This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special
Last week, we talked about Mississippi John Hurt — a humble man whose delayed success was just fine by him, but never could stand being too far from home.
This week, we’ll cover Son House — at one time in fervent opposition to the blues, he just couldn’t stay away once he got a taste.
Here’s what we know: Edward James “Son” House, Jr. was born on March 21, 1902 in Lyon, Mississippi, just north of Clarksdale. His father, Eddie House, Sr., was a musician (a tuba player) and alcoholic, and Eddie House, Sr., stopped drinking, got religion, and served as a deacon for the Baptist Church. Eddie House, Jr., “Son” House, was very committed to religion and music, but condemned the blues as the Devil’s music.
Son House’s parents separated when he was about seven or eight years old and his mother took him to Louisiana. At about fifteen years old, he began preaching sermons and warned of the evils of the blues. At nineteen years old, he married Carrie Martin, an older woman, against his family’s wishes and moved to Centerville, LA to help run her family’s farm. After a couple years, he left her and began wandering for a time, working odd jobs throughout Louisiana, Missouri, and then back in the Delta, getting religion himself (or a Prodigal Son return to it, anyway), and eventually taking up the pulpit as a pastor of a Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. He got his rambling spirit honest, though, and took up his father’s old habits of drinking and philandering and left the church.
In 1927, Son House changed his mind about the blues when he heard a drinking buddy playing slide guitar. House was an immediate convert, bought a guitar, and was touring around playing the blues in a matter of weeks.
Around 1928, while playing at a juke joint, a man went on a shooting spree in the bar and Son House shot and killed the man. Sentenced to 15 years at Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary), Son House served two, being released due to an appeal by his family. Upon his release, it was strongly suggested that he get the Hell out of Clarksdale, which he assuredly did.
In exile in Lula, MS, Son House met Charley Patton, the first blues rock star, the biggest star in the blues world, and began traveling around with him. Charley Patton was asked to record more music for Paramount Records in 1930, and Son House came with him. Several members of Patton’s posse recorded for Paramount as well on this trip. House recorded nine songs, eight of which were released. However, Son House’s session was a commercial failure due to the onset of the Great Depression and he would not record again for 35 years. House continued to play with other members of Charley Patton’s crew and worked a day job as a tractor driver around Lake Cormorant, MS.
In 1941 and 1942, Son House had a short period where he rose to popularity again when Americana musicologist Alan Lomax recorded House for the Library of Congress. In 1943, though, he moved to Rochester, NY, and worked for the railroad.
In 1964, Son House was discovered during the American folk and blues music Renaissance we’ve touched on before and toured around and recorded for a number of years. In 1974, he retired to Detroit, Michigan, and died of laryngeal cancer in 1988.
Son House’s style teaches us that the blues isn’t just about playing the right notes, but about putting your heart and soul into the music. In objective terms, Son House was a terrible musician. He can’t keep a beat, his intonation is all over the place, his vocals are unrefined. However, his years as a preacher absolutely come through in his performance. The power of his delivery and the cadence of his singing take the blues to church and create something not to be played in conservatories by nine year old Chinese virtuosi, but to be fully experienced by the listener.
Put away the metronome and sheet music and fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Put on this man’s music on something analog. Shoot back something that will put some hair on your chest. Son House’s music isn’t for a refined, sophisticated palate. Son House’s music is raw soul — distilled, unaged, and served out of a Mason jar.