Long Delayed Recognition Given to Blues Legend with Rochester Roots
Seminal Mississippi Delta bluesman Eddie "Son" House who lived three decades in Rochester, will be getting some "overdue recognition" at a tribute concert on Sunday, June 8, according to Dan Beaumont, a University of Rochester professor who teaches a course called simply "The Blues."
"Son House made music that changed music," says Beaumont, associate professor in the religion and classics department, who is working on a book about Son House called Preachin' the Blues. "He was a primary influence on country blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters who called him 'the King'—and it doesn't get much better than that."
To honor that influence, musicians such as John Mooney, Joe Beard, Fred Vine, Gordon Munding, and Curtis Waterman will be playing at "Hot Blues for the Homeless Benefit: A Tribute to Son House" at the Water Street Music Hall from 4 to 9 p.m. (www.sundayblues.org/sonhouse). Proceeds will be donated to Catholic Family Center to help toward the construction of a permanent housing facility for homeless men, which will include a life and vocational facility to be called the Son House Resource Center.
"Son House recorded some of the most powerful recordings in blues history, and yet many people living here don't know his name," says Jeff Harris, primary organizer of the concert, who hosts a show called Big Road Blues on Jazz90.1 FM (www.sundayblues.org). "We are working to change that, and simultaneously address the homelessness problem in Rochester."
The blues possessed Son House, as one writer described in Blues World Magazine in 1967, "as head thrown back, he hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm as audience and singer become as one."
"Son House migrated to Rochester in 1943 and made his home in the Corn Hill neighborhood until 1974, a fact that, to my knowledge, has gone largely unnoticed," says Paul Burgett, vice president and general secretary to the president of the University of Rochester, who holds a Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music. "The University is pleased to participate in this opportunity to recognize Son House and, at the same time, support Catholic Family Center's efforts on behalf of homeless men."
The story of Son House is both tragic and artistically compelling, worthy of Rochester's collective interest, says Sue Barnes, funds developer for homeless and housing with Catholic Family Center of Rochester (www.cfcrochester.org.) "It is difficult to raise funding for homeless men due to social stigmas, but the support and empathy of the blues community in Rochester is absolutely amazing," says Barnes. "Son House fought demons of his own, while the average homeless man in Rochester is between the ages of 24 and 26, mainly from troubled backgrounds, with little or no real family support, and often clinically depressed."
House was born in Riverton, Miss. Determined to become a Baptist preacher, he took up the calling at age 15 but soon became attracted to the blues, regarded by the church as "the devil's music." Inspired by Willie Wilson, he taught himself guitar, playing beside legends like Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and Fiddlin' Joe Martin. "He found himself forced to make a choice between preaching and playing," said Beaumont of the divided worlds House faced.
In 1927, House allegedly killed in self-defense when a man at a "frolic" or house party went on a shooting spree. The bluesman-preacher was wounded in the leg and shot the man dead, for which he was sentenced to Parchman Farm Prison in 1928, where singing on the chain gangs would influence his style. After his release, House recorded groundbreaking work for Paramount Records in 1930, and later for folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942.
In 1943, House left Mississippi and moved to Rochester, NY. He also left music. After 21 years in obscurity, he was "rediscovered" in June 1964 by three young, white fans, who tracked him down at his Rochester home on 61 Grieg St. One of those fans, Dick Waterman, would become his manager in his revived musical career.
"We are just at the beginning of waking up to the story of Son House," says Jeff Tucker, associate professor of English and director of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University (http://www.rochester.edu/College/AAS/). "The saga of this quintessential artist speaks to larger issues, such as the migration of the African-American from south to north, and speaks to anyone interested in the truths of American modernity."
A workshop featuring Dick Waterman and John Mooney, a highly regarded bluesman who regularly visited House in Rochester as a teenager, also will be offered at the Club at Water Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (www.waterstreetmusic.com). To purchase tickets, visit www.sundayblues.org/sonhouseblues, www.ticketmaster.com or the Bop Shop (www.bopshop.com). Concert tickets cost $10 or $15 at the door. Both the concert and the workshop cost $20.
Sponsors of the concert include WGMC-FM (90.1), Catholic Family Center, the House of Guitars, and the University of Rochester's Office of the President and the Frederick Douglass Institute, which was established at the University in 1986 to promote the development of African and African-American studies in undergraduate and graduate education and through advanced research.