Frank remembers Son House and reviews his classic live Blues album: Delta Blues and Spirituals / 1 December 2013
I first heard Son House on the John Peel radio show around 1969 or 1970. He had so much power in his voice. The first Son House CD that I bought was called Delta Blues and Spirituals. It was recorded live at the 100 Club in London in 1970.
Son House was born Eddie James House Jr., on March 21 1902, in Riverton, Mississippi. At the age of 15 he began his career as a Baptist preacher. He became attracted to blues music, despite the church’s stand against it. Son House spent his life struggling with this conflict. He addressed it in a song called ‘Preaching the Blues’.
Son House made his first recordings in 1930, accompanied by Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. His recording career continued into the 1940s. However sometime during that decade, his friend Willie Brown died. After this Son House stopped recording and retired from music.
In 1964 a group of blues enthusiasts tracked Son House down in upstate New York. He didn’t have a guitar any more, and was unaware of the revival of interest in country blues. But in 1964 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival alongside Skip James and Bukka White. Son House was a complex songwriter. For example one of his songs, ‘Death Letter’, linked bereavement with the loss of love.
In 1970 Son House toured Britain, including two dates at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London. This is where he recorded Delta Blues and Spirituals. The record starts with Son House explaining to the audience that you can sing the blues in church if you use the words right. He then launches into ‘Between Midnight and Day’, a sad blues song. He sings “I cried last night, I cried the night before”. Next, he sings ‘I Want to Go Home on the Morning Train’. The image of the morning train runs through the blues. People travelled from town to town looking for work. However the train sung about here is the train to heaven.
Next, Son House plays ‘Levee Camp Moan’. He sings, “I left a woman in backdoor crying I nearly drove her out of her mind”, and he sounds like he is confessing to something that he feels bad about. Next he sings the spiritual ‘This Little Light of Mine’. Then there is a monologue, ‘Thinking Strong’. Here he talks about religion, “God and the Devil, those two fellas don’t get along too well together” The second concert begins with another monologue, also called ‘Thinking Strong’. House talks about his struggle with his drinking.
In the end House and the audience are sharing jokes. It sounds almost like they know each other. It is heart-warming. Son House grew up in the segregated American South, when a black person was taught to know their place. That is why it is so great to hear Son House and a mostly-white audience sharing so much with each other.
Next, House sings ‘Death Letter’. After this he plays ‘How to Treat a Man’. He sings about “the blues being a low-down heart disease“. Then he goes into the a cappella ‘Grinnin’ in Your Face’ and the audience claps along. The gig ends with ‘John the Revelator’.
Son House never toured Britain again, but he did carry on performing in America until the mid-1970s, when his memory got bad and he started forgetting what song he had just played. His manager Dick Waterman decided to retire him.
The last years of Son House’s life were spent in a rest home in Detroit. A couple of years before he died a fan from Detroit came to visit him, with a guitar. Despite his failing health Son House’s eyes lit up. He reached for the guitar and tried to play it. However relatives took it from him. It has often been speculated on as to what he would have played.
Son House passed away on October 19th 1988. Recently enough for a band like the White Stripes to come along singing his praises. In doing so bringing back the memories I had of hearing Son House on the John Peel show back in the day. God bless you Son House.