If blues were an ocean to be distilled to a lake & a pond & ultimately smaller & smaller until eventually it became a drop of water, then that is Son House.
Dick Waterman (Son House’s manager)
Dick Waterman’s description of Son House, the man he helped thru an 11-year second career when Son House was already in his 60s, in the throes of chronic alcoholism & suffering from a tremor caused not only by his drinking but also by the onset of dementia, seems to me to be nothing short of the truth. When House erupted into a song, it was like the visceral sound of a freight train when—as my friends & I did sometimes when young—you stand perilously close to the tracks. We use the word “blues” to describe a mood—often as a sort of diminutive for depression; with House, there’s nothing diminutive about it at all—it’s a consuming force, an overwhelming emotion that can shake & rattle the soul the way the strings rattled on his National under the attack of the copper slide he wore on his left ring finger. Slide guitar played on a resonator guitar is always in potential a journey into some mythic territory beyond the confines of what conventional, “Spanish” playing can bring out of the instrument—in the case of Son House, his National sounds like a whole other instrument, driven by an attack that’s built from an emotional fury. This may sound like hyperbole—it’s not. Just check out the man in any of the vidclips below—but you could start with “Downhearted Blues” (which is similar to his song “How to Treat a Man”).
Son House was born in Mississippi in 1902. His father was a musician, but House wanted to be a Baptist preacher & took up this vocation while still in his teens. He sang in church, but he didn’t play guitar—an instrument that wasn’t considered very appropriate for a religious man due to its connection with the blues—until he was in his 20s. That’s when Son began a journey that veered between two very different poles: his religious fervor & his equal fervor for the blues & the life that seemed to entail. As a result, his music ranges from a kind of raw desolation—see the second vidclip below for “Death Letter Blues,” about the most unsettlingly grim blue songs I know—to an almost hopeful religiosity. On his Delta Blues & Spirituals album (a live recording on Capitol—out of distribution, but not unavailable) when House talks about “THE BLUES,” he says, “You can sing the blues in church if you use the words right.” Yet there’s a sense in his music that, as much as he attempted to reconcile these two passions, the relationship between them was always dynamic, at least; as he sings in “Preaching the Blues”: “Oh in my room I bowed down to pray/Say the blues came ‘long & they drove my spirit away.” You can hear Son House singing “Preaching the Blues” in the third vidclip.
Son House was friends with some of the greatest bluesmen, all hailing from the Mississippi Delta: he played with Charlie Patton & Willie Brown (even casual blues fans will recognize Willie Brown from the final stanza of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues”: "You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy Willie Brown/Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe, I believe I'm sinkin' down”). In fact Robert Johnson played harmonica with Willie Brown & Son House, & learned much from them, especially from House. Son House also knew the young Muddy Waters, who described House as “my idol.”
I try to ground these essays in each guitarist’s real musicianship—so what three adjectives might I use to describe Son House’s playing? “Rhythmic,” without question—not just the propulsiveness & percussiveness of his playing, which are remarkable in themselves, but the intricacy of the rhythmic variation; “Passionate,” certainly—his guitar work & his voice both are expressive of powerful emotion, tho it’s also worth noting that House had a pretty keen sense of dynamics—as much as the overall effect of his music is full-bore playing & singing, he knew the power of holding back, getting quiet & getting spare; & “organic”—in the sense that his guitar part is built solidly within the framework that the song allows, without involving either stale clichés on the one hand or mere flash on the other—for all their thunder! Son House also had an uncanny sense of how to best accompany his voice with the slide guitar—driving the vocal forward or giving it an aching poignancy or eerie desperation.
House typically played National Duolian single cone resonator guitars (actually, a bit of a bargain model at the time: they were $32.50 new in the 30s—needless to say, these guitars have appreciated significantly, even accounting for inflation. As I mentioned earlier, he typically played with a slide, & this was usually a section of copper tubing that he wore on the ring finger (slides are practically always worn on either the ring finger or little finger & there are advantages & disadvantages to both). He kept his guitar tuned to an open G most of the time (meaning the strings sounded together make a G major chord; standard guitar tuning doesn’t produce any commonly recognized chord on the six open strings). Such open tunings really facilitate slide playing.
Fortunately, there are some good recordings of Son House: The Complete Library of Congress Sessions 1941-1942 (Travelin’ Man label) showcase House when he was still relatively young (there are even earlier recordings, from a 1930 session in Wisconsin which House traveled to with Patton & Brown—all three men were recorded); another good choice is Sony’s Original Delta Blues.
& hope you enjoy the intro provided by these YouTube clips!