Dick Waterman, remembering Son House.
 

It has often been said that Son House owed his entire "rediscovery" career to one man, Dick
Waterman of Avalon Productions. Waterman acted as agent and sometimes producer for many of
the folk bluesmen who lived to enjoy a second career in the 1960s and '70s, including Booker
White, Lightnin' Hopkins, Skip James and many others. On June 21, 1964, Waterman made phone
contact with House, who was at the time living in Rochester, NY. Two days later Waterman arrived
from Mississippi and almost immediately had House on the coffeehouse circuit. Like Booker White
and Skip James, Son House was a major figure from the past who reappeared in the sixties to recall
the powerful, untainted country blues that the small core of blues fans had thought survived only on
scratchy 78s.

Decades of hard living had slowed the hands of the old bluesman, but the field-holler rage of his
voice remained. His 1965 recordings for Columbia are a testament to his power; songs like "Death
Letter" and "John The Revelator" leave the listener with no doubt as to the potency of the man's
music. People were amazed with the intensity of this music coming from a man thought then to be in
his sixties. As it turns out, House was most likely almost eighty years old when these recordings were
made.

Son House's year of birth is listed as 1902 in most sources, and this is the year that appeared on all
his legal documents. However, Waterman believes that Son was considerably older, and places his
birth in the mid 1880s. Apparently House gave conflicting accounts of his age, but Waterman
remembers him once saying he was born in 1886. He also recalls once asking Son about his age,
noting that if he had been born in 1902 then he would have been in his mid-teens during World War
I. Son replied, "No, I was a middle-aged man then, married and living in East St. Louis." Waterman
has also recently heard a recording made in 1965 in which Son gives his age as 79, which would
again establish his year of birth as 1886. If this is indeed the correct year, Son would have been 102
years old at his death in 1988! As Waterman says, "This must be some kind of a commentary on
hard living and bad liquor."

Waterman has an explanation for the confusion surrounding Son's age. In 1943 or '44, Son gave up
music completely and applied for a job as a porter on the New York Central line in Rochester, NY.
Knowing that he would be considered too old for the job, he lied about his age and said he was
born in 1902. His story stuck, and eventually all his legal documents listed this year as his year of
birth.

Waterman feels that House's influence is grossly underrated. "He was the mentor for both Muddy
Waters and Robert Johnson, who are clearly acknowledged as two of the most influential bluesmen
on not only urban blues but ultimately the modern music scene. Son House, through his
ever-expanding style and influence, can be considered a source point for much of what we feel is
contemporary music today." He blames this underappreciation on the paucity of early Son House
recordings: "If in his prime he had been recorded as much as Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson
or Robert Johnson, he would be considered the pre-eminent artist of his time. He would have his
proper appreciation."

House's only pre-rediscovery commercial recordings are the 10 sides he recorded for Paramount in
1930. Early discographies list only nine sides, but "Walking Blues", with Willie Brown on second
guitar, was discovered a few years ago. House did not record again until Alan Lomax made the
famous 1941-42 Library Of Congress field recordings in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. If
Waterman's calculation of House's year of birth is correct, House was in his mid fifties at this time.
Waterman believes the bluesman would have been at his musical peak in the period between his
Paramount sessions and the arrival of Lomax over a decade later.

Thanks to men like Alan Lomax and Dick Waterman, Son House left a recorded legacy that spans
over five decades. He survived many of the next generation of bluesmen on whom he was a
profound influence. His early recordings bear witness to the tormented yet powerful figure that
inspired Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Through the intervention of Dick Waterman, a whole
new generation of blues revivalists like John Hammond, Paul Rishell and John Mooney has been
inspired by Son House's later work. It must be noted that this work was done at a time in his life
when many people would have been long retired.