Dick Waterman Remembers Son House
If you enjoy listening to blues artists such as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Pete Williams, and Bonnie Raitt, you owe a debt of thanks to Dick Waterman. Through his Avalon Productions, the first booking agency to handle blues artists, Dick promoted all of these artists and many others. He managed their careers, booked their shows, photographed them, oversaw their publicity, arranged payments and passports, helped negotiate record deals, and guarded their well being. He played an essential role in the rediscovery of Son House.
Waterman’s other richly deserved claim to fame is photography. During the past half-century, he’s snapped enduring images of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, young Bob Dylan, a veritable who’s-who of postwar blues, and many others. His acclaimed book Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive gathers his stories and images, as does his website at www.dickwaterman.com. On September 7, 2012, Ryan Rhea and I journeyed from Pure Guitar‘s Memphis headquarters to Dick’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, to talk about his close encounters with the blues. We began our conversation speaking about Mississippi John Hurt, and quickly segued to Son House. Since Dick’s a natural-born storyteller with a gift for imitating others, we’re also presenting the audio version of this interview.
Full audio interview and transcription:
I saw Mississippi John Hurt at Newport ’63, and I was profoundly affected by that. He was all the good things. When you think of blues people, it’s with a sense of sadness. But if you mention Mississippi John to Maria Muldaur or John Sebastian or Stefan Grossman, it’s a smile. He just [smiles] – yeah. He was only ’63 to ’66 – just three years. But he had so much! He was just such a positive guy. He was not the smartest guy in the room. He didn’t talk a lot. But he’d be sitting there, and people’d be standing and talking, talking, talking. And John would look up and make a remark, and you went [snaps fingers], “Well, yeah! Of course.”
When you heard him play guitar, did you feel you were hearing blues music as well as lot of the music that came before?
He didn’t play really black music. In other words, he played of a style that was an East Coast Piedmont style. It was more ragtime, and Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake and young Brownie McGhee. It’s just when you’re 65, 70 years old, and people look at you and you’re picking – well, he’s been doing that for half a century. That’s how he could do that. He was a magnificent instrumentalist. His speaking voice was very low and gravelly, but his singing voice was high and thin. He had that innate, inexplicable quality to speak to everyone individually in the club, in the concert hall, at the festival. He had that individual ability to just be talking to you.
I took him to see the Beatles double feature – I took him to see A Hard Days Night and Help! So he was at the Gaslight, a little club on McDougal, and he was tuning between songs. The Gaslight was a long, thin club, and where the stage was, there’s a little light spill, over onto the aisle. So I was standing there, and John is tuning. He said, “Me and Dick, we went to the movin’ picture shows this afternoon. The same boys was in both of them pictures. What was the name of them boys, Dick?” I went, oh, Jesus, I’m going to be crucified here. I said, “The Beatles!” And the crowd went, “Uh.” You know, it was a coffeehouse club. They went, “Uh! You took John Hurt to see the Beatles?!” He said, “Them boys was funnin’. I knew they was just play actin’. They was jumpin’ around in the snow, and they was playin’ electric guitars, but they weren’t plugged into nothin’, so I knew they was just funnin’ on them guitars.” He was just a sweet man, just a lovely, lovely man.
How would you compare his personality to Son House’s?
Well, they were pretty much all different. John Hurt always wore a hat. So he lowered his head until his hat shadowed his eyes, so that there was no glare and he could see faces in the front. And he worked to faces. He worked to the individuals. He brought his head down until his eyes were shaded, and then he could see people. Skip James played out over the heads of the audience, to the blank wall. He played to no one.
