Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, Walter Horton and others. Through his studio contributions, his time broadcasting on King Biscuit Time on KFFA and out of West Memphis on WDIA, and the sheer number of bluesman he worked with throughout the Delta, Wilkins exerted a sizable influence despite never cutting records under his own name until the 70's. Those who cite him as an influence include Pat Hare, Little Milton, Jimmy Rogers and Brewer Phillips. He stepped out of the shadows in the 70's performing at festivals, making television appearances and a long overdue full-length album. As Luigi Monge wrote in the Encyclopedia of the Blues: “Wilkins incorporated in his playing the intensity of downhome blues, the elegance of jazz, and the power of urban sounds. His achievement transcends the quantity of recordings he left and has more to do with quality and originality.” And as his supporter Jim O'Neal wrote: “One of the greatest blues guitarists Memphis has ever known”-

The only child of Frank Wilkins, an accomplished bottleneck guitarist, Joe Willie became interested in music at a very early age.Wilkinswas born just southwest of Clarksdale in a tiny spot known as Davenport, Mississippi. Wilkins taught himself harmonica and often played with his father at local parties and dances in the Bobo, Mississippi, area, where his family had moved in 1933 to work on a farm. After being taught some fiddle by "Fiddlin’" Sam Harris and accordion by Walter "Pat" Rhodes, Wilkins learned guitar from his father, the members in his band, and phonograph records so well that he was nicknamed "The Walking Seeburg" after a brand of jukebox). His musical education was also enhanced by meeting several musicians around Clarksdale including Muddy Waters, Robert Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller).

After playing in the Mississippi streets and barrelhouses with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller) and Robert Lockwood, Wilkins briefly served in the U.S. Navy. From 1942 he regularly participated with his mentors and other fellow musicians in the famous radio program King Biscuit Time over KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and with Robert Nighthawk (whose sister he married) in the Bright Star Flour show. At the end of the decade Wilkins often toured the South with a group known as the Four Aces (Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Love, Willie Nix). Wilkins moved to West Memphis in 1948 where he played with local musicians and met B.B. King whom broadcast with.

King Biscuit Time

Wilkins first entered a studio as late as 1951, when he played guitar on the first recordings Sonny Boy Williamson II made for Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, where Wilkins acted as house guitarist for two years. Wilkins backed Sonny Boy on ten sides in 1951, four sides in 1952 and final three sides in 1953. One of the songs was “Mr. Down Child” a Robert Johnson composition that he never recorded. It was Robert Lockwood who transposed the song and taught it to Sonny Boy who recorded it on December 4th 1951. Lockwood recorded his version in 1973. It seemed to be a favorite of Wilkins' who cut the song as the b-side of his first 45 for the Mimosa label in 1973, another version was cut for Wilkins' debut album and another version appears on the soundtrack fro the BBC TV series The Devil's Music.

During the 50's Wilkins backed several artists at Sun studios including Willie Nix, Honeyboy Edwards and Albert Williams. The Edwards and Williams sides were unissued at the time. Wilkins said he tried a session of his own for the label but lacked confidence and nothing ever materialized.  Nix's "Seems Like A Million Years b/w Baker Shop Boogie" was issued as a 78 by the label. Nix toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels Shows as a dancing comedian in the 30's and during the early '40s, performed on streets and parks around Memphis. In 1947, Nix appeared with Robert Lockwood, Jr. on a Little Rock radio station and subsequently worked with Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Love and Joe Willie Wilkins as the Four Aces. Nix joined B.B. King and Joe Hill Louis for appearances on Memphis radio, and worked with The Beale Streeters during the late '40s. He made his first records in Memphis for RPM in 1951, and cut sides for Chess Records' Checker offshoot in 1952. Sam Philips signed him up as "the Memphis Blues Boy" for Sun in early 1953, as a singing drummer with a band, and he later cut sides for the Chance label in Chicago.

Willie Nix & Joe Willie Wilkins
Joe Willie Wilkins & Willie Nix from Blues
Unlimited #120, courtesy Steve La Vere

In 1959 Wilkins' father died and Joe Willie moved from West Memphis to Memphis, where he worked mostly outside music until about 1970. Despite bad health, Wilkins took up guitar again as a result of his wife Carrie’s encouragement and of blues writer and promoter Jim O’Neal’s support, often playing with Houston Stackhouse. Wilkins formed his King Biscuit Boys group featuring the ever present Stackhouse and a changing line up that included harp players Boy Blue and Sonny Blake and guitarist Clarence Nelson. Wilkins made appearances at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, the Memphis River City Blues Festival and worked as part of the Memphis Blues Caravan, a traveling show made up of first generation bluesmen such as Sleepy John Esets, Bukka White, Furry Lewis and others. Performances appear on the albums Memphis Blues Caravan Vol. I & II.

