Posts Tagged ‘Son House’

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902 (Lyon, Miss)– October 19, 1988 (Detroit, Mich.)) was an American blues singer and guitarist.

House pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music.

He was an important influence on Muddy Waters and also on Robert Johnson, who would later take this style of music to new levels.
A seminal Delta blues figure, House remains influential today, with his music being covered by many.

The middle of seventeen brothers, House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana after his parents separated.  The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career.  Despite the church’s firm stand against blues music and the sinful world which revolved around it, House became attracted to it.  He taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area, inspired by the work of Willie Wilson.

He began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams, around Robinsonville, Mississippi and north to Memphis, Tennessee until 1942.

He played mostly at weekend parties held at sharecroppers houses.  He would sometimes preach at various churches, and then go out that night and play blues.  Back then the two were virtually mutually exclusive.

After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time at Parchman Farm in 1928 and 1929.  The official story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree.  Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison.

Beacuse of his association with the already recorded Charley Patton, Son House was recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942.

In 1934 he married his wife, Evie, to whom he stayed married for his entire life.

In 1941 he was a tractor driver on the R.E.Neunlist plantation when he recorded for Lomax.  On Sept. 3, 1941, Lomax and John Work III recorded Son House, Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams at the Clack Store (which was also a train station, and is now an empty, flat plot of land) in Robinsonville, Miss.  He recorded again in 1942, and then in 1943 he moved out of the delta to Rochester, New York, and into obscurity…  for the time being.

He faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s when, after a long search of the Mississippi Delta region by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, he was “re-discovered” in June 1964 in Rochester, New York where he had lived since 1943.  House had been retired from the music business for many years, working for the New York Central Railroad, and was completely unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings.

He subsequently toured extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS records.   Like Mississippi John Hurt he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s and played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with Skip James and Bukka White. In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.

Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx.  He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a fitting monument on his grave. He had been married five times.

House’s innovative style featured strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of a bottleneck, coupled with singing that owed more than a nod to the hollers of the chain gangs.

The music of Son House, in contrast to that of, say, Blind Lemon Jefferson, was emphatically a dance music, meant to be heard in the noisy atmosphere of a barrelhouse or other dance hall.

It was House who, speaking to awe-struck young blues fans in the 1960s, spread the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical powers.  He was also the one who, later on, changed the supposed location of the crossroads by giving some writers the “true” location of the “real” corssroads (which was also completely bunk).

It is difficult to describe the transformation that took place as this smiling, friendly man hunched over his guitar and launched himself, bodily it seemed, into his music.  The blues possessed him like a ‘lowdown shaking chill’ and the spellbound audience saw the very incarnation of the blues as, head thrown back, he hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm. Son’s music is the centre of the blues experience and when he performs it is a corporeal thing, audience and singer become as one.

MUSIC

James “Son” House (1902-1988) may have been the most powerful of the Delta Bluesmen.

While not as flashy a guitarist as some of his peers such as Bukka White, or as well known proteges (Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters both were schooled by Son), Son’s playing had a fierce edge to it. His voice and lyrics are powerful.

Son first recorded three tunes for Paramount in Grafton Wisconsin in 1930; My Black Mama (1 & 2), Preachin’ The Blues (1 & 2), Dry Spell Blues (1 & 2) as well as an unreleased version of Walking Blues.  His good friend Willie Brown traveled to Grafton with him and recorded Future Blues at this same session.

The Paramount records didn’t do well (as a result they are some of the rarest Blues 78s).  Son didn’t record again until August of 1941, when Alan Lomax made some field recordings of Son and Willie with a small string band.

They recorded again for Lomax in July of ’42. Ensemble pieces like Levee Camp Blues and Government Fleet Blues offer a glimpse of Son and Willie together.  Solo performances like Shetland Pony Blues (hear the train in the background?) and The Jinx Blues (1&2) from these sessions are among Son’s best.   Son did not make another commercial record until the “blues revival” of the 1960s. His influence, however, would be felt through the recordings of Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, and other successful blues artists.  Modern Son House disciple John Mooney has combined Son’s Delta style with power trio Rock and New Orleans R&B to carry Son’s tradition into the 21st Century…

There’s a lot to learn here, musically and otherwise. Four O’Clock Blues is reminscent of Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink of Water , the first words of Camp Hollers hint at where Howlin’ Wolf might have got Killing Floor from.

Son played various National single cones ( Duolians and Style “O”s), playing slide with a piece of copper tube(?) on his third finger in “Spanish”(Open G – DGDGBD) tuning.  By using his third finger ,Son was able to damp behind the slide and use his pinky for fretting.
The copper tube adds a gritty sound, which works great with a Duolian, Steel bodied “O” (or a new Delphi).

