Eddie James "Son" House, Jr. - vocals, guitar; Muddy Waters - 2nd guitar on "Downhearted Blues"
Of all the Mississippi Delta bluesmen, Eddie James House, Jr., better known as Son House, was one of the earliest 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 the age of 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 re-examined 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, which is 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 re-launch 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 most devoted fans, House re-learned 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, performing on the folk and blues coffeehouse circuit and touring internationally.
This high-quality recording captures House performing live at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival before an appreciative audience. On this Friday evening blues bill, House was following the likes of Bobby "Blue" Bland, Sleepy John Estes, Taj Mahal, Buddy Moss, Big Mama Thornton and Jesse Fuller, going on just prior to his most famous protégé, Muddy Waters and his band, closing that night's show.
Following some tuning up, House begins with a forceful reading of "Death Letter Blues." This features the popping bass notes and slashing slide work that distinguished his style and directly influenced such protégés as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. 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.
A lengthy version of "Downhearted Blues," clocking in at over 12 minutes, follows. Despite his frailty and age, House's National Steel guitar technique remains potent and emotive. His vocal, often a resonant moaning here, conveys a man playing strictly for the power of his music and completely unselfconsciously. Approximately half way through, House is joined onstage by his protégé Muddy Waters, who contributes additional lead acoustic guitar to the proceedings, prior to closing out the evening with his own band.
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 preeminent blues musician of his time.
-Written by Alan Bershaw