Son House - Biography
By Bob Kimmel
Eddie James “Son” House, a former Baptist preacher who did time on the chain gang for killing a man in a juke joint, was the quintessence of the Delta Blues - a living, breathing embodiment of the form. The way in which House reconciled his faith and self-contradiction, coupled with his intensely primitive delivery, left an enduring mark on American and thus, the world’s popular music. So ascendant was his playing, that echoes of his influence can be heard everywhere from the old 78s of Robert Johnson to the ripped mp3s of the White Stripes that are bought and sold in cyberspace.
Details of House’s early childhood are sketchy at best. It is believed he was born in 1902 (although some say he was born in 1886) just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi in the small Delta community of Lyon (although some say he was born in nearby Riverton). He was one of seventeen brothers who, according to House himself, the Lord called to preaching at an early age. By the time he turned fifteen he had already delivered his first sermon. By the time he turned twenty he was the pastor of a small church in Lyon.
But the Preacher’s calling was trumped by temptation when House began an affair with a female member of the congregation ten years his senior. After his flock found out, they ran him off. House and his paramour fled Mississippi and ended up in the woman’s hometown of Tallulah, Louisiana. Even less is known about his time in Louisiana than his childhood; although House did reveal that one time he shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes during his stint in the “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
By 1926, the affair had run its course, and House returned to the Mississippi Delta. It was around this time that the blues hit him like a lightning bolt when he saw a man on a street corner playing a guitar. On In Concert (1991 Magnum Music Group), a recording of a 1965 performance at Oberlin College, House recounted the galvanizing moment when he saw “…a man name ‘a Rube Lacy playin’ with a medicine bottle. I said, ‘Just look ‘a yonder. Ain’t that scandalous! Playin’ them ol’ blues…’ He had a sound so good and I done so much talkin’ I didn’t want people to catch me tryin’ a listen.”
But listen he did. Soon after this epiphany, House picked up the guitar and began studying under a local Clarksdale man named James McCoy (or a guy in Clarksdale named Lemon, depending on which source one chooses to believe). Whoever his teacher, House took to the instrument like it was his second calling and within a relatively short time, he actually began playing around the local juke joints with Rube Lacy, copping Lacy’s primitive bottleneck style.
Notoriously rough and violent places, the jukes would prove to be perilous for House. In 1928, at a juke near Lyon, a man went on a shooting spree. It is believed that House was shot in the leg before he wrestled the gun from the assailant and shot him dead. Although it was a clear-cut case of self defense, in the Jim Crow South of the 1920s, that didn’t count for much. House was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. After serving two years, a Clarksdale judge looked at the case again and miraculously released House from serving the rest of his time, advising him to leave Clarksdale.
House moved twenty miles north to Lula, Mississippi. It was in Lula, while playing on a street corner for tips, that House met someone who would change his life forever - the legendary Delta bluesman Charley Patton. Patton had recently moved to Lula from Dockery Farms where he had been working. House and Patton became fast friends, playing the area’s local jukes and house parties at the nearby Kirby Plantation.
It was around this time that House acquired a somewhat odd groupie in the form of a young, small-boned, aspiring blues singer named Robert Johnson. Johnson was completely in awe of House’s prowess and would earnestly follow him wherever he played. When the music started, Johnson would pull up a chair, sit just inches away from House, and fixate on his playing, ignoring all else in the room. After the band would break, House would inevitably come back to find Johnson fingering his guitar. He would scold “little Robert,” as he called him, and chase him away. In the liner notes to Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (1992 Columbia/Legacy) House said, “…he’d pick up my guitar and try to play it. He made some pretty awful sounds. I used to tell him to stop before the people got mad and run us all off.” At the time, Johnson had no talent and none of the real players in the Delta School revered him as a performer. House taught Johnson how to play the guitar, but it was only after the young man had gone away for a spell and come back that he earned any respect from the musicians he admired. When Johnson returned, it seemed that overnight his playing had improved exponentially. He so astonished the elder bluesman that it was House who started the rumor that Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads. House was so perplexed by Johnson’s rapid and vast improvements on the guitar that the only way to make sense of them was to assume he struck a deal with the Devil. But even though Johnson’s prodigious technique exceeded House’s, the elder bluesman continued to cast a huge shadow over “little Robert.” And the music Johnson left behind is a testament to House’s eternal influence on him.
Johnson wasn’t the only one impressed with House. Charley Patton liked House’s playing so much that in May of 1930, he invited House to accompany him to a recording session for the Paramount label in Grafton, Wisconsin. Earlier, Patton had caught the ear of H.C. Speir, a self-proclaimed talent-broker who owned a music store on Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Essentially an A&R man (and an important one at that), Speir would find musicians and send them to various labels to record. Aside from Patton, he was responsible for discovering and recording Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, and Skip James, as well as making the first country music recordings of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at the mythical Bristol Sessions in Tennessee. H.C. Speir was to prewar blues and country what John Hammond was to jazz or Sam Phillips was to rock.
Speir had discovered Patton at Dockery Farms sometime around 1929 and made some profitable recordings with him for the Paramount label. In May of 1930, Paramount wanted more, so Patton went to Grafton for a recording session and brought House, Willie Brown, and a female piano player named Louise Johnson with him. The session was legendary for a number of reasons, not the first of which was because of the love triangle that developed between Patton, House, and Johnson on the trip. Supposedly, things got so heated that the tension carried over into the studio; when Patton and House played back up on her “All Night Long Blues” and “On the Wall,” the two men got into a shouting match and can be heard arguing in the background.
