Similar was the path of Eddie “Son” House Jr. Born in Riverton, Mississippi in 1902, House grew up preaching the gospel at various churches and plantations. It wasn’t until he was 25, and after developing a bit of a taste for whiskey, that the thought of playing guitar or singing the blues carried any bit of appeal. He heard a local bluesman named Willie Wilson playing bottleneck guitar. He recalled “This boy had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, ya know. ‘Sounds good!’ I said. ‘Jesus, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things!’”. Son House was quoted, saying “I didn’t like no guitar when I first heard it; oh gee, I couldn’t stand a guy playin’ a guitar. I didn’t like none of it.” But his natural ability, and the bit of coin that could be made performing, had set the course for House.
He would soon thereafter though start his accumulation of Blues tunes fodder, in his shooting and killing a man at an outing in Lyon, MS. He was immediately imprisoned, though released after just 2 years. His parents had spent the entirety of his incarceration lobbying for his release, claiming his plight was one of self defense. After some consideration, and adding the stipulation that he never set foot in the town again, the judge set him free.
A free man once again, House traveled, by whatever means available, to the town of Lula, MS, where he would meet musician and performer Charley Patton, a widely admired name in Blues music. The two along with another local bluesman Willie Brown, gigged and played together for some time. While House and Patton were quite discernibly different in their style of performance, they both possessed talent, and a taste for just about any alcohol. They would but heads, they bickered constantly, and in later interviews House would refer to Patton as a variety of different undesirable names. But, eventually it was House who would follow Patton all the way up the river to Grafton, WI, where he began to create recordings with the Paramount record label.
Son continued playing, performing, and honing what had now become a formidable Blues muscle. He began to ease back, and slow down his appearances a bit after cohort Charley Patton’s death in 1934. But, some people would still consider this some of House’s prime years. And those Paramount recordings he captured with Patton would one day lead a man by the name of Alan Lomax to his doorstep. Lomax was travelling with a portable recording machine (then weighing in at not-so-pocket-sized 300 pounds) creating cuts for the Library of Congress, and in 1941 had come to add what House had to offer. After recording a mix of solo and band backed tracks, Son House disappeared. This time, bringing the biggest part of his story to the place most of us call home, Rochester, NY.
House was on a journey to escape some of the drudgery of living in the south. He had all but ceased playing when Willie Brown died as well, and House said “Well, sir, all my boys are gone. That was when I stopped playing. I don’t even know what I did with the guitar”. Living alone, working a job with the railroad line, Son House abandoned the blues. He claimed he hadn’t touched a guitar in years, when a couple of folk-blues researchers, musicians, and enthusiasts who knew him from his records released by Paramount and the Library of Congress, discovered him in a third floor walk-up in Rochester, one thousand miles from Mississippi, and without an instrument in 1964. They had driven all the way to Mississippi to track down the artist, meeting others who knew Son, but never the man himself, eventually learning he had moved to Rochester, NY, and allegedly given up music. The duo of researchers later returned with guitars, and a little liquor to grease the gears, and slowly coaxed Son House back into the house of blues. They worked with the legendary musician, getting him back up to speed, and relearning his some of his signature tunes, and get Son House back to playing like Son House.
The old master got back out on the circuit, playing coffeehouses and festivals. He began recording again and eventually signed with Columbia Records. He played Carnegie Hall in 1965, and was traveling and touring the country shortly there after. House even played in parts of across Europe as part of several folk, blues, and jazz festivals.
House eventually fell to ill health in the late 70’s, and moved to Detroit to be with family when a combination of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases forced him to put down the guitar for good. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980, before he passed away quietly in his sleep in 1988.
About eight miles east of Rochester’s Corn Hill neighborhood where Son House lived for his time in the city, is the rail yard where he spent much of his time and energy during his sabbatical from music. The sign there describing the landmark has what appears to be an odd sized ‘O’ in the Son name, rising slightly above the letters on either side. The sign apparently had originally read as ‘SUN HOUSE’, and the mistake had been corrected by hand, by adding a curved connection to the ‘U’ later on. But in what may be a bit of redemption to make right on it, another sign of sorts was unveiled just last summer. The Mississippi Blues Trail marker is located at the corner of Grieg and Clarissa streets in House’s old neighborhood Corn Hill, and dedicated to the legendary musician. Mayor of Rochester Lovely A. Warren, presented the marker saying, “My grandparents came up from Charleston South Carolina at the same time that Son House was being rediscovered. I grew up listening to them listening to this music. It was of their time and their era”.
Son House inspired contemporaries like Blues icons Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and even current popular musicians like Jack White peg Son House as one of their favorite artists, and largest influences. He came to Rochester to get away from parts of his life, the blues included. But just as many people here can attest to, it’s hard to hide from the music when you live in Rochester, NY.