The Blues House (pt.2)



In the early 1960s an unlikely audience latched on to the blues of the Depression era: college students and record collectors from New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Berkeley. “The blues mafia,” as they liked to call themselves, studied rare 78s, so rare that sometimes, as in the case of Skip James’s “Drunken Spree,” there was only one known copy of a record. And a few thought about driving south to locate the men whose voices they heard coming from their turntable. But where to start? There were no biographies, no press releases to consult or Wikipedia page. The songs were all they had.

In 1963, Tom Hoskins, a member of the so-called blues mafia, drove to a general store and post office in the southeast corner of the Mississippi Delta. On old maps this spot was labeled “Avalon,” and more than three decades before, Mississippi John Hurt, a figure revered by the blues mafia, had recorded a song called “Avalon Blues.” At the store Hoskins got directions to Hurt’s house. Hearing that he was from Washington, D.C., Hurt initially believed Hoskins was a revenue collector. Finally, Hoskins was able to convince Hurt of his true purpose, and was also able to convince him to come north and begin recording again. A few months later, Hurt, who had not made a recording since the 1920s, was appearing on the Johnny Carson Show and at the Newport Folk Festival.

That same year, a guitarist named John Fahey sent a letter to

Booker White (old blues singer)
c/o General Delivery
Aberdeen, MS

“I’m sitting down in Aberdeen, with New Orleans on my mind,” sang White in his 1940 song “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” When the letter was forwarded to him, White, who was now living in Memphis, replied to Fahey, and the following year Fahey decided to track down the most elusive bluesman of all, Skip James. In June of 1964 he left Berkeley with Bill Barth and Henry Vestine, friends and fellow guitarists.

Meanwhile, when Phil Spiro, the host of a Boston radio show devoted to folk and blues, said he was going to look for Son House, Tom Hoskins suggested his friend Nick Perls go along. Dick Waterman, an aspiring journalist, also joined up, thinking he would be able to publish an account of the trip. They stuffed sleeping bags and recording equipment into Perls’s Beetle and left in early June of 1964, around the same time as the trio from Berkeley. “We were just another bunch of kids without any real plan,” Spiro later said. “We went with little money, less planning, and no backup plan to cover disasters…..”

At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival lodging for the artists was assigned according to genre, which meant all the blues performers on the bill would share a residence. Arriving in town, they were directed to the Alexander Van Rensselaer house on Miantonomi Avenue, a structure built in the Italianate style and dated to the 1850s. During the weekend of the festival Muddy Waters stayed at the house, as did Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jesse Fuller, Robert Pete Williams and a number of bluesmen recently contacted by the blues mafia, including Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes and Skip James. “In every room you’d go into,” said the folklorist and author Bruce Jackson, “there was somebody else playing music, and it was somebody you’d heard of and often didn’t know was still alive.”

George Wein, founder of the Newport Folk Festival, described the scene like so:

“The resulting residence, which we dubbed the ‘Blues House,’ was something to behold. These timeless blues legends were having a ball. It seemed that the house was full of song at all hours; informal jam sessions would start in the afternoon and persist until late evening. Some of these artists hadn’t seen each other in years; others had never previously met. Having them all together under one roof was a joyous arrangement.”

Al Wilson, later a member of the band Canned Heat, sat in on many of the jams, accompanying Skip James and Robert Pete Williams on guitar and harmonica. To David Evans, his roommate at the time, he wrote, “I stayed at the blues performers house, which meant informal concerts and partying and dancing from 10 each night to about 4 in the morning. I need hardly point out that the blues was the best I ever heard. I nearly died of joy (and of sorrow too) on many occasions.”

See part 1 here.


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