In 1973 Steve LaVere’s Mimosa label released Wilkins’s first recordings under his own name, a 45, “It's Too Bad b/w "Mr. Downchild.” A full-length album titled Joe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys was released by Adamo that included some live performances and studio recordings. In 1976 Wilkins also played the Monterrey Jazz Festival and appeared in the BBC Television series The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. Wilkins passed March 28, 1979 in Memphis.

Related Articles:

Joe Willie Wilkins Obituary by Cilla Huggins (Blues Unlimited 134, March/June 1979) [PDF]


Leroy CarrMean Mistreater MamaWhiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave
Robert JohnsonKind Hearted Woman BluesThe Centennial Edition
Elijah WaldRobert Johnson InfluencesInterview
Kokomo ArnoldSissy Man BluesBack To The Crossroads
Johnnie TempleLead Pencil BluesBack To The Crossroads
Robert JohnsonI Believe I'll Dust My BroomThe Centennial Edition
Calvin Frazier I'm In The Highway, ManMotor City Blues
Elmore JamesDust My BroomThe Complete Early Years
Robert LockwoodDust My BroomSweet Home Chicago
Larry CohnRobert Johnson Reissues & Box SetInterview
Kokomo ArnoldOld Original Kokomo BluesBack To The Crossroads
Robert JohnsonSweet Home ChicagoThe Centennial Edition
Honeyboy EdwardsSweet Home Chicago Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Larry CohnThe Complete RecordingsInterview
Robert JohnsonRamblin' On My MindThe Centennial Edition
Johnnie ShinesRamblin' Sweet Home Chicago
Tampa RedThing 'Bout Coming My WayBack To The Crossroads
Robert JohnsonCome On In My KitchenThe Centennial Edition
Son HousePreachin' The Blues Pt. 1Screamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Robert JohnsonPreachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)The Centennial Edition
Muddy WatersCountry Blues #1/Interview The Complete Plantation Recordings
Hambone Willie NewbernRoll And Tumble BluesBack To The Crossroads
Robert JohnsonTraveling Riverside BluesThe Centennial Edition
Robert JohnsonIf I Had Possession Over Judgment DayThe Centennial Edition
Skip JamesDevil Got My WomanBlues images Vol. 3
Elijah WaldRobert Johnson & Skip JamesInterview
Robert JohnsonHell Hound On My Trail The Centennial Edition
Robert JohnsonCross Road BluesThe Centennial Edition
Larry CohnIn The StudioInterview
Robert JohnsonMe And The Devil Blues BluesThe Centennial Edition
Robert JohnsonStones In My PasswayThe Centennial Edition
Robert JohnsonFrom Four Until LateThe Centennial Edition
Elijah WaldRobert Johnson In ContextInterview
Leroy CarrWhen The Sun Goes DownBack To The Crossroads
Robert JohnsonLove In Vain BluesThe Centennial Edition

Show Notes:

You'll notice there's no Robert Johnson photo in this week's show notes . Well there was, but Steve LaVere has come knocking demanding payment for use of the photo (see the comments). LaVere was the administrator of the Johnson estate for many years and continues to earn his 50 percent (another Johnson relative earns the other half). LaVere is a much loathed figure in the blues world who's made a pretty penny from a brilliant musician who probably never had two nickels to rub together and died in a paupers grave.

Unfortunately this obsession on every minutiae of Johnson’s life has taken away the focus on his very real talents and perhaps more importantly this lopsided focus on Johnson has obscured the fact that he was very much part of a tradition; his music firmly built on the artists who came before like Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red who don’t get a shred of the acclaim that Johnson does. As we've heard endlessly, 2011 marks the centennial of Johnson's birth which means the Johnson hysteria ramps up all over again. Still, I thought it was important to pay tribute to Johnson, who despite the hype, cut some terrific records and ranks as one of the best of the era. After not really listening to Johnson much I've been listening to him quite a bit in preparation for this show and I almost forgot how much I enjoyed his music. In addition there's a brand new Johnson collection, The Centennial Collection, a 2-CD set of everything he recorded in the best sound to date. All today's Johnson songs come from that collection. Today's show attempts to put Johnson in his proper historical context, playing many artists who directly influenced his songs like Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Skip James, Hambone Willie Newbern, Son House among others plus those directly influenced by Johnson like Robert Lockwood, Johnny shines an others. In addition we air interviews by Larry Cohn, who produced the landmark Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings and Elijah Wald author of Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.

