— Son House
There are certain figures in the history of American music whose names can only be spoken with reverence. Figures who have not only crafted a great body of work, not only inspired and influenced thousands of other musicians, but whose music sets an emotional and technical standard by which all other music is measured.
This is probably the most riveting music I’ve ever heard in my life. It makes me cry, it makes me shake and quiver. Not long after I first heard this cd, I had a dream in which I was playing slide guitar with Son House. I started picking up people’s guitars and plucking on them discordantly, much the way Robert Johnson had when he saw Son play with Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. Though the style I play is more indebted to John Fahey, that’s only because I don’t think for a minute I could play at all like Son.
I mean, I’m sure I could learn his technique. Al Wilson of Canned Heat fame learned it from the old records and then taught it back to Son when he was rediscovered in the 60s, having proudly not picked up a guitar in years. But his technique is only a minute part of the power of his music, and it is such a singular extension of himself, complete with improvised nuances, that it would do me little good to use it. However accomplished, his slide guitar technique was never flashy. It never drew attention to itself. But more than anyone I can think of, Son House’s guitar was one with his singing. The two combined to create a single unified voice which could weep while shouting, a voice which could sermonize in a single grunt or growl.
He dispensed with all the common building blocks of music; concerns of pitch, melody, and rhythm never got in the way of Son House’s music. Instead, he cuts straight to the heart of the tune, re-living the story and propelling it through to us. He never played a song the same way twice because he was so much in the moment, living the narrative and creating the song anew. That is why his songs always ring so true; they are his testimony not to a bygone event, but to a feeling that is every bit of this instant. To listen to his music is to be transfixed, transfigured, and left with an indelible, unforgettable feeling that denies words.
Though I never saw him live, by all accounts that was an equally mesmerizing experience:
“He would sit far back in his chair and speak so softly that his words were almost inaudible. Then he would sit up and put his left hand down the neck of the guitar, laying his slide against the strings. After pausing momentarily to take a breath, Son would suddenly rip the slide up the strings and the sound of the steel body National would resound to the farthest corners of the room, while his low and throaty voice would suddenly soar into impassioned falsetto.
The songs would last sometimes six, sometimes ten minutes; He would go on and on until his story had been told. Eyes shut tight and sweat dripping down his face, Son House would transport himself to another time and place. He might to back to 1928 or 1938…he might be back in Robinsonville or Clarcksdale or to towns in his far distant past.
When the song ended, Son would slump forward for a few seconds and then slowly raise his head. He would blink his eyes, refocusing on the present. Chuckling softly as he slid back in the chair, he would begin to tell another story. Only songs about the travails of human frailty interested him. “Ain’t no kind of blues excepting between a man and a woman,” he would say, nodding solemnly.
— manager Dick Waterman, from Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive
Son House was the emotional anchor of the blues. If you could condense the essence of the blues into one person, it would be Son House. He hollered the blues, he played the blues, but moreover he lived the blues: his whole career he was torn between the sanctified life of a preacher and the gritty drunken life of a juke-joint-playing bluesman. He was endlessly self-depricating, remorseful, and conflicted, and he transfigures these qualities in his music. They cease to be his remorse, his conflict, his blues — they become our sorrow, our pain, our salvation. Hundreds of musicians have sung a variant of the lyrics in Death Letter:
Standing round the burying ground
I didn’t know i loved her
‘Till they began to let her down.
For any other singer, that phrase is a nice lyric. When Son sings it, I believe him. I can see him standing at the burying ground, without a soul to throw his arms around. When he sings, Son’s life is on display, and he is baring its most moving stories for us to behold. When I listen to Son House, I bear witness to his life’s greatest triumphs and most painful sorrows, and I am sanctified through that witness. All his talk of Baptists and deacons in Preaching Blues rings true. The stage is his pulpit, the song his sermon. This is the true religion that Son House bestows: baptism by the blues, with Son is its preacher and crucified savior all at once.
We are all beholden to Son House.
Thank you, Son. You have a heaven all your own.
These were the first recordings of Son House that I heard. This is what started my passion for the blues. Both are live shows, and capture the inimitable integrity and fiery mood-swings that he had. Disc 1 is the more powerful and better-recorded disc, and includes lengthy monologues that tell the story behind each of the songs. Disc 2 has more surface noise, and Son seems somewhat drunk, delivering a weaker performance. Nevertheless, a weak performance by Son House beats the pants off the best performance by most other artists.
Son House – Revisited
Disc 1 – Live at Oberlin College, 1965
Disc 2 – Live at the Gaslight, 1965
you’ve got to dl both parts to get all of disc 1. disc 2 is all contained within part 2.
if you don’t like massmirror’s ads, there’s some direct links in the comments.
And if you’d like to hear his complete Library of Congress recordings, made by Alan Lomax on a levee in Mississippi, for which he got paid nothing, you can find them at Merlin in Rags. & Check out the other recordings from that trip on the Alan Lomax Collection: Deep River of Song post in the archives.
And you can get several other Son House albums at Blues and Rhythm blog.
and check out Allmusic’s admirable biography.