Son House

Eddie James "Son" House, Jr born was an American blues singer and guitarist. House pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music. Born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana, after his parents separated. The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career. Despite the church's firm stand against blues music and the sinful world which revolved around it, House became attracted to it and taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area, inspired by the work of Willie Wilson. He began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson and Fiddlin’ Joe Martin around Robinsonville, Mississippi, and north to Memphis, Tennessee, until 1942.
After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) in 1928 and 1929. The official story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree. Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison.

Son House recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942. He then faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s when, after a long search of the Mississippi Delta region by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, he was "re-discovered" in June 1964 in Rochester, New York, where he had lived since 1943. House had been retired from the music business for many years, working for the New York Central Railroad, and was completely unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings.

He subsequently toured extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS records. Like Mississippi John Hurt, he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s and played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with Skip James and Bukka White.

Son House can be seen in the documentary The Howling Wolf Story. House and Howlin' Wolf had been close early in Wolf's career. However, in the documentary, when Wolf was performing during the 1966 Newport Festival, House was drunk and making a lot of noise during Wolf's set. This angered Wolf who started telling House, from the stage, that all he cared about was whiskey and that he had had a chance to do something with his life but threw it away, to paraphrase Wolf.

The young guitarist Alan Wilson (Canned Heat) was one of Son House's biggest fans. The producer John Hammond Sr. asked Alan Wilson, who was just 22 years old, to teach "Son House how to play like Son House," because Alan Wilson had such a good knowledge of the blues styles. The album The Father of Delta Blues - The Complete 1965 Sessions was the result. Son House played with Alan Wilson live. It can be heard on the album John - the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions.

In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.

Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a fitting monument on his grave. He had been married five times.

House was the primary influence on Muddy Waters and also an important influence on Robert Johnson. It was House who, speaking to awe-struck young blues fans in the 1960s, spread the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical powers.

More recently, House's music has influenced the blues-rock group The White Stripes, who covered his song "Death Letter" (also reworked by Skip James and Robert Johnson) on their album De Stijl, and later performed it at the 2004 Grammy Awards. The version on De Stijl contains five of the verses from the Son House original. The eighth verse (one of the ones that was left off) was added to the song "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground" on their third album White Blood Cells.

The White Stripes incorporated sections of a traditional song Son House recorded—"John the Revelator"—into the song "Cannon" from their eponymous debut album The White Stripes. Jack White of The White Stripes has cited House's a cappella song, "Grinnin' in Your Face", as his favorite song.

Another musician deeply influenced by Son House is the slide player John Mooney, who in his teens learned slide guitar from Son House while House was living in Rochester, New York.

Several of House's songs were featured in the motion picture soundtrack of Black Snake Moan (2006)

Tributes and Album covers

  • Gary Moore covered the song Sundown on his 2007 album Close As You Get.
  • French singer-songwriter Francis Cabrel refers to Son House in the song "Cent Ans de Plus" on his 1999 album Hors-Saison. Cabrel cites the artist as one of a number of blues influences, including Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Blind Blake, Willie Dixon and Ma Rainey.
  • Clips of House talking about blues music are used in the movie Black Snake Moan.
  • Andrew Bird covered House's song, "Grinnin' " on his live album, Fingerlings 3.
  • The song "Rhythm and Blues Alibi" by Gomez mentions Son House.
  • Dick Waterman relates that when The Rolling Stones met Howlin' Wolf in 1965, they asked who the older man with him was, toward whom Howlin' Wolf was so respectful. They were awestruck to hear it was Son House, whom they knew as "the man who taught Robert Johnson".
  • "Swamp Music" by Lynyrd Skynyrd pays tribute to Son House.
  • John Mellencamp covered "Death Letter" and "John the Revelator" on his Trouble No More album.
  • Gov't Mule covered "John the Revelator" on Dose album and "Grinnin' in your Face" on Gov't Mule album.
  • Warren Haynes covers "Death Letter" on The Derek Trucks Band album Out of Madness album.
  • Memphis bluesman Rob Jungklas has a number entitled "Drunk Like Son House" on the 2003 album Arkadelphia.
  • The White Stripes self-titled debut album is dedicated to Son House and on De Stijl there is a cover of "Death Letter".
  • Canadian folk band City & Colour has covered the song "Grinnin' In Your Face" on numerous occasions, where lead singer Dallas Green performs the song a cappella.
  • Irish Blues-Rock guitarist Rory Gallagher covered the song "Empire State Express" on his 1990 album Fresh Evidence
  • Canadian folk singer/punk rock musician Eamon McGrath frequently works a cover of Death Letter Blues into his live show.
  • Mississippi-born singer/songwriter/jazz musician Cassandra Wilson covered the song "Death Letter" on her 1995 album "New Moon Daughter"
  • Depeche Mode use a reworking of John the Revelator on their 2005 album, "Playing the Angel".
  • Ash Grunwald covers "Grinnin' In Your Face" on his "Introducing Ash Grunwald" Album.
  • Stereo Transmitted Disease covered "Death Letter" on their free download live performance, The Letter Sessions album.
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