Legends of the Blues, Vol. 1, one of the first releases on the Columbia/Legacy label in the early 90's. Previously, the only early blues recordings I'd heard were the two Robert Johnson albums. Most other artists weren't available where I could find them at the time and I was just beginning to explore the wonderful world of mail-order music catalogs.
That particular album had 20 songs from a variety of early, pre-war blues artists and it was, for sure, an amazing experience for a still-fledgling blues fan. The sound had been dramatically improved, or so the liner notes told me.....I had nothing to compare it with at the time, so that was why I checked it out. I had read that the sound of older recordings like these could make for challenging listening, so I was pleasantly surprised. These recordings were very clear, with a minimum of noise, and I heard artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, and Bukka White for the first time, and it made me want to hear more.
Good as all of these were, they didn't hold a candle to the 20th and final track on the album, Son House performing "Death Letter," from his 1965 comeback album. When I heard House's stunningly intense vocals and the incredible sound of that slide running across the steel guitar, I knew it was something special. I had seen pictures of Son House over the years in newspapers (when Mississippi musicians were discussed), but didn't know who he was. A few months after I subscribed to Living Blues, his obituary was printed in the magazine. I knew who he was, but until hearing him perform "Death Letter," I really didn't know WHO he was.
From that point, I went back and was able to hear his early recordings. I found them on a couple of collections released by a new discovery of mine at the time, Yazoo Records. One of the tracks, "My Black Mama (Part 1)," appeared on an album called The Roots of Robert Johnson and, boy, was it tough to listen to at times. On some songs, there was a lot of surface noise to contend with, but even through the racket, you could still get an idea of the raw intensity he brought to the song and it made me want to hear more, as I'm sure many other blues fans felt when they finally got to hear Son House for the first time.
Son House was born in Coahoma County, near Clarksdale, as Edward James House, Jr. His date of birth is usually given as March 21, 1902, but Dick Waterman, who "rediscovered" House and helped rejuvenate his career in the 60's as his manager, believes that House was born in the 1800's, maybe in the 1880's, based on various hints that he gave Waterman during their discussions. He came from a musical family, but a family who was focused on the church. His father was torn between the church and the blues, a trait that his son also inherited. For his part, Son focused on singing instead of his family's instruments.
He was a Baptist preacher in his mid-teens and had a general dislike for not only secular music but the guitar. In his mid 20's, not particularly caring for the menial jobs that came with farming and the other available options, he turned to the blues after a drunken night at a local house party, where he picked up a guitar and started playing. He was paid for his "playing" and apparently it was enough to encourage him to pursue playing the blues in earnest, though he was wracked with guilt about doing so.
House struggled for years between the church and the juke joint, and actually served time in Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm for murdering a man in a Coahoma County juke joint one night. He was released in two years, claiming self-defense, but the die was cast. The judge told him to stay away from Clarksdale and he became a traveling blues man, eventually making his way south to Lula, MS, where he met Charley Patton. Patton was impressed enough with House's rapidly developing skills that he began inviting him to some of his local appearances. He also accompanied Patton up to Grafton, Wisconsin, with Willie Brown and Louise Johnson in 1930, where the three of them recorded for Paramount Records on Patton's recommendation.
House had three two-part 78's released by Paramount, but they didn't sell very well, and the production values were so lacking that the few that did survive had horrible surface noise. Despite that, these three records are considered valuable collector's items today, and House's performances are spell-binding on all three ("Preachin' The Blues," "Dry Spell Blues," and "My Black Mama"....some years later an unreleased test recording of "Walkin' Blues" was discovered), and manage to overcome the background noise.
Alan Lomax heard those Paramount recordings, however, and he sought out House to record for the Library of Congress in 1941. On these recordings, he played solo and on band tracks with Willie Brown, mandolin player Fiddlin' Joe Martin, and harmonica player Leroy Williams. House, who had cut back on his playing after Patton's death in 1934 was still at the height of his powers during this session and a subsequent one in 1942. These recordings are still amazing today. The musicians were comfortable with each other and it showed. Some of the tracks went well over the usual three-minute mark of the 78's of the time and it's fairly obvious that many of the musicians who headed north to Chicago later in the decade took a lot of their own performance style from what was on these recordings.
