Son House, who died in March 1988, was one of the original Delta bluesmen, who began singing and playing guitar in 1927, and within a short time became a blues legend. Friends with Charlie Patton, he recorded nine classic songs for Paramount Records in the 1930s and was a major influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. After recording for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1942, he quit playing and moved to Rochester, New York. His music career was revived, however, after his re-discovery in the mid-sixties, recording and touring America and Europe.
His life and later career were marred by his alcoholism – Howlin’ Wolf told him, “You had a chance with your life, but you ain’t done nothin’ with it…See, you in love with one thing, and that’s some whiskey.” Nevertheless, House managed some remarkable live performances and recordings at this time and the songs on Forever on My Mind are from 1964, from a taped performance at Wabash College in Indiana obtained by House’s manager and blues curator Dick Waterman. [check out our review of Waterman’s biography here]
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label is restoring and releasing Waterman’s archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and Forever on My Mind is the first instalment. The sound quality on the album is great and it contains eight classic House songs, including Preachin’ Blues, Death Letter, Pony Blues and Levee Camp Moan.
House was first gripped by hearing the sound of glass on steel – the bottleneck slide – when, as a young pastor, he strolled past a house where a party or “frolic” was taking place. He stopped to listen. “Wonder what’s that he’s playing? I knew that guitars hadn’t usually been sounding like that. So I eases up close enough to look,” House said. “Sheez, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things.”
Whereupon he got himself a guitar, albeit with only 5 strings and a hole in the back and learned to play it, after Willie Wilson (who was the bluesman at the frolic whom he had heard) fixed it up for him. With his guitar tuned in Open G, he soon was “zinging it” as he called it, with the bottleneck slide. Within a matter of weeks, he was out earning money at gigs. And as he said himself, “I kept on playing and got better and better.”
And on Forever On My Mind, there’s plenty of “zinging,” House working his resonator skilfully in accompaniment to his characteristically expressive vocals. The songs sound, perhaps, more reflective and calmer than other recordings, though they still drip with emotion.
Many people will know Death Letter from his videoed 1965 performance (with 3.5m views on YouTube), which is frantic and anguished. House made the song a centrepiece of his live shows during the 1960s, often playing it more than once during a concert. About a man who learns by letter of the death of the woman he loves and who later views her body at the morgue, Paul Du Noyer said the song is “one of the most anguished and emotionally stunning laments in the Delta blues œuvre.”
The version of Death Letter included here is a much calmer version, the slide playing more nuanced. Given the nature of the song, though, it is by no means mellow, and House expresses the tragedy masterfully.
Preachin’ Blues has a nice combination of slide work on both strummed chords and single notes and, no matter how often you hear it, the song is always arresting. This song was something of a signature song for House and it vividly describes the tussle between the church and the blue devils for his soul – a tussle the church kept losing. He sang:
Oh, and I had religion Lord this very day But the womens and whiskey, well they would not let me pray.
By all accounts House had been an accomplished preacher. Yet, for most of his preaching career, he was living a double life, drinking and womanizing. In Preachin’ the Blues, a deacon jumps up in church and accuses the minister:
Another deacon jumped up and said, “Why don’t ya hush?” “You know you drink corn liquor and your life’s a horrible stink.”
Which might well be an accusation that House either had thrown at himself or felt should have been thrown at him. And his disillusionment with religion, or at least his disillusionment with himself as a worthy church leader, comes out in these lines from the song:
Yes, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church. You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won’t have to work.
The title track is real, old time Delta blues, bleak but articulated beautifully by House and accompanied mostly by sparse single note guitar work. Never officially recorded and released before, it’s a fine introduction to forty-five minutes of blues history, the recordings superbly re-mastered by Easy Eye Sound.
