|Birth name||Edward James House, Jr.|
March 21, 1902|
Lyon, Mississippi, United States
|Died||October 19, 1988
After years of hostility to secular music, as a preacher and for a few years also as a church pastor, he turned to blues performance at the age of 25. He quickly developed a unique style by applying the rhythmic drive, vocal power and emotional intensity of his preaching to the newly learned idiom. In a short career interrupted by a spell in Parchman Farm penitentiary, he developed to the point that Charley Patton, the foremost blues artist of the Mississippi Delta region, invited him to share engagements and to accompany him to a 1930 recording session for Paramount Records.
Issued at the start of the Great Depression, the records did not sell and did not lead to national recognition. Locally, House remained popular, and in the 1930s, together with Patton's associate Willie Brown, he was the leading musician of Coahoma County. There he was a formative influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. In 1941 and 1942, House and the members of his band were recorded by Alan Lomax and John W. Work for the Library of Congress and Fisk University. The following year, he left the Delta for Rochester, New York, and gave up music.
In 1964, a group of young record collectors discovered House, whom they knew of from his records issued by Paramount and by the Library of Congress. With their encouragement, he relearned his repertoire and established a career as an entertainer, performing for young, mostly white audiences in coffeehouses, at folk festivals and on concert tours during the American folk music revival, billed as a "folk blues" singer. He recorded several albums, and some informally taped concerts have also been issued as albums. House died in 1988.
In addition to his early influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, he was an inspiration to John Hammond, Alan Wilson (of Canned Heat), Bonnie Raitt, the White Stripes, Dallas Green and John Mooney.
House was born in the hamlet of Lyon, north of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the second of three brothers, and lived in the rural Mississippi Delta until his parents separated, when he was about seven or eight years old. His father, Eddie House, Sr., was a musician, playing the tuba in a band with his brothers and sometimes playing the guitar. He was a church member but also a drinker; he left the church for a time, on account of his drinking, but then gave up alcohol and became a Baptist deacon. Young Eddie House adopted the family commitment to religion and churchgoing. He also absorbed the family love of music but confined himself to singing, showing no interest in the family instrumental band, and hostile to the blues on religious grounds.
When House's parents separated, his mother took him to Tallulah, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, Mississippi. When he was in his early teens, they moved to Algiers, New Orleans. Recalling these years, he would later speak of his hatred of blues and his passion for churchgoing (he described himself as "churchy" and "churchified"). At fifteen, probably while living in Algiers, he began preaching sermons.
At the age of nineteen, while living in the Delta, he married Carrie Martin, an older woman from New Orleans. This was a significant step for House; he married in church and against family opposition. The couple moved to her hometown of Centerville, Louisiana, to help run her father's farm. After a couple of years, feeling used and disillusioned, House recalled, "I left her hanging on the gatepost, with her father tellin' me to come back so we could plow some more." Around the same time, probably 1922, House's mother died. In later years, he was still angry about his marriage and said of Carrie, "She wasn't nothin' but one of them New Orleans whores".
House's resentment of farming extended to the many menial jobs he took as a young adult. He moved frequently, on one occasion taking off to East Saint Louis to work in a steel plant. The one job he enjoyed was on a Louisiana horse ranch, which later he celebrated by wearing a cowboy hat in his performances. He found an escape from manual labor when, following a conversion experience ("getting religion") in his early twenties, he was accepted as a paid pastor, first in the Baptist Church and then in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. However, like his father before him, he fell into habits which conflicted with his calling—drinking like his father and probably also womanizing. This led him after several years of conflict to leave the church, ceasing his full-time commitment, although he continued to preach sermons from time to time.
In 1927 at the age of 25, House underwent a change of musical perspective as rapid and dramatic as a religious conversion. In a hamlet south of Clarksdale, he heard one of his drinking companions, either James McCoy or Willie Wilson (his recollections differed), playing bottleneck guitar, a style he had never heard before. He immediately changed his attitude to blues, bought a guitar from a musician called Frank Hoskins, and within weeks was playing with Hoskins, McCoy and Wilson. Two songs he learned from McCoy would later be among his best-known: "My Black Mama" and "Preachin' the Blues". Another source of inspiration was Reuben Lacy, a much better known performer who had recorded for Columbia Records in 1927 (no titles released) and for Paramount Records in 1928 (two titles released). In an astonishingly short time, with only these four musicians as models, House developed to professional standard a blues style based on his religious singing and simple bottleneck guitar style.
