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Author Topic: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers  (Read 514 times)

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Offline rein

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Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« on: February 10, 2022, 12:57:08 PM »
A short while ago, while browsing the Alan Lomax archives, I stumbled on this hand written letter from Son House to Alan Lomax, written in Rochester in 1943,  https://www.loc.gov/resource/afc2004004.ms230646/?sp=2&fbclid=IwAR1zEV6nRX0hh4DO-wOkaCNmZIpXIYNFDe0ifj79zh5WDpHhFZrCZBIApAo&r=-0.88,-0.127,2.76,1.754,0 ,in which Son House notifies Lomax that he moved north  to Rochester, and expresses an interest in the Almanac Singers and in engaging contact 'at more ease'. Today on their Facebook side the American Folklife Center  presents correspondence between Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger where Son House is also mentioned  (both under aliases) and were it is mentioned that he wants to come to New York.https://www.facebook.com/americanfolklifecenter/posts/320723383433973?__cft__[0]=AZXMxfZLR928dgIsnJTT3VT2k80uSMetHyVKymsLHpLZdmnodK2TESoLjiDbEaAOxOaCwzh-6vmvxoAfsj8yl5tUJYbxFuUvSNwFXMzWXemElsvmkVKPN5WPap-z34jhCyU&__tn__=%2CO%2CP-R
Unfortunately, Alan Lomax did not answer Son House s letter before 1948 and may have lost contact, I believe Alan was in the war. It does show that Son House may not have been so lost at all and makes one wonder what could have been if Son Houses art was more widely appreciated already then.


« Last Edit: February 12, 2022, 01:15:48 AM by rein »

Offline Rivers

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2022, 08:23:42 PM »
rein, interesting, both links are the same though, you might want to modify your post at the second link.

Offline rein

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #2 on: February 12, 2022, 01:20:42 AM »
oops, the second link should work now

Offline Stuart

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #3 on: February 12, 2022, 10:19:42 AM »
Thanks for the correction, rein. Re: Where the letter on the American Folklife Center Facebook page has Son "Stouse" instead of Son "House," Alan Lomax did not type the letter. Down in the lower left hand corner of the letter we see, "AL:mdr." A person using the initials "mdr" typed it. It's possible "Stouse" is mistake and not what Alan Lomax intended.

Offline rein

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #4 on: February 12, 2022, 11:57:16 AM »
I would also be interested in the letter from Son House, may be it is in Pete Seeger s archive... But I found it interesting to see that Alan Lomax was obviously very interested in working with Son House and was trying to make possibilities for him. I am a big fan off Son House myself, borrowing the CD with the LoC sessions from the local library as a teenager was a lifechanging experience for me, but I have always had very complicated feelings about his post 'rediscovery' career. I am too young to have experienced him in person, but when I first saw footage off his performances I was deeply moved, and it is a powerful but sometimes painful experience. Just as reading some articles where young (at the time ) fans nearly boast of sneaking alcohol in and taking him from the custody off his wife, who must have been very aware of what it was she was guarding him from. I really do hope that this 'rediscovery' was beneficial to himself as well. I find this a very hard subject, and can t help but wonder what could have been if it all happened twenty tears earlier, and without twenty years of neglect and bitterness.
I don t mean this in anyway as an attack on the people that worked with Son House, let alone on Alan Lomax, it is just something that is on my mind,
Greetings, Rein

Offline waxwing

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #5 on: February 12, 2022, 12:50:13 PM »
I would think that Son House was rewarded most greatly by an unimaginable change in his self esteem. I believe he was relatively well treated, protected even, by his manager, Dick Waterman, he gigged in Europe, across the US and into Canada at various university and festival venues for almost a decade and was solvent enough to move to Detroit before his death. He also had the knowledge that his lineage, his music, was highly appreciated and would live on. This is a tremendous comfort to any elderly person, but was almost unheard of for someone who lived a life similar to Son House. He had been rediscovered in a state of alcoholism, unable to remember the arrangements he had recorded. Waterson hired Al Wilson, leader of the band Canned Heat (and a record collector along with band member Bob Hite) to teach "Son House how to play like Son House". So House had his powers returned by those same misguided hippies who may have supplied him with an occasional pint before a gig. And let's remember that our general awareness regarding alcoholism has progressed quite a bit over the last half century. I would imagine his home life was probably much better with this feeling of accomplishment and self worth bolstered by the return of his ability to perform his music. This seems very evident in the power of his rediscovery performances. Check out the wikipedia article on him for a brief synopsis of his life.

Just the musings of a retired social worker who worked primarily with the elderly and dying.

