Jul 2oo9 – Son House
If to sing the blues one must feel the blues then the fractured life of Eddie James “Son” House, Junior was scripted to be a blues legend. Born the middle of three brothers near Clarksdale, Mississippi and later moved to and raised in Tallulah, Louisiana by his mother after his parents separated Son House grew up a religious young man. By age 15 House was determined to be a pastor and he preached the gospel in whatever Baptist church he could as his family wandered seemingly aimlessly from one plantation to the next.
The Baptist churches in which House ministered cast an un-approving eye towards blues music and the immoral lifestyle that seemed to accompany the music. House dedicated himself to the vocation of preaching and singing gospel music. The guitar, the very instrument House would become so adept at playing, didn’t enter his life until he was in his mid-20s. House once said of the guitar, “I didn’t like no guitar when I first heard it; oh gee, I couldn’t stand a guy playin’ a guitar. I didn’t like none of it.”
Despite House’s original disdain for the guitar he taught himself to play as well as developed a taste for corn whiskey. One evening House drunkenly launched into a blues set at a house gathering in Lyon, Mississippi and in so doing picked up some coins for his effort. The die was cast and Son House was to be a blues man. He may have awakened that morning a preacher but he fell asleep late that night in the blues world.
House rode the rails and hitchhiked and lived the hobo life for a while during the 1920s and by and by made his way to Lula, Mississippi where House teamed with Charley Patton and Willie Brown and began to shape a strong style of Delta Blues with repetitive rhythms frequently played with the help of a bottleneck melded with vocals that eerily whispered the hollers of the chain gangs.
House’s music was meant to be dance music. It was intended to be heard above the noisy din of a dance hall or juke joint. Working with Charley Patton proved to be troublesome as the two couldn’t have been more different. Patton was an outgoing, funny, loud small man who as a consummate showman. House, however, was a tall, slender man with a dark, gloomy countenance. Son House still felt a measure of guilt at being a blues musician and working in gin joints as the days in the pulpit indicted House’s conscience. It was perhaps with those feelings of guilt and shame that made Son House “feel” the blues because when he played and ripped into one Son demonstrated so much raw feeling that the performance became the show itself, showmanship gimmicks or not.
Just as House’s musical career was beginning to pick up steam it was struck down just as swiftly. While playing a house frolic in Lyon, Mississippi in 1928 House shot a man dead after the man opened fire himself. Despite his pleas of self-defense House was sentenced to 15 years at the infamous Parchman prison farm. With the help of his parents lobbying hard in his defense House was released after serving two years of his sentence. Upon his release by a Clarksdale, Mississippi judge House was told never to set foot in town again. Telling the judge he would “cover as much ground as a red fox” if released he started a new life in the Delta as a full-time blues player and singer.
After his release from Parchman House began recording in the early 1930s under the Paramount label and those recordings, which sold very few copies in their time, are today some of the most prized collector’s items of Delta blues recordings. Those recordings are much more difficult to find than even a Robert Johnson or Charley Patton 78. It was those recordings that led Alan Lomax to Son House’s doorstep in 1941 to record him for the Library of Congress. Lomax was part of a team of field recordists for the Library of Congress and recorded House using a “portable” recording machine that weighed in at over three hundred pounds.
Son House was still playing when Lomax arrived though he had backed off of performing a bit since the death of Charley Patton in 1934. When Son House recorded for Lomax it is argued by some that he was actually at the peak of his musical powers. During these recordings House did some songs solo as he was requested by Lomax, but he also recorded a session with a string band. As the string band ventured into long and loose versions of their favorite numbers all that was lacking was the guitars being plugged in and a drummer’s back beat and what was recorded was a glimpse into the future of music.
When fellow blues performer Willie Brown died in the mid-1950s Son House lost all interest in music, moved to Rochester, New York and worked various jobs to support his self including railroad porter and cook. When folk blues researchers found him in 1964 he cheerfully exclaimed he hadn’t touched a guitar in years. In fact, he didn’t even own a guitar any more. One of the researchers, a youthful guitarist named Alan Wilson who would later play for the group “Canned Heat” sat down and re-taught Son House how to play like Son House.
By now in his mid-60s, Son House began to play and record again. It was those recordings that became an important introduction to his music and, from strictly an audio stand point, much easier to listen to than those old, scratchy Paramount 78s recorded over thirty years before. Continued below…
In 1965 Son House played Carnegie Hall and four years later was the subject of a documentary film. He was mobbed by young fans asking him about blues legends Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Willie Brown and others. To young White blues fans those men were but exotic and legendary names from the past heard only on old, highly prized albums. However, to Son House those names were flesh and blood blues contemporaries not just the names on record labels. Nobody dared call themselves the king of the blues as long as Son House was around.
Son House continued to perform into the 1970s to crowds of awe-inspired blues fans of a new generation. House’s health began to fail in the early 1970s as he contracted both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. First his memory began to fail and he had difficulty recalling lyrics onstage and later his hands began to shake so bad he finally gave up the guitar and eventually live performances all together by 1976.
Son House had relocated to Detroit, Michigan where he quietly lived out the remaining twelve years of his life eventually passing away in 1988 at the age of eighty-six. Son House was without a doubt a pioneer and legend in the world of blues musicians.