I'm not going to go into Johnson's biography as there's plenty written on that already but I thought it worth quoting Tony Russell's perceptive view: "To see Johnson clearly the reader needs to steer a steady course between fanatics and debunkers, understanding the context of his music – the undeniable influence of House and Lonnie Johnson, his many allusions to records that were around him when he was learning his trade – but at the same time recognizing the skill with which he synthesized those elements, and the wholly individual character of much of his finished work. In particular, Johnson deserve to be acknowledged as the master of the complete blues:  the son conceived as a dramatic whole rather than am arbitrary sequence of scenes, of verses casually pinned to a formulaic accompaniment. Th emotional architecture of a performance like 'Come On In My Kitchen', the tender erotic plea echoed by tremulous slide guitar, or of 'Hellhound On My Trail', a distraught, fragmented reconsideration of Skip James's 'Devil Got My Woman',; the intricate interdependence of voice and guitar in 'Walkin' Blues' and 'Preachin' Blues' – all this attests to a concept of blues composition that was beyond the scope of many of Johnson's contemporaries."

"Kind Hearted Woman Blues" was the first song that Johnson recorded, and it was carefully crafted in imitation of recent hit records. It was composed as if in answer to "Cruel Hearted Woman Blues" by Bumble Bee Slim, which in turn was based on "Mean Mistreater Mama" by Leroy Carr accompanied by Scrapper Blackwell. Johnson uses the Carr melody and his guitar accompaniment echoes Carr's piano phrases in the first verse, then copies Blackwell's guitar phrases in the second verse. He then adds a musical bridge in the style of another hit record, "Milk Cow Blues" by Kokomo Arnold. "Love In Vain Blues" was another number derived from Carr. "Love in Vain" takes its musical structure from Carr's classic "When the Sun Goes Down". In the 1991 documentary film The Search for Robert Johnson, John Hammond plays Robert's recording of "Love in Vain" for the elderly Willie Mae Powell, the woman for whom it was supposedly written. Johnson moans "Oh, Willie Mae" in his last verse.

"I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" was the second song that Johnson recorded, immediately after "Kind Hearted Woman Blues". Unlike the many versions by other musicians, Johnson's original accompaniment was finger picked, and not played as a bottleneck or slide guitar. Leroy Carr’s original hit was "I Believe I’ll Make A Change" recorded in August 1934. Kokomo Arnold used the tune for two records: "Sagefield Woman Blues" recorded in September 1934 and "Sissy Man Blues" recorded in January 1935. It seems likely that Johnson owned and studied both of Arnold’s records. Another possibility is that Johnson heard Arnold in person performing a number of verses to this melody. However, Edward Komara suggests that Johnson may have begun developing his version of the song as early as 1933, since it had already been recorded by the Sparks Brothers as "I Believe I'll Make A Change" in 1932 and by Jack Kelly as "Believe I'll Go Back Home" in 1933. Arnold's version a borrows a verse from "Mr Carl’s Blues" recorded by Carl Rafferty in December 1933.The melody is somewhat different, but Paul Oliver considers it to be the same song. "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" was not covered until Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's 1949 recording entitled "Dust My Broom". In 1951, Robert Lockwood recorded "Dust My Broom" for J.O.B. on March 22 and for Mercury on November 15. Also in 1951, Elmore James made his first recording of "Dust My Broom" for the Trumpet Records label.

When celebrated bluesman Robert Johnson turned up at his mother’s door, the young Lockwood found a mentor. "He followed my momma home," Lockwood explained. "That’s how I first met him, followed my momma home. And she couldn’t get rid of him. He wouldn’t leave. He hung around there and hung around there. And he and my momma stayed together off and on for ten years." In fact, Johnson is considered by many to have been Lockwood’s stepfather. "He taught me how to play," Lockwood told the Plain Dealer. "I really appreciate that. … He didn’t like people to fool with his instrument. [But] he didn’t seem to mind me fooling with it."

Johnny Shines moved from Tennessee to Hughes, Arkansas in 1932 and worked on farms for three years putting his musical career on hold. It was this chance meeting with Robert Johnson, his greatest influence, that gave him the inspiration to return to music. In 1935, Shines began traveling with Johnson, touring the south and heading as far north as Ontario where they appeared on a local radio program. The two went their separate ways in 1937, one year before Johnson's death.

