The blues is not a plaything like some people think they are.
- Son House
No, the blues aren't a plaything. They aren't just about breaking up with your girl. They aren't just about losing your job. They aren't just about just feeling 'blue'. What the blues are about is the near-constant struggle between good and evil that wages in the hearts and souls of every person. They are about the back and forth between angels and demons. They are about temptation, sin and redemption and the mad yowling in your heart of hearts. The true blues are not about trying to feel better. They are about bleeding off the pain of the human condition that builds in the very being of all of mankind.
And there are very few blues musicians who understood that better than Son House.
Edwards James 'Son' House is truly one of the forefathers of the blues and may be one of the greatest of the Delta blues musicians that most current blues fans have never heard. He is a major influence to current artists like Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt as well having been a mentor to blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. His slide work rivals any recorded since and set the standard that most slide players still struggle to emulate.
Son House was born in 1902 near Riverton, Mississippi. His mother, a strict, churchgoing Baptist, forbade House from listening to secular music and kept him heavily indoctrinated in the church. His father, who had left the family when Son was a toddler, played bass horn in a local band but later, like his former wife, eschewed secular music and became a deacon in the local church. While still a toddler the family moved several times back and forth between Mississippi and Louisiana, the entire time Son was singing in the various church choirs wherever the family landed.
By the time he was 15, Son House had become ordained as a Baptist preacher and was delivering sermons in the rural churches while also working various odd jobs in his local area. When his mother died in the early 20's, Son House relocated to Clarksdale, Mississippi where he took various manual labor jobs. In 1927 he happened upon two local musicians, Ruben Lacy and Willie Wilson, and was inspired after hearing them to take up the guitar and purchased an old beat up acoustic for $1.50. Wilson refurbished the guitar for him and taught him a few chords. Not long after, House was playing "Hold Up Sally, Take Your Legs Offa Mine" that he learned from Wilson. Wilson was so taken with House that he asked him to play with him at a juke that Saturday night.
Son House began playing diligently and quickly built up a solid repertoire of songs, some he picked up from others and many that he wrote himself. It didn't take long for House to begin working the blues circuit throughout the South. In the late 1920's, House formed a partnership with guitarist Willie Brown who had been friends and a sometimes partner with Charlie Patton. Willie Brown is considered by most blues scholars to be one of the best of the acoustic blues players from that time although he shied away from the spotlight being more content to be a stellar sideman; a sideman that was sought out by some of the biggest names in the early days of the blues.
House's career was stopped briefly when trouble caught up with Him in 1928. He was arrested for killing a man at a house party and was sentenced to Parchman Farms prison. House claimed that the shooting was in self-defense. The sentencing judge re-opened the case and House was released after serving only a year and a half.
There are many stories about how Patton and House met but the most common one is that House had relocated to Lula, Mississippi after his release from prison (at the judges strong recommendation) and was playing guitar at the railroad depot for tips where he met and was befriended by Patton. Patton recommended House for a recording session for Paramount Records. Patton, House, Brown and pianist Louise Johnson made the trip to Grafton, Wisconsin for the session in 1930. It was at this session that House recorded "Preachin' the Blues Parts 1 and 2" and "Walking Blues." (Both of which were later covered by Robert Johnson) and four other tracks.
After the session House and Brown resumed playing all over Mississippi at parties, dances, levee camps and even at 'whites only" events. According to House, the white people "loved' their music especially "anything fast and jumpy" but they didn't seem to care for "church music." For a time House played with Dr. McFadden's Medicine Show. "I used to get on a small stage and play just as loud as I could to attract attention. Boy, we sure sold lots of medicine."
