On Friday, 10 March 1995, I reached Dick Waterman by phone in Oxford, Mississippi and conducted a 30-minute interview. Waterman was very receptive to my questions, and even asked me to tell people on the internet that he would gladly recieve their calls and faxes if they had any questions about the blues scene from the sixties to the present. Through his close personal contact with virtually every major figure in the folk blues revival of the sixties, he is an invaluable resource and a fascinating man to talk to. I am indebted to Mr. Waterman for his assistance in preparing this short essay.
"When he played, his eyes rolled back in his head and he went somewhere else. Whether it was Robinsonville in the '30's or wherever, he transported himself back without any trickery and became the essence of Delta. He would then finish the song, blink his eyes, and then reaccustom himself to where he was at the time."
- Dick Waterman, remembering Son House.
It has often been said that Son House owed his entire "rediscovery" career to one man, Dick Waterman of Avalon Productions. Waterman acted as agent and sometimes producer for many of the folk bluesmen who lived to enjoy a second career in the 1960s and '70s, including Booker White, Lightnin' Hopkins, Skip James and many others. On June 21, 1964, Waterman made phone contact with House, who was at the time living in Rochester, NY. Two days later Waterman arrived from Mississippi and almost immediately had House on the coffeehouse circuit. Like Booker White and Skip James, Son House was a major figure from the past who reappeared in the sixties to recall the powerful, untainted country blues that the small core of blues fans had thought survived only on scratchy 78s.
Decades of hard living had slowed the hands of the old bluesman, but the field-holler rage of his voice remained. His 1965 recordings for Columbia are a testament to his power; songs like "Death Letter" and "John The Revelator" leave the listener with no doubt as to the potency of the man's music. People were amazed with the intensity of this music coming from a man thought then to be in his sixties. As it turns out, House was most likely almost eighty years old when these recordings were made.
Son House's year of birth is listed as 1902 in most sources, and this is the year that appeared on all his legal documents. However, Waterman believes that Son was considerably older, and places his birth in the mid 1880s. Apparently House gave conflicting accounts of his age, but Waterman remembers him once saying he was born in 1886. He also recalls once asking Son about his age, noting that if he had been born in 1902 then he would have been in his mid-teens during World War I. Son replied, "No, I was a middle-aged man then, married and living in East St. Louis." Waterman has also recently heard a recording made in 1965 in which Son gives his age as 79, which would again establish his year of birth as 1886. If this is indeed the correct year, Son would have been 102 years old at his death in 1988! As Waterman says, "This must be some kind of a commentary on hard living and bad liquor."
Waterman has an explanation for the confusion surrounding Son's age. In 1943 or '44, Son gave up music completely and applied for a job as a porter on the New York Central line in Rochester, NY. Knowing that he would be considered too old for the job, he lied about his age and said he was born in 1902. His story stuck, and eventually all his legal documents listed this year as his year of birth.
Waterman feels that House's influence is grossly underrated. "He was the mentor for both Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, who are clearly acknowledged as two of the most influential bluesmen on not only urban blues but ultimately the modern music scene. Son House, through his ever-expanding style and influence, can be considered a source point for much of what we feel is contemporary music today." He blames this underappreciation on the paucity of early Son House recordings: "If in his prime he had been recorded as much as Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson or Robert Johnson, he would be considered the pre-eminent artist of his time. He would have his proper appreciation."
House's only pre-rediscovery commercial recordings are the 10 sides he recorded for Paramount in 1930. Early discographies list only nine sides, but "Walking Blues", with Willie Brown on second guitar, was discovered a few years ago. House did not record again until Alan Lomax made the famous 1941-42 Library Of Congress field recordings in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. If Waterman's calculation of House's year of birth is correct, House was in his mid fifties at this time. Waterman believes the bluesman would have been at his musical peak in the period between his Paramount sessions and the arrival of Lomax over a decade later.
Thanks to men like Alan Lomax and Dick Waterman, Son House left a recorded legacy that spans over five decades. He survived many of the next generation of bluesmen on whom he was a profound influence. His early recordings bear witness to the tormented yet powerful figure that inspired Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Through the intervention of Dick Waterman, a whole new generation of blues revivalists like John Hammond, Paul Rishell and John Mooney has been inspired by Son House's later work. It must be noted that this work was done at a time in his life when many people would have been long retired.