Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Monday, October 24, 2011

“Preachin’ The Blues: The Life &Times of Son House “ by Daniel Beaumont (Oxford University Press)/“Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” by Roger Stoll

I have to confess, this is a book I never thought I’d live to see - an actual biography of Eddie James House,Jr. (1902-1988). It’s not that Son House doesn’t deserve a book, because he most certainly does. It’s not that he lived so long ago in the distant past, as his most active years as a professional musician were during my own lifetime. No, it’s a case of my not realizing that the interviewers who wrote articles on House following his mid-1960’s rediscovery had spent as much time as they did discussing his earlier life with him. So, we do know quite a bit about his life and times after all. Indeed, it is the liberal use of these earlier interviews that has made it possible for Daniel Beaumont to even attempt a book-length biography on this complex figure from the early days of recorded blues.

Having said that, however, it needs to be quickly noted that these earlier interviewers left some gaping holes in Son House’s life story. His early years are sketchy at best. The period in between his Alan Lomax sessions of the early 1940’s and his re-emergence in the mid-1960’s are mostly a cipher. Even the extremely few events in House’s life during that period that we do know at least something about are shrouded in impenetrable mystery. Beaumont has done what he can to fill in gaps by studying public documents, tracking down what few relatives he can, and uncovering a handful of musicians in House’s long-time adopted home of Rochester, NY, who remember him from his immediate pre- and post-rediscovery years. But there are still enormous chasms in our knowledge of Son House’s life, which will most likely never be filled in.

Even so, we must celebrate what we do have here, since “Preachin’ The Blues” is most likely as close to a definitive rendering of the life of Son House as we can ever hope to get. True, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some older Rochesterian who knew Son House during the 50’s and 60’s - even a neighborhood kid who would be in his 50’s or 60’s now - that remains uncovered. But I’m willing to accept that Beaumont has done all he can to uncover whatever facts he could find. Certainly, he has interpreted and arranged these scattered nuggets into a coherent true-life picaresque narrative.

The Son House we meet here is a brilliant musician who lived his life with extreme carelessness. To be sure, beginning one’s life in a small hamlet near Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta is generally not thought of as being conducive to a life of great intellectual accomplishment or urbane sophistication. House took one of the few “ways out” available to a young black man in the plantation world of the early 20th century, and became a preacher. But his penchant for alcohol, women, and a hot temper proved to be far too much of a temptation. But in House’ case, you could remove him from the pulpit, but you couldn’t remove the pulpit from Son House. He continued to preach informally through his career as a blues singer, dispensing advice on how his listeners should get right. Ironically, his religious rants were always abetted by the consumption of massive quantities of intoxicating drinks.

“Preachin’ The Blues” has a fair number of on-tour anecdotes of this type. But Beaumont also has some trenchant observations on the subject of whether re-discovery and a measure of fame were actually good for Son House, aside from increasing his income substantially. The book opens with his rediscovery, as we witness three young white blues fans poking around Mississippi during some of the most tragic days of the Civil Rights struggle, asking questions about an old black man who was not even in the area anymore.The naivete of these insufficiently prepared pseudo-folklorists could well have gotten them killed. They eventually pick up clues that lead to their quarry in inner-city Rochester. What they found was an alcoholic in rather rough physical condition who didn’t play the guitar anymore, didn’t intend to perform anymore, and didn’t even possess a guitar. Their unmitigated chutzpah in hauling him off to face adoring audiences who were ready to worship at the proverbial feet of one of the unsung greats of a bygone era is rather mind-boggling in retrospect. (Canned Heat fans will be interested to learn about the role Al ”Blind Owl” Wilson played in rehabilitating House’s musical skills.)

The story of the circumstances surrounding House’s Wisconsin recording sessions for the fabled Paramount label, and the trip up north in the company of Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, and Louise Johnson, is another highlight of the book. Much has been written about House’s relationship with Alan Lomax, who for all his valuable work as a folk-music preservationist, always seemed more interested in the song than the people who performed the song. Indeed, I’ve heard stories about House’ Library of Congress sessions that are more colorful than what we read here. But Beaumont seems to treat both House and Lomax from an objective viewpoint, which makes his version seem believable. House’ sad final years in Detroit are treated with sensitivity and sympathy.

