Son House’s Deep Mississippi Delta Blues
In the years before World War II, Son House created some of the purest, most powerful Mississippi Delta blues on record. Playing with partners Charley Patton and Willie Brown, he exerted a profound influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, both of whom copied his music and carried it to new generations. House’s influence still echoes through the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and many other musicians. In many respects, he is the true father of “deep blues.”
Watching Son House perform bottleneck guitar was akin to seeing a locomotive on a downhill run. Sitting tall in a straight-back chair, he planted both feet on the ground and tapped time with his left foot. He set his propulsive rhythms in motion by waving his right arm up and down, almost like a symphony conductor, in an arc that typically traveled above the upper bout of his guitar. He held his right hand very loose, and he’d typically strike a bass note with his thumb during his arm’s downward swoop and then strum the treble strings with his nails on the way down or with his fingertips on the way back up. He wore a metal slide on his left-hand ring finger, which he held at a 45-degree angle to gliss the strings. For certain high-note slides, such as those in the “My Black Mama”/”Death Letter Blues” riff, House had a peculiar way of plucking the high E string with his index finger, trigger-like, during his hand’s upswing. An extremely physical guitarist, House not only kept time with his left foot and swinging right arm, but his whole being – his head, neck, shoulders, and all the rest – seemed to vibrate to the rhythm of his song. While the figures he played were often rudimentary, his performances were extraordinarily dynamic.
Even more compelling than his guitar playing, Son House’s voice really caught attention. Be it a window-rattling, impassioned plea like “Levee Camp Moan” or transcendent a cappella gospel like “John the Revelator,” it came from somewhere deep within his psyche. For sheer strength of delivery, he was on a par with Bessie Smith, Blind Willie Johnson, and precious few others, and every note he sang was uniquely his own. Original and uncompromising, House’s blues are intense, anguished, and as powerful as any recorded. Small wonder that as young plantation hands in the 1930s, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were mesmerized when they saw him perform. Waters, for one, gave credit where credit was due.
When Muddy Waters made his initial recordings, in August 1941 for the Library of Congress, his first selection, “Country Blues,” was based on House’s “My Black Mama” riff. (A few years earlier, Robert Johnson had also used the riff for his recording of “Walking Blues.”) After Waters finished cutting the song, Alan Lomax asked him about its origins. The song, Waters responded, “come from the cotton field and the boy what put the record out – Robert Johnson – he put out ‘Walkin’ Blues.’ But I knowed the tune ‘fore I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House; that’s a boy that picks a guitar. I been knowing Son since ’29. He was the best. Whenever I heard he was gonna play somewhere, I followed after him and stayed watching him. I learned how to play with the bottleneck by watching him for about a year. He helped me a lot. Showed me how to tune my guitar in three ways – natural, Spanish, and cross-note.” “Natural” refers to standard tuning. For “Spanish” – open G – the guitar is tuned D G D G B D, low to high. “Cross-note” – open D – is D A D F# A D.
Asked whether Johnson or House was the better player, Muddy responded, “I think they both about equal.” In a Living Blues interview, Muddy Waters elaborated further, telling Jim O’Neal: “I consider myself to be what you might call a mixture of all three – I had part of my own, part of Son House, and a little part of Robert Johnson. Really, though, it was Son House who influenced me to play. I was really behind Son House all the way.”
* * * *
Eddie James “Son” House was born a couple of miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi – “a little past Riverton,” as he described it – on March 21, 1902. A “churchified” field worker in his youth, House attended sabbath school at the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church and preached his first sermon at 15. He had vivid childhood recollections of the hollers of solitary mule drivers echoing across cotton fields. His father, Eddie House, Sr., blew horn in a band with his seven brothers and knew a few songs on guitar. When House’s parents separated, he moved with his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. For many years after that, House preached the gospel and worked in cotton fields.
