Eddie James "Son" House, Jr. - vocals, guitar
Of all the Mississippi Delta bluesmen, Eddie James House, Jr., better known as Son House, was one of the initial pioneers and one of the most powerful. Developing a slashing slide guitar technique that featured strong rhythmic repetitions and a vocal style reflective of spiritual and southern gospel singers, House was a critical innovator who had a profound effect. The fierce edginess of his music and many of his songs would form the root sound for Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, both House protégées that would adopt his style and bring it to the attention of a much wider audience.
Born in Riverton, Mississippi in 1902, House worked the cotton plantations as a teenager. He developed a passion for the Baptist Church, delivering his first sermon at age fifteen and becoming a pastor by the age of twenty. By the mid-1920s, House began studying guitar with a local musician named James McCoy. Rapidly developing as a musician, he was soon performing with Delta musician Rube Lacy, where he began emulating Lacy's slide guitar technique. During a house party altercation in 1928, House shot a man dead and despite claims of self-defense, was sentenced to imprisonment at the notorious Parchman Farm. Two years later, after a sympathetic Clarksdale judge reexamined his case, he was released from prison but advised to leave the area. He relocated to Lula and while performing at a railroad depot for tips, met up with Charley Patton, a prolific musician who had recorded dozens of songs for Paramount Records and was famous throughout the Delta. When Paramount required another Patton session in 1930, he recruited House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson to record with him. During these sessions, House cut six sides as well which, despite poor sales (as 78s), remain some of the most intense and highly sought after blues recordings ever issued.
The immediate result of these legendary 1930 sessions was the musical friendship that developed between House and Willie Brown. They would perform together all over the Delta for the remainder of the decade and were still friends in 1941, when Alan Lomax turned up. Lomax pursued House on the recommendation of the young Muddy Waters, and upon finding him, made a series of important recordings for The Library Of Congress. House recorded 10 songs alone and another half dozen with Willie Brown, Joe Martin and Leroy Williams in a group format. While these 1941 and 1942 recordings proved him to still be in top form, House retired from music and literally vanished for two decades, relocating to Rochester, NY in 1943, where he worked as a porter for the New York Central Railroad and a short-order cook at a local Howard Johnson's.
It wasn't until June of 1964 that Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls finally located House in Rochester and convinced him to relaunch his career. House was completely unaware of the growing enthusiasm for his earlier recordings and no longer remembered how to perform his own songs. With the help of future Canned Heat founder Alan Wilson, who was one of his biggest fans, he relearned his own repertoire and began performing again to overwhelmingly enthusiastic audiences. His true return came at that year's Newport Folk Festival, which generated rave reviews. Soon enough he signed a new recording contract with Columbia Records, began performing on the folk and blues coffeehouse circuit and toured internationally.
In February of 1968, The Ash Grove announced in its flyer of upcoming performers, "We are truly honored to present Son House for two weekends only, March 1, 2 & 3 and March 8, 9 & 10." House would be headlining a bill that featured the social commentary and comedy of The Firesign Theater as the opening act. Here we present a reel of tape recorded by Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl at the Saturday night show during that first weekend.
Although incomplete, this high quality recording is a rare glimpse into House live on stage before the intimate and appreciative Ash Grove audience. The recording begins with a prime example of House's fierce slashing style with "Low Down Dirty Shame." Similar to his classic "Walkin' Blues," this is essentially an amalgam that liberally borrows verses from several other songs including House's own ""Jinx Blues" and "Special Rider Blues." While not as flashy as some of his peers, House's technique is powerful, with popping bass notes and slashing slide. Substituting the end of lyric lines with suggestive guitar riffs, which House is largely responsible for popularizing, can often be heard during this performance.
A prime example of his unique vocal delivery can be heard in the southern gospel flavor of "Why Don't You Live, So God Can Use You, " which follows. This is one of the songs that directly influenced Muddy Waters, who indeed covered it during his own initial field recordings for Lomax. Next House pays tribute to one of his early influences, Charley Patton, with "Pony Blues." Another highly influential number, this song has become a staple of Delta blues and has been covered by countless blues musicians from multiple generations, but few have had a deeper depth to their performances than House. By using his third finger, House was able to damp behind the slide and use his pinky for fretting, retaining a slide sound that has rarely been equaled in terms of raw grittiness. The tape stock runs out with House strumming into an unidentified song fragment that unfortunately cuts out prior to the vocal beginning.
If House had been given the opportunity to record as prolifically in his prime as his peers, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, or his most famous protégées, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, chances are he would be considered the pre-eminent blues musician of his time. Still, there is a rarely equaled depth of emotion found on what few Son House recordings do exist. Producer John Hammond was right on target with the title of his 1965 "comeback" album, Father Of Delta Blues.
Written by Alan Bershaw