Last weekend, my buddy Pat and I made one of our frequent treks to Detroit to seek out some or another landmark to the Motor City’s musical heritage. From jazz to blues to soul to rock ‘n’ roll, there’s such a rich and diverse history there that we never seem to run out of cool things to find.
But Sunday’s trip was extra special for me, because even though I’ve enjoyed listening to blues pioneer Son House for many years, it wasn’t until last week that I discovered he had lived his last 15 or so years in Detroit. A little Interwebs research revealed that he was buried on the city’s northwest side in the Mt. Hazel cemetery.
And so off we went early Sunday morning to pay tribute to the man who, among many other things during an 86-year-long lifetime, taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar and inspired the White Stripes to cover his seminal blues, “Death Letter.”
Mt. Hazel is definitely a funky old cemetery with plots dating back to the mid-19th century. It didn’t take us long to find Son House’s grave, as, some years after his passing, the Detroit Blues Society erected a granite headstone to mark his final resting place.
But it was a little eerie when we walked closer to the gravestone and discovered that we just happened to be visiting on the 20-year anniversary of the great singer’s death. Obviously, others had realized this before us, as there were some flowers on the grave and a couple stacks of quarters – presumably as tribute to his many years playing for tips on Mississippi street corners – aligned along the gravestone.
We spent a few moments quietly taking in the scene and snapping a few pictures. I left a guitar pick I happened to have in my pocket … and then we were on our way back to Ypsilanti.
But it got me thinking.
According to my friend Jeff Meier, Eddie James “Son” House Jr., plagued by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spent his final years as a janitor at Wayne State University. This after touring the world as part of the so-called “folk revival” of the early 1960s that rediscovered him and his music after he had stopped playing for some 20-odd years.
I can’t stop thinking about our time there and how Son House is just one of countless others around Detroit, who made a life out of playing soulful, meaningful, important music, only to be all-but forgotten, even as others gain fame and fortune building on the foundation they built. It’s nice to know that there are some folks out there who care enough to stop by with some flowers or to leave some spare change in tribute to someone who gave a hell of a lot more to the world in his lifetime than he ever got back from it.