Searching for Son

Son House album cover

Before I moved to Rochester just over a decade ago, a friend of mine suggested that when I got settled in my new city, I should seek out the former home of blues musician, Son House. House, he explained, had moved to Rochester after ending his music career and had lived there in relative obscurity for years before he was “rediscovered” in the 1960s.

Though such a search intrigued me, I became immersed in my doctoral studies shortly after my arrival to town and the name Son House didn’t reenter my mental orbit until a couple years later when I met Daniel Beaumont, a professor of Arabic at the University of Rochester who was in the nascent stages of writing a book on the blues legend. I quickly offered my services as a manuscript editor and documentary assistant. The latter role-though the film in question was never completed-involved accompanying Dan as he sought out the various Rochester sites where Son House had once lived, including the Greig street location where three of his fans found him on June 23, 1964.

This 1910 Plat Map depicts Son House’s apartment building at 61 Greig St:

61 Greig Plat Map

As Dan got further in his research, I was struck by how many people still living in Rochester bore some kind of personal connection to the elderly blues musician. A number of these people, including Joe Beard, Armand Schauenbrock and Brian Williams, greatly informed Dan’s finished product, Preachin’ The Blues-the Life & Times of Son House (Oxford University Press, 2011).



But while these individuals gave Dan insight into Son House’s rediscovery and life in the Flower City, it was another area resident, Richard Shade Gardner, who proved useful in helping Dan flesh out the musician’s post-Rochester years.

For Gardner, a longtime blues radio program host, House was “the blues personified.” The musician made such a strong impact on Gardner that he, like many others before him, decided to seek House out. Gardner would write about the 1981 journey that took him to the Detroit apartment where House spent his last years in the recently released volume, Finding Son House: One Searcher’s Story (2015).

Finding Son House cover

Gardner muses that House “had been discovered more times than America,” and rightly subtitles his work, “one searcher’s story.” Perhaps distinguishing Gardner’s experience from the pack is the fact that his hunt for House was at once a voyage in self-discovery. Indeed, Gardner touches on the various forces that informed his own life in Rochester while weaving reflections on spirituality and genealogy into the book’s overarching search narrative.

While Daniel Beaumont’s exhaustively researched monograph is undoubtedly the definitive work on the life and music of Son House, Richard Shade Gardner’s book provides both a unique personal account of the blues legend and a meditation on the meanings we ascribe to culture makers and their art.

Both Richard Shade Gardner’s Finding Son House: One Searcher’s Story and Daniel Beaumont’s Preachin’ the Blues: the Life and Times of Son House are available for perusal in the Local History and Genealogy Division.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on March 29, 2016 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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