The cover picture on the double compact disc, “Son House: Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions,” is a warm, fuzzy one–clad in a ski sweater, House leans on a guitar and looks off in the distance, wearing a smile, almost as if he had dropped by a Blues fan’s condo in Vail to play a few tunes. Ah, yes, you think, staring at the photo, here’s a performer at the top of his game, comfortable with himself and his career. But, if that’s what you think, you could not be more wrong.
“Rediscovered” by a trio of young Blues fans in 1964, House had been living in obscurity in Rochester, New York, for two decades. Then, fueled by the banked fires of long-thwarted ambition and by an ever-growing quantity of alcohol, the old Blues man re-emerged onto the public stage for one last time. Son House took the acclaim that came to him in the 1960s–partner of Charley Patton, mentor to Robert Johnson, and “Father of the Delta Blues”–as his due, but he never really came to terms with it. It is this story that Daniel Beaumont tells, and he does so very well.
Eddie “Son” House, Jr., was born in Lyon, Mississippi, near Clarksdale, on March 21, 1902. Both father and son were musicians, and each was torn by the conflict between observing conventional religion and playing “the Devil’s music” that scarred the lives of so many Blues performers. But, their reactions to this conflict were very different: House, Sr., stopped playing the Blues, quit his drinking, and became a deacon in the church; “Son,” on the other hand, while raised in the church, taught to detest Blues men, and “called” to preach at the age of fifteen, found the temptations of secular music, alcohol, and women impossible to resist. Son House’s decision to abandon the pulpit (more or less) for the Blues made him unique among Blues men, most of whom went in the other direction. (82)
At about the age of twenty-five, Son House had a “conversion experience” in reverse: blown away by the slide guitar work of Blues man Willie Wilson, House shortly found himself performing “the Devil’s music” regularly, while still continuing to preach. Then, in 1928, he shot and killed a man named Leroy Lee at a wild house party, was convicted of murder, and sentenced to a five-year term at the notorious Parchman Prison Farm. Fortunately for House–and for the Blues–his relatives (doubtless aided by an influential local white or two) secured his release from Parchman after a year, but a local judge warned him to leave town and never return. House moved to Lula, sixteen miles north of Clarksdale, where he was befriended by Charley Patton. And the rest, as they say, is (Blues) history.
In 1930, House accompanied Patton to a recording session in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he met–and performed with–Willie Brown, who would become his best friend. House also had the opportunity to record a number of tunes, including two of his most famous sides. In “My Black Mama,” the preacher turned Blues man proclaimed that “ain’t no heaven, say, there, ain’t no burnin’ hell,” and “where I’m going when I die, can’t nobody tell.” (66) Perhaps his most famous song, “Preachin’ the Blues,” revealed, according to his biographer, that House’s “ambivalent attitude about religion would become for him a full blown conflict whose tension and violence would fuel his drinking–but also raise his musical performances to the level of powerful art.” (69)
The timing of House’s Grafton sides was terrible: the Stock Market had collapsed several months earlier, and, by the time his tunes were released, the market for “race records” had all but dried up. It would be thirty-five years before Son House had a chance to record commercially again. During the 1930s, House managed to eke out a living doing farm work, playing the Blues, and–believe it or not–preaching, at least until 1934 or so, when his reputation as a Blues man caught up with him and led him, finally, to abandon the pulpit altogether.
It was during this same period that House and band mate Willie Brown attracted the attention of an aspiring Blues guitarist, Robert Johnson. The older players offered a few lessons to the younger Blues man and even let him sit in for them at house parties and juke joints when they were on a break. Shortly, Johnson disappeared, only to reappear six months or so later possessed of astounding guitar-playing skills acquired, according to Blues legend, as the result of a midnight rendezvous with the Devil at “the Crossroads.”
In the early 1940s, Son House was recorded for the Library of Congress by the peripatetic musicologist Alan Lomax, but nothing much came of this. Late in 1943, House finally abandoned the Delta for Rochester, where he would spend over two decades in “musical exile.” (109) According to Beaumont, House had left Mississippi for two reasons: to get out from under the onerous conditions of the “Jim Crow” South; and to escape from his wife, Evie, at least temporarily. (113) House hired on with the railroad for a time in New York, but eventually he abandoned that work for a series of menial jobs, one of which, in a labor camp on Long Island in 1955, led him to kill another man, this time in self-defense, at least according to a local grand jury.