Like Shines, Calvin Frazier was another running partner of Johnson's. Frazier was born in Osceola, Arkansas, and originally performed with his own brothers. Befriending Johnny Shines, in 1930 they jointly travelled to Helena, Arkansas where they met Robert Johnson. The threesome moved on to Detroit, Michigan, performing hymns on local radio stations. Frazier and Johnson returned south where they played along with the drummer, James 'Peck' Curtis. In 1938, he was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. His recordings included "Lily Mae", a revised version of Johnson's "Honeymoon Blues","Highway 51", a version of "Dust My Broom" and "I'm In The Highway, Man" a version of Terraplane Blues."

"Ramblin' On My Mind" uses the melody made popular by the hit record "M & O Blues" by Walter Davis. Johnson composed two songs to this melody "Ramblin' On My Mind" and "When You Got A Good Friend." We play this back to with Shines' powerful 1951 update, "Ramblin'. cut for the JOB label.

Scrapper Blackwell recorded "Kokomo Blues" in 1928 which was transformed into "Old Kokomo Blues" by Kokomo Arnold before being redone as "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson. The song also has roots in the 1927 Madlyn Davis song "Kokola Blues" and Jabo Williams 1932 song "Ko Ko Mo Blues." Tommy McClennan's "Baby Don't You Want To Go" (1939) and Walter Davis' "Don't You Want To Go" (1941) were early numbers both based on Johnson's chorus. Honeyboy was a friend of Robert Johnson and was supposedly present on the fateful night Johnson drank the poisoned whiskey that took his life. We spin his version of "Sweet Home Chicago" " cut in 1952 for Sun but not issued at the time.

The "Come On In My Kitchen" melody is based on the song cycle by the string band the Mississippi Sheiks, "Sitting on Top of the World" (1930). Johnson's arrangement on slide guitar is based on Tampa Red's recording of "Things 'Bout Coming My Way." Tampa Red had also recorded an instrumental version in 1936.

Johnson picked up "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)" and "Walking Blues" from Son House. As House's biographer, Dan Beaumont, writes: "Due to his live performances, the song was heard and learned by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Johnson lifted the riff from "My Black Mama" and set the lyrics of "Walking Blues" to that accompaniment. Waters seems to have worked from both artists. In any case, through those intermediaries, the song became the most covered piece among House’s recordings. …Since House's Grafton recording of "Walking Blues" was never released by Paramount (was only found in 1989 on a test disc) Johnson must have learned the lyrics from House’s live performances of it in the Robinsonville area. Johnson basically straightened out House’s musical accompaniment, in the process creating a song that would, by and by, become a blues standard. Johnson also recorded "Preachin’ Blues," in this instance remaining closer to the House original. Since that record sold very poorly (only one copy has ever been found), it is likely again that Johnson learned the piece from House in person. It is apparent that Johnson also tried to emulate House’s vocal style."

Johnson followed Johnny Temple and Joe McCoy in adapting Skip James's song "Devil Got My Woman." Johnson's "Hell Hound On My Trail" is inspired by the James number, either through James' record or indirectly through Johnnie Temple. According to a biography of Skip James, from recorded taped interviews, Joe McCoy was responsible for the first recording of this song but it was not released until 1940. According to guitarist John Miller, Temple's first recorded number, "Lead Pencil Blues", was very forward-looking number–a shuffle with duet guitar accompaniment in which the guitar laying down the time was employing the classic riff associated with Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" and countless blues since then." Temple cut the song six months before Johnson's  "Sweet Home Chicago" but the actual origins of the riff are impossible to discern.  of Johnson's "32-20" is also based on a Skip James song, "22-20 Blues" which James recorded on piano.

The original version of "Cross Road Blues" remained out of print after its initial release until the appearance of The Complete Recordings in 1990. In 1961, producer Frank Driggs substituted the previously unreleased alternate take on the first reissue of Johnson's work, the long-playing album King of the Delta Blues Singers.

As Elijah Wald notes in an interview "After the book came out, somebody suddenly pulled up this recording of a song called "Four O'Clock Blues," recorded by a Memphis trumpet player named Johnny Dunn in 1922, so fourteen years before Robert Johnson recorded "From Four Till Late," fifteen years. And it's clearly the same song. It has no lyric, but clearly around Memphis they were doing this song that Robert Johnson recorded as "From Four Till Late," and we just didn't happen to hear it. We aren't in Memphis. But if you listen to Johnny Dunn's version from 1922, it's clearly the same song."