In an interview that was later used for liner notes for a Columbia release House talked about those early days with Brown. "We used to play the "jook joints" a lot. Boy, were they rough! Every Saturday night someone got cut up or killed. I'd leave when the rough stuff started, even though they never bothered the musicians. I wasn't taking any chances." But something else happened in those jukes that helped create a legend. A young man named Robert Johnson, a local youth with a love of music, became entranced by House and Brown and every time they were playing locally, Johnson would show up and sit at the very front of the stage, watching the guitarists play. House once relayed this story about Johnson in Living Blues. " Apparently when he and Brown would go outside and take a break during a show, Johnson would jump up on the stage, grab one of the guitars and try to play. "And such a racket you never heard! It'd make the people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, 'Why don't y'all go in and get that guitar away from that boy! He's running people crazy with it!' I'd come back in, and I'd scold him about it, ' Don't do that Robert. You drive the people nuts. You can't play nothing. Why don't you play that harmonica for'em.' But he didn't want to blow that. Still, he didn't care how I'd get after him about it. He'd do it anyway."
The story continues that it was the scolding and ribbing that Johnson took from House, Patton and Brown caused him to disappear from the scene for a year (to either the woodshed to practice like there was no tomorrow or when he made the deal with The Devil at the crossroads if you prefer) and when he returned, he was playing blues like no one had ever heard before. From there it was a short jump for Johnson to become a blues legend.
House continued to work with Brown and as a solo artist throughout the early to mid-30's in and around the Mississippi area. In 1932 he recorded a few sides for the Spears Phonograph Company including "I Had A Dream Last Night That Troubled Me". Paramount liked what House had been recording and had asked him to relocate to New York to record more sides but by that time House was married and didn't want to make the trip.
However there was one more series of recordings that House and Brown lent themselves to during that period that many critics and collectors feel may have been their finest. Alan Lomax finally persuaded House and Brown to record for his Library Of Congress recording project in 1941-1942. Although the recordings are still thought of as some of the best ever done of the Delta blues, House had a certain dislike for Alan Lomax. House told blues collector Dick Waterman about the Library Of Congress recordings. "He come down and recorded me and Willie Brown back then and he didn't give us nothing but one Coca-Cola. Willie grabbed up the Coca-Cola first and I didn’t get nothing."
House relocated to Rochester, New York in 1943 where he took various jobs at a defense plant, a rivet heater in the box car shop of the New York Central Railroad and as a porter for the railroad in their Buffalo, New York location. His former partner, Willie Brown, moved to Buffalo for a time and the pair would occasionally play together at local gigs but House only played in public when Brown was available. Brown later returned to Tunica, Mississippi where he died in 1956. When Brown died, House put away his guitar completely. In interviews, House later said "I didn't much care to play without Willie…After Willie went I just didn't have the heart to play anymore and just gave the whole thing up."
Son House was "re-discovered" by blues researchers/collectors Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and Phil Spiro on Fathers Day in 1964 who coaxed him into recording for them. Once word got out that House was indeed still alive he began to get invites to play at folk festivals for both his playing as well as his stories about the characters and stories from the early days of the Delta blues. His first appearance in his post-discovery period was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. House began recording again putting out discs for Folkways, Verve and Columbia. He continued to gig and record sporadically throughout the 70's but interest in the early blues had begun to wane in the United States. When his failing health would allow it, he would travel to Europe where he still maintained a storied reputation and a legion of fans. By the late 70's House stopped touring and recording completely and lived out the remaining years of his life quietly in Detroit, Michigan.
He died in 1988.
Son House did not get the recognition that he deserved until late in his life and even now many blues enthusiasts don't truly appreciate how influential he was to the genre. In 1969 a documentary was made of House and there are several surviving clips of his appearances on television shows towards the end of his performing career. It is well worth looking them up and giving them a listen. There is something eerie, powerful and compelling about the combination of House's vocals set against the rough, percussive sound of his guitar work. It's aural time travel; taking the listener back almost 100 years, transporting him to a humid and dark Mississippi night. When you listen to Son House, it's hard not to feel the sweat bead up on the back of your neck and the goose bumps leap up on your arms.
No, these blues are not a plaything. These blues are the real thing.