John Hammond Jr on Son House
As he headlines the Journey To The Son: A Celebration Of Son House festival, one blues legend celebrates the legacy of another.
Are you looking forward to the Son House festival?
"Very much. I did one before and it was really terrific. I mean, Son House spent a lot of time in Rochester. He was quite a presence there. I think he made his last recordings in 1941 and things were kind of drying up for him. So he went to work. He became a pullman porter on the trains, and he did that for about 20 years, and sort of retired up in Rochester. He had a sister there. So he hadn’t played the guitar in 20 years. He’d kind of moved on."
But he was rediscovered in the ’60s, wasn’t he?
“Dick Waterman – who was a writer and photographer, and who managed Bonnie Raitt and other artists – he found out where Son House was living, and he came up, probably in ’63 and said, ‘Well, listen, I can put you back on the road and make you a lot of money playing in colleges and coffee houses’. And Son House was a little sceptical, to say the least.”
So how did Dick convince him?
“Dick found out that Son had forgotten how to play his old songs. So he put him together with a young guitar player in Boston called Al Wilson. This is before Canned Heat started. I think Al was 16 at the time, and he was a blues fanatic. He had a huge collection of 78s, including old Son House, and he was just really familiar with the whole genre. Anyway, Al pretty much retaught Son his own songs, and sure enough, he went back on the road and played a whole lot of shows. Dick also brought Son to see my father [legendary record producer John Hammond Sr] and they recorded an album for Columbia. So that definitely helped him get back on track.”
Do you have any personal memories of Son?
“Back then, I was doing gigs with a lot of the great old guys. Y’know, I was on shows with Bukka White, Skip James, Arthur Crudup, Fred McDowell – all these incredible players. So I was familiar with guys who’d been rediscovered and were back on the road again. I was on a lot of gigs with Son, so I got to see him play and hear all his old stuff. He was kind of shy. He had lost a lot of his confidence. When I played gigs with him, he had a proclivity for whisky. Kids would come backstage and they’d bring him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s or whatever, and he’d just drink it all, forget about it. After a while, he was kinda sloppy, to say the least. At the beginning of the evening, he was rockin’, y’know, but then by the time he’d had way too much to drink, he got kinda sloppy. This is just my opinion.”
Do you remember how you fell for Son House’s music?
“It was just incredible. I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s where Robert Johnson got it from’. You’d hear the rhythms and the melodies: he was definitely a major influence in his day. Death Letter Blues or My Black Mama: those songs were so intense and so perfectly recorded. I mean, it’s just fantastic. It inspired me.”
Did it matter that his guitar playing wasn’t that polished by modern standards?
“Well, in his day, when he was recording, he was right up there. He was a phenomenal guitar player. I think that when he, y’know, got back on the road again, he struggled at first to get his own techniques back, and he was maybe a little bit past his prime. But he had an intensity that you could just not ignore. He was absolutely a dynamic force, back in the day, that influenced a lot of other blues artists. All you’ve gotta do is hear Robert Johnson, and you know he got a whole lot of stuff from Son House.”
What have you got planned for your festival set?
“I know a bunch of Son House songs, so I’ll do some stuff from that era, and whatever else. I’ll play it by ear. Y’know, Death Letter Blues is still one of his most intense songs, and I’ll probably do that. But I never try to duplicate anything. I’ve been inspired by so many artists, and I’ve developed my own style in that same genre. But I’d love to get it right, y’know, so it’s that song but it’s done my way. That’s what I go for.”
Are you expecting any young people?
“I think it’ll be a mix. I think there’s enough interest in the classic blues that it will appeal to everybody. I don’t know who else is on the show, but I imagine the [fans] will be of all ages, from my age down. To be part of a Son House festival is wonderful. A few months ago, I was down in Thomson, Georgia, at the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, and that was also amazing.”
So it’s not all about Miley Cyrus in the States?
“No. I mean, blues definitely has a niche fanbase, but it’s never going to go away. It may not ever be super-popular, but it will always have a presence. I’m very happy to represent it, in whatever way I can.”
Do you think Son House is as revered as he should be?
“He’s not – only because he had stopped playing, during a time when a lot of artists moved to Chicago or Detroit. I think Robert Lockwood and Johnny Shines, y’know, these were artists that maintained their performances. Son House hadn’t played in so long, that his name may not have been that well-known – in the early-’60s, anyway. But once he came back on the scene and there were reissues of his old records made, and the blues scene picked up again in the early-’60s, he was definitely acknowledged and revered. I mean, his early records were so dynamic and so powerful. Once you heard them, you were immediately blown away.”
Journey To The Son: A Celebration Of Son House runs from 26-29th August in Rochester, New York. See www.gevatheatre.org/journey-to-the-son-2/ for details