Son House was one of the musicians to play a profound role in the development of both successive black and white blues players – legendary figures like Howlin’ Wolf would tip their hats to him and he was a primary influence on Muddy Waters, while the hundreds of white rockers to have acknowledged his importance over the years include the Rolling Stones, Lynryd Skynryd, Bonnie Raitt and Canned Heat.
Born in Riverton near Clarksdale, Mississippi on 21 March 1902 (though some place his birth as being a good few years earlier) Edward James House Jr was brought up by his mother after his parents separated when he was six. He originally wanted to be a preacher and noted: ‘I just hated to see a guy with a guitar, I was too churchy.’ In his late teens he was preaching the gospel around local Baptist churches but the Devil’s music eventually grabbed hold of him and, under the tutelage of Rube Lacy and James McCoy, he began playing the blues around juke-joints and parties in Clarksdale.
In the late Twenties House was sent down to the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary (celebrated in many songs under its name of Parchman Farm) for killing a man in self-defence. When he got out, he moved to Lula, Mississippi where he met and worked with Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. The story goes that he also played with and taught Robert Johnson guitar around this time.
Art Laibly of Paramount Records persuaded House to lay down some sides for the label. Committed to wax on 28 May in Grafton, Wisconsin, the nine songs revealed that Son House was the real thing, a gutbucket bluesman possessing a towering ‘field holler’ voice and ability to play raw, gritty slide guitar. The powerful performances he delivered that day included ‘Walking Blues’, ‘Dry Spell Blues’, ‘My Black Mama’ and ‘Preachin The Blues’, which tells of the conflict House always felt between his sense of religion and his life playing the blues.
These early releases were commercial failures and Son went to work as a tractor driver on a plantation in the Lake Cormorant area until the early Forties when folklorist Alan Lomax tracked him down and recorded him again. As Lomax noted, when the bluesman picked up his guitar, ‘he was no longer the quiet affable person I had met but possessed by the song, as gypsies in Spain are possessed, gone blind with music and poetry… Son’s whole body wept, as with eyes closed, the tendons in his powerful neck standing out with the violence of his feeling and his brown face flushing.’
The recordings were done in two sessions, in late August 1941 and July 1942. The 1941 performances were cut in the back room of Clack’s country store in Robinsonville on Lomax’s 300lb portable disc-cutting machine. ‘Levee Camp Blues’, ‘Government Fleet Blues’ (also known as ‘Government Camp Blues’), ‘Walking Blues’, ‘Shetland Pony Blues’ and and ‘Delta Blues’ (all included here) feature backing from guitarist Willie Brown, mandolin-player Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and harmonica-player Leroy Williams.
The 1942 session features a solo House and are even more effective. ‘Depot Blues’ and ‘Low Down Dirty Blues’ in particular contain some of the most exciting and evocative playing done by a bluesman.
In the mid Sixties a bunch of Boston-based blues music enthusiasts led by Dick Waterman and future founding member of Canned Heat Al Wilson, went on a quest to find the old bluesmen whose music had originally lit their fuse. House was top of their list and they found him languishing in obscurity in Rochester, New York, a 62-year-old alcoholic no longer playing music regularly and unaware of the burgeoning American folk-blues revival.
His guitar-playing was, at best, perfunctory, but his singing voice remained remarkably intact. Wilson taught Son to play again and the result was an album for Columbia in 1965, ‘The Legendary Son House: Father Of The Folk Blues’, produced by John Hammond Sr and featuring Wilson on second guitar and harmonica.
It is the song that kicks off this compilation, ‘Death Letter Blues’, that fans most associate with Son House. His signature tune and certainly one of the most anguished, emotionally charged songs ever to come out of the blues, this was a lament by a man who received a letter one morning telling him of the death of the woman he loved. Based on the 1930 recording ‘My Black Mama’, it became a highlight of his live shows in the late Sixties where it went on for as long as 15 minutes.
The Columbia album relaunched Son House’s career. He would gig in the United States regularly – a standout being his appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – and he also toured Europe, notably in 1967 and 1970, when he played the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. The latter tour also saw him cut a memorable session for John Peel’s Top Gear radio show and release an album for Liberty, ‘Son House – John The Revelator’, the title track of which became very popular. Live he was riveting, hunched over his guitar; he moved one observer to note ‘the blues possessed him like a lowdown shakin’ chill.’
He died in Detroit, Michigan on 19 October 1988 but, in the years since, House’s influence and reputation have continued to grow. A new generation of white rockers have discovered his legacy – US southern rockers Govt Mule covered ‘John The Revelator’ as did British painter, poet and primal rocker Billy Childish and his band, the Buff Medways. Sheffield’s Gomez were another outfit to namecheck the master but it was platinum-selling Detroit rockers the White Stripes who introduced his music to a whole new legion of young fans, dedicating their eponymous debut album to him and covering ‘Death Letter Blues’ on their ‘De Stijl’ set.
Son was an original, one of the most innovative players of all time. As Muddy Waters so aptly put it, ‘Back where I came from, down in the Delta, Son House was the king!’
Sleeve notes by Nigel Cross
Also available on CD