The other artist that I recorded in Chicago was the inimitable Homesick James. Actually, I think he was the one to stimulate Jim O’Neal to prod me as Homesick had never before recorded as a solo performer. Jim had had the privilege of spending time with the man in his apartment, hearing him fooling around on the guitar by himself, and felt that Homesick rated being recorded that way. At that point in time, there was no Rooster Blues, and neither Alligator nor Delmark were interested in such tomfoolery – that’s how I got the call. Jim was truly correct… he was a worthy subject.
So during 1974 and 1975 I spent time with Homesick at whatever apartment he had at that moment in Chicago, setting up my trusty Uher and all. He recorded many songs for me (a grand total of over thirty), solo, or with his “sister” Ella Brown on conga drum, once with Ira Joiner, Jr. on second guitar during my Chicago visits. It was all very relaxed on the North Side then… that’s how Joiner came into the range of my mics, doing a sort of free-form blues; imagine a cross between Robert Pete Williams and John Lee hooker and you’d be in the right ball park. There was also a White guy who came by from time to time whose name I cannot remember – he played rockabilly stuff and, sadly, I did not record him. (I try not to get too bothered by what I did not get to record over the decade and celebrate that which I did manage to get on tape. Nobody else would have done it, otherwise.) What I got from Homesick James on the two sessions at his place was a remarkable breadth of repertoire and a remarkably high-quality collection of performances. But the best was yet to come!
In 1975 I made plans for a lengthy stay away from home – first to Chicago for Honeyboy and Homesick, then off to Georgia and my great Southeastern Stomping Grounds. This was in June and I did sessions with both of the above, with one of the ones with Honeyboy including Walter Horton, or Eddie El. Having Recorded Homesick at his place once again, I mentioned to him that I was heading South. He asked me if I would give him a ride “home” to Somerville, TN… it was “on the way”, he said! As I am generally a loner. I was initially reluctant, but finally said wotthehell, wotthehell (as mehitabel the cat was wont to say), and agreed. We left Chicago early in the morning of June 16 and headed south.
Our first port-of-call was to be Bowling Green, Kentucky. I had been there previously with Eddie Kirkland as his sound man/road manager/record producer/van driver and I knew some people there. That gave me a place (and someone) to stay with overnight. I had met a couple of (White) women at the club where Eddie played, students at Western Kentucky University – one of them was still living there in a large log cabin outside of town. It being the South, nothing could persuade Homesick to sleep in the house… we tried all sorts of arguments and all to no avail. So after dinner, he went out and slept on the mattress in my van in my sleeping bag (just for that purpose) with my (now) two dogs and plenty of quilts. It was the hills of Kentucky and still some frost in the mornings… a two-dog night.
The next day we arose at a civilized hour, had breakfast, and headed out once again. Eventually we got close to Memphis and Homesick directed me to where his mother and father lived outside Somerville. (Also, we stopped so that I could take some possible cover shots of him beside a Highway 51 road sign!) His mother (Cordelia Henderson) had at one time played the guitar, while his father (Plez Rivers) had been a snare drummer on the Broadnax “walking band” (i.e. – a fife and drum group). In fact, they had a snapshot of the group sewn into a display of family photos that was hanging on the wall of their house. (yes, folks, I borrowed it, with the help of Homesick, and had a copy negative made and, yes, I returned the original to them a.s.a.p.) Homesick was heartily greeted by one and all, including a brother who I later learned also played guitar and lived nearby. Another who “got away”.
After having a marvelous meal with the family, Homesick wanted to play some music for his parents. And he wanted me to record it as well as a mark to demonstrate to his local community, I think, his importance to the outside world. There was no electricity, but I had a couple of charged-up battery-packs for the trusty Uher and we set up in the dirt in front of their shotgun house. Homesick’s parents sat in chairs on their front porch: he had a chair facing them. I set up two microphones and placed myself off to the side in the gathering dark with the recorder, a mixer and headphones, a flashlight, tapes, and the spare battery-pack. Homesick then proceeded to play and sing some of the finest, most beautiful music that I had ever heard from him, before or since. He was in another zone, showing his folks what he could do and that someone outside of their community valued it as well. It was transcendent and exhausting. After he felt that he was finished, it was totally dark except for a couple of kerosene lanterns on the porch. Not much else was said. We all then went off to bed – it was my turn with the van and the dogs! There are occasional moments in ones listening experience when something happens and it all goes into a different, “higher” level. That evening was one such experience for me. The next day, I headed off to Georgia and the usual treks up and down I-85, and more recordings with some more Piedmont folks. But what an incredible interlude.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
That session in Somerville must be the height of Homesick James’ recorded output over his complete lifetime. Occasionally, a recordist is around when that sort of thing takes place – it was also one time when my presence did NOT interfere with the proceedings… it probably helped. Just my luck!
And the album that I released (“Goin’ Back Home” – Trix 3315) basically got lost in the sauce of Homesick’s usual and expected broomdusting output. Contrary to expectations, that album beautifully showed off his amazing versatility, taste, and touch – a great album. It was hardly reviewed at the time probably folks assumed that they already knew what they were to get and ignored it’s release in droves.