1985 Edsel reissue
|Song by Son House from the album Father of Folk Blues|
|Recorded||Columbia Studios, New York City, April 12–14, 1965|
|Label||Columbia (no. CS 9217)|
|Producer||John Hammond, Frank Driggs|
"Death Letter", also known as "Death Letter Blues", is the signature song of the Delta blues musician Son House. It is structured upon House's earlier recording "My Black Mama, Part 2" from 1930. House's 1965 performance was on a metal-bodied National resonator guitar using a copper slide.
One commentator noted that it is "one of the most anguished and emotionally stunning laments in the Delta blues œuvre."
Lyrically, the song is about a man who learns of the death of the woman he loves through a letter delivered to him early in the morning. The narrator later views her body on the cooling board at the morgue, attends her funeral, and returns to his home in a state of depression.
House's lyrics draw from traditional sources. Other blues musicians recorded related songs, including Lead Belly ("Death Letter Blues"), Ishman Bracey ("Trouble Hearted Blues"), Ida Cox ("Death Letter Blues"), Robert Wilkins ("Nashville Stonewall") and Blind Willie McTell ("On The Cooling Board").
Folk revival performances
"Death Letter" was the centerpiece of Son House's live performances during the blues revival of the 1960s. House often altered the tempo and lyrics for different performances of "Death Letter", occasionally playing the song more than once during the same concert. Some renditions exceeded fifteen minutes in length.
The song has been reworked by other major bluesmen. Skip James reworked the music and lyrics into his song "Special Rider Blues". Avant-garde blues artist Jandek reworked a verse from "Death Letter" into his song "I Went Outside". Muddy Waters's closely related song about the same subject is "Burying Ground". Captain Beefheart worked an extensive reference to it into "I Feel Like Ahcid" on Strictly Personal.
"Death Letter" has been recorded by several popular musicians, including The Blues Band, Grateful Dead, John Mellencamp, Chris Thomas King, David Johansen, Tony McPhee, The Derek Trucks Band, The White Stripes,The Tallest Man on Earth and The Growl. The White Stripes performed part of the song live at the 2004 Grammy Awards. The song has also been given a hardcore punk makeover by Canadian punk rock band Eamon McGrath & The Wild Dogs. It was also featured in the 2005 horror/suspense film The Skeleton Key. The song has also been recorded by Diamanda Galás, Cassandra Wilson, James Blood Ulmer, Preacher Boy, James R Cooper, Gov't Mule, and Geoff Muldaur.
- "Son House – Death Letter". Discogs. Zink Media, Inc. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
- Cohn, Lawrence (1992). Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (Album notes). Son House. Columbia/Legacy Records. pp. 9–11. C2K 48867.
- "Son House – Father of Folk Blues". Discogs. Zink Media, Inc. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 160. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.