This Next Number Will Be a Blues: Son House, Endings, Restarts, and a Delta Triptych
If you haven't heard the 80th anniversary CD of House’s first session, you have one of the most visceral, galvanizing musical experiences awaiting you.
Having resolved to write my college thesis on the less-than-practical idea of the similarities between vorticist poetry and rock 'n' roll lyrics -- for I was an idiot -- I found myself listening to a lot of blues. This wasn’t my original plan. I figured I’d spend a lot of times with the early discs of the Rolling Stones and various English beat merchants, but when you start doing that, you end up on the lookout for old Muddy Water records, and sides by Slim Harpo, Otis Rush, and Little Walter.
Listen to them for any amount of time, and you're going back to what is tantamount to a nexus of mystery, meaning, poetry, brutality, deception, revelation, and modes of emotionalism quite unlike any in music: the Delta, that is, where the blues is always primordial, and always immediate. A most paradoxical place, that Delta, as you know if you’re someone who delights in the music of, say, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, or Missisiippi John Hurt.
Like a lot of rock fans, I began with Johnson, and could scarcely believe that that was just one man playing the guitar. You listen to someone like Jimi Hendrix and, naturally, you’re floored, but when you sit there late at night, hearing Johnson do what he could with an acoustic guitar, you’re incredulous that a human could do that with a mere six strings.
But as much as I came to love Johnson and his wizardry, it was one of his teachers, the wonderfully named Son House -- as if his name conjured both filial and structural authority -- who came to fire my imagination like only a few performers ever have. In part, I think, because House was one of the rare Delta bluesmen whose output extended across three eras.
Normally, with a Delta blues artist, you get their early sides, from the late '20s or early '30s, rescued from oblivion and sounding like it: scratchy, buried beneath hiss, but coming off more intensely because of it, like some long gone artist is emanating forth from another world to press down firmly upon yours. A number of these artists had a second career of sorts in the '60s, having been “rediscovered” by ardent blues fans and then finding themselves in cafes and bars playing their material of three decades prior in softer, gentler versions, a blues equivalent of one of those baseball Old Timer games.
House, though, didn’t do anything soft or gentle. We have three anniversaries, or near-anniversaries, anyway, with his three major performance periods, the middle of which was but the briefest sojourn. The 80th anniversary of House’s first session, from 1930, just passed, and if you haven't heard the eight sides that were issued from that date (with a ninth being discovered in the mid-'80s), you have one of the most visceral, galvanizing musical experiences awaiting you.
I don’t really know anything like that session, in terms of rawness, which is all the more remarkable in that House had previously abhored any notion of the blues. He grew up north of Clarksale, Mississippi, a church enthusiast who in turn become downright devout, and a fiery preacher. His vocals, on that first session, certainly display a talent for declaiming, especially on the two-part “Preachin’ the Blues”, a furnace-blast of protean exhortation that could make you get up and dance with the apocalypse swirling about.