Seldom has more work gone into an album of a solo artist singing alone with his guitar, in this case, the legendary original Delta bluesman, Son House, and this 1964 recording, Forever On My Mind. Dick Waterman, House’s personal manager at the time, entrusted Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and his label, Easy Eye Sound, to bring these tapes from Waterman’s personal collection to this amazingly restored quality. Until now, the ‘rediscovery’ of Son House has been associated with the 1965 Columbia album, Father of Folk Blues. Yet, the story begins a year prior when Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and Phil Spiro, located the bluesman who was then living in Rochester, NY. Born in 1902, House would have been 62 years old then, and had, apparently due to religious beliefs, stopped performing and had not played for more than two decades. Waterman explains, “He had been living in a [retirement] home with his wife, and they weren’t doing anything but living on Social Security. So, it was the opportunity to make some money that put us out on tour.”
House had to get reacquainted with his music and worked tirelessly with Alan Wilson, later famous as the guitarist and singer of the band Canned Heat. Once ready to perform, House, who to date had only performed before Black audiences in Southern juke joints, soon performed to a young and entirely new group of listeners, mostly on college tours like this one which was recorded on November 23, 1964 at Wabash College. The tape of the show has been sitting in Waterman’s personal collection since then despite futile entrees to record companies. He found the right match with Auerbach, who has staked his reputation as a champion for these kinds of projects as evidenced by his work with Leo Bud Welch, Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, and Robert Finley.
This show at Wabash was played to maybe 50 people and there is no audible audience response in the recording although House in a matter-of-fact way introduces a couple of the songs. These eight songs run mostly in the five-or six-minute range. Son House is unhurried. He’s intent on telling the full story as only he can. The opening notes to “Forever On My Mind” have House fretting his trusty National steel resonator with a metal tube slide. He begins singing rather deliberately but increases in intensity by just the second verse –“Minutes seem like hours, hours seem like days…” In fact, many of these lyrics later appeared in his friend, Willie Brown’s classic, “Future Blues.” Verses in just about all these songs have become standard phrases in the blues lexicon. There aren’t cemeteries but burying grounds instead, for example.
The requisite train song, “Empire State Express” has lyrics rock fans will recognize from “Crossroads” or “Love in Vain,” and House masterfully builds momentum on his guitar as he sings about the Great Migration (of course, he didn’t call it that then) in the train heading north. In addition to “Forever On My Mind” the album has never-heard recordings of House’s two most famous songs, “Death Letter” and “Preachin’ Blues.” Those two have been covered by various artists as much as any two blues tunes. Listen to him on the latter accent “preacher jumping up and down” and quickly echo that effect on his slide. Already he is in that zone of a man possessed. The former is quite simply the apex of his style. When he sings of having packed his suitcase and heading down the road, it’s more a declaration than simply a collection of words, and the way he builds drama in the story-song has one on the edge of the seat.
“The Way My Mother Did” is a takeoff on the gospel blues standard “Motherless Children.” It all comes off so casually that a tune like the almost seven minutes “Louise McGhee” again with its lyrics – “minutes seem like hours…hugging the pillow where’d she used to lay” sounds as if it could have been improvised on the spot. He delivers another of what has become a blues classic, his Delta contemporary Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues.” House, at this point in the show, is completely absorbed, passionately singing “ya know I went to the racetrack to see my pony run”. The final cut, “Levee Camp Moan” begins much like the opening track, and he even uses some of the same lyrics. If you search the lyrics on the web, it almost seems like the two songs are interchangeable but there’s some history in this one. It’s a story about a good man who got with the wrong woman. He’s off building the levee while she waits at home. These Mississippi River levees were constructed between 1900 and the start of WW2. The levees ranged from 30 – 40 in high and they were longer than the Great Wall of China. The workers were mostly black sharecroppers who worked their off-season on the levees, coming home just once a week with their pay. The system became so ingrained in the Delta that it found its way into blues music, hence the lines – “You know on every pay day/She could, she could hear the big boat when she blow/Well on every payday/She could hear the big boat when she blow/But when I donna get the check/She told me she couldn’t use me no more.” Five of these eight songs were later released in studio versions on House’s Columbia LP.
As a quick note, this writer is likely one of the few music journalists that actually witnessed a Son House performance and mine occurred five years after this recording was made. Just to test my shaky memory from over fifty years ago, an issue from Downbeat, dated November 12, 1970, has this quote – “Blues lives at Notre Dame…A year ago. Son House stopped off on his way to the west coast and an audience of 500 stomped its approval.” It was only fitting that he played one of the oldest buildings on campus, Washington Hall, the original campus music hall, rebuilt 20 years before Son House’s birth, and long famed to be haunted by ghosts. It was on that night that this naïve freshman was introduced to live acoustic, authentic Delta blues for the first time.
The power, pain, and suffering of the original Delta blues from perhaps its singly most important innovator is here to be appreciated in better sound quality than it ever has. What little I remember from over fifty years ago, was the incredible, almost spiritual quality of a performer completely consumed by his music. Given that this is Son House at his peak, this is one to savor and cherish. It will likely become his legacy recording.