Throughout his church-going days, House shunned guitar players. “Now, just to tell the truth by it,” he explained to Sing Out! magazine in the mid 1960s, “I was brought up in church, from a little boy on up, and I didn’t believe in no blues. I was too churchy. I didn’t believe in that, and I talked against it. Just putting your hands on an old guitar, why, looked like that was a sin.” Willie Wilson, an unrecorded bottleneck player from Mattson, Mississippi, changed his opinion: “People were all crowded around,” House explained. “This boy, Willie Wilson, had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, you know. I said, ‘Jesus! Wonder what’s that he’s playing?’ I knew that guitars hadn’t usually been sounding like that. So I eases up close enough to look and I see what he has on his finger. ‘Sounds good!’ I said. ‘Jesus, I like that!’ And from there, I got the idea and said, ‘I believe I want to play one of them things.’”
House paid $1.50 for a battered guitar, and Wilson taught him to tune to an open chord. He fashioned a bottle neck into a slider and learned to match thumbed bass notes with treble slides. A few weeks later, Wilson backed House at his first juke appearance. House also admired James McCoy, who taught him “Hold Up, Sally, Take Your Big Legs Offa Mine” and slideless arrangements of “My Black Mama” and “Preaching the Blues,” which House adapted for bottleneck.
In 1928, House shot a man at a Saturday night frolic in Lyon, Mississippi. He pleaded self-defense and was convicted of manslaughter, drawing 15 years on the penal farm at Parchman. A judge reviewing the case freed him two years later and warned him never to set foot in Clarksdale again. House hotfooted it to the small settlement of Lula, Mississippi. There, a friend introduced him to Charley Patton. House had heard Patton’s Paramount 78s and regarded him as the Delta’s most famous bluesman. House settled in nearby Lake Cormorant and became drinking buddies with Patton. Teaming up, they performed at juke joints and picnics with another local bluesman, Willie Brown, who worked mostly as a sideman. Many times, House recalled, the trio would throw their guitars over their shoulders and walk four or five miles to a gig. They’d line up three chairs and drink and play together, taking turns singing verses.
During May 1930, Art Laibly of Paramount Records visited Charley Patton in Lula to encourage him to record some new 78s for the label in Grafton, Wisconsin. Patton requested that House, Willie Brown, and pianist Louise Johnson come along. Laibly agreed. House recalled that at the time, all three guitarists were playing Stellas: “Me and Willie, we ordered ours from Chicago. We used to get these catalogs – Montgomery Ward. They didn’t cost much at that time. Mine cost $11, and so did Willie’s.” Wheeler Ford, a member of the Delta Big Four singing group, was hired to drive the musicians to Grafton.
In what proved to be one of the monumental Delta blues sessions, House, Patton, Brown, and Louise Johnson all recorded on or about May 28th in a damp stone building with large rooms outfitted with sliding-panel baffles. Son recalled that Paramount used blinking lights to cue performers, and the studio’s playback capabilities allowed the performers to hear what they’d just recorded. House inaugurated his recording career with his mantra-like two-part masterpiece, “My Black Mama.” Tuning his guitar to open-G tuning, he began both sides of the 78 with a slide flourish and then slipped into a propulsive, trancelike riff highlighted by a bottleneck gliss to the fifth fret of the high E string. House then re-tuned his guitar to open D and followed with his two-part “Preachin’ the Blues,” which Stefan Grossman points to as “probably the finest example of Delta blues, with that rhythmic bass pattern played against a melodic bottleneck line – this incredible driving force. Who else had that?” Unsurpassed examples of Delta blues singing, these 78s featured stream-of-consciousness lyrics. “We changed them songs around all the time,” House explained upon hearing the records decades later. “I probably never done it again that way anyhow.”