Larry Cohn Interview (edited, 12 min, MP3)

Elijah Wald Interview (edited, 22 min, MP3)


Dan Beaumont Interview
Son HouseI Want To Live So God Can Use MePrivate Recordings Vol. 1
Son HouseNew Pony BluesPrivate Recordings Vol. 1
Son HouseSon's Blues Pt. 1 Private Recordings Vol. 1
Son HouseMy Black Mama Pt. 1 & 2Blues Images Vol. 2
Rube LacyHam Hound Crave Screamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Son HouseMississippi County Farm BluesBlues Images Vol. 4
Charlie Patton34 BluesPrimeval Blues, Rags and Gospel Songs
Son HousePreachin' The Blues Pt. 1 & 2Screamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Willie BrownFuture BluesMasters of the Blues: Friends of Charlie Patton
Robert JohnsonPreachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil) The Centennial Collection
Muddy WatersCountry Blues (Number One)/Interview #1The Complete Plantation Recordings
Son HouseDepot BluesLegends of Country Blues
Son HouseBetween Midnight and DayDelta Blues & Spirituals

Show Notes:

Over the years I've done several shows devoted to Son House but this one is a bit special. Within a week or so after this show airs the first biography devoted to Son House will hit the shelves, Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, by Dan Beaumont. Dan is an Associate Professor in History and Religion & Classics at the University of Rochester. Dan is also a good friend of mine so I feel a personal connection to the book.  I offered encouragement and helped by feeding Dan a steady stream of old documents and recordings and putting him in touch with folks who were instrumental in shaping the book. Since Dan began writing the book in 2006 and I've read numerous drafts so it was fascinating to see the book take shape and get better and better with each new reworking. While I'm certainly biased I feel Dan has done a terrific job on a complicated man. Son was born and came to notoriety in the deep south during the first decades of the 20th century when segregation permeated every layer of black life yet he attained regional fame, was revered by artists like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and after a long stretch of anonymity resurfaced to acclaim across the United States and Europe. It's a compelling story that Dan tells well as we read about Son's struggle between the church and the blues, his stint in Parchman, playing the juke joints in the small Mississippi towns with Charlie Patton and his life long friend Willie Brown, recording for Alan Lomax and his triumphant return after twenty years of obscurity. We touch on all that and more as Dan sits in with for the entire show as we chat and spin tunes by Son House and those in his orbit. I've written extensively about Son in the past (see the below links) so today I'll talk a bit about the music featured today with some quotes from Dan's book.

The book opens with a chapter called The Second Coming of the Son so we open the show with a trio of sides from Son's rediscovery period. These sides come from Son House Vol. 1 (1965 – 1970) issued on Private Records in 1987. This one, and the second volume, may be tough to track down but contain several very good performances including our opener, the a cappella "I Want To Live So Go Can Use Me" from a 1969 Seattle date, a superb rendition of "New Pony Blues" cut at Newport in 1966 or 67 and "Son's Blues Pt. 1" from 1968.  "Pony Blues" was a number Son picked up from Patton. Regarding the song, Dan writes: "…Patton’s staple after 1910 was certainly blues.   Evidence for this is seen in his two most famous songs, "Pony Blues" and "Maggie" both of which he was performing by the middle of that decade, by which time both he and those songs were already well-known throughout the Delta.  Both songs were subsequently picked up and performed by numerous other Mississippi musicians, and their influence is only one aspect of Patton’s primacy in the Delta Blues."

Speaking of Patton we play his "34 Blues" which describes Patton getting kicked off Dockery's plantation and subsequently moving to Lula were he would meet Son, an encounter that changed Son's life dramatically. As Dan writes: "Plantation owners tolerated the presence of musicians like Patton since their popularity helped to appease the plantation work force—unless and until their presence became a nuisance.  Witness Patton’s "34 Blues" which concerns his eviction from Dockery’s plantation when his womanizing began to cause too many disputes.  Dockery’s plantation was 'way down in Sunflower,' as one of Patton’s songs had it, 'Sunflower' being  Sunflower County, some forty miles south-southeast of Clarksdale.  And it was in that vicinity that many of the places referred to in his songs are found, Belzoni, Carrolton, for example.  However, some time probably in late 1929 he moved north to Lula, then a hamlet of perhaps four or five hundred people."