After allegedly killing a man in self-defense, he spent time in prison in 1928 and 1929. Around 1927 or 1928, he had been playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree, wounding House in the leg, and he shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm), of which he served two years. House credited his re-examination and release to an appeal by his family, but also spoke of the intervention by the influential white planter for whom they worked. The date of the killing and the duration of his sentence are unclear. House gave different accounts to different interviewers, and searches by his biographer Daniel Beaumont found no details in the court records of Coahoma County or in the archive of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Upon his release in 1929 or early 1930, House was strongly advised to leave Clarksdale and stay away. He walked to Jonestown and caught a train to the small town of Lula, Mississippi, sixteen miles north of Clarksdale and eight miles from the blues hub of Helena, Arkansas. Coincidentally, the great star of Delta blues, Charley Patton, was also in virtual exile in Lula, having been expelled from his base on the Dockery Plantation. With his partner Willie Brown, Patton dominated the local market for professional blues performance. Patton watched House busking when he arrived penniless at Lula station, but did not approach him. He observed House's showmanship attracting a crowd to the café and bootleg whiskey business of a woman called Sara Knight. Patton invited House to be a regular musical partner with him and Brown. House formed a liaison with Knight, and both musicians profited from association with her bootlegging activities. The musical partnership is disputed by Patton's biographers Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow. They consider that House's musicianship was too limited to play with Patton and Brown, who were also rumoured to be estranged at the time. They also cite one statement by House that he did not play for dances in Lula. Beaumont concluded that House became a friend of Patton's, traveling with him to gigs but playing separately.
In 1930, Art Laibly of Paramount Records traveled to Lula to persuade Patton to record several more sides in Grafton, Wisconsin. Along with Patton came House, Brown, and the pianist Louise Johnson, all of whom recorded sides for the label. House recorded nine songs during that session, eight of which were released, but they were commercial failures. He did not record again commercially for 35 years, but he continued to play with Patton and Brown, and with Brown after Patton's death in 1934. During this time, House worked as a tractor driver for various plantations in the Lake Cormorant area.
Alan Lomax recorded House for the Library of Congress in 1941. Willie Brown, the mandolin player Fiddlin' Joe Martin, and the harmonica player Leroy Williams played with House on these recordings. Lomax returned to the area in 1942, where he recorded House once more. He then faded from the public view, moving to Rochester, New York, in 1943, and working as a railroad porter for the New York Central Railroad and as a chef.
In 1964, after a long search of the Mississippi Delta region by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, House was "rediscovered" in Rochester, New York. He had been retired from the music business for many years and was unaware of the 1960s folk blues revival and international enthusiasm for his early recordings.
He subsequently toured extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS Records. Like Mississippi John Hurt, he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s and played at 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, along with Skip James and Bukka White.
The young guitarist Alan Wilson (later of Canned Heat) was a fan of House's. The producer John Hammond asked Wilson, who was just 22 years old, to teach "Son House how to play like Son House," because Alan Wilson had such a good knowledge of blues styles. The album The Father of Delta Blues – The Complete 1965 Sessions was the result. House played with Wilson live, as can be heard on the album John the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions.
In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records. He also played at the two Days of Blues Festival in Toronto in 1974. On an appearance on the TV arts show Camera Three, he was accompanied by the blues guitarist Buddy Guy.
Ill health plagued House in his later years, and in 1974 he retired once again. He later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. He had been married five times. He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a monument on his grave.
Recorded May 28, 1930, in Grafton, Wisconsin, for Paramount Records
- "Walking Blues" (unissued and lost until 1985)
- "My Black Mama – Part I"
- "My Black Mama – Part II"
- "Preachin' the Blues – Part I"
- "Preachin' the Blues – Part II"
- "Dry Spell Blues – Part I"
- "Dry Spell Blues – Part II"
- "Clarksdale Moan"
- "Mississippi County Farm Blues"
For Library of Congress and Fisk University
Recorded August 1941, Clack Store, Clack, Mississippi
- "Levee Camp Blues", with Willie Brown, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, Leroy Williams
- "Government Fleet Blues", with Brown, Martin, Williams
- "Walking Blues", with Brown, Martin, Williams
- "Shetland Pony Blues", with Brown
- "Camp Hollers", with Brown, Martin, Williams
- "Delta Blues", with Williams
Recorded July 17, 1942, Robbinsonville, Mississippi
- "Special Rider Blues" (two takes)
- "Low Down Dirty Dog Blues"
- "Depot Blues"
- "American Defense"
- "Am I Right or Wrong"
- "Walking Blues"
- "County Farm Blues"
- "The Pony Blues"
- "The Jinx Blues (No. 1)"
- "The Jinx Blues (No. 2)"
- Several Interviews
The music from both sessions and most of the recorded interviews have been reissued on LP and CD.
