A Little More About Son House
My first introduction to Son House came via Martin Scorcese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey. (This documentary has its flaws, but I enjoyed it overall). According to this documentary, Son House is one of the earliest blues musicians in American history. Born in 1902, the middle of seventeen brothers, House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career [from Wikipedia].
But he was drawn to the blues. Like many, he taught himself how to play the guitar. He developed his own style and influenced other blues musicians (I’m relying on my memory from the documentary now). One thing I remember the narrator of the film explaining was the innovative way in which House seemed to attack the strings, which you can see in the video below.
>Something happened to House after few years, though. Karl told me he became an alcoholic and disappeared. Wikipedia says that he killed a man in a juke joint one night and was sent to prison for 15 years. Whatever happened, he was hard to find when Alan Lomax, working for the Library of Congress in the 1940s, went on his search for blues musicians. After recording for Lomax, House disappeared again. He wasn’t heard from until the 1960s when rock ‘n’ roll bands ignited a roots music revival (think Led Zeppelin, any of the groups Eric Clapton played with, The Rolling Stones, etc.).
One very intriguing (to me) fact about Son House is that he knew and influenced Robert Johnson, the most mysterious blues musician in history. It is my understanding that House is the one who first told the story of Johnson cutting a deal with the devil: his soul in exchange for never-before-heard abilities with a guitar (I’ll get to that in another post).
In the following video, House shares more of his story. He knew he was called to preach the gospel. The two lifestyles, the blues and the gospel, just could not go together. He explains how a man can’t hold God in one hand and the devil in the other. Perhaps that is why he left performing the blues for so many years; he knew he couldn’t hold onto both. I think it wasn’t until he had reached old age that he was able to play the blues and maintain freedom from the lifestyle associated with it. But that’s just my opinion.