Today (February 16), American Songwriter is premiering the newest (posthumous) release, “Forever On My Mind,” from blues legend Son House.
The new music, which is part of a bigger collection of music of the same name, will drop on March 18 on Dan Auerbach’s independent label, Easy Eye Sound.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the song,” says Auerbach, frontman for the Black Keys, of finding the track. “To find out it was an unreleased song, it was a dream come true. I’m still pinching myself.”
“Upon hearing it, I was haunted by this particular Son House song and lyrics and thought about rumination, being a trace of one’s self lost in the eroded and overgrown lands of the past,” says the video’s director, Robert Schober.
Check out the song, “Forever On My Mind,” and the accompanying video below.
Son House (aka Edward James “Son” House Jr.) was born on March 21, 1902, and passed away on October 19, 1988. During his life, he helped define the Mississippi Delta blues tradition.
The new collection, Forever on My Mind, is an album of previously unreleased Son House recordings. The songs came to Easy Eye Sound via Son House’s former manager, Dick Waterman, who had his own personal cache of recordings from the musician that dated back to the 1960s. Until now, they were unreleased and relatively unheard of before.
“I always knew that I wanted this body of tape that I had to come out together, as The Avalon Collection or The Waterman Tapes, as sort of my legacy” said Waterman in a statement. “They were just here at my home, on a shelf. I had made a few entrees to record companies, but nothing had really come through. I thought that Dan Auerbach would treat the material with reverence and respect.”
“Easy Eye Sound makes blues records, and not many people make blues records anymore. This record continues where we started off, with our artists Leo Bud Welch and Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes and Robert Finley. It also is part of my history—some of the first blues music I heard was Son House,” added Auerbach. “I was raised on his Columbia LP, Father of Folk Blues. My dad had that album and would play it in the house when I was a kid, so I know all those songs by heart.”
Son House, who had labored as a foundry worker, railroad porter and cook, among other jobs, after moving from Mississippi to New York in 1943, decided to make a return to music at the urging of his enthusiastic young fans.
“He had been living in a [retirement] home with his wife, and they weren’t doing anything but living on Social Security,” Waterman explained. “So, it was the opportunity to make some money that put us out on a tour.”
Son House was then outfitted with a new steel-bodied National resonator guitar, the instrument he had played on his early recordings, and Al Wilson, later famous as the guitarist and singer of the Los Angeles blues-rock band Canned Heat, gave him a refresher course in his own music.
“Son and Al would play knee to knee with the guitar. Al would say, ‘This is what you called “My Black Mama” in 1930,’ and would play it for him,” Waterman said. “And then he would say, ‘This is what you called “My Black Woman” for Lomax 12 years later,’ and he would play that, and Son would play along with him until the two of them were really rolling along. And Son would say, ‘I got my recollection now, I got my recollection now.’”
Son House, who to date had only performed before Black audiences in Southern juke houses, would now be introduced to a young and entirely new group of listeners via a tour of colleges and universities.
“He hadn’t played in front of white people at all,” Waterman said.
Waterman scheduled some college engagements, including shows at Oberlin College in Ohio, Shimer College in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, and the University of Chicago, where local blues fan Norman Dayron recorded at least part of the November 21, 1964, show; a single track later surfaced on the 1980 Takoma Records LP Rare Blues. But the Wabash College appearance two days later was caught on tape in full.
“Wabash did the taping, and then they later gave me the reel-to-reel tape,” Waterman said. “The show was held in kind of an assembly hall. There were a few dozen [in the audience]—there may have been up to 50 people, something like that. They were quiet and polite during the performance … There were no barriers, there were no filters between him and the audience. He was just giving them the plain, unvarnished Delta material, as he knew it and as he sang it.”
Five of the eight songs heard on Forever on My Mind were later released in studio versions on House’s Columbia LP. Another two songs that he played at Wabash College, renditions of his Delta contemporary Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” and the gospel blues standard “Motherless Children,” were recorded by the label but went unreleased until 1992.
The eighth number heard on the Easy Eye Sound release, the titular “Forever on My Mind,” was never attempted in a recording studio, but it would be essayed from time to time in House’s concert performances; There is film footage of him playing it at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. On the present album, the song, which contains snatches of his friend Willie Brown’s classic “Future Blues” and his own “Louise McGhee,” serves as a living lesson in the improvisatory Delta blues tradition.
“There are certain songs that he would play, go into an open G tuning,” Waterman said, “and just play things at a certain meter. And some of these songs borrowed verses from each other.”
“He sounds like he’s in a trance, and his singing is so nuanced here,” said Auerbach. “He’s very playful with his phrasing, just right on the money with his singing and playing. It sounds so right to me—top form Son House.”
Photo courtesy Conquero