Son’s lyrics reflect the stark life he lead. This is the Delta Blues.

Patton made his first recording in June 1929, cutting fourteen songs for the Paramount label, all issued on 78s. Such was the success of his initial session that he was invited four months later to Paramount‘s new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he recorded twenty-eight additional tunes.

Howlin’ Wolf, who moved to Dockery in 1926, recalled seeing Patton on the town square in Drew, not far from Dockery Plantation. Patton’s hypnotic three-note songs also deeply influenced Clarksdale‘s John Lee Hooker, who recorded his own version of Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues.” Bukka White also cited a desire “to come to be a famous man, like Charley Patton,” and demonstrated a similar knack for playing dance songs for extended periods. Patton’s last recording session was in New York City in February 1934, two months before his death.

Patton befriended House, who began working as a musician around the Kirby Plantation. In 1930, Patton brought him, guitarist Willie Brown, and pianist Louise Johnson to Grafton, Wisconsin, for a recording session with Paramount Records. House’s influence on the Delta School of musicians can be judged from a handful of recordings made in Grafton. His song “Preachin’ The Blues Part I & II” was a six-minute biography of his life and served as inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues” and “Walking Blues.” House’s powerful vocals and slashing slide guitar style established him as a giant of the Delta School but did not lead to commercial success. House continued playing with Willie Brown during the 1930s and developed a relationship with a young Robert Johnson after moving to Robinsonville, Mississippi. After Johnson had learned to play guitar, he began to gig with House and Brown, learning the older musicians’ licks.

Tommy Johnson, the Crossroads, and Robert Johnson.

You all know the Crossroads story. Robert Johnson goes to the crossroads and sells his soul to the devil to become the greatest guitar player in the world. Thanks to a lot of misinformation this myth abounds. Only the original myth wasn’t about Robert Johnson at all! It was about Tommy Johnson (a fact that the movie O Brother Where Art Thou amazingly got correct!).

A quick note before I go on: How to sell your soul at the Crossroads:
Go to the crossroads (and it really is ANY crossroads, not a specific one) and stand in the middle of the intersection at midnight and play your best guitar. Someone (the devil) will come up to you from behind as you play. He will tap you on the shoulder. Without looking you hand your guitar to him over your back. He plays a few notes on the guitar and then hands it back to you. Congrats, you have sold your soul to the devil. Oh, and you still aren’t great. You have to continue to practice, but you will excel at an unbelievable rate, blah blah blah.

Anyway, around 1911 or so at about 15 years old Tommy Johnson wasn’t a great guitar player at all. He left his home in Mississippi and traveled. In his travels he met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, who tutored him on the guitar. When he finally went back to Miss. he was not only significantly better on the guitar thanks to the tutiledge of Charlie Patton, but he also no longer sang religious songs, but sang the Blues (aka The Devil’s Music). He also drank a lot too. All of this together made for a very different person than the boy who left Miss., and led to the rumors of him selling his soul to the devil for his new skills on the guitar, and the reason for him now playing “The Devils Music”. So that’s the Crossroads story.  The story of selling your soul to the devil for riches, etc. is an old Hoodoo tale and can be traced back all the way to Africa.

Robert Johnson: Born in Miss. and moved to Memphis when he was 3. He stayed there till he was about 18 or so, and met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown when they travelled there, as well as Blind Lemon Jefferson when he traveled to Memphis, and met him again in Texas when he (Johnson) traveled there too. They taught him music.  In 1930, Robert’s wife and baby died during childbirth.  It was a few months later when Son House and Willie Brown came to Robinsonville, where Johnson was living.  Robert followed Son House and Willie Brown around wanting to play with them, but he was really bad, and so they wouldn’t let him play with them.  They did give him lessons here and there every now and then.  In 1931 he moves back to Hazlehurst, MIss., reportedly to try to find his father.  In Hazlehurst he meets a guitar player named Ike Zimmerman (or Zinnerman, either spelling seems to be OK).  For about a year Ike gives Robert Lessons, and he practices night and day, all the time.  At night he hangs out in a local cemetary and plays in the graveyard so that he doesn’t disturb anyone else with his playing in the middle of the night.  He then returns to the Clarksdale and Robinsonville areas in 1993 a MUCH better musician.  This was surprising to everyone, to say the least, often mystifying.  How could a kid who was so aweful dissapear for a year and then come back and play BETTER than his former teachers?

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