Son House was a true genius of the blues. But he was also something else. In the great family tree of the Delta blues, where artists pass on their musical knowledge and influences to future generations (sometimes indirectly), House is the largest and most important root. He was born early enough to witness Charlie Patton first-hand, even though he said he didn’t care for Patton’s “flashy” style. He was playing in the Delta when Robert Johnson was just a boy, and Johnson followed him around for some time, covertly teaching himself guitar and borrowing House’s guitar style. In his pre-WWII heyday he influenced a lot of other famous blues musicians from the Delta. And he was still alive in the sixties, when he was rediscovered as part of the blues revival. As a result he was able to return to a career as a professional musician as a very old man, after years of working in rail yards and restaurants. Son House was around for all three acts of the classic Delta blues history, which makes him unique in the pantheon of blues heroes. None of the others were there at the beginning (i.e. Charlie Patton), and at the end (the mid-sixites, when most of the living Delta blues artists were rediscovered, had short comebacks, and died). House was a living link between all the different characters that made up the family tree of the blues. Because he was around for these crucial periods, he was also an invaluable source of history and stories about many other people. For example, it was Son House who spread the famous story about Robert Johnson having sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical abilities. But House may have had biases of his own on that subject.
One of the really interesting things about Son House is that he didn’t start playing guitar until he was a grown man, in his twenties. Before that he was a preacher (Son said he was “churchified”), and only took up the blues after falling out with the church. He also did some time in prison, allegedly for killing a man in self-defence during a gig, although there is some evidence to suggest the real reasons he was locked up are a little less noble. Perhaps as a result of these life experiences, for the rest of his life, Son House believed that playing the blues was a sure route straight to hell. Maybe he had a guilty conscience about failing as a preacher, and certainly a lot of people back then believed that this was literally the devil’s music. Or maybe it was his prison time, or the fact that he had killed a man. He also had a serious drinking problem, and later in his life his managers would have to accompany him to gigs to make sure he didn’t skip the show and get drunk instead. But whatever the reasons, House always made a point to do some preachin’ during his performances, as if he had to take the opportunity to save a few souls to make up for his wicked life. His performance style was all fire and brimstone. He was a haunted man.
Eddie James “Son” House, Jr., died on October 19th, 1988, at the age of 86. He was there in the beginning, and he outlived almost everyone else.
Here’s the one and only Son House preaching about the meaning behind “Grinnin’ In Your Face”, his famous song that was covered by The White Stripes. Listen to what he’s saying; the man trying to tell you something vitally important.