Getting Ready to Celebrate: Son House’s Life

Journey to the Son, our four-day celebration of blues great Son House, kicks off in just six days! In case you need to brush up on your Son House history before the festival – which will feature presentations, panel discussions and a play about Son’s life – we’ve put together this timeline to help you get the facts straight.

NOTE: Because most of what we know about Son’s life comes from interviews with Son himself, and because he didn’t always give the same answers, many dates in this timeline are approximate.

son house 2013 pixThis timeline is indebted to the great work of Daniel Beaumont, in his book Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, available for purchase at bookstores and online!

1902: Eddie “Son” House Jr. was born March 21, 1902 in Lyon, Mississippi, just north of Clarksdale. Of his father, Son said “I only knew him to do three things. Blow his bass horn with his brothers. And he’d play guitar a little bit when he wasn’t with his brothers. And blacksmith. Those three things. And drink corn liquor. That made four. That’s it.”[1]

1916-1920: Son’s parents separated, and his mother took Son and his siblings to Tallulah, Louisiana. He got a job gathering moss in Algiers, a suburb of New Orleans. During this time, Son also worked shining shoes, and later recollected the daily visits of his customer Louis Armstrong.

1917-1930’s: Around this time, Son was a preacher, and spent much of these years in and out of the pulpit. He would leave the church when rumors about his drinking or womanizing began to spread, but he’d eventually return to preaching as a way of making a living, even after he started playing the blues.

1921: Son moved back to the Clarksdale area, and met and married Carrie Martin and moved with her to Centerville, Louisiana. The marriage did not last long after Son began to suspect that she had married him because he was young and could be manipulated.

1922-1927: Son traveled the South, working a variety of odd jobs including ranching, serving as a deckhand on a riverboat, on a trolley in Memphis, a train line in Kentucky, and on levee gangs on the Delta.

1927: Son happened to walk past a Saturday evening frolic, or house party, in a town just outside of Clarksdale and heard Willie Wilson, Reuben Lacey or James McCoy playing the slide guitar (In different interviews, Son gave conflicting answers). In an interview in 1965, he told Julius Lester “This boy, Willie Wilson, had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, you know. I said ‘Jesus! Wonder what’s that he’s playing?’ I knew that guitars hadn’t usually been sounding like that. So I eases up close enough to look and I see what he has on his finger. ‘Sounds good!’ I said. ‘Jesus! I like that!’ And from there, I got the idea and said, ‘I believe I want to play one of them things.'” He bought a used, broken guitar for $1.50 and Willie Wilson helped him repair the guitar and taught him how to play with an open G tuning. Within weeks, Son was playing at parties throughout the Delta.

1928 or 1929: At a house party, Son shot and killed a man named Leroy Lee. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to five years at Parchman Prison Farm. He was released by 1930, after the judge was prevailed upon by a planter to let him go. The judge told him never to set foot in Clarksdale again. Son replied, “I told him I could cover as much territory as a red fox if he turned me loose.”

1930: Son moved to Lula, Mississippi, a town about 20 miles from Clarksdale. There, Son busked outside of the train station, and then a woman named Sara Knights asked him to play in front of her cafe, to attract clientele to her business. While playing and living with Sara, Son met Charley Patton, and the two began to play gigs together.

Spring, 1930: Arthur Laibley offered Charley Patton a recording deal with Paramount Records – a subsidiary of a Wisconsin furniture store. Laibley invited Son to record with Patton, and gave them money to cover the expense of traveling to Grafton, Wisconsin. For this session, Patton also introduced Son to Willie Brown, which was the beginning of a very close friendship. House recorded “My Black Mama” and “Preachin’ the Blues,” as well as “Clarksdale Moon,” “Mississippi County Farm Blues” and “Walking Blues” on 78s. He probably made more than $300 up front on these recordings.

Son-House-by-Dick-Waterman1930: At some point in this year, Son met Robert Johnson, who begged Son to teach him how to play. After resisting for some time, Son began to teach Johnson the basics. Johnson disappeared for some time in 1931, and returned six months later with new incredible musical skills.

1934: Son, Patton and Brown recorded a series of Christian songs, billing themselves as “The Locust Ridge Saints,” at HC Speir’s store in Jackson, Mississippi. This, ironically, ended Son’s preaching career.

April 28, 1934: Charley Patton died. He had a heart disease which was blamed on childhood rheumatic fever.

November 27, 1934: In Robinsonville, Mississippi, Son married Evie Goff. He became step-father to Evie’s three children, and the household was completed by Evie’s mother, who also lived with them. Son’s mother-in-law’s deeply felt religion prohibited Son from playing the blues at home, but he continued to play in juke joints, sometimes accompanied by Evie.