Then.......House disappeared. He actually moved to Rochester, NY and became railroad porter and later a chef for the New York Central Railroad. He lived in relative obscurity for twenty years, rarely if ever touching a guitar. He was rediscovered in 1964 by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, and Phil Spiro, who had been searching for House all over the Deep South (Waterman later found out, to his chagrin, that Lomax had known House was in Rochester all the time). When he was found, House was completely unaware that there was any sort of enthusiasm for his early recordings and of the accompanying revival of folk blues. He didn't even own a guitar at the time.
|Son House at Newport, 1966 (photo by Robert Corwin)|
Waterman became House's manager and the young musician Alan Wilson (of Canned Heat), who was a huge fan of Son House and knew his repertoire front to back, was recruited to teach "Son House how to play like Son House." Waterman began booking House at festivals, including the 1964 Newport Festival, at Carnegie Hall, and eventually a 1967 tour of Europe as part of the American Folk Festival. He also recorded again and the new recordings showed that while he may have lost a little bit off of his fastball, he still played and sang with incredible power and intensity.....and the new recordings were a nice alternative to those old Paramount recordings for new blues fans. These new fans were amazed at his performances. Even though he appeared somewhat meek and mild-mannered as he approached the stage, when he strapped on the guitar, he was completely transformed. Waterman once said (it's on House's tombstone), "It was as if he went into a trance and somehow willed himself to another time and place." For those awestruck young fans, House was a living link to artists like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, who they only knew through recordings. House actually played, traveled, and lived with them.
House toured Europe again in 1970, appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and continued to make appearances until the mid 70's. By this time, House's health had started to fail and he was losing his battle with the bottle. In early 1970, he had been drinking in a Rochester bar and passed out in the snow. He was there all night until he was found and taken to the hospital. His hands were so badly frostbitten that he was no longer able to play guitar. He therefore missed out on a huge opportunity, the biggest he ever would have had. Eric Clapton was a huge fan and had wanted House to open for Clapton and Delaney and Bonnie at the Fillmore East, but Waterman had to turn down the gig because House's hands were so severely damaged.
In 1974, House retired again from music. By this time, he was suffering from the affects of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. He had started having problems remembering songs onstage and his shaking hands had forced him to give up guitar. He moved to Detroit, and lived there with his wife, Evie, until his death in 1988 from cancer of the larynx.
For the numerous blues artists who were influenced by his music, Son House was the Gold Standard. He was the direct influence of two blues legends in Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and indirectly of the numerous blues and rock & roll artists who were influenced by Waters and Johnson. Last week, I mentioned Richard Shade Gardner's book, Finding Son House: One Searcher's Story, about Gardner's 1981 visit with House (a great read). In the foreword to the book, Gardner summed up House's importance to the blues (and rock & roll) rather effectively:
"Imagine the evolution of rock music, outlined on an org chart. Son House might be the CEO, Waters and Johnson vice presidents of manufacturing and marketing, with Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the rest of the generation that followed in sales and distribution. The board of directors, whence CEO Son received his directives, would be the generation of men and women who preceded him in the fields, before they had access to recording devices, before many had instruments, before some even had their own names. Son House was that important."
There's also a biography of House written by Daniel Beaumont, Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House. I haven't read this book yet, but I've seen very good reviews on it, so I'm confident that this would be an excellent way to find out more about House.
Son House - Selected Discography - A Beginner's Guide
The Original Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy): This is where I would start.....a budget-priced sampler of House's rediscovery recordings, actually a reissue of his 1965 comeback album with Alan Wilson playing harmonica in support on a couple of tracks. There are a couple of A capella tracks that are just amazing and hearing House tear into a couple of the guitars with his fierce vocals and even fiercer guitar will raise goose bumps on even the most jaded listeners. Once you listen to these songs, you will definitely want to hear more, so from here I would move to.......
Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Son House (Shout! Factory): This will give you a taste of all of House's repertoire, going back to a couple of his Paramount recordings, a few of his recordings for the Library of Congress, and some live performances from his 60's comeback. Once you hear this set, you will definitely know whether you want to hear more, and I think you will. Now, you can expand in each direction, starting with.......
Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (Columbia/Legacy): This set is actually where I started listenign to House......it was all that I could find at the time. It captures the original album (see above), plus alternate takes, previously unreleased songs, and other bonus features. Wilson plays guitar and harmonica on several tracks. The thing to think about here is the fact that just a few months earlier, House had not played any of the songs in nearly TWENTY years and had to be RETAUGHT how to play them. You would never know it by these performances.
Delta Blues (Biograph/Shout! Factory): The complete 1941-42 Library of Congress recordings, this set is positively riveting, both the solo tunes and the band songs. The sound has been improved considerably over the years on these tracks. Anyone who likes acoustic Delta blues at all need these recordings in their collection.
Masters of the Delta Blues: The Friends of Charley Patton (Yazoo): This set includes all six sides of House's Paramount recordings, plus the recently-discovered "Walkin' Blues" acetate, plus several other songs from Tommy Johnson, Kid Bailey, Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson. This is about as good a pre-war collection as you can get. The sound is as good as it will probably ever get on House's sides, too.
And just for the heck of it, check out the aforementioned Legends of the Blues, Vol. 1 (Columbia/Legacy), if you can find it. There's only the one House song, but there's a lot of other great music with a great roster and great sound. It's a fantastic introduction to some of the early blues giants.