Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902 (?) – October 19, 1988) was an American blues singer and guitarist. House pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music. House did not learn guitar until he was in his early twenties, as he had been “churchified”, and was determined to become a Baptist preacher. He associated himself with Delta blues musicians Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, often acting as a sideman. In 1930, House made his first recordings for Paramount Records during a session for Charlie Patton. However, these did not sell well due to the Great Depression, and he drifted into obscurity. He was recorded by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1941 and ’42. Afterwards, he moved north to Rochester, New York, where he remained until his rediscovery in 1964, spurred by the American folk blues revival. Over the next few years, House recorded several studio albums and went on various tours until his death in 1988. His influence has extended over a wide area of musicians, including Robert Johnson, John Hammond, Alan Wilson (of Canned Heat), Bonnie Raitt, The White Stripes, and John Mooney.
The middle of three brothers, House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana, after his parents separated. The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career. Despite the church’s firm stand against blues music and the sinful world which revolved around it, House became attracted to it and taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area, inspired by the work of Willie Wilson.
After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) in 1928 and 1929. The official story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree. Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison, of which he served two years. He then moved to Lula, Mississippi, where he first met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (around this same time, he also met Robert Johnson). The three began playing alongside each other during local gigs.
In 1930, Art Laibly of Paramount Records traveled to Lula to convince Patton to record several more sides in Grafton, Wisconsin. Along with Patton came House, Brown, and pianist Louise Johnson, who would all end up recording sides for the label. House recorded nine songs during that session, eight of which were released; but these were commercial failures, and House would not record again commercially in 35 years. House continued to play with Patton and Brown, even after Patton’s death in 1934. During this time, House worked as a tractor driver for various plantations around the Lake Comororant area.
Alan Lomax first recorded House for the Library of Congress in 1941. Willie Brown, mandolin player Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and 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, 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, he ended up being “rediscovered” in Rochester, NY. House had been retired from the music business for many years, and was unaware of the 1960s folk blues revival and international enthusiasm regarding 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 (Canned Heat) was one of Son House’s biggest fans. The producer John Hammond Sr. asked Alan 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 the blues styles. The album The Father of Delta Blues – The Complete 1965 Sessions was the result. Son House played with Alan Wilson live. It 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.
Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. 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. He had been married five times.
House’s innovative style featured strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of a bottleneck, coupled with singing that owed more than a nod to the field hollers of the chain gangs. Describing House’s 1967 appearance at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester, England, Bob Groom wrote in Blues World magazine:
It is difficult to describe the transformation that took place as this smiling, friendly man hunched over his guitar and launched himself, bodily it seemed, into his music. The blues possessed him like a ‘lowdown shaking chill’ and the spellbound audience saw the very incarnation of the blues as, head thrown back, he hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm. Son’s music is the centre of the blues experience and when he performs it is a corporeal thing, audience and singer become as one.
House was the primary influence on Muddy Waters and also an important influence on Robert Johnson. It was House who, speaking to awe-struck young blues fans in the 1960s, spread the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical powers.
More recently, House’s music has influenced the blues-rock group The White Stripes, who covered his song “Death Letter” (also reworked by Skip James and Robert Johnson) on their album De Stijl, and later performed it at the 2004 Grammy Awards. The version on De Stijl contains five of the verses from the Son House original. The eighth verse (one of the ones that was left off) was added to the song “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” on their third album White Blood Cells.
The White Stripes incorporated sections of a traditional song Son House recorded—”John the Revelator“—into the song “Cannon” from their eponymous debut album The White Stripes. Jack White of The White Stripes has cited House’s a cappella song, “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, as his favorite song.
Several of House’s songs were featured in the motion picture soundtrack of Black Snake Moan (2006).