September 3, 1941: Alan Lomax recorded Son House, Willie Brown and a few other band members for the Library of Congress on a Preston Model Y at Clark’s Grocery Store, just east of Highway 61. House played “Levee Camp Blues,” “Government Fleet Blues,” “Walking Blues,” “Delta Blues” and “Shetland Pony Blues” (the latter was the only one that Son sang alone).

July 17, 1942: Son was again recorded by Lomax for the Library of Congress, and this time, he sang all ten tracks alone. Lomax had a run-in with the plantation manager, who was angry that he hadn’t been asked permission by Lomax for the recording, and was detained the entire next day at the sheriff’s office, trying to straighten the situation out.

1943: Son left Mississippi and moved to Rochester, New York, where he lived in near-obscurity. In Rochester, he worked at Symington-Gould, a foundry manufacturing armor plating for tanks and bombers. This job was followed by work at the Merchant’s Despatch Company in East Rochester making box cars for the railroad, and then by ten years as a porter on the New York Central.

1951 or ’52: Son convinced Willie Brown to move to Rochester too. He sent Willie a ticket and traveling money, so Willie came, along with his girlfriend. After a falling out, Willie sent his girlfriend back down South. Soon after, Willie became homesick and went back to Mississippi himself.

December 31, 1952: Willie Brown died. Of the death of his closest friend and musical companion, Son said “Well, sir, all my boys are gone.” He was bereft, and stopped playing music.willie brown gravestone

October 8, 1955: Son House killed a migrant worker at the Cutchogue Labor Camp, a potato farm on Long Island. The man had been stealing money from House, and had finally pushed Son too far. Nine days later, a jury dismissed the case, accepting Son’s claim of self-defense. It’s unclear exactly why Son was at the labor camp in the first place.

1957: Son House left the railroad and began to work a series of menial jobs.

1962: The 1941 Library of Congress recordings were reissued.

1963: Two more compilations were re-issued. And, the liner notes in a reissue of Robert Johnson’s Columbia recordings mentioned Son House as a major influence on Johnson.

61 Greig StreetSpring, 1964: Son House and Evie moved to 61 Greig Street, where Son met his neighbor, Joe Beard. Beard had grown up in Ashland, MS and Memphis and moved to Rochester in the 1950’s. Beard also played guitar, and the two quickly became friends, spending many evenings passing a guitar back and forth, sharing songs and stories with each other.

June 23, 1964: Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and Phil Spiro made connection with Son in Rochester, after searching for him in Mississippi.

July 23, 1964: Waterman and Perls drove House to Newport to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. Unfortunately, Son had to be taken to the hospital with abdominal pains, and was unable to perform in the festival.

July 24, 1964: The Rochester race riots began. They would last for four days and be over by the time Son returned to Rochester.

August, 1964: Son played the Unicorn Coffee Shop in Boston and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. His career had been revived, leading to tours and performances all over the country and in Europe.

April 12-14, 1965: Son House recorded a record for Columbia, with the studio set up like a small club. The album would contain 9 songs.

May 12, 1965: Columbia Records’ jazz and blues producer John Hammond announced the signing of Son House to a one-record contract. He received a $1,000 advance. The session had actually taken place a month earlier.

June 17, 1965: Son played at the New York Folk Festival, held at Carnegie Hall. Muddy Waters joined him on the bill.

July, 1965: Son played at the Newport Folk Festival, and live recordings of his performances were released later that year by Vanguard.

July 1966: Son played again at the Newport Folk Festival, and Evie went with him. The two sang a spiritual together onstage.

1968: CBS’ Camera 3 filmed Son performing for a national TV audience, accompanied by Buddy Guy.

November, 1969: The Seattle Folk Society filmed Son at a concert, called Bukka White and Son House: Masters of the Country Blues.

Late 1969: Johnny Parth’s Australian label Roots released The Vocal Intensity of Son House.

 June and July, 1970: Son performed in Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival and throughout Great Britain, touted in English musical journals as “Your Last Chance to See the Son.”

1970-1975: House would join musicians John Mooney and Brian Williams in gigs at venues in Rochester, like the Wine Press, the Genesee Co-op and Red Creek.son 1974

July 1974: Son played at the Toronto Island Blues Festival – his final public performance.

1976: Son House and Evie moved to Detroit, to be closer to her children, who had moved there to live with their father in the 1940’s, when Evie moved to Rochester.

1980: Son was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

October 19, 1988: Son House died of cancer of the larynx.

1997: The Detroit Blues Society placed a new marker on Son’s grave, reading “Father of the Blues.”

April 15, 1999: Evie House died.

2013: Son House was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame

August 26-29, 2015: Geva Theatre Center produces Journey to the Son, a festival celebrating the life and legacy of Son House.

[1] On a recording by Harry Oster, April 24, 1965. Now part of the collection of The American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

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