No Catholic theologian would refer to the author of the Book of Revelation as “John the Revelator.” Yet when Son House sings about the last book of the Bible, he makes up for his lack of theological sophistication with a voice that conveys the yearning and frustration of a failed preacher who drank too much and married five times, a street corner evangelist who killed a man and served time at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman Farm.
House’s musical career was as complex as his personal life. Once dismissive of anything but church music, he became popular as a blues singer in the rural South in the 1930s. He was a major influence on other blues musicians, including Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and he recorded songs for the Library of Congress. Then, for about 20 years, he gave up music entirely. He didn’t even own a guitar when he was “re-discovered” during the 1960s folk blues revival, and he subsequently achieved his greatest success touring Europe and the United States, singing for mostly young, white audiences.
Son House is only one of about 20 artists whose music will be played during a presentation at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood on April 24. “Spirituals, the Blues and Jazz: A Presentation of Great American Music with Spiritual Content and Inspiration” will be presented by Ken Bossong, a parishioner whose love of jazz and other American music grew while a student at Rutgers, taking classes in jazz with guest speakers like Charles Mingus and drummer Philly Joe Jones and doing shows for the radio station WRSU.
The music of Son House — raw, passionate, haunting — can be challenging for modern listeners, Bossong said, but it is “great music” with a spiritual content and history all its own.
The presentation will include selections from the 1920s through the 1970s. In addition to country blues, like that recorded by Son House, there will be urban blues; different forms of jazz, including New Orleans, bop and avant-garde; and spirituals. Bossong has chosen important but lesser known figures over those who have achieved widespread name recognition, like Duke Ellington or B.B. King.
Whether it is a jazz solo that evokes transcendence, a blues lyric that conveys a sense of sin and guilt, or a spiritual of hope and redemption, the music is powerful and inspiring, Bossong said. While not explicitly Catholic, he added, it is certainly catholic — small c — meaning universal.
One of Bossong’s goals is to give listeners the same kind of experience he had one day when he found a compilation of the recordings of Blind Willie Johnson in a record store. “I knew of him for years, but I’d never heard him,” Bossong explained. “When I played his music I was transfixed. It was an absolute revelation.”
Johnson’s music should not be forgotten, Bossong said. Even if the man who made it will probably always be a bit of a mystery.
One story is that he was blinded as a child when his stepmother intentionally threw lye in his face to spite his father. (Johnson lived at a time when the opportunities for a blind African American were severely limited, so many became street musicians. Some other country blues singers of note include Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller and Sonny Terry, also blind.)
Another story has Johnson arrested for singing his song “If I had my way I’d tear this building down” near a courthouse because the police thought he was trying to start a riot.
What is known is that he was a street evangelist with a short recording career, 1927-30. But the 30 songs he recorded have made him as revered by other musicians as he is obscure to the general public. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and Peter, Paul and Mary have all recorded his music. (“Walking Dead” fans heard a Johnson song played on one of the episodes in season five.)
A tribute album, “God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson,” was recently released. The song Tom Waits sings poses a question, as simple as it is profound. It is the same question that most of the artists included in the presentation at Blessed Teresa ask, in one way or another:
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can
If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
If you go: ”Spirituals, the Blues and Jazz” will be held Sunday, April 24, 7-9 p.m., in McLaughlin Hall, Lee and Atlantic avenues, Blessed Teresa Parish, Collingswood. Presentation by Ken Bossong, sound by Bill Citerone.