As the session progressed, House sang “Clarksdale Moan” and gave a gripping account of a disastrous drought in his two-part “Dry Spell Blues,” using a melody common to Willie Brown’s “M&O Blues” and parts of Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues.” At the urging of Laibly, who had informed him that Blind Lemon Jefferson had recently died, House worked out an arrangement of a Jefferson hit, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” giving it a new theme and renaming it “Mississippi County Farm Blues.” A final House track – “Walkin’ Blues,” with Willie Brown on second guitar – was discovered among a cache of Paramount test pressings offered at a yard sale in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1985. Pure juke, this version differs significantly from the one Robert Johnson recorded in 1936, incorporating the common “Good morning blues, blues how do you do?” lyric. Willie Brown recorded “M&O Blues” and “Future Blues” at the session, and Charley Patton recorded four fabulous sides – “Dry Well Blues,” “Some Summer Day,” “Moon Going Down,” and “Bird Nest Bound.” Louise Johnson, meanwhile, celebrated the joys of straight-up fornication with her piano-driven “On the Wall” and featured the vocal support of Son House and Willie Brown on “All Night Long Blues.” With the Great Depression kicking in, the 1930 Grafton session turned out to be the sole prewar commercial session for House, Brown, and Johnson. On his return to Mississippi, Son House proudly displayed the $40 he’d been paid by Paramount.
Son House spent the next decade working plantations around Lake Cormorant, driving a tractor from sunup to sundown for a dollar a day. Patton died in 1934, but House and Brown continued to play together at juke joints on weekends. At one point, they reportedly added a trombonist and drummer to the lineup. House was typically the featured singer, while Brown acted as “commentor” during their numbers.
During the summer of 1941, on the same trip that produced Muddy Waters’ first recordings, Alan Lomax and John Work set up near Lake Cormorant in Clack’s Store, which was wired for electricity and doubled as a juke. There they made many fine recordings of Son House with a hot country band featuring Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin on mandolin, and harmonica wailer Leroy Williams. House’s original songs “Levee Camp Blues” and “Walking Blues” provide rare samples of extended prewar juke music. House paid tribute to Patton with “Shetland Pony Blues,” and worked “Delta Blues” into a five-minute duet with Williams. House and Brown also collaborated on the haunting “Camp Hollers.”
In his book Land Where the Blues Began, Alan Lomax remembered House as a “handsome, sensitive, intelligent man,” and wrote of the session, “Of all of my times with the blues, this one was the best, better than Leadbelly, better than Josh White, Sonny Terry, and all the rest of them. . . . At the center of [the group] was Son House, a man transformed, no longer the quiet, affable person I had met, but possessed by the song, as Gypsies in Spain are possessed, gone blind with music and poetry.”
Lomax returned to Robinsonville on July 17, 1942, and interviewed House on disc. House recut “Walking Blues” and played “Special Rider Blues,” “The Pony Blues,” and the two-part “The Jinx Blues.” Lomax’s scribbled notes indicate that “Special Rider Blues” was House’s “first blues, picked up by note from an old boy. Learned in 1928. Key Spanish A.” “Depot Blues,” Lomax noted, was “learned from Willie Williams of Greenwood, Miss. Basic chord is open or E major position. W.W. known as Lemon. Learned in 1930.” When Lomax asked how he’d learned so many tunings, House responded, “Just felt around and found ‘em.” House reprised Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” melody for his bottleneck lament “County Farm Blues.” In “The Jinx Blues,” House sang of being awakened by “jinx all around my bed” – a theme from Patton’s 1934 “Revenue Man Blues” – and described the blues as “a lowdown shaking chill,” a phrase Robert Johnson also used. With his superb vocals and sure-handed bottleneck, House was at the peak of his powers on these Library of Congress recordings. His performance netted him a bottle of Coca-Cola.
Around 1943, House moved to Rochester, New York, and took a job as a rivet heater in the New York Central Railroad dispatch shop where boxcars were assembled. After the war he was promoted to porter and assigned the Empire State Express run to Chicago, a job he held for more than a decade. He stayed pals with Willie Brown, buying him a ticket to Rochester in the early 1950s and visiting him in Mississippi in the fall of 1952. When he received a telegram a few weeks later notifying him that Brown had died, House quit playing music. As he later explained to Sing Out!, “I said, ‘Well, sir, all my boys are gone.’ That was when I stopped playing. After he died I just decided I wouldn’t fool with playing any more. I don’t even know what I did with the guitar.” After that House “went right” and joined the Amen Baptist Church.
