Vintage Gold: The Many Lives of Son House, the Father of Delta Blues

son house

Among the many iconic music moments on the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White’s favorite song stands out. He wordlessly pulls a twelve inch record out of a dusty sleeve and places the needle onto the wax. He doesn’t look at anything as he listens, unless you count a blank stare at the art in his hands. The song he’s scrutinizing is “Grinnin’ in Your Face” by the father of Delta blues, Son House.

White takes influence from Blues musicians in general, especially the golden era of Paramount Records. Prominent in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, Paramount was interested in selling record players while one particular talent scout had the future of music in mind. The young, white H.C. Speir became a popular talent scout among African-Americans looking to earn money making music, and blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow told NPR that the musicians spread “word [that] he won’t cheat you.” He ended up signing music pioneers such as Charlie Patton, Skip James, and of course Son House.

Born Eddie James House, Jr. in Lyon, Mississippi, Son actually grew up hating the blues. He was religious early on in his life, which in the early 20th century was fiercely at odds with this type of music or entertainment. He had convinced himself that his faith was most important, and though he stops giving sermons later in life, his choir experience informed how he would perform in years to come.

Specific dates in House’s life are often disputed, but every historian would agree that House’s life until this point had weathered a fair share of ups and downs. He had begun preaching at 15 and married at 19, only to come to regret both decisions in due time. He also was arrested for killing a man allegedly in self-defense in his early- to mid-twenties.

While I couldn’t connect the events specifically, his interest in the guitar and his incarceration seem to have occurred simultaneously; it could have been that his stint in jail woke him up to the blues. He came to love the art of flexing with a guitar and wailing his truth. After watching just one outstanding performance with a bottleneck, House is said to have bought a guitar immediately to begin learning for himself.

Son House popularized playing what is called ‘slide guitar.’ The desired effect is to achieve smooth, dynamic notes that flow into the next called ‘glissando,’ sometimes with the aid of a metal ring for the player’s finger—the bottleneck. The sounds are sweet and come from manipulation of the strings unlike typical strumming.

Aside from his innovative playing, House’s wailing vocals leave an impression on listeners. It is the story that often defines the blues, and he narrates tales like he’s lived all those lives. Spiritually, he has.

One of the most notable recordings by Son House was recorded at Grafton, Wisconsin in May 1930. It is well-loved and, among the handful of other pre-war Son House records, it has been highly coveted by record collectors for generations. The first hipsters in question brought on the folk revival of the 1960s; in fact, they went seeking House in Mississippi, but he had moved to Rochester, New York by the time they came around. Luckily, Son House retained some local fame and so neighbors were able to point the white folks in the right direction.

Supposedly, these insistent collectors convinced him to take up the guitar again in 1964. He re-recorded much of his old catalogue and of course kept going, adding to his already renowned repertoire. House performed his music for the next ten years, but chose to stop once again, this time due to illness. He died at the age of 86 due to complications from cancer of the larynx.

A musicologist would be able to speak more closely to the impact of the Civil Rights movement on House’s second career wind, but some details speak volumes to even our contemporary struggles with appropriation. When he was touring in the ‘60s, House tended to sing to majority-white crowds in coffee shops. Later, he and his blues compatriots of the ‘30s would become known as the fathers of modern music, after their styles were adopted by white musicians.

Today, Jack White is a favored guitarist by thousands. Everything he knew, he learned from Son House and Charley Patton and Willie Brown and others, and at least White honors these legends. On The White Stripes’ second album, they included a cover of House’s “Death Letter,” and when they performed it during Under Blackpool Lights, Jack bled it into his favorite song. “A true friend is hard to find,” he snarls over his own shiny electric guitar, “Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face.

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