Wax
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
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“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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Offline rein

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #6 on: February 12, 2022, 01:56:18 PM »
I just want to make it clear I meant at no time to be critical to anyone. Apparently I failed, and I regret that. Waxwing, I have read a lot of your posts here and have seen many of your videos,and I love them, and I don t think our views  really differ that much. "misguided hippies" are your words and not mine. I am familiar with Son Houses biography ,but I found this bit of Son Houses correspondence with Lomax and the fact that he made his move to Rochester known to him a lesser known part of the narrative. His performances are very powerful indeed and sometimes move me to tears and I am glad they exist. I could not help but wonder how he might have fared if he didnt  have to wait 20 years though.This was just a feeling I have, and as I said, it is complicated, so I don t even myself know what to make of it, and it is subjective by its very nature.
I have great respect for your professional work as well as the work I have seen exhibited in your videos.
I  hope we are good,
Rein
 

Offline Stuart

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #7 on: February 12, 2022, 02:22:55 PM »
In the early 70s I attended a workshop where I was able to sit almost at his feet and listen to him play and sing. Alcohol and dementia had taken their toll and I was almost in tears. That evening he was on stage and treated by some of the audience with extreme disrespect and cruelty. Both the workshop and the concert were parts of a Dick Waterman package. I'll tell you more if we ever meet in person.

As I've mentioned previously, I drove a cab, had many a bar call and saw what alcohol does to people. It's not a pretty picture. People can be heartless and cruel.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #8 on: February 12, 2022, 05:50:20 PM »
Hi rein,
I was trying to put your mind at ease. Alcohol was already a factor in his life and a little enabling probably didn't change much in that area. Yes, as Stuart points out, audiences can be cruel when they turn on you, but I still think the overall effect on House's life was probably more positive than negative in terms of his overall quality of life. There were clearly times when he was treated with due respect. And believe me, having his lost ability to perform returned to him, to the level he was documented playing, was empowering, at least in the moment. If he was already in the decline of dementia, well, legacy matters a lot less when you can't remember anyway. I imagine things were quite different as he declined in the early '70s than they had been in the mid '60s when he was first rediscovered. Perhaps he should have been retired earlier, but it's hard to know what the dynamics were between House and Waterman concerning his continuing to perform.

And hey, I was a "misguided hippie" myself, so that was more making fun of me. I didn't feel you were critical. We're good, rein. And thanks for the kind words.

I hadn't heard that he was still performing with dementia, Stuart. That could certainly be problematic, but does point out the interesting fact that many dementia patients can still sing and play musical instruments even after they have developed aphasia and cannot formulate sentences. They can remember and sing verses, and some people have even learned to sing responses in a conversation, altho that's pretty limited. But I can't tell you how many cases I have been involved with where a family was trying to maintain proper care for a dementia patient who was insisting on continuing to live alone and the doctors were not able to certify loss of capacity to make decisions. Basically a traumatic event has to occur to make it happen. Unbelievably frustrating for all, and I imagine things were far less developed in that regard in the '70s.

In about a year it might become more likely that we would meet (and tell cab driving stories - NYC '82-'84). About 733 miles more likely.

Wax
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
CD on YT

Offline Stuart

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #9 on: February 13, 2022, 01:02:09 PM »
Not all forms of dementia are the same. I only saw Son that one time, so it limits my first hand experience. And I'm not a neurologist with a specialization in dementia, so my impressions are those of a layman. But there is alcohol related dementia (ARD) and alcohol related brain damage (ARBD) and there was definitely cognitive impairment when I saw him. He had suffered a stroke and that may have had negative cognitive effects as well. I don't know whether or not he received a medical diagnosis and medical care re: dementia prior to when I saw him. Many people continue to function effectively for many years after initial symptoms appear, while for other the decline is very rapid.

I remember reading something by Rory Block where she talked about when she knew Son in the 60s. IIRC, she said he was a very dignified gentleman who was deeply rooted in the past. This was in comparison to some other rediscovered musicians who lived in the present moment. Of course, it's a world of individuals and we're not all the same.

His 1930 records and the LoC recordings are those of a very powerful singer, something that hadn't changed when I saw him. Like most of you ,I think about these people as full human beings with complete lives who happened to have musical talent--and not historical or musical curiosities. I hope Son was able to enjoy his post rediscovery years and the recognition he received in spite of life's difficulties, many of them owing to alcoholism.

Offline Vermonter

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Re: Son House Alan Lomax and the almanac singers
« Reply #10 on: April 09, 2022, 04:29:45 PM »
I have a biography of Alan Lomax written by John Szwed. He writes (p 192):
"On July 17, he [Lomax] again visited Son House, who took him to meet Robert Johnson's mother: 'She told us of her son, spoke of God, her great maker, got happy as we left--prophesying in the dusty yard.' Later he recorded House again, and wrote in his note book, 'Slide guitar, metal body: screams in the night, trains ringing down the tracks, the moans of the lovers and those in pain, a sound that Europe had dreamt of, but never heard.' Alan was so moved by his singing that four months later he wrote and asked if he would like to go to New York City to join the Almanacs. It would have changed the direction for the singing group and made a bold public statement, but House was never able to raise the money for the trip."

 


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