Eddie James “Son” House (1902-1988) may not have been the most well known of the early delta bluesmen but he was easily one of the most influential and important figures of early Blues. He was as a true a bluesman that ever walked carrying with him the desperation, despair and isolation of the Delta. He was not a virtuoso on the guitar, but he was one of it’s most powerful practioners as he played and sang as intensely as anyone ever has. His style influenced many blues icons including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
House was born on March 21, 1902, the second of 3 brothers down in the Mississippi River Delta, on a plantation in Riverton a tiny place between the towns of Lyon and Clarksdale. Before he was ten years old his parents split up and his mother took him to Tallulah, Louisiana. In his early teens he chopped cotton while he planned to become a Baptist preacher. He realized his dream and delivered his first sermon at the age of fifteen and within five years was the pastor of a small Baptist church near Lyon. And though he was passionate about religion, House never committed to a career in the church. He didn’t seem to have any real ambition as he rambled from job to job. His father, Eddie House, Sr., and uncles were musicians and had their own band but Son never considered following in his father’s footsteps.
In his early 20’s, House followed a woman to Louisiana and that romance finished any career he had in the church. By 1926, after the relationship ended, House had returned to Lyon and was hoping to go back to the church but he also liked to travel around and drink. It was during one of these excursions that he had seen a local bluesman named Willie Wilson playing slide guitar. This was where his life changed. He now knew what he wanted to do. House stated “This boy, had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, you know. ‘Sounds good!’ I said. ‘Jesus, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things.’” With that he went out and bought himself a guitar. He asked Wilson to show him how to tune by ear, and and began learning the instrument under the tutelage of a local musician named James McCoy. He developed quickly as a guitarist learning much on his own too.
Despite the church’s firm stand against blues music and the world which it resided in, House became immersed in it. The blues was music for the poor and the illiterate. In these times it never rose above the street level and played in juke joints. These were drinking establishments that were very rough and down right dangerous. The church and the blues were not supposed to mix. This was the major struggle of his life. Playing the “devils’ music” all week and preaching the Bible on Sundays. His music showed this conflict and may also have been the main contributing factor to his life long battle with the bottle.
One night House was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree and wounded House in the leg and Son returned fire killing the man. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison, but was released within two years after a judge had another look at the case. Having been advised by the judge to leave Clarksdale, House moved to Lula, Mississippi.
House then went to work on the Dockery Plantation. It was here that House met Charley Patton and the two became the best of friends. They had some local success playing together and with another guitarist named Willie Brown. In 1930, Patton took House, Brown and pianist Louise Johnson to Grafton, Wisconsin. This was where House’s classic early sides were recorded. These recordings are considered masterpieces of early Delta blues and their influence can still be felt today. Songs such as Son House’s “My Black Mama” and “Preachin’ the Blues” established him as a giant in the Delta but did not lead to commercial success and as a result are some of the rarest Blues 78s.
When patton died in 1933 things slowed down a bit for House. He began the normal Mississippi Delta lifestyle .He married, eked out a living driving tractor, and continued playing with Brown. During this time, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters would come to House’s shows learn from him. It would be 10 years between recordings.
Son didn’t record again until August of 1941. The Library of Congress had sent Alan Lomax, a folklorist, out to make field recordings in the South. He found and recorded House, Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. Lomax returned the next year to record House in Robinsonville. “Levee Camp Blues” and “Government Fleet Blues” showcase Son and Willie together.
After that, like many Delta Blues men, little was heard of him for close to twenty years. He didn’t make another commercial record until the “blues revival” of the 1960s. He could still be heard though if you listened closely to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk among others.
Son moved up North to Rochester , N.Y. in 1943 and literally disappeared until he was tracked down by blues afficianodos Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and Phil Spiro. Part of the great migration north, House was just trying to escape the poverty and desperation of Delta life. He was unlike some of the others, such as Muddy or the Wolf, who headed to Chicago to find fame and money. He took the train to Rochester and ended up working for the train line. When Willie Brown died in 1952, House had no one left from the old days and stopped playing his guitar altogether and abondoned blues and headed back to the church.
After he was located again, he was coaxed out of retirement in 1964. However, having given up the guitar in 1952 house hadn’t played it 12 years and the toll that alcohol had taken over that time resulted in his having to be taught how to play like “Son House’ again. Alan Wilson (“Canned Heat”) who was one of his biggest fans was asked by Legendary producer John Hammond Sr. to teach him because Alan Wilson had such a good knowledge of the delta styles. The album “The Father of Delta Blues – The Complete 1965 Sessions” was the result. While not considered as good as the original records these remakes showed glimpses of what House had been capable of in his younger days.
He was hailed as the greatest Blues revival discovery. He had big shows at Carnegie Hall and the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Like the other rediscovered bluesmen of that time such as Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt he played all of the big festivals and colleges, and concerts took him all the way to Europe. Through all the this, he remained a conflicted man stuck between the church and the blues, who needed the bottle to get him through the day.
Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again. In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Later he moved to Detroit to be with family and died in his sleep, from cancer of the larynx, on October, 19, 1988. With his passing went the last of the great original Mississippi Delta blues singers and one of the most important bluesmen to have ever lived.