Sun 31 May 2009
Newspaper photo of Son House, and a July 14
Rochester Times-Union article about his comeback.
"I'm talking about the blues now, I ain't talkin' about no monkey junk"
Today's title come from a term Son House used often as his biographer Dan Beaumont explains: "House had an amusing phrase he would use when asked about the blues being played in the 1960's. It was a phrase he used to dismiss much of the blues music of that period. ‘It’s not the blues,’ he would say. ‘It’s just a lot of monkey junk.’ The blues so dominated House’s life-we have now established the price that he had paid for it-that a period in which he all but ceased playing it may well have seemed to him simply so much ‘monkey junk.’” As anyone who's listened to Son House knows, there was nothing frivolous or gimmicky about Son's blues. In his hands the blues were a gripping, all consuming feeling:
You know, the blues ain't nothin' but a low-down shakin', low-down shakin', achin' chill
I say the blues is a low-down, old, achin' chill
Well, if you ain't had 'em, honey, I hope you never will
Well, the blues, the blues is a worried heart, is a worried heart, heart disease
Oh, the blues is a worried old heart disease
(The Jinx Blues Part 1, 1942)
Today's show is our annual tribute to Son House who created some of the most visceral and gripping blues of the 1930's and 40's and who emerged after two decades to find himself bewilderingly hailed as a blues hero to young white audiences around the world. It's with a matter of pride that Son's comeback came in my adopted hometown of Rochester, NY. Over the years I met numerous people who fondly recalled Son House here in Rochester and when I started doing my yearly radio birthday tributes it brought even 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 anyway. 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. The sad fact is there is nothing tangible in this city that shows Son ever made this city his home for a good part of his life (1943-1976). It's worth noting that Son does have a plaque in Tunica, MS as part of the Mississippi Commission's Blues Trail.
2009 Hot Blues For The Homeless …A Tribute To Son House Poster
Next week marks the third Hot Blues For The Homeless concert I put on with several other dedicated folks. Now billed as Hot Blues For The Homeless …A Tribute To Son House, we had a fantastic turn out last year, raised a good deal of money for the Rochester homeless and hopefully raised some awareness about Son House. If you live in Rochester, live close by are just visiting on June 7th make sure to help us celebrate the memory of Son House.
On today's program we start out by playing the bulk of Son's legendary Paramount recordings. In 1930, Arthur Laibley who had produced Charlie Patton’s last session for Paramount, stopped in Lula to arrange another session with Patton. Patton was famous throughout the Delta and had already recorded close to forty sides for the label. Patton told Laibley about House and about two other musicians Willie Brown and Louise Johnson, setting the stage for one of the blues most legendary recording sessions. The group headed to the Paramount studios in Grafton, WI, where House recorded six songs at the session, three of which were long enough to fill both sides of a 78: "Dry Spell Blues," "Preachin’ The Blues," and "My Black Mama." Two songs, "Clarksdale Moan" and "Mississippi County Farm Blues" were issued as a 78, with a lone copy surfacing just recently. In September 2005, a collector announced he had obtained the lost "Clarksdale Moan" 78 in reasonably decent condition. The details of this discovery are not known to the public as the collector has chosen to remain anonymous. On April 4, 2006, both "Clarksdale Moan" and "Mississippi County Farm Blues" were released on the collection The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of from Yazoo Records. While "Clarksdale Moan" is a previously unknown song, "Mississippi County Farm Blues" is an earlier (and faster) version of a song Son House later recorded at his Library of Congress recording session in 1941. The unissued test of "Walking Blues" we spin was not found until 1985.
Rochester Times-Union article about Son House from July 6, 1964. This is the first article written about Son's rediscovery.
Despite the disappointing sales of his records, for House the Grafton experience marked the beginning of a long musical friendship with Willie Brown. For much of the 30’s House reverted to his former pattern of preaching and then going back to the blues, usually at the prompting of Brown. He and Brown played all over the Delta as well as Arkansas and Tennessee for the rest of the 1930’s. In August of 1941 the folklorist Alan Lomax found House working as a tractor driver on a plantation near Robinsonville. House took Lomax a few miles north to Lake Cormorant where Willie Brown lived. They rounded up two other musicians, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Leroy Williams. Behind Clack’s general store, House recorded five songs for Lomax. The next summer in July, House recorded, unaccompanied, ten more songs for Lomax.
A year after the Library of Congress sides House vanished, or did the next best thing which was to move to Rochester, NY. More than two decades would pass before he would resurface. On June 23rd of 1964, Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls found House living on 61 Grieg Street in Rochester, NY. 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 he did tours of Europe as well. He also performed locally in Rochester. From these later years we spin several tracks for his superb comeback album Father Of The Delta Blues plus several live cuts.
Also on today's program is my good friend Dan Beaumont. University of Rochester professor Dan Beaumont discusses his forthcoming book, Preachin' the Blues: The Life And Music Of Son House. This is the first full-length biography of Son House and will be published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Dan will also be reading excerpts from the book at the workshop component of the Hot Blues event. in addition we also play a couple of clips of Dick Waterman talking about Son from an interview I conducted with Dick several years ago and who was a guest at last year's event.