In the coming days I’m planning to present another great early blues artist, namely Skip James. He was contemporary to Son House, but his music style was quite different from House’s.
It is perhaps interesting now to see in what way Son House was typical of the blues. His music lay certainly a solid basis for further developments, and he can safely be considered as the one who made a bridge between Charlie (Charley, as later spelled) Patton on the one hand, and Robert Johnson on the other hand. Son House accompanied Patton for a few months in his tour of juke joints and other places. It was Robert Johnson who was knocked off his socks when he heard Son House play (with Willie Brown). At first, Son House was not amused, and found the young Robert Johnson a bit annoying. Then goes the story that Robert Johnson went away for quite a time, and came back as a guitar player that mastered his instrument as nobody did before, or very few will after wards do (was it Keith Richards who would ask, when hearing the rare recordings of Robert Johnson, who in the hell was the second player on the record?). It is the legend that Robert Johnson made an agreement with the devil and sold his soul for his guitar playing abilities.
Whatever, Son House had a great influence on Robert Johnson, and also on Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. One has to realise that the style of Son House was no longer congruent with the dominant blues style in the thirties : Tampa Red, Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson were the popular ones, a style which was much lighter and tried to fit in with crooners and the great swing (mainstream music before WW II).
Son House’s music is pure, raw delta blues, which very few have ever reached. In this way, it is unique. It is sheer emotion. He didn’t sing the blues; when he sang (whether for one person, or for a crowd of 1000 people) : he was the blues.
I don’t consider his career as a typical blues career. In fact, Son House was during his entire life struggling with the conflict between the secular blues and his religious (baptist) inspiration and beliefs. He considered the guitar at first as the devil’s instrument. Preaching was more of his business (in his song Preaching blues he combines the two).
Most of the early and later blues artist were in the first place entertainers. They left behind the shacks and plantations to go out and look for an earning as an artist. This life brought much more money in the pocket than the real hard manual labor on the cotton fields. The early blues artists can also be considered to a large extent as songsters, whose repertoire included much more than the blues. In fact, they sang what ever the crowd asked for. If today, we mainly have their blues records, this is only the result of the choice of recording companies who saw the black blues as a marketing instrument, ignoring the polyvalent sides of their artists.
As far as I can see, Son House had in the first place to fall back on manual labor as a way of living. Music was an extra, but it was really not his first ambition. In fact, he had to be kept on the musical track by others. Willie Brown was one of them. When he went to record his famous 9 tracks in Grafton, May 1930, it was following an invitation by Charley Patton. It was also following a lead by Muddy Waters that Alan Lomax found him in 1941 for the first Library of Congress Recordings. He was not pressing Alan Lomax to come back for a second session, as Muddy Waters did. He had a second session with Lomax because the latter wanted it.
He then disappeared from the musical scene, leaving in 1943 for Rochester, New York. When Waterman and his friends discovered him in June 1964 he was completely unaware of the interest that existed in his music. He was invited to go back touring and making studio sessions, not because he was actively looking for it. In fact, it was quite an effort to get hem in good shape for performing since he had a serious alcohol problem.
Perhaps it is not entirely justified why the same interest for his music was not shown as the one that emerged in the beginning of the 90ties for Robert Johnson’s work. I think there are several reasons for this. Robert Johnson’s music already pointed very directly to the urban blues, and began to sound ‘electrified’. This could be sold better in the nineties than the old delta blues. Son House’s music was still the pure acoustic delta blues from the country. Robert Johnson was a magnificent guitar player, and a fantastic singer. Son House’s guitar work was not on the same level; he impressed with his vocals.
And last but not least : Robert Johnons life had a much bigger appeal to people’s fantasy. Not much was known about him other than his love for music, booze and women. The fact that he was probably killed by a jealous husband of one of his girl friends only contributed to the interest in him. And, admit it : he made a deal with the devil and sold his soul. This kind of stories have always done it in the history of mankind.
Son House only left his music to us, but this music has become classic.