- "The Pony Blues" / "The Jinx Blues", Part 1 (1967)
- "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" (Willie Brown) / "Shetland Pony Blues" (1967)
- "Death Letter" (1985)
Other albums (This list is incomplete. For a complete list, see external links.)
- The Complete Library of Congress Sessions (1964), Travelin' Man CD 02
- Blues from the Mississippi Delta, with J. D. Short (1964), Folkways Records
- The Legendary Son House: Father of Folk Blues (1965), Columbia 2417
- In Concert (Oberlin College, 1965), Stack-O-Hits 9004
- Delta Blues (1941–1942), Smithsonian 31028
- Son House & Blind Lemon Jefferson (1926–1941), Biograph 12040
- The Real Delta Blues (1964–1965 recordings), Blue Goose Records 2016
- Son House & the Great Delta Blues Singers, with Willie Brown and others, Document CD 5002
- Son House at Home: Complete 1969, Document 5148
- Son House (Library of Congress), Folk Lyric 9002
- John the Revelator, Liberty 83391
- American Folk Blues Festival '67 (1 cut), Optimism CD 2070
- Son House – 1965–1969 (mostly TV appearances), Private Record Pr-01
- Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions, Sony/Legacy CD 48867
- Living Legends (1 cut, 1966), Verve/Folkways 3010
- Real Blues (1 cut, University of Chicago, 1964), Takoma 7081
- John the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions, Sequel CD 207
- Great Bluesmen/Newport, (2 cuts, 1965), Vanguard CD 77/78
- Blues with a Feeling (3 cuts, 1965), Vanguard CD 77005
- Masters of the Country Blues, House and Bukka White, Yazoo Video 500
- Delta Blues and Spirituals (1995)
- In Concert (Live) (1996)
- 'Live at Gaslight Cafe, N.Y.C., January 3, 1965 (2000)
- New York Central Live (2003)
- Delta Blues (1941–1942) (2003), Biograph CD 118
- Classic Blues from Smithsonian Folkways (2003), Smithsonian Folkways 40134
- Classic Blues from Smithsonian Folkways, vol. 2 (2003), Smithsonian Folkways 40148
- The Very Best of Son House: Heroes of the Blues (2003), Shout! Factory 30251
- Proper Introduction to Son House (2004), Proper
- His date of birth is a matter of some debate. House alleged that he was middle-aged during World War I and that he was 79 in 1965, which would make his date of birth around 1886. However, all legal records give his date of birth as March 21, 1902.
- House said that he was born in Lyon. According to some accounts he was born in Riverton. Lyon and Riverton were hamlets close to Clarksdale, both of which have since been abosrbed into the city of Clarksdale.
- Beaumont, Daniel (2011). Preachin' the Blues; The Life and Times of Son House. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-539557-0.
- Beaumont, p. 27.
- Beaumont, pp. 28–29.
- Beaumont, pp. 30–35.
- Beaumont, pp. 33–34.
- Beaumont, pp. 34–36.
- Beaumont, pp. 36–38.
- Beaumont, pp. 39–45.
- Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People from Charlie Patton to Robert Cray. pp. 106–109.
- Beaumont, p. 49.
- Beaumont, p. 47.
- Beaumont, pp. 49–52.
- Calt, Stephen, and Wardlow, Gayle (1988). King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton. Rock Chapel Press. p. 211. ISBN 0-9618610-0-2.
- Beaumont, p. 54.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 160. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
- Davis, Rebecca (1998). "Child Is Father to the Man: How Al Wilson Taught Son House to Play Son House". Blues Access 35 (Fall 1998), pp. 40–43 (with photos by Dick Waterman).
- Memphis Beale Street Brass Note Submission Biography
- Illustrated Son House discography
- Son House at Find a Grave
- Inaugural (1980) inductee to Blues Foundation Hall of Fame (bio by Jim O'Neal)
- Tampa Red and Son House at the Wayback Machine (archived April 11, 2008), History of National Reso-Phonic Guitars, Part 3
- House Discography at Smithsonian Folkways
- Son House at AllMusic (biography by Cub Koda)