The story of Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions could start in any number of places—the Mississippi Delta where Son House was born, Massachusetts where Alan Wilson was born, or in Rochester, New York, where Son House was “rediscovered” in the mid-‘60s. Instead, let’s start in Grafton, Wisconsin.
Grafton was the home of Paramount Records, an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company. When the latter company decided to get into the manufacturing of wooden cabinets for phonograph players, it founded the former company in order to have more records to sell customers buying the cabinets, and to make their money coming and going. When Paramount was having problems actually selling records outside of the add-on to their parent company’s cabinets, they tried something radical for a record company in the 1920s: they started recording “race records,” jazz and blues records made by black artists for black audiences. It ran a brisk mail-order business that was wildly successful for the company. (If you want more of the Paramount Records story, read this book by Amanda Petrusich.)
When the Depression hit—and once bigger labels started stealing the few stars Paramount had created, like Blind Lemon Jefferson—Paramount went under. But before they did, they cut sides for a veritable who’s who of jazz and blues in the first half of the 20th century, from Skip James and Fats Waller, to Louis Armstrong and Charley Patton, to Ma Rainey and Geeshie Wiley (subject of this unbelievable John Jeremiah Sullivan story). In 1930, however, Paramount cut a handful of records with arguably the most influential bluesman of all time. Those records tanked commercially, and that bluesman went back to Mississippi and lived the life of a rambling man, where he was a seminal influence on Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and virtually every bluesman who slung a guitar over his back. As you’ve probably deduced by now, that guitar player was Son House.
The story of how the blues became one of the most revered musical forms of the 20th century of course starts with the artists themselves. But blues didn’t take its position in the American pantheon alongside jazz and rock and roll until the late 1950s and 1960s, when mostly white college students—who were swept up in the “folk rock revival”—started “rediscovering” blues acts from the 1920s and 1930s, many of whom who were chronicled in Alan Lomax’s field recordings of folk and blues songs for the Library of Congress. There’s a lot to be said about which blues artists were “rescued” from the anonymity of a boxset—read Elijah Wald’s Escaping The Delta for more on how the actual artists beloved by black blues records purchasers in the 1920s and ‘30s have been essentially written out of history—but, eventually, white blues lovers made their way through the Library of Congress collections, and went on “journeys” to find the bluesmen who recorded those songs. In the case of some of them--like Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Skip James, and more—they were booked for Newport Folk Festival, and on university tours, and got to have a second career playing for largely white audiences in venues much bigger than the juke joints and bars they played in when they were working musicians the first time.
The “rediscovery” of Son House became a “journey” for a trio of record collectors in 1964, as he became something of a specter over the blues revival, as multiple bluesmen—chief among them, Muddy Waters—sang Son House’s praises over the influence of Delta Blues. The three collectors went to the Delta, towing Son House’s music, and not much else, and asked after him.
What they didn’t know was that Son House had quit music in 1943, the year after he cut his handful of songs that appeared on the Library of Congress compilations. Despite influencing everyone, Son House’s recorded career amounted to fewer than 30 songs, a bunch of dates in juke joints and not much else. He quit music, and moved to Rochester, New York, and worked on the railroad and as a chef.
When he was finally tracked down in Rochester, he had no idea that there was blues revival, that people had been looking for him, or even that those sides he recorded 30 years earlier had made any impact except for the few people who bought them in their day. The guys who rediscovered Son House naturally had dreams of managing him, and helping him get on the folk circuit, and making a comeback.
There was a problem beyond there being no music to reissue to make him some extra scratch. Son House had barely touched a guitar in more than 20 years.
That’s where Alan Wilson comes in.
Alan Wilson was born in 1943, the same year that Son House quit music. Like a lot of kids who were teenagers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he became obsessed with the blues, engrossing himself in the Bukka White, Skip James, John Lee Hooker, and, of course, Son House, recordings. He tuned his singing voice into something resembling James’, and in 1965, Wilson would move to L.A. and form Canned Heat, singing on their two biggest hits, “On the Road Again” and the eternal “Going Up The Country.”
Wilson was knocking around Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1964 when Bukka White came through on a coffeehouse gig. Wilson talked to White, and learned that Son House was still alive, and might be down in Mississippi or Memphis. Wilson and three of his friends made schemes to go set out after him. Wilson ended up not going—citing his calendar full of gigs playing blues covers in clubs around Cambridge-- but his friends tracked Son House down 400 miles west of Cambridge in Rochester, New York. They eventually convinced him to come down to Cambridge and try to relaunch his career and get what was rightfully his in the blues revival (read more about this here).
It didn’t take long for Wilson and his pals to realize that House couldn’t play like he used to; he had a tremor from years of alcoholism, and he was out of practice. He still had that powerful voice, and wanted to get back into playing shows. So, Wilson—who could play guitar, and was intimately familiar with the Son House catalog thanks to covering it when he performed around Cambridge—set about living the blues revivalists dream: he got to help Son House remember how to play like Son House again. They sat down for a couple hours every day, with Wilson saying things like "You played it like this in 1930" and House being reminded of his own playing. With Wilson’s help, Son House eventually remembered enough of his playing style and his old songs to play at the Newport Folk Festival, Ground Zero for the blues revival.
After a protracted bidding war, Son House signed to Columbia Records with John Hammond, legendary Columbia Records man who among many other things, organized the reissue of Robert Johnson's recordings, and signed Bob Dylan. Because Son House didn’t have a wealth of reissuable material, the decision was made pretty quickly to have him cut as much new material as he possibly could in three days in early 1965. Since House always played alone in the ‘30s, the decision was made to have him cut his sessions alone too, with a couple exceptions: he wanted someone to play supporting guitar and harmonica on a couple tracks. So that’s how Alan Wilson, Canned Heat guitarist, ended up credited on “Empire State Express,” “Levee Camp Moan” (both versions) and “Yonder Comes My Mother.”
Wilson and Son House’s relationship didn’t end with Father of the Delta Blues; you can also hear Wilson back House up on John the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions. That year is significant, because it’s also the year Wilson died. In September of 1970, Wilson was found dead on a hill in Topanga Canyon. He died of a barbiturate overdose, but the consensus over whether it was accidental or suicide is unclear. He was 27 years old.
House toured Europe extensively that year, before ultimately retiring from music again in 1974. His place in the pantheon was secured by then, 10 years after Wilson and his buddies found him in Rochester. He died in 1988, at age 86, outliving many of the bluesmen he influenced, and eventually influencing another wave of blues bands like the White Stripes. And thanks to a kid who got him to remember his musical power, richer in royalties than them too.