Son House was very different. Between songs, he sat way back in his chair, and he spoke really softly. You had to bring the sound up, because he was just above a whisper. And he would tell some story that always cast himself in a bad light – that he never saved his money, that he drank too much, that he did this and that, that he was the butt of all the stories. But when it came time to play, he would righten himself up and put his slide on his finger, and lay his slide down. And then he sat up. And then there was this pause, and he took a breath, and he took a breath. And then suddenly he’d just rip the slide, rip the slide, rip the slide – up, up, up, and the steel body would just rock back and forth. And he just roared into a song. His eyes would close, and the sweat broke out on his forehead, and he just went somewhere. He went somewhere. He went to 1928 or 1936. And he went to Walls or Lulu or Greenville or Robinsonville. He just transported himself. His eyes closed, and the songs would go as long as it took – eight minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen minutes. And then, when the song ended, [imitates Son sighing] he went back in his chair again. And he would take the slide off, put it in his shirt pocket, lean forward, take the handkerchief out of his back pants pocket, wipe his face, and then he looked at the room and he blinked and he blinked. And he came back. He came back to the here and the now.
He kind of looked around at where he was, and he’d mop the sweat off him. And then he would put the handkerchief back in his pocket and tell another story. “This is a little ol’ piece of blues that I hope you like.” He would tell a story again about how he hadn’t saved his money and he drank too much. And then he would reach in his pocket and take the slide and put it on his finger, pop pop. And lay the slide down on the neck of the guitar and sigh a couple of times, and then sit up, and then rip the slide, rip the slide. His eyes closed, and he went somewhere. It was an amazing thing that he would, like, just leave you. He didn’t leave you physically, but he just went to some other place in time. It was an absolutely amazing thing, that he could do this. But it was the only way. If he was playing to three or four people in somebody’s apartment, or a club, or the Ann Arbor Blues Festival – big stadium – he only did it one way. He could only do it that one way.
Muddy and Wolf, who knew him in the late ’30s, early ’40s, they just held him in such high esteem that when he was performing, I would look at the face of Muddy or Jimmy Reed or Wolf or some of the other people around him, and his greatness was written on their face. Buddy Guy, who’s going to get the Kennedy Center Award, said, “That old man is playing another kind of music from the rest of us.”
Muddy Waters said, “Don’t you ever, ever, ever mock on that man!”
Didn’t you witness one time where one of Muddy’s musicians kind of made a face at Son when he was leaving the room? What happened there?
That was at Carnegie Hall, ’65, New York Folk Festival. Son came in the room. I was carrying his guitar. And he was walking behind me with that rocking walk of older people – they’ve got a kind of rocking walk. And one of Muddy’s sidemen, you know, poked another one with an elbow. “Look at that old man there.” And Muddy was not a physical guy, you know, but Muddy just grabbed him, raced up and grabbed him! He said, “Don’t you be mockin’ on that man! Don’t you ever, ever, ever mock on that man! When I was a boy comin’ up, that man was King! You hear me? That man was King!” He said, “If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t have a job. ‘Cause if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here now.” And everybody went [in a reverential whisper], “Wow.”
Were you the man who took Son House up to meet John Hammond at Columbia?
Will you tell me about that?
What happened was after I found Son, the assumption was we were going to go to Delmark, which was in business then, or Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie, which was also in business at that time. But I figured John Hammond had been instrumental in putting out the first Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, which had come out about ’62. So his love for Robert Johnson was certainly well known. So if Robert was dead, why not Robert’s mentor? Why not? My feeling was, try for the highest, and if you fail, you could fail down to two or five or eight or ten. You’ve always got Arhoolie and Delmark waiting for you if all else fails. So I went to Columbia first. Now, Columbia at that point was the biggest, most widely distributed record label in the world, whether it was Johnny Mathis, Eddy Arnold – they were the biggest, most widely distributed label in the world. So I contacted John Hammond, and he said, “Oh, definitely. Absolutely. Definitely. Yes, we want him.” So April of ’65 – I think April 12, 13, 14, three days – we were in New York.
So we were in John Hammond’s office, and there was never a matter of money or things like that. We wanted in Columbia. So we were sitting in the office and he came in. Shook hands, got behind the desk, and just started: “You don’t know how excited I am! How just what a thrill this is! You know, in 1938 I put on the Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, and I sent word down that I wanted Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson at Carnegie Hall – can you imagine that? Count Basie, Hot Lips Page, and all those great . . . . Can you imagine what it would have been like to have Robert Johnson? Ahh.”
