Son House: 1965.
Howlin’Wolf berates a drunken Son House, Newport, ’66.
Son House greets his “discoverers”, he hadn’t known he that he was lost.
I told my old pal Pat that I’d review a book he sent me in the mail- Daniel Beaumont’s Preachin’ The Blues: The Life & Times Of Son House (Oxford, 2011). This was many months ago and I’m just getting around to it because to be perfectly honest I do not have much to say about Son House. Which does not mean it is not an excellent book, which it is. Although I must admit, I find the most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with Son House’s relationship to his “discoverers” and the white blues audience of the 1960’s that had expectations of him that he could barely fathom never mind live up to.
For those who are unfamiliar– Eddie “Son” House Jr (born March 21, 1902, probably in Lyon, Mississippi), was a great Delta blues singer and guitarist who recorded one session for Paramount Records in 1930, and was recorded again in 1941 for the Library of Congress by traveling folklorist Alan Lomax.
He was not heard from again until 1964 when Dick Waterman (who became his manager), Nick Pearls ( a collector who would go on to found Yazoo Records) and Phil Spiro found him living in Rochester, N.Y., this “rediscovery” happening after they had searched the Delta looking for clues.
To backtrack, House grew up in the Delta and began his career as an entertainer preaching the gospel.
As a young man he fell under the spell of the great Charley Patton, got himself a guitar and began playing the blues. He soon struck up a partnership with Patton’s sometime accompanist Willie Brown, and it was through Patton’s patronage he recorded for Paramount in 1930. Paramount issued four 78 RPM records: My Black Mama pt 1 b/w pt 2, Dry Spell Blues pt 1 b/w pt 2, Preachin’ The Blues pt 1 b/w pt 2 and Clarksdale Moan b/w Mississippi County Farm Blues. The latter two discs are so rare that only one known copy of each exist (and the latter didn’t surface until the 21st Century), the other two are
considered more common with four known copies of each. A single copy of a test pressing of Walking Blues was found in someones garbage in the 1980’s. In forty years of collecting I’ve never seen a Son House 78, have you? These are the discs that House’s reputation is based on, and they are among the finest examples of the type of blues played in the Mississippi Delta in the late 20’s and early 30’s ever recorded. That said, they are a bit hard to listen to since the copies that survived are so worn out (and Paramounts never sound that great anyway) as there is more surface noise than music left in the discs and to listen to them is like hearing someone playing down the block while someone else holds a pan of frying bacon next to your ear. Although in recent years the sonic quality of the tranfers has improved dramatically. Personally I’ve always preferred the 1941 Library of Congress recordings because you can actually hear the music, not to mention the version of Walking Blues cut with a rocking little string band that remains the best example of what a Saturday night frolic might have sounded like full swing. Since House had a limited repertoire all the same tunes appear on the 41 sessions, albeit with different titles, I especially like the version of Levee Camp Blues.
House has been criticised, most notably by the late Stephen Calt in his biography of Charley Patton for playing out of tune, but I tend to agree with Jim Dickinson that tuning is a “European and decadent concept”, out of tune didn’t hurt Chuck Berry.
After leaving the Delta, House lived in Detroit and Rochester, worked outside of music, and eventually disappeared into the woodwork until he was found and coaxed back into playing in 1964, and here lies the meat of Beaumont’s book. He digs up much new info, including a self defense killing in Long Island in the 50’s, and a new source of House information in the guise of Mississippi born, Rochester blues singer Joe Beard who was close to House and who had a very different take on who House was than his new found white keepers. There’s lots of interesting asides, including that House was in the audience when the Rolling Stones brought Howlin’ Wolf out on an episode of the Shindig TV show in ’65, and House’s manager being told by fellow human archaeologist Tom Hoskins (who found Mississippi John Hurt)-“What you have on your hands is a nigger“. That House would confound all their expectations by not giving a fuck, about the blues, or his white audience, may seem natural from our vantage point, but to his keepers he remained an enigma. And that’s what makes this book such a fun read.
Son House is probably best remembered for being a key musical inspiration to Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, (the latter connection even led to him being signed by Columbia). I wonder how many people who sight his name have even heard the Paramount and L.O.C. sides? Myself, I hadn’t given him a listen in years, my own tastes in such things leaning more towards Leroy Carr, Geechie Wiley & Elvie Thomas (about whom nothing is known), and Charley Patton, but digging out his discs for this posting, I must say, they sure sound good. This music is nearly a century old, so it’s quite amazing not just that it survived, but that it is more popular and accessible than it ever was. And that, Pat, is the best I can do for your book review.