Still a Great Delta Blues Singer
Still a Great Delta Blues Singer
By Lawrence Cohn
The story below is Copyright 1968, Saturday Review Inc.
Please consider supporting the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund's campaign to mark the grave of blues musician Belton Sutherland and maintain existing memorials in Mississippi
"Son" (Eddie) House lives a leisurely life now at his Greig Street home. Resting from a trip to Philadelphia to see friends, and to New York to tape the forthcoming show, the musician said he'll be going to Chicago in February to participate in the Chicago Folk Festival. Meanwhile, his principal occupation is correspondence with many fans who heard him on a European trip last year. That trip was followed by a tour of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, However it is principally the fans of Germany, Austria and England with whom House corresponds.
He is a great deal older now. Perhaps his hands can't behave exactly as he would have them. But he is still the great Mississippi delta blues singer and guitarist, whose handful of old recordings has kept his memory and reputation surviving for these many years.
Along with two or three other artists, his name has be-come a synonym for the r o u g h, intensely emotional delta blues style. He is, in many ways, the most important and significant blues artist to have been "rediscovered" as a result of the cur-rent intensified interest in the blues and the important re-cording artists of the 1920s and 1930s.
His discovery by three young enthusiasts—Dick Waterman, Nick Perls, and Phil Spiro—Is a story by it-self and, in short, is a tale of a search that covered 16 states and 4,000 miles, all of which resulted in locating "Son" House living in Rochester, N.Y., far removed from Mississippi.
"Son" House is an artist of almost incredible forcefulness and stature. His is a ferocious, almost violent, instrumental attack accentuated by the sliding of a steel tube, which he wears on one of the finger's of his fretting hand, along the strings of his steel-bodied National guitar.
His singing is dramatic, and he is still, to many, the finest blues singer of all. In performance, his eyes are closed, head reared back, and he gasps as he builds his song to a fever-pitched emotional level. He has the quality of becoming so totally immersed in his artistry that, by all indicatons, it appears that each song is a complete catharsis in itself. He is an emotional experience, and no other blues artist active today appears to be capable of conveying these qualities to his listeners.
In a sense he is a paradox. He is the man whose very name stands for the harshness and abrasive qualities of which the Mississippi blues consist. But despite this, his initial external influences were experienced outside of Mississippi. And, to heighten the curiosity, he began to play the guitar when he was a grown man—rather than as a boy.
His outward personality appears to be nothing short of a complete reversal of his musical approach. He is not, by any means, a very forceful person, and the word "shy" would most appropriately describe him.
Eddie James House Jr. — "Son" — was born outside of Clarksdale, Miss., on March 21, 1902. At age of three or four his family moved to New Orleans, La., where he remained for about 20 years.
"I remember Louis Arm-strong in 1917 or '18; he was already a big man. The singers were a little different in New Orleans. They sang mostly ballads and not blues."
House returned to Mississippi when he was about 23 or 24 years old and started to learn to play the guitar around 1927. He learned the rudiments from a local guitarist named Willie Wilson„ who played "bottleneck" style.
It was upon hearing Wilson play that House's desire to learn was stimulated.
"I always sung. I was brought up singing church music and most of my family were 'songsters.' Most of them played instruments and they even had a family band. Before Willie, I never heard any-one play with a bottleneck, and the sound really got me."
"Son's" first guitar cost $1.50 and was all "broken-up." With the help of Wilson, he patched it up and recalls Willie chiding him that it had only five strings, instead of the usual six, and House wasn't even aware of the difference.
He played throughout the state, almost always with his close friend and partner Willie Brown.
"Willie was the best guitar player around, although his voice wasn't too strong. He used to play the 'comment' (background), while I did all of the lead singing. I used to like to sing my own songs mostly. Never did care too much about singing other people's songs. We used to play the `jook joints' a lot. Boy, were they rough! Every Saturday night someone got cut up or killed. I'd leave when the rough stuff started, even though they never bothered the musicians. I wasn't taking any chances."
Willie and "Son" played throughout Mississippi at picnics, birthday parties, dances, levee camp s, and other events. They also played for "white only" parties and picnics. "The white people liked our music fine. Anything fast and jumpy went over.
After a few recordings in the 30s.and 40s, "Son" dropped out of sight in 1943. His whereabouts were unknown, although he obviously still influenced a great number of bluesmen — from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton.
Then in 1943, after his discovery in Rochester, "Son" was persuaded to end his musical retirement and reamed "The Legendary Son House: Father of the Folk Blues" for Columbia. Since then he's appeared at numerous blues festivals and spends a good deal of his time on the road of college concerts.
The record is not a substitute for seeing "Son" in person. It loses too much of the emo-tional quality "Son" has. His approach and philosophy has not taken on any change from the time of his early recordings. He is still an American original.
"Son" has become active in `conscience' music, too. One of his contemporary pieces, Empire State Express, is included on the album. He's also done a few unaccompanied recordings as well as another album, "Preachin' Blues."