With the resurgence of interest in the blues in the early 1960s, several record collectors began scouring the South to find bluesmen who’d recorded before the war. In June 1964, after weeks of hard searching, young blues enthusiasts Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro, and Nick Perls learned in Mississippi that Son House was still alive. Waterman recounts, “We met a guy named Benny Brown. His son had once been married to Son House’s step-daughter. So we found the son: ‘You had once been married to Son House’s step-daughter?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Got her name, number?, ‘Yeah, yeah. I got her number.’ So we called her. We knew he was alive in’41, ’42. This is now twenty-something years later. ‘Your mother is married to the blues singer Son House?’ ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Living in Rochester, New York.’ ‘Is he still alive?’ ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. We talk, but they don’t have no phone.’ So they gave me the neighbor’s number. The neighbor went and got Son, and we spoke to him on Sunday, June 21, 1964. Spiro says, ‘Are you the Son House who recorded for Paramount Records or recorded for Lomax, and you knew Charley Patton?’ He says, ‘Say! Who is this, anyway? Yeah, that’s me. I done them things. I done them things. Yeah, that’s me.’ ‘Okay, we’re on our way!’ That day, Sunday, June 21, 1964, was the day that [Andrew] Goodman, [Michael] Schwerner, and [James] Chaney were led out of the Philadelphia, Mississippi, jail in Neshoba County, and were murdered – that same day. Crazed. And we were in Mississippi, and George Wallace was running for President under the motto of ‘Send them a message.’ So we were right in the middle of it, without really knowing what we were in the middle of.” House, it turned out, was living at 61 Grieg Street in Rochester.
The July 13, 1964, issue of Newsweek magazine covered his rediscovery, reporting that when the researchers found him, House informed them that he hadn’t played in four years: “They came back with a guitar the next day but he could not make his fingers behave. A little wine eased the strain. First he began to recall snatches of songs, then little phrases, and finally whole songs with their complicated harmonies. ‘You sure they want to hear this old music?’ he asked of his marveling audience. The next day they taped his blues. By the end of the week, record companies were actively competing for him, and this month’s Newport Folk Festival has happily altered its plans in order to make way for the return of Son House.”
While House attended Newport, Waterman says, he did not make it to the stage. “Although he was brought to Newport for the 1964 festival, he did not perform because he took sick and was in the hospital there. His first comeback appearance was actually at the Philadelphia Folk Festival about six weeks later in late August.” To alleviate tremors and quell his nervousness, House, by now deeply alcoholic, downed double shots of bourbon.
Son House’s special affinity for Dick Waterman is confirmed by the recollections of those who were on the scene and by the facial expressions in the many stunning photos Waterman took of the elder bluesman (hear Waterman’s recollections of Son House). With Waterman working as his manager, House signed with Columbia Records. Recording executive John Hammond, father of the bluesman with the same name, produced House’s 1965 Father of the Folk Blues album. Alan Wilson provided guitar support and showed the bluesmen how to play parts he’d long since forgotten. “When Al Wilson recorded with Son House,” Waterman says, “he was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He later moved to L.A. to be part of Canned Heat.” While House overhauled his lyrics, his arrangements – mostly in open G or D – came straight out of the past, albeit with less precise technique than on the early recordings. His open-G “Death Letter Blues,” for instance, paralleled “My Black Mama,” while “Levee Camp Moan” was similar to 1942′s “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues.” His original “The Jinx Blues” echoed through “Empire State Express.” The potent a cappella “Grinnin’ in Your Face” was as moving as any song in his repertoire.
