This is the second post in a series about the legendary blues man, Son House, as Geva prepares for our four-day celebration of his life and legacy in August.
To this day, anyone who ever saw Son House perform can vividly describe what it was like to watch him. Videos, like this one of Son performing “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” can only hint at the energy in his performance. Every description I’ve heard involves a transcendent experience, with Son seeming to leave this world and journey to another, on the wave of his music.
When Skip Greer and I met Dick Waterman, Son’s former manager and one of the three men who found the Mississippi legend living in Rochester, he said “Son was a ferocious live performer – playing the blues took him someplace else – back to the Delta, to Greensville or Tunica. His eyes would roll back in his head and he’d be somewhere else.”
Here’s how an evening with Son on stage might have gone, as Dick shared with us:
“Well…he always had a self-deprecating tone to him. He’d say ‘Well, this is a little piece of blues that I came up with,’ he’d say, ‘I hope you like it. Just a little old piece of song that I put together and I hope you like it.’ And then he would take his slide out of his shirt pocket between songs, put it on his ring finger, and go bop, bop, bop.”
Here, Dick hit his hand against his finger, as if putting on an imaginary slide.
“And then he would sigh and put his left hand down on the slide over the strings. And he would breathe slowly, and then he inhaled and he ripped the slide up the neck. Slide, slide, slide, slide. And head went back and he sat there singing with the most impassioned delivery. And that would go on and on, until the song was over. And then he would slump forward, and take the slide off, and put it back in his shirt pocket. And then, come forward, take his handkerchief out, and mop his face, and then put the handkerchief back, and say ‘This is a little old story, this is. I had a friend named Patterson and he worked on the New York Central with me. And when he took all them nickels and dimes and quarters, and he saved them up but, nah, I didn’t do that. I was drinking up my money, so now, I ain’t got ne’er.'”
“The expression ‘I ain’t got ne’er,'” Dick clarifies for us,”means I have nothing – ne’er is nothing.”
“Death wagon,” Dick laughs. “It’s a hearse!”
“‘He’d come by in that Cadillac death wagon, he’d go BEEP BEEP and he’d be waving at me and I ain’t got but ne’er to my name and he got that Cadillac death wagon because he saves them nickels and dimes coming to us on the New York Central.’ And then he would play Empire State Blues or The Depot Blues.”
You can hear Son House tell that story about the Cadillac death wagon himself on the album “Son House Revisited.”
Did you ever see Son House perform? We’d love to hear what you remember about his style – share your memories in the comments section below!