In sum, there are gaps, and no doubt there will always be gaps. But what we do have here is well worth reading and pondering. The book will appeal more to the hard-core Mississippi blues listener, who already knows a thing or two about the milieu from which Son House’s music arose, rather than to the average person who once saw the name Son House in connection with his influence on Robert Johnson. But if the book brings that Johnson fan closer to the true originator - well, OK, truer, at least - of the style Johnson is erroneously credited with developing, then Beaumont would have done his job doubly well.

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The title “Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” may set you to wondering at first glance. Dozens of dozens of books have been written about the Mississippi blues, so what could be so darn hidden at this point? That would probably be a legitimate reaction, particularly if you believe every word found on academic library shelves is pure gold, or that every word composed on Alan Lomax’s typewriter was the gospel truth.

But our present era is a fascinating period in blues historiography. Seemingly every assertion that generations of early writers on the blues took for granted, every long-cherished opinion-masquerading-as-fact that served as the basis for the next generation’s textbooks is now being questioned, and many are being thrown out. It’s not that earlier writers were lying to us, you understand, it’s more a case of their making unwarranted assumptions based ontoo-scant evidence.

Roger Stolle, a widely-published blues writer/radio DJ/CD and DVD producer, who runs a blues store in the heart of the blues world (Clarksdale, MS), is not the first writer to offer a “corrective” version of blues history (I won’t use the word “revisionist”, as it has too often taken on a negative connotation), and certainly is neither the most thorough nor the most radical. But what he offers in several of the chapters within this slim, yet compact volume is a short historical look at the history of the Mississippi blues for non-specialists, one which incorporates many of the updated concepts and jettisons many of the now-discredited speculations of the past.

Stolle goes beyond psychological/sociological mythologizing by looking at the historical conditions in the Yazoo Delta region which went into the development of the distinctive styles of Mississippi blues music, the lives of cotton-plantation sharecroppers, the realities of the record business in the 1920’s and 30’s, the juke joints where black Mississippians were entertained by this music, the infamous “Crossroads” myth (which my students still believe to be the honest truth about Robert Johnson, no matter how many times I bring up the name Tommy Johnson, and no matter how many times I explode other aspects of this long-standing Tall Tale; a good myth trumps the truth any day), the role of radio in popularizing and disseminating the blues, and more.

For most hard-core blues historians, much of this book will no doubt sound familiar. But even they should find much of interest here. Because Stolle is an active participant on the modern Delta blues scene, he has perspectives to offer which only an insider can develop. In particular, there are almost fifty pages of interview transcripts, reminiscences and commentary from giants such as Honeyboy Edwards and Jelly Roll Kings’ drummer Sam Carr, modern-day Delta-blues survivors such as T-Model Ford and Duck Holmes, and a few less heralded - though not necessarily less interesting - performers whose names are new to me. Most of the interviews have been previously published, to be sure - though some material has been added - yet they are given a new permanence and importance within the covers of this book. (Digression - the day all information appears online rather than in printed books will be the day we have to worry about losing large chunks of our heritage and understanding. Our knowledge may then become dependent on which websites turn enough profit to stay online, and on which formats this information is stored. Books are permanent, or darned close to it; the internet may not be.)

Stolle’s easy-to-read text is complemented by some well-chosen photographs by Lou Bopp, which add to the authenticity and atmosphere of Stolle’s narrative. In all, this is a very welcome addition to the long bookshelves of the blues, and one which you can trust to tell you the truth as it happened.

The Son House book should be relatively easy to find. You might need to search https://www.historypress.net/ to find the “Hidden History” book.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Blind Owl Blues said...

Thanks for featuring this book in your reviews. I wrote a bio of Canned Heat's Alan Wilson (you can read an excerpt at http://blindowlbio.com) and had an earlier article published in the now-defunct Blues Access magazine. I was thrilled to be cited in this excellent biography of House.

If you'd like to hear more of the Wilson side of the story, I hope you'll check out my book (also available through the site). I've also been honored to contribute to a beautiful family-authorized website in Wilson's memory, found at http://AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com. There you'll find rare photos, writings, videos and more.

Thanks again!

3:35 AM  

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