The 1955 killing, for which he was exonerated, was the “highlight,” for lack of a better term, of House’s nearly two decades of obscurity in upstate New York. House was finally rescued from exile in 1964, “rediscovered” by three liberal, white Blues aficionados, the most important of whom (from the standpoint of Blues history, anyway) was Dick Waterman. Waterman became House’s manager and inherited the unenviable task of trying to keep him sober enough to perform for young, mostly white, college-age crowds, who expected to hear an exemplar of the “real folk Blues,” a performer who sounded exactly as he had a generation earlier, despite the effects of aging on his skills and the impact of advances in recording technology on the quality of records. And House did, or at least tried to, meet those expectations–at coffee houses, colleges, the Newport Folk Festival, even in Europe. Waterman also arranged for his client a one record deal with Columbia, which turned out to be House’s last studio recording (the “1965 Sessions” mentioned above).
Son House seldom disappointed his audience. Virtually every concert featured, for example, not just a shattering performance of “Preachin’ the Blues,” but also a bitter, funny introductory “homily” explaining how House had traveled from the pulpit to the Blues stage. To his fans, House expressed, in the words of his biographer, “an agonized vision–a struggle between the desire of the all too human son and the implacable law of the father, religion,” a conflict that produced a man “who had seen hell and lived to tell about it.” (167) Ironically, it was not House’s drinking but his smoking that did him in. After struggling for more than a decade with dementia, Son House died on October 19, 1988, of cancer of the larynx.
Daniel Beaumont’s biography of Son House fits snugly into the “life and times” approach promised in his subtitle, forced into that category by an absence of personal correspondence. Usually, this way of telling House’s story works pretty well. For instance, the first chapter is a fine introduction to the “folk blues movement,” which would become, “at least initially, the market for blues reissues, and later, for the old bluesmen themselves.” (7) Unlike some Blues historians, Beaumont does not lose sight of the proverbial “larger context.” For example, Dick Waterman and his associates had only arrived in Rochester to find House after first traveling to Memphis and then to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 in search of him. Beaumont takes pains to point out that this was also known as “Freedom Summer” in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, when three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, were abducted, murdered, and buried in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. All of which made the trip by Waterman and his two white, “Yankee,” Blues-loving buddies something more than a walk in the park.
On the other hand, Beaumont’s treatment of Alan Lomax’s visit to the Delta, and to House, in 1941-1942, soon wanders off course, and we learn more than we really need–or want–to know of Lomax’s leftist proclivities. Then, too, in trying to fit Son House into the local context of the African American community in Rochester, Beaumont focuses on a riot on July 24, 1964, yet eventually admits that House was not in town at the time; rather, he was in a hospital in Newport, Rhode Island, being treated for abdominal pains, which caused him to miss the entire Folk Festival.
Daniel Beaumont’s biography of Son House is probably definitive, given the relative paucity of primary sources from House and those who knew him. The work is clearly written, well-illustrated, and thoughtful throughout. I don’t think it’s possible to present a better balanced study of Son House than Preachin’ the Blues.
Son House, Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions. Columbia, 1992 (C2K 48867). The good news: this is Son House after he had been “rediscovered” for the second time; the bad news: this is Son House after he had been “rediscovered” for the second time. For examples of House as a young Blues man, when he could rely on raw vocal power and undiminished instrumental skills, though without the help of modern recording techniques and equipment, see the following:
House, “Walking the Blues”; “My Black Mama (Parts 1 and 2)”; “Dry Spell Blues (Parts 1 and 2)”; “Preachin’ the Blues (Parts 1 and 2).” Masters of the Delta Blues: The Friends of Charlie Patton. Yazoo, 1991 (Yazoo 2002).
House, “County Farm Blues”; “The Jinx Blues (No.2)”; “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues”; “Walking Blues.” Deep River of Song: Mississippi–The Blues Lineage. Rounder, 1999 (11661-1825-2).
House, “Clarksdale Moan.” When the Levee Breaks: Mississippi Blues–Rare Cuts, 1926-1941. JSP Records, 2007 (JSP7781D).
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: