Rochester, New York is about to have a “four-day blues binge” as reported in the New York Times Tuesday, with blues legend Son House as a central component of the celebration. Here is that story which also features Dick Waterman, who re-discovered Son House and went on to manage him. Waterman had his first major exhibition of his blues photos at Govinda Gallery which were featured in his book Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive, edited by Govinda Gallery director Chris Murray and with essays by Bonnie Raitt and Peter Guralnick.
The Man From Rochester, by Way of Mississippi
By Eric Grode
A sign about eight miles east of this city’s storied Corn Hill neighborhood points out a historical landmark, the rail yard where the blues musician Son House worked as a porter in the 1940s. The vowel in House’s nickname (he was born Eddie) is an odd size, rising about a half inch above the letters on either side. An explanation of sorts can be seen in the abrupt curvature at the top of the first O: The original sign misspelled his name as “SUN,” and the U was rounded off after the fact.
More care will presumably be taken with the Mississippi Blues Trail marker that will be unveiled Friday in this city, where House, who influenced musicians from Robert Johnson to Bonnie Raitt to Jack White, lived for 23 years. The unveiling falls in the middle of a four-day blues binge, Journey to the Son, sponsored by the Geva Theater here, which will feature concerts, academic papers, reminiscences, guitar workshops and a reading of the play “Revival: The Resurrection of Son House,” by Keith Glover (“Thunder Knocking on the Door”).
“This is the guy who taught Robert Johnson, who taught Muddy Waters,” said Skip Greer, Geva’s artist in residence and the coordinator of the festival. “If you dig back, that’s what you dig back to.”
In “Revival,” which Geva commissioned, Mr. Glover digs all the way back to the Middle Passage, placing House’s life in the context of the African diaspora that resulted from the triangular trade route in which millions of Africans were sent to the New World. In the play, House (portrayed by the Tony Award-winning Cleavant Derricks) explains that the “first music I heard was the blues, and I hated it.”
On one level, Mr. Glover, who has supplemented House’s material with his own music and lyrics, as well as with several spirituals, can understand.
“I used to hang with August Wilson, and he would play Tampa Red, Charley Patton, Big Bill Broonzy,” Mr. Glover said during an interview in the Geva’s lobby cafe, referring to several of House’s predecessors and peers. “I couldn’t get to it. Listening to Son for this piece made me realize that I just wasn’t ready.”
One curious aspect of the rediscovered attention to the years House spent in Rochester — only a handful of these Blues Trail markers can be found above the Mason-Dixon line — is that most of those years were silent. House, who began preaching at 15, grappled with the sometimes twinned, more often antagonistic, callings of his music and his God. He started out shunning secular music, then discovered the blues and folded his preaching style into his guitar, then abandoned music altogether shortly after performing for Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress field recordings.
This conflict played out in the actions of House, a paid pastor who had also killed at least one man. “It’s an imperfect vessel that they find,” Mr. Glover said, before pointing to a spot just outside the Geva lobby where House once passed out drunk during a Rochester winter and nearly lost his fingers to frostbite.
It wasn’t until 1964, more than 30 years after House had last recorded any material commercially, that three young blues aficionados tracked him down — House, then in his early 60s, didn’t even own a guitar at the time — at his Grieg Street home.
They had been searching unsuccessfully in the Deep South.
“We were three Jews in a yellow Volkswagen with New York plates, and we didn’t feel too welcome in Mississippi,” said one of those men, Dick Waterman, who will appear at the Geva festivities. “The day we found out he was living in Rochester was the day those three Freedom Riders were killed. We were in Rochester two days later.”
House’s rediscovery coincided with the 1960s revival of folk blues, of which he knew nothing until Mr. Waterman — who soon became his manager — and the other two young men told him. “They would literally go up to Son’s house and yell at the window,” Mr. Greer said.
Within a few years, House was making up for lost time, playing major jazz festivals around the world and recording far more material than he ever did in the 1930s and ’40s. “And when he went onstage, he bled onstage,” Mr. Glover said. “You saw what it took out of him.”
Lovely A. Warren, the mayor of Rochester, will officially dedicate the Blues Trail marker on the corner of Grieg and Clarissa Streets, an area with particular significance for her. “My grandparents came up from Charleston, S.C., the same time that Son House was being rediscovered,” Ms. Warren said. “I grew up listening to them listening to this music. It was the music of their time and their era.”
The second act of House’s career ended in 1984, when his alcoholism became too severe. He died in 1988. “Revival” doesn’t shy away from the less savory aspects of his life; the character based on Mr. Waterman compares managing House to “babysitting a bouncing chain saw.”
But the Journey to the Son festival, while looking backward via such topics as “The Role of Mississippi in the Blues,” will also illustrate the staying power of House’s music in Rochester and far beyond.
Mr. Glover and Billy Thompson wrote a new score for “Revival,” which they and other musicians will perform live during Geva’s staged reading.
The title character’s music, however, remains untouched. “Son doesn’t need our help,” Mr. Glover said.