Perhaps it was this salacious atmosphere that encouraged House to play with the intensity he did on that May 28, 1930 session because every side he put down that day has become a classic. “My Black Mama (Parts I & II),” “Preachin’ the Blues (Parts I & II),” “Dry Spell Blues (Parts I & II),” “Walking Blues,” “Mississippi County Farm Blues,” and “Clarksdale Moan” stand as some of the most ideal and flawless examples of pure Delta Blues ever recorded. It’s also interesting to note that “Clarksdale Moan” and its B-side “Mississippi County Farm Blues” were lost for decades, unheard by anyone, until very recently when one copy was found and issued in 2006 on Yazoo’s The Stuff Dreams are Made Of. All of these sides are essential and represent the complete prewar commercial recordings of Son House.
Alas, as with most things that are the genuine article, the public’s response to the records was lukewarm. Consequently, House didn’t record for the next eleven years. Then one day in August of 1941, folklorist Alan Lomax, on a field-recording trip for the Library of Congress, tracked House down at his home on a plantation outside Tunica, Mississippi. Lomax, in his book The Land Where Blues Began (Pantheon, 1993), recounts how he asked House if there was anybody alive who played in his style. House told him there was “An old boy called Muddy Waters ‘round Clarksdale, he learnt from me and little Robert…and then they’s me, but I done quit. I’m gettin to be an old man.” Lomax explained to House how history wasn’t just made by the ruling class and that it was important to record the people’s history as well. Finally, the bluesman relented saying, “C’mon. I want you to meet my boys and we’ll try to make some of our music.”
According to Lomax, they hopped in his car and went “…down dusty roads, along a railroad track, into the back of an aging grocery store that smelt of licorice, dill pickles and snuff…it was so hot that day that Son House and his buddies stripped to the waist as they played.” The place was Clack’s Grocery store in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a tiny hamlet about twenty miles north of Tunica. They went to Clack’s because it was the nearest place that had the electricity required to power Lomax’s recording equipment.
Lomax goes on to say “Of all my times with the blues this was the best one, better than Leadbelly, better than Josh White, Son (sic) Terry, and all the rest of them.” When one listens to these recordings, it’s easy to hear why Lomax felt that way. House hadn’t lost a step; these sides are every bit as powerful as the ones he cut for Paramount more than a decade earlier. These recordings are important because they capture how music was often played in the jukes and at house parties. Not performed by a single singer/guitarist, as was often the demand from the record buying public, but pounded out by a stringband, a unit loud enough to be heard above the clamoring of the juke’s patrons.
Adding to the charm of these recordings, from outside Clack’s, one can hear the occasional train as it blasts by on some nearby railroad tracks.
Today, the original sign from Clack’s Grocery prominently hangs in the Delta Blues Museum at Clarksdale. In Lake Cormorant, the train tracks are still there and about thirty feet to the east of them, the structure that was once Clack’s has been reduced to a pile of rubble.
Lomax returned to the Delta eleven months later and made more excellent recordings of House in Robinsonville. But by that time, House’s music was considered old fashioned and interest in his style had dried up. In 1943, House packed up and left Mississippi and the blues behind him for a life of obscurity.
The burgeoning Folk Revival would change all that.
By the early 1960s, there was a renewed interest in old music, and young people were curious about the genre’s practitioners of days gone by. In the spring of 1964, blues fans Dick Waterman, Nick Perls, and Phil Shapiro, acting on an initial tip from Bukka White, set out to find the mighty Son House, not knowing if he was alive or dead. Their search took them over four thousand miles before they finally found House on June 23, 1964, living at 61 Greig Street in Rochester, New York. As it turned out, House had been working for the New York Central Railroad for the previous twenty years or so and had completely given up music; he didn’t even own a guitar when they found him. House had no idea there was a renewed interest in his recordings, let alone his importance as an artist. But it was made clear to him and the young men coaxed him out of retirement. Although he wasn’t sure if he could sing or play anymore, House was excited about the prospect of going back to music. A tape was made and taken back to New York.
Acting as his manager, Waterman booked House at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and with the demo tape, attracted the attention of several record labels. In 1965, House was paired up with Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson for a Columbia date. Wilson, who played back up on some of the tracks, was originally brought on to teach House the very songs he recorded decades earlier for Paramount and the Library of Congress. Produced by the illustrious John Hammond, the sessions were a phenomenal success from a musical standpoint. House’s performances convey all the emotional intensity that his earlier recordings did - in some cases, even more. His a cappella version of “John the Revelator” stands as one of the most moving performances of his career.
After his rediscovery, House toured the world, partied with rock stars, recorded for various labels, made television appearances (which thankfully have been compiled and preserved by Vestapol Video), and enjoyed popularity he never could have imagined back when he was playing the jukes in the Delta.
By the early 1970’s, the years were starting to gain on House. In 1974, he once again retired from music and by 1976, he moved to Detroit, Michigan where he died from cancer of the larynx on October 19, 1988.
Gone, but not forgotten, House’s influence can still be heard today - it’s so ubiquitous and far-reaching that people have been affected by him and don’t even know it. The list of his disciples is long. Jack White listed Son House as a major inspiration and with the White Stripes, he’s covered “Death Letter,” used pieces of “John the Revelator,” and dedicated their first album to him. John Mellencamp covered “Death Letter” and “John the Revelator” on his Trouble No More album (2003 Columbia). Bob Dylan lifted a lyric for his “New Pony” on 1978’s Street Legal (Columbia) from House’s “Pony Blues.” Lynyrd Skynyrd invokes the spirit of House in their song “Swamp Music” when they sing, “When those hound dogs start barking, sounds like ol’ Son House singin’ the blues...” And as previously mentioned, House influenced and taught Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters how to play guitar. Johnson and Waters are perhaps two of the most important and direct influences on popular music in the entire world, yet they might have never played a single note without being touched by House.
As of this writing, Son House has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.