The final song is another Son House classic, Levee Camp Moan. Levee camps were temporary settlements along the Mississippi River for about 60 years until 1940 for workers on the earthen levees that run along both sides of the river’s banks. The workforce was almost entirely black men who were fearfully exploited – forced to work long work hours, paid badly and harshly disciplined. House’s song laments a man’s separation from his woman and the problem in their relationship “when I done not get the check.”
The album gives us Son House at the peak of his abilities, sober, and singing and playing with passion and clarity. Dick Waterman said of the concert: “The show was held in kind of an assembly hall. There were a few dozen, there may have been up to fifty 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.”
Plain and unvarnished it may be, but it sounds fresh and clear. Waterman and Easy Eye have given us a great gift in these wonderful recordings of quintessential Delta blues by one of the masters.
Paul Cowley upends everything you might expect of an acoustic country bluesman. He’s never been to Mississippi and says he has no desire to go; he’s a white English guy living in the French countryside; he heard the blues for the first time when he was about 40; and he started playing the guitar late in life because an uncle had left him on in his will.
And yet…Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, has a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition and has become an outstanding exponent of that tradition, whether it’s re-interpreting songs from the past or writing his own.
He has five albums behind him and we thought his 2018 Just What I Know was outstanding. He has now released Long Time Comin‘, with twelve acoustic blues songs, five traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and seven originals. This one’s even better.
I review a lot of albums, some of which I like, some not really so much, some of it very worthy, great musicianship, maybe important lyrically – but it’s always good to listen to something that is just…well…enjoyable. And that’s what you’ll find with Long Time Comin’.
I got talking to Paul in his home in Brittany about his music. I asked him first of all about the album’s title – in the title track he sings, “I’ve got my mojo, I’ve found my voice.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “For many years I’ve questioned what I do, how I sing, how I play. Should I do something different? But over more than a 20-year period I’ve now arrived at this point with age, wisdom and all the rest of it. And actually, it’s just me being me, and I can’t do any more than that really. I’ve always wanted to be authentically me. I don’t want to study John Lee Hooker for ten years and become a fantastic interpreter of John Lee Hooker. I’ve done what I do long enough that I have my own unique style and take on this music. So over a period of time, it’s become a sort of definite style. The songs I write, you can recognize it’s me.
“But I’m most pleased this time, because this time in the recording process I found a new level of certainty. So yeah, long time coming, I do feel I’ve got my mojo and my voice and I’m happy!”
Paul is the most refreshingly unassuming professional musician you could meet, but I put it to him that what he does in taking a traditional song that everybody knows, like Louis Collins, which appears on the album, and reinterpreting it, not playing note for note John Hurt’s version, say, seems to me, takes quite a bit of skill and ability.
“When I begin with a song, I almost always start trying to play the original, the “proper” way, but it’s never right. So, somehow it kind of gets massaged and changed and I think, well, it’s nothing like Mississippi John Hurt anymore, but it feels right for me. I’m not a technical musician, it’s all by feel and instinct. But over the years, there’s a bit of experience built up as to how one can flesh out a very simple arrangement. If you can move the chords up and down the neck, you get these different dynamics, I’m never stopped learning. I’m more interested now than ever in learning things that can just expand my options.”
In Cowley’s hands Louis Collins isn’t the rather jaunty version you often hear, which maybe doesn’t do justice to the song’s terrible story. He slows it down and adds some very cool slide guitar, and it becomes, fittingly, a bit more sombre, but at the same time, it never gets morbid. It’s a great version.
There are a half a dozen Paul Cowley originals on this album. As with all the songs, it’s mostly Paul singing and accompanying himself, picking acoustic guitar and adding some delicious and judicious slide here and there. I asked him about the song writing process.
“The first album I recorded here in France was a hundred percent original songs. I don’t have a problem coming up with original songs, and I love the album and I’m proud of the songs, but I think my audience likes a little bit of something they recognize as well.
“But the song writing process – I’ve got a studio across the yard in the barn upstairs. I never think I’ll go and write a song. I play guitar generally speaking, twice a day, couple of hours in the morning, a couple of hours in the evening. And almost without fail, I will find something on one of the guitars, just a simple phrase, two notes or two chords or some chords other people don’t tend to use, but there’ll be a feel or a timing to it. I do that frequently and often it goes no further than that. But sometimes I come up with that little phrase or whatever it might be, maybe three words that suggest the lyrical subject or topic, and that’s how they come. I can’t predict when that will happen, but when it does happen, very rapidly the song comes together.
“With the guitar part, that hook thing or whatever it was, there’ll be this period of embellishment, maybe I play it for two years and a few more bits and bobs come in, so songs are constantly changing and evolving. So – simple!”
One thing you’ll notice when you listen to the album, is the sound quality. It sounds like Paul is sitting right in your living room playing for you. It’s crystal clear and the instruments and vocals are perfectly balanced. On the album liner notes. Cowley says that, although he recorded the album in his barn/studio, he’s “low tech.” Yet the sound on the album is superb.
“Well, my background is I’m a builder, so there’s a little bit of understanding of buildings and shapes and materials. I’ve got this studio over in the barn upstairs with sloping ceilings, oak rafters, beams, chestnut flooring – all cobbled together from materials left over from renovating the house. Think of the Robert Johnson thing where he turned his back and played into a corner. and the sound was remarkable.
“I’m comfortable here at home, fleshing out these ideas on my own, nobody around me. If I was in a studio, however nice the engineer might be, I’d be wanting to play the song again and again because I’m not quite sure whether that was the right take. And he’s looking at the wall. I don’t like any of that.
“But the stroke of luck that I’ve had is called Pascal Ferrari. He’s a musician from Marseille, really high calibre. He’s a guitarist, a bass player, and he’ll pick a trumpet up. His musicality is quite remarkable. I met him five years ago, and we’ve done some gigs together and he’s fantastic in the studio. So I did the recording here straight, no effects whatsoever, into a fairly dated Korg mini recording machine. And then I physically carried that across Brittany to Pascal’s house. He then, transferred this into his computer and he’s a really very talented mixer. And then he sends that to his friend and they listen to it on some big, serious equipment, and tweak it from there. So I feel very fortunate that I’ve stumbled across Pascal!”
It’s pretty unusual to find a traditional blues picker living in the French countryside, instead of in a big city or somewhere in the Southern United States. I wondered how that worked for Paul in terms of performing his music – granted that the last year has been more than a bit unusual. He told me how he’d been building up his gigs across France and then popping back to the UK for small tours – and along the way discovering that French hospitality for the traveling musician is so much better than what he often gets in England.
I wondered also what attracts Paul to this traditional country blues music. Here he is, an English white guy based in the French countryside playing the blues of African-Americans from a hundred years ago – it all sounds a bit unlikely. But perhaps it says a lot about the universal appeal of the blues. Paul began to tell me about his own journey.
“I discovered this music relatively late in life. I’d had a few Spanish guitar lessons in my early teens and I love the sound of an acoustic guitar. But my teacher didn’t inspire me and I stopped playing music for 20 years. I became a self-employed builder, but I never stopped listening to music. But when I was 40 my wife Diana bought me for my father’s day present from the kids, Clapton’s Unplugged. And I remember, I was decorating the room and I put the CD on and Signe and Before You Accuse Me came on and it was instantly like, “What’s this?” And there was this lush interpretation of Walking Blues, just a beautiful sound and Clapton’s softer kind of vocal style and I thought, this is marvellous! And then I thought, well, I wonder who is that Big Bill Broonzy bloke that does the song. Hey, Hey? Well, I looked into that, and it was a delight.
“And then I was given a guitar. My uncle died. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go out and buy one, but I got this steel string guitar. And I got a very basic blues tutorial book with the tab and I thought, I can play this – it wasn’t fantastic but it was delightful to me. And I’ve never looked back.
“The Clapton album made me want to get some proper old blues to listen to. So one Saturday I went into Cobb Records – an old-fashioned record shop – to the blues section, maybe 20 CDs in all, if that. And I leafed through and I didn’t know any of those names at all, but on the one towards the front, there was this picture of a very cool looking black guy, hat on, guitar in hand, looking exactly like what I expected a blues player to look like, and he was Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Coffee House Blues was the album and we put this on in the car on the way home and played it for two years. He’s important to me because it was him that got me into this…fantastic voice, proper steel string, acoustic guitar. I just love that and still do to this day.”
Paul has worked hard at honing his guitar chops over the years and explained that one formative stage in his development as a guitarist came at a Woody Mann workshop he attended in Liverpool.
“Woody Mann gave us a general philosophy about how to go about getting better. He talked about keeping the repertoire relatively small but well played, and effective use of your time. And because I went home on the train alone, I made all these notes of the key points. You don’t get good at anything without applying yourself hard to it. And to this day, I’ll get up, I have breakfast and I go and play for maybe two hours. I try and pick the guitar up again during the day for a few minutes. And then I’ll play a couple of hours in the evening, But that’s nothing compared with some guys – we had Steve James staying here, and he plays six hours a day – for the past 50 years!”
To start with, Paul never thought he’d perform publicly, but from first steps playing in the round with friends at his local blues club back in Birmingham, he’s developed into a fine acoustic blues artist and song-writer with serious guitar chops. Ever self-deprecating, he told me, “I’m quite surprised that I do it, but I love it!”
As well as Paul’s own songs, Long Time Comin‘ has songs by Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Ray Charles. But I wondered if Paul has any artists that he’s particularly fond of?
“I love Lightnin Hopkins. I find Mississippi John Hurt songs come into your repertoire, whether you want them to or not. His music is so playable, they’re great songs and I love his music. I like Blind Willie McTell, I’d like to do more of his. A long time ago I heard his Love Changing Blues on the radio played by John Hammond and I never in my wildest dreams when I took my sandwich that lunchtime listening to that, thought that one day I’ll be able to play that kind of stuff! And I love Fred McDowell’s stuff – there’s just something about him.”
It’s fair to say that Paul Cowley’s been smitten with the blues. And if you get yourself a copy of his Long Time Comin’, you will be too. This album is one of the best acoustic blues albums you’ll hear this year – check it out www.paulcowleymusic.com or Bandcamp.
And if you’re in Southern Brittany sometime when this pandemic has passed us by, listen out for the sounds of the Delta where you least expect it.
I stood beside the Blues Trail Marker for the sharecropper’s shack that Muddy Waters grew up in, in what was Stovall’s Plantation just outside Clarksdale, and gazed over the landscape. The vast fields were ploughed but unplanted, the alluvial soil brown and fertile. The sun was low in the sky but shone brightly against the bluest sky imaginable. And it was cold – a dry, bitter cold that chilled your bones.
But it was strangely warming to have reached this point in our blues pilgrimage. It was here in 1941 that Alan Lomax found McKinley Morganfield and recorded his Burr Clover Blues, a song he’d written at the request of Colonel Stovall, who six years previously had invented the burr clover seed harvester. Muddy Waters’s house also served as a juke joint where Waters entertained field hands. Waters left the plantation in May 1943 after the plantation overseer refused his request for a raise from 22 and a half cents to 25 cents an hour. The rest, of course, is history, Muddy going on to become a preeminent Chicago blues artist and a musical inspiration to subsequent generations of blues and rock musicians.
