Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Son House: Delta Blues

One of the masters of the acoustic blues tradition from the Deep South, Son House was born outside of Clarkdale, Mississippi (fans of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will recognize that reference) in 1902 and then spent much of his early years in Louisiana.  He was a Baptist preacher as a teen and didn't start playing guitar until his later twenties, working with Willie Brown, who is heard on some of these recordings.

Quickly, House became a name in the blues world and had an influence on such legends as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. It is said that Johnson's remarkable transformation as a guitar player was due, in no small measure, to his keen and close observation of House's technique.  Another master bluesman, Charley Patton, made a connection for House with Paramount Records, which recorded eight tracks with House in early 1930.

It was more than a decade, though, before House got another session, this time with Alan Lomax, who found him in Mississippi in summer 1941.  Getting together with his old partner, Brown, House recorded the first five songs on this 2003 Biograph disc with assistance from Fiddlin' Joe martin and Leroy Williams on four of the pieces.

Lomax came back the following year with a partnership with the all-black Fisk University of Nashville, and recorded more of House's performances, including the nine that close out the album.  Unlike the first session, the 1942 dates find House working solo and, it being wartime America, he even added a new tune, "American Defense" to the selections, all of which were attributed to him.

With the 1930 and 1941-42 sessions constituting the body of his recorded work, House moved to Rochester, New York, where he lived after 1943, but it was another twenty years before he got back into a recording studio.  As the folk revival exploded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a rediscovery of blues artists, including those who played acoustic, took place.  In 1965, Columbia Records recorded an older and more wizened House in a series of sessions that are captured in a two-disc complete box that will be featured here some day.

With his career brought back to life, House kept busy for several years until health problems slowed him down, though he lived on until fall 1988 when he died of complications from throat cancer at the age of 86.

This "Delta Blues" compilation of what is now referred to as "The Original Library of Congress Sessions from Field Recordings" from 1941-42 are full of fleet guitar performances, House's powerful county blues vocalizing, and on those early pieces, some fine accompaniment on guitar and harmonica.  Though the conditions were far more primitive-sounding than what he put down on tape in the mid-Sixties, the passion and soulfulness of these fourteen gems are among the greatest of blues recordings.

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