In interviews Son mentioned three musicians who influenced him, Willie Wilson and James McCoy who never recorded and Rube Lacey who cut one 78 in 1928, "Mississippi Jail House Groan" b/w "Ham Hound Crave", the latter number featured today. "According to House, McCoy taught him what would become his two most important pieces, "My Black Mama" and "Preachin' the Blues," the former apparently an a cappella song. …For the two songs House learned from McCoy became his two finest pieces. His versions of "Preachin' the Blues" and "My Black Mama"—later to be retitled "Death Letter Blues"—are both peak performances not only in Delta Blues, but in the realm of the blues period. So completely did House stamp his personality on the two songs that not even Robert Johnson's restyled recordings of them, as fine as they are, have ever replaced House's versions as definitive."

We of course play Johnson's "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)" back to back with  Muddy Waters' "Country Blues (Number One)" which he picked up from Johnson's record (we play a snippet of interview with Alan Lomax where he talks about the song in relation to Son and Johnson) )"Walkin' Blues" and Johnson in turned got the song from Son House. "Due to his live performances, the song was heard and learned by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Johnson lifted the riff from "My Black Mama" and set the lyrics of "Walking Blues" to that accompaniment. Waters seems to have worked from both artists. In any case, through those intermediaries, the song became the most covered piece among House’s recordings. …Since House's Grafton recording of "Walking Blues" was never released by Paramount (was only found in 1989 on a test disc) Johnson must have learned the lyrics from House's live performances of it in the Robinsonville area. Johnson basically straightened out House's musical accompaniment, in the process creating a song that would, by and by, become a blues standard. Johnson also recorded "Preachin' Blues," in this instance remaining closer to the House original. Since that record sold very poorly (only one copy has ever been found), it is likely again that Johnson learned the piece from House in person. It is apparent that Johnson also tried to emulate House’s vocal style."

Son House & wife Evie
Son House & wife Evie, Newport Folk Festival, 1966
Photo courtesy of Dick Waterman

From the legendary 1930 Paramount session we play Son's  "My Black Mama Pt. 1 & 2", "Preachin' The Blues Pt. 1 & 2", "Mississippi County Farm Blues" and Willie Brown's "Future Blues." From this session Son's "Clarksdale Moan" and "Mississippi County Farm Blues," were released as Paramount 13096, but only found a few years ago while Brown's "Kickin' In My Sleep Blues" b/w "Window Blues" (Paramount 13001) and "Grandma Blues" b/w "Sorry Blues" (Paramount 13099) have yet to surface.

In 1941 and 1942 House was recorded by Alan Lomax who was led to him on a tip from Muddy Waters several days prior. From the 1942 we spin "Depot Blues." "The recording was done in Clarksdale, and this time House performed alone for Lomax, recording nine more tracks: "Low Down Dirty Dog Blues," "Depot Blues," "American Defense," "Am I Right Or Wrong," "Walking Blues," County Farm Blues," "The Pony Blues," and two versions of "The Jinx Blues." As he had the previous year, Lomax also interspersed the music with interview questions. Many of them concerned Robert Johnson—in the intervening year Lomax’s interest in Johnson had, if anything, only increased—and House’s responses hit on the same major points he would make when interviewed in the 1960s; he emphasized Johnson’s rapid progress on the guitar, his good looks and his womanizing. He told Lomax that he suspected Johnson had been poisoned by a jealous woman."

We conclude our show with two tracks from his rediscovery period: "Empire State Blues" from the Father of the Folk Blues issued on Columbia in 1965 and "Between Midnight and Day" recorded in London in 1970 at the 100 Club and first issued on the album John The Revelator and on CD by Capitol as Delta Blues & Spirituals. "Dick Waterman wrote that House had offers from smaller record labels, but the release of the first Robert Johnson album on Columbia gave him hope that House might sign a contract with that label. House and Waterman met with John Hammond, Columbia’s best jazz and blues producer. Hammond was involved with, among other artists during his long career, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Bill Broonzy, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The meeting produced an agreement, and House signed a contract with Columbia Records was for one record. It was a measure of the seriousness of the project that Hammond took it on. …The Columbia session was to be House's last studio recordings. The rest of House’s recordings in the period between 1965 and 1970 fall into three categories. Recordings that were usually part of compilations on other labels and consisted of live recordings made at folk festivals and coffeehouse appearances. Bootlegs and private recordings later issued with either the agreement of House or his estate."

Related Links:

Dan Beaumont Feature (mp3, 2 hours)

Big Road Blues Show 5/31/09: Son House – The Blues Ain't No Monkey Junk

Big Road Blues Show 6/1/08: Son House & Pals – Preachin' The Blues

Son House Discography


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