The Unlikely Story of the 1960s Revival of Delta Blues Giant Son House

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tags: African American history, music, 1960s, Folk Music, Blues, Delta Blues

By the middle of the 1960s, the so-called “blues revival” was in full swing, with white audiences “discovering” the music of Black blues artists. As part of this process, some artists who had stopped performing and recording long before, such as Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, were “rediscovered” and brought back onto stages and into studios. Their recording careers had stopped abruptly after the blues boom of the 1920s, as the Great Depression erased the market for blues records practically overnight. By the time recording resumed in earnest, following the musicians’ strike of 1942-1944, many more Blacks had moved North to big cities, and their tastes had shifted mainly away from country blues.  

Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, two essential Delta blues standard-bearers, passed away in the 1930s. Still, young white blues fans wondered about the whereabouts of another singer at the epicenter of the genre in its early years. Patton mentored this man, inspiring not just Johnson but also Muddy WatersHowlin’ Wolf, and countless others. These fans knew of Eddie “Son” House, Jr. only through his few recordings from the past: four exceedingly rare Paramount 78s from 1930 and 18 Library of Congress field recordings from 1941 and 1942.

Three young, white blues fans – Phil Spiro, Dick Waterman, and Nick Perls – went looking for House in Memphis and Mississippi during the summer of 1964. It was hardly a safe endeavor to undertake at that time. When they were in Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan murdered two other young, Northern whites and their Black friend, civil rights activists working to register Black voters. On that day, Spiro, Waterman, and Perls first spoke to House, but only over the phone, since he was living neither in Mississippi nor Memphis but in Rochester, New York. Two days later, on 23 June 1964, they arrived in Rochester and met House for the first time face-to-face. 

House had moved to Rochester in 1942, not long after his final Library of Congress recording session. He worked as a railroad porter for a time, but by 1964, he was essentially unemployed and living on a meager pension. He hadn’t played much music since 1953 when he learned of the death of his best friend and musical partner, Willie Brown. Though House’s birthdate is disputed, he was at least 62 years old when the three young white men arrived in Rochester. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they discovered House couldn’t sing or play the way he had more than 20 years before, the last time he recorded, but that, fortunately, wasn’t the case.

At the same time, it would also be easy to assume House was overjoyed to return to recording and performing – to finally earn more money from his art and win more appreciation – but that appears to be a mistaken assumption as well. House was spiritually conflicted about playing the blues, and though he could still perform, he was physically and emotionally impacted by severe alcoholism. After retiring from music again in 1974, he told an interviewer that he found his resuscitated career unsatisfying. Whether it served House to come out of retirement is one question, but whether his return to music benefited blues fans is quite another. The answer to that second question is a resounding yes, mainly because of this album.

Read entire article at Pop Matters