Cotton Field, Mississippi Delta
The Rich Soil of the Delta
If you head on out past the famous Crossroads at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, you’ll soon come to the Shack Up Inn, on the site of Hopson Plantation. In 1928, this plantation had over 3,500 acres and was farmed by black sharecroppers and mules, working from 4.30am until 6 in the evening. You can get a sense of plantation life here, as you wander round the sharecropper shacks, with their tin roofs and Mississippi cedar walls (now available as (basic) hotel accommodation), the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. I was taken by the old rusting vehicles, including old cars, a tractor and a derelict fire truck. An ancient railway line runs through into the distance, giving a further sense of timelessness to the place. As does the Bottle Tree, with its host of blue bottles, traditionally used to ward off evil from the family home.
Old Car & Cotton
The sense of poverty exuded by the sharecroppers’ shacks was very tangible and striking. Sharecropping was a system that came to dominate agriculture across the cotton-planting South from the end of the nineteenth century. Black families would rent small plots of land from white landowners, to work themselves. Often, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters, and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season. At the end of the year, tenant and landlord would settle up, often with the sharecroppers owing more to the landowner than they were able to repay with the sale of their crops. It was an exploitative system that resulted in debt and poverty from which the sharecropper found it difficult to escape. It was out of this situation that the blues began to emerge in the early part of the twentieth century and it’s no surprise that many of those we now consider blues legends worked the land themselves.
If you go to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale itself, you’ll see Muddy Waters’ shack reassembled inside, a kind of shrine to perhaps Clarksdale’s most famous son. Not that Muddy was the only legendary blues artist from round these parts – born and raised nearby were John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Junior Parker, and W. C. Handy. In addition, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Charley Patton are all associated with the town, stopping by in their constant traveling. All of this history is preserved and these artists celebrated in the Museum, which makes for an excellent visit.
Talking of blues museums, on the way down from Memphis, we’d stopped at the Tunica Gateway to the Blues Visitor Centre and Museum. Set in an old, refurbished train depot, this is a fabulous introduction to the land of the blues – great exhibits, well displayed, which tell the story of the origins and development of the blues in the Mississippi Delta.
Blues Museum, Tunica
Back in Clarksdale, right across the road from the Delta Blues Museum is Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club (Clarksdale being the blues’ “ground zero”). We stopped by for lunch and enjoyed the general vibe, though sadly, there was no live music. We were wonderfully served by Stella, who took one look at my scrawny looks and said, “Well now, a’body’s momma wanna take him in an’ feed him up. Mmhnnn”. I had the barbeque pork in a spicy pancake – absolutely delicious, but laced with a thousand chillies which quickly had my mouth on fire.
On down the street and you come to Blues Town Music, owned by the inimitable Ronnie Drew, who welcomed us warmly and regaled us with stories of visits to Europe in days gone by. I enjoyed playing one of his acoustic guitars and then chatting to Ronnie’s good friend, an older gentleman, an ex-bass player, with long seventies-style hair and a droopy moustache to match, who intrigued me with tales of visiting New York City as a boy and watching the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
And then, right across the road we found the treasure trove that is the Cats Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store and had the pleasure of chatting to proprietor Roger Stolle. I was interested to meet Roger, having read his excellent book, Hidden History of Mississippi some time ago, and being aware of his work to help regenerate Clarksdale. The store is quite unique, selling everything from books to posters to art to CDs, vinyl records and DVDs, all with a blues theme. Even if you don’t buy anything (but please do! My Cat Head poster is now framed and hanging in my office!), it’s a fabulous place just to browse around in.
And Roger’s such a nice guy, full of positivity and enthusiasm, and wondrously knowledgeable about the blues and the Mississippi Delta. Glad to say he agreed to a follow-up interview, which will appear before long here at Down at the Crossroads.
Actually, once again, I have to comment on the welcome and friendliness of everyone we encountered in Mississippi. We were quite charmed. We got on our way in the early evening, unable to take up Roger Stolle’s suggestion of staying for the show in Red’s Lounge later on, and drove back to Memphis on the legendary Highway 61, Mississippi saying farewell to us by means of a spectacular sunset, the sky changing colour dramatically as the sun sank below the horizon.