Friday, March 20, 2009

This week's featured artist was Son House

Eddie James "Son" House, Jr. was a popular and influential Delta Blues artist in the early part of the 20th century. Many musical greats—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, John Mooney, as well as contemporary musicians like Jack White (The White Stripes, the Raconteurs) and France’s Francis Cabrel—list House as a musical influence.

Those who saw House play live were amazed with his emphatic performance style. In 1967, a Blues World reporter commented, “It is difficult to describe the transformation that took place as this smiling, friendly man hunched over his guitar and launched himself, bodily it seemed, into his music. The blues possessed him like a 'lowdown shaking chill' and the spellbound audience saw the very incarnation of the blues. With his head thrown back, House hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm.”

House is believed to have a birthday on March 21, in 1886 or 1902; accurate birth records were not kept at this time. He originally planned to be a preacher at age 15, but fate seemed to have other plans. House was inspired by the guitar work of Willie Wilson. He would teach himself to play guitar. Serving a jail term in 1927 may have inspired House’s music-writing, the rhythms and refrains of chain gangs blending with gospel music in his imagination. Church influences attempted to dissuade House from playing Blues music, given its links to bars, women and a sinful life. But House found it hard to stay away from juke joints. He would play at them with Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. In 1930, he would record music for Paramount, followed by recording 19 songs for Alan Lomax as part of a Library of Congress project in 1942.

Rumor suggests the deaths of Robert Johnson and Willie Brown convinced House to get out of the Blues music life. After quitting the music profession, House went to work for the railroads.

In the 1960s, there was a revived interest in Son House’s music that would bring him back to the stage for a short time. House would disappear, then reappear, in the public eye for many years later. He was included in the lineups of the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, 1965 New York Folk Festival, and the 1967 American Folk Festival tour of Europe. Luckily audio and video recordings had improved by the 1960s, and the Blues community now has a wealth of 60s and 70s performances available for appreciation. Son House played a Regal RC-1 Polychrome Duolian, a guitar that amplifies internally with resonator cones. When Delta Blues artists traveled to Chicago, they took their Duolians with them, cementing this instrument’s place in classic blues music. House and other acts popularized the resonator.

House’s guitar playing method was also unique, as distinctive as his voice. He would slap the guitar strings and often pull on them while singing to create his signature sound. House often used a bottleneck slide to play his resonator. And on some songs, House had no instrumentation at all, singing a capella to deliver the mood and impact of the song. Later in life, Son House lived in Rochester, NY and Detroit, Michigan before his death in 1988.

Sliding Delta
Deptford Saints page for Son House
The Wikipedia page for Son House
Blues for Peace

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