José Feliciano Warms to a Home With Fires and Beautiful Sounds
Singer-songwriter and guitarist José Feliciano, 68, has recorded hits such as “Light My Fire” and “Feliz Navidad.” This summer he will release an album with Israel’s Raananá Symphonette Orchestra and a duet single with Balkan singer Dragana Mirkovic. He spoke with reporter Marc Myers.
At first, I didn’t want to move to rural Connecticut from Orange County, Calif.—my wife, Susan, did. She’s from Michigan and she missed the changing seasons. I worried about losing the warm West Coast sun, but since relocating here in 1990, I’ve adjusted to the New England winters and, I have to admit, it’s pretty exciting here. Even though I’ve been blind since birth, I experience the seasons changing in an equally fulfilling way as Susan.
We found our home in Yankee Magazine. Susan saw an ad for a real-estate company that markets historic homes in Connecticut and she ordered a brochure. That’s where she saw a photo of the Fairfield County house we live in now. Yes, from the comfort of our California veranda, we shopped for a house by mail. When we traveled to visit the house, we immediately fell in love with it and the 5-acre property.
Soon after we moved in, Susan began doing research on our three-bedroom house. Apparently, it dates back to 1730. From 1780 to 1860 it was a tavern, before being converted into a residence by the family that wound up living here for generations. In 1954, the house passed through several families until we bought it.
We learned some amazing things at the local historical society and by chatting with old-timers. We discovered that when our house was a tavern, people in the area rode their sleighs here on winter nights, putting warm ashes from their fireplaces into sacks and placing them on the sleigh floors to keep their feet warm. We also learned that the tavern made a drink called “Flip” that included ale, rum, egg whites and molasses. You’d stir the drink with a hot poker to keep it warm. I love little things like that because they tell you about the humanity of people from another time and make us feel connected.
People who don’t know me assume I move around our house gingerly. But being blind doesn’t mean I can’t see. I have a photographic memory and know exactly where everything is. The house is an old, soulful place that creaks and reminds me of my aunt’s home in the Bronx that I used to visit as a boy. It has character.
Our floors creak beautifully, by the way, because they’re made of different types of wood. The floors upstairs are pine while downstairs the dining-room floor is pear, the working kitchen is oak and the floor in the kitchen’s dining area is cherry.
Upstairs, the pine floorboards are original to the house, and many are as wide as 20 inches. Back in the 1700s, it was illegal for colonists to take down trees larger than 12 inches in diameter. They were considered property of the king, who needed large trees for ship masts since much of England’s forests were exhausted. Royal surveyors would mark large trees to keep them off-limits, but colonists took them down anyway in protest and used them for upstairs floors, where they’d be out of sight.
Our house has four working fireplace. My favorite is in the kitchen. When we make fires there in the cold months, I sit in the rocking chair Susan gave me when we were first dating and listen to the wood burning. I hear the sap sizzling and the logs snapping. It makes me imagine how hard life must have been hundreds of years ago. I also like playing guitar and composing in front of the fire, which warms my soul. Last fall, we had to take down an old maple tree that was near the power lines, so now we have eight cords of wood!
On our property is an 8-by-15-foot tollhouse that used to stand by the road when it was a turnpike in the early 19th century. My recording studio is in an old onion barn just a two-minute walk from the house. I go there when my engineer comes over. We also have a greenhouse, a carriage house that we converted for guests and a gazebo by the river. We even have a smokehouse that we’ve been threatening to use.
I love feeling the seasons change. In the spring, I smell the greenery and hear things coming alive, like the songbirds and sparrows. The Saugatuck River is just 50-feet wide here and cuts through our backyard, so I can hear the river’s motion and cascading waterfall from our bedroom. The water attracts river otters, deer and wild turkeys to our land. Summer has its own vibrant sounds.
I also love hearing my neighbors going about their lives. Our house is private and remote, but we’re not isolated. We wouldn’t want that. When you isolate yourself too much, you lose your compassion for others. I don’t ever want that to happen to us.
photos by Dorothy Hong for The Wall Street Journal