Famed blues musician Eddie James "Son" House Jr. lived a life of hardships and second chances.
That’s one reason why House will be memorialized on a new building that aims to give second chances to people who have fallen on hard times.
Providence Housing Development Corp. and Catholic Family Center broke ground in mid-December on Son House Apartments, a $4.1 million building on Rochester's Joseph Avenue that will have 21 one-bedroom apartments for individuals struggling with homelessness. The first floor also will include space for Catholic Family Center offices and programs.
Other than having a mural of his face painted on an electrical box in the city of Rochester, House has thus far not been memorialized locally, said his biographer Daniel Beaumont, who wrote Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, which was published in 2011 by Oxford University Press. Beaumont said the recognition in the naming Son House Apartments after the musician was fitting.
"I think it’s a great thing," said Beaumont, an associate professor of Arabic and history at the University of Rochester, who also teaches a course on the history of blues music. "He had a hard life in a lot of ways and he would have been sympathetic (to those who have become homeless)."
Catholic Family Center, which operates three homeless shelters, first discussed creating permanent housing for the homeless in about 2003, said Lisa Lewis, CFC's vice president of residential services. After receiving a grant, it began leasing apartments to fill this permanent-housing void. In 2006 it acquired a vacant lot next to its Joseph Avenue shelter, Francis Center, which sparked discussions with Providence Housing about developing an apartment building of permanent affordable housing.
Lewis said there has been a long-standing connection with local blues musicians and CFC; for several years blues musicians donated their time and talents for concerts to raise funds for CFC’s homeless and housing services programs. The decision to name the building Son House grew out of these events, she said.
The apartment building is intended to help people achieve stability in their housing situations and in their lives, said Monica McCullough, executive director of Providence Housing. She noted supportive housing can decrease costs to the public by cutting the frequency of emergency-room visits, and helping people be more successful at addressing such issues as chemical dependency or mental illness.
"Hopefully it will be a longer-term situation for them while they work on whatever issues they are going through," McCullough said.
Providence Housing will own the building and manage the apartments, and CFC will provide case management services to tenants, who will be CFC clients, or from a network of providers that team up with CFC. Case management could include offering on-site employment opportunities, offering employment readiness, helping with budgeting and resolution of financial issues, and helping clients obtain certifications so that they can work in trades, helping clients access educational resources, and hosting workshops on the rights and responsibilities of tenants, Lewis said.
The rents will be set on a sliding scale depending on the clients’ income.
"If they have no income, what we will do first is get them connected to financial supports -- generally public assistance -- or some other financial resources," McCullough said.
Lewis said there is a shortage of adequate, well-maintained and affordable housing in Rochester. She said CFC officials also have seen a recent increase in professionals from the suburbs who are homeless due to job losses or reductions in income.
"We hope to see more housing like this spring up in our community," she said.
Son House Apartments could also bring greater recognition to its namesake, Beaumont said. Son House was a slide guitar player who remains relatively unknown nationwide despite mentoring blues musicians Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, who were major influences on such rock bands as the Rolling Stones. House’s close friends and contemporaries included blues legends Charley Patton and Willie Brown.
Beaumont said though House was burdened with lifelong alcohol abuse and a limited education, he managed to rise above his circumstances through his intellect, charm and faith. House started out at 15 years old as a Baptist preacher in the Mississippi delta, and he decried the secularism of the blues.
"He took the usual attitude of the time towards the blues; he regarded it as the devil’s music, and he didn’t want anything to do with it," Beaumont said.
Yet after hearing it live, he was drawn to blues music. His preaching career was derailed by an affair and the death of a man, which led him to serve a year in prison. After prison, he wound up in Lula, Miss., where he met Patton. They did a series of recordings in 1930 that are now recognized as classics in blues circles, although they sold poorly due to the Great Depression, Beaumont said.
After attempting to make a living in music, House moved to Rochester in 1943 and worked for many years as a railroad porter and other jobs. He stopped playing the blues and was living in near-obscurity until he was tracked down in 1964 by three young blues fans who were on a mission to find former blues performers, Beaumont said.
"They drove up here and proposed to revive his musical career, and he must have been astonished," he said.
They made good on their proposal. House launched a second career, landed a recording contract with Columbia Records, and toured nationally and in Europe. During this time, House received the recognition and acclaim that had eluded him for so many years, Beaumont said.
Yet House’s musical career was cut short in the 1970s when he sustained frostbite on his hands after passing out outside in the snow while on his way home from a bar, Beaumont said. He died in 1988.
Beaumont said local musicians, such as blues musician Joe Beard, who performed with House and was his neighbor, have been the driving forces to ensure that his blues legacy and stories live on.
And now that legacy will include a building that bears his name.