When I was in my early teens, discovering music outside of my norm of hair metal, I dove head first into everything Jimi Hendrix. After all, being a future guitar God, it was the natural thing to do.
When I was reading books, magazines, anything I could get my hands on about the iconic guitarists, writers would always reference blues legends like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House when talking about the classic Hendrix blues song “Red House.” Now I knew who Robert Johnson was and of course the Wolf too, but who was Son House? I seriously thought at the time Son House was a place blues musicians went to play, like a juke joint. Or maybe Son House was a recording studio like Sun Records? That makes sense, right? No, no it doesn’t. After a while of wondering what Son House was, I finally figured out that Son House wasn’t a place at all, but a person.
Like with any other musician I stumbled upon but had never heard of, I had to dig deeper to find out more about the artist. Turns out, like many blues musicians, Son House had one hell of a story.
He was born Eddie James House, Jr. on March 21, 1902 in Lyon, Mississippi, just north of the famed blues city of Clarksdale. Son picked up his love of music from his father who was a tuba player and occasional guitarist, but Son took to the gospel and loved nothing more than singing church hymns and gospel songs.
When his parents split up in his early years, Son’s mother took Son and his two brothers to Louisiana and moved around a lot. By his teen years Son was preaching in the church and when he was 19, Son married his older girlfriend Carrie Martin. (Son’s family objected to the wedding.) After tying the knot, the newlyweds moved to Miss Martin’s hometown of Centreville, Louisiana to help run Carrie’s father’s farm.
After working his fingers to the bone on the farm, Son had enough and left his wife at her father’s farm and took on small jobs wherever he could get them. Son found work in the steel mills of East St. Louis and loved working on the horse ranches in Louisiana, but truth be told, Son hated manual labor.
In his early 20s, Son found the perfect job for himself – the pastor at the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. However, being a single man and all, who on more than one occasion liked to tip the bottle, the church didn’t agree with their pastor’s drinking and love for the ladies, and Son was asked to leave.
Not fond of manual labor and pissed off at the church he worshipped for most of his life for kicking him to the curb, Son went back to his first love – music. He heard one of his drinking buddies playing blues music on the slide guitar and Son was so taken he quickly fell in love with a music genre he once loathed.
Son picked up the guitar for the first time at the age of 25 and learned a few tricks of the trade from his buddy. He immediately wrote the future blues standards – “My Black Mama” and “Preachin’ the Blues.”
Just as Son found his calling, life dealt him another down and dirty hand when he was sent to prison for murder.
Son was playing a juke joint in 1928 (or possibly 1929, stories vary), when a man started shooting up the club. Son took a bullet in the leg and returned fire, killing the alleged shooter. Son was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, but he only served two years after his family filed appeals.
Upon his release from prison, Son was told to get out of Clarksdale, so he hopped a train and landed in Lula, Miss. He was now 16 miles north of Clarksdale, but only eight miles from the burgeoning blues scene in Helena, Arkansas.
Son arrived in Lula with no money, only the clothes on his back and a guitar. He started playing for spare change anywhere he could and soon started to draw small crowds due to his emotional style of singing. He caught the eye of not only blues legends Charley Patton and Willie Brown, but also Sara Knight, who owned a bootlegging café.
The word spread quickly about the trio of blues men playing around Lula and drew the interest of Paramount Records executive Art Laibly, who took the three men, along with pianist Louise Johnson, up north to record nine singles between them. Eight of the songs were released, but they didn’t make a dent in the world of blues music.
Disheartened and disenchanted, Son House didn’t record again for several years. Son continued to play his emotional style of blues, but it was not his main job anymore as he took on work driving a tractor on a local farm.
Blues musicologist Alan Lomax came down south and found Son House in 1941 and recorded several of his songs for the Library of Congress. Then, in a weird twist, in 1943, Son House, now in his early 40s, packed up, disappeared, and ultimately landed in Rochester, New York where he took up work as a chef and a railroad porter.
Son House the blues musician, as we knew him, was no more.
It would take more than 20 years before Son House was “rediscovered.” It was 1964 and there was a resurgence of blues music in American and Europe. Son, completely oblivious to the music scene, was lured out of retirement by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, and Phil Spiro. Son picked up the guitar again and started playing shows, appearing at such major events as 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.
Reinvigorated and in demand, Son recorded for CBS Records, which released his first album ‘The Father of Delta Blues – The Complete 1965 Sessions’ when Son was in his early 60s.
When the 1970s came, Son House was still playing and touring hard. He played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1970 and the Days of Blues Festival in Toronto in 1974. He also appeared on the television show “Camera Three.”
Eventually, the extensive touring and his age caught up with him, and Son once again retired from music in 1974. This time he stayed retired due to cancer of the larynx, of which he died from on October 19, 1988. He was 86 years old.
Son House battled The Great Depression, the church, the bottle, cancer, and the music industry. He seemed like a restless soul who had a hard time fitting in or finding happiness. Married five times, the blues man kept coming back to music, which was his gift.
Rest in Peace, Son House.