And I look at Son, and Son has crossed one leg over the other. And he’s reached for a cigarette, and he’s looking out the window at New Jersey. And I know he’s out of this conversation. He’s just left. And John tal
ked about Robert – Robert being dead, and the word coming back that Robert was dead, and how much he’d really wanted to sign Robert Johnson and found out he was dead. So I looked at Son, and Son just wasn’t even in the room, anyway. John didn’t show any signs of slowing down, so I said, “Mr. Hammond?” “Yes, yes?” I said, “You know that Son was the mentor, and Robert was the protégé. So Son really really doesn’t have any real concept of how Robert has become really well known over the years. That Son, being a great musician with his own talent, and I think we should address that. Let’s talk about that.” And he looked at me and he went, “Oh, oh. Yes, of course! Of course! Son, we’re just so pleased to have you here, I can’t tell you how happy we are to have you, blah, blah, blah.”
But he was really ready to talk about Robert over a long period of time.
Son never really saw a great Robert Johnson with a great career, if, in fact, he had one. He recorded twice – ’36, ’37 – and then died that following year, ’38. So it’s not like he had a long career, but there were successful people at that time. Lonnie Johnson – long career. Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell – long career. Robert kind of flashed across, made two wonderful albums, and then died.
Didn’t you two go to a bar and you said, “Here’s to signing with Columbia”?
Yeah, that happened. We went downstairs. I’m not much of a drinker. I had a beer, and Son had a double bourbon, double Jack Daniels – hold the ice. So I said, “Here’s to John Hammond, to signing to Columbia.” And he picked up his glass and said, “Here’s to Robert Johnson, for being dead.”
Do you have insight into Son House’ final years? What was going on?
Nothing. When I found him, I said to him, “There are young white people who have your Paramount recordings from 1930, and your Lomax recordings from the early ’40s. They know the songs. They’re out in LP, and people buy them. People know your name and know your material.” Which got a shrug. It basically was, if I wanted to find work for him, go to Rochester and get him and take him out on the road, he would do it. But if I left him alone, that was okay too. And that was the entire thing. There was never any enthusiasm, either at home, in anticipation of going . . . . There was never any real feeling of excitement when he was in London or Berlin or Carnegie Hall. No nothing. He was just plain and ordinary. In another words, he had one thing that he could do, and he did it. He had no real excitement. There was never any showman-like “I’m gonna put an act together.” He had some stories he told, and he knew where the laughs were.
It’s an interesting thing about how bluesmen felt about how white people recorded them. When we got to London – ’67, I guess it was – the English Melody Maker and New Music Express and a lot of journalists were there, full of questions. “What’s this you’re saying in ‘My Black Mama’? What are you saying here on this whatever?” And Son would listen to it, and Son would just shrug. And he said, “You know, it don’t really matter, because I would of changed it around the next time anyway.”
You see, a songster – Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt – they take a song and they polish it. They take great pride that they do it exactly the same way each time. A bluesman internalizes the material and brings it forth differently. That’s why the Robert Johnson alternate takes are so important, because they show that from minute to minute different songs, different versions, different attitudes. The two versions of “Come on In My Kitchen” are very different. One is soothing, sexual, enticing, inviting. The other version is bold, strident, commanding. And they were done just moments apart.
So Son in London would say, “You know, I done that song this way, but if I come to do it again, I’d have changed them around some. So what you’re listening to was just that one.” And he’s right. In another words, if he had done that song a second take or third take, and the record producer sitting in Grafton, Wisconsin, said, “That’s the take! That’s the one we’re gonna release.” Then the others just melt away, as if they don’t exist. And the arbitrary choice of which version to release is the one that goes forward through the decades. Whereas to the bluesman himself, it was “I’d have done it different a couple minutes before or a couple minutes after. I’d have mixed up the words and done it different. That just is the one that they liked.” In other words, the version that you’re hearing in the 1960s, 35 years after he had done it, only happened to be somebody else’s choice of which version was going to stand forever.