House’s rich, resonant moaning and his wavering bottleneck playing instantly captivated young white blues musicians including John Hammond, Rory Block, and Stefan Grossman, who presented House with the steel-bodied National guitar he used in concert and on records. “But what those guys really wanted,” Grossman says, “was an old Stella 6-string, the big-bodied ones, but they all disintegrated. Their necks would bow and break.”
“Watching Son House perform in the late ’60s helped me understand something about Robert Johnson’s playing,” says Rory Block. “Son House was an amazingly passionate man who totally lost himself in his playing. He would throw his head back, and he didn’t give a flying hoot what anybody was thinking or doing. He simply was playing for the power of the music. He shook because he was an old man, and he had an alcohol problem. He had to be rationed, and he would ask for his bottle a lot and talk about it.”
Onstage, House emerged as a passionate performer with a self-effacing personality. Performing alone, he often introduced songs with asides such as, “This is, uh, a little piece of blues that I hope you will like.” Then he’d thumb a bass note, slide his bottleneck up the strings, and work himself into a cathartic, near-hypnotic state. Sometimes he’d play the same riff for a quarter hour or longer. “Seeing him at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival,” recalls Johnny Winter, “was one of the high points in my musical listening. It gave me chills. It gave me chills. It was just him playing guitar and singing, and it was so good. This slapback echo was coming back, and you could hear a pin drop. Everybody was completely silent, and it was just amazing. I could just picture it being 1928 in Mississippi someplace. It was hard to believe it was a bunch of hippie kids at a big outdoor festival listening to him. It seemed like he played so slow, but right in meter, and his voice was just so great. He sang with his wife too. He said something about, ‘I’m gonna let my wife sing some now. She’s kind of churchy, but . . . .’ He looked like he didn’t really want to. But boy, it was amazing seeing him.”
For a few years after his rediscovery, House toured extensively and recorded for Blue Goose, Vanguard, Verve/Folkways, Liberty, and other labels. Fortunately, he was also filmed several times, and much of this footage is available on DVDs. One of the best is the Masters of Country Blues’ Son House & Bukka White, featuring B&W footage shot in 1967 or ’68 by the Seattle Folk Society. House is seen wailing on a metal-bodied guitar as intelligent close-ups reveal the techniques that fascinated young Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters: his high-slapping, open-handed rhythms, radically slanted ring-finger slide, and notes pulled pistol-like with the index finger. Son sings a capella gospel and introduces “Preaching the Blues” with a summary of his beliefs: “I really was called to preach the gospel. And that’s why I know it’s so good. I didn’t have to read the book so much – it come from above. Now, this is the truth – it’s not a lie. And I was taught all the things. I know everything about the King James version of the bible: 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 in the New, which makes it 66 books. And 450,000 words, and I knew ‘em. I didn’t have to go to school to learn it ’cause the school teacher at that time, he didn’t know how to say his alphabets three ways, as far as that goes. Now, this is a thing that come from God. A lot of people don’t believe in God and don’t think it’s possible, but it is.
“I’m sitting here playing the blues, and I play church songs too, but you can’t take God and the devil along together. Them two fellows, they don’t communicate together so well. They don’t get along so well. The devil believes in one way, and God believes in a different way. Now, you got to separate them two guys. How you gonna do it? You got to follow one or the other. You can’t hold God in one hand, the devil in the other one. You got to turn one of them loose. Which side do you think is the best? Well, I already was regenerated and born again. I was born in sin, now I got to regenerate myself to realize what a great creator is. I didn’t give up God.”
Deteriorating health forced Son House’s retirement in 1976. He moved in with his family in Detroit, and for a long while had an apartment in Highland Park. On October 19, 1988, the last of the great first-generation Mississippi Delta blues singers died in his sleep at Detroit’s Harper Hospital. He was laid out at the Mayfield Baptist Church and buried in Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Son House was survived by his wife Evie, his daughters Beatrice and Sally, and two-dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren. House’s recordings, especially those magnificent Paramount and Library of Congress 78s, remain high-water marks of Mississippi country blues.