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Heaven on Earth

Feeling the power and glory of the great Son House

by Ted Drozdowski

Robert Johnson's been dubbed the King of the Delta Blues. And yeah, it's true that his slippery genius on guitar dealt the cards that blues stringslingers have been playing ever since, and that the hellhound that was on his trail is one of the music's indelible images, and that his recordings hold a simultaneous beauty and terror that few artists have been able to raise. One could argue that nobody rekindled the twined blaze of those emotions as brightly as Johnson until Kurt Cobain come along.

But to me, Johnson is more of the blues' flamboyant prince than its king. The king is a man who both inspired and outlived Johnson, whose rippling slide can be heard resonating in Johnson's quicksilver licks, but whose own style was an unstoppable rhythmic juggernaut, full of muting and popping and frailing. And whose songs went Johnson's devil's music one better by summoning angels and demons, and whose singing then gave vent to the sound of their apocalyptic battle for his soul. Today Johnson's voice, cranked in a darkened car traveling through the one-lane highways of the Delta at midnight, still induces the willies. (Muddy Waters recounted that he once saw Johnson and was so unnerved he fled the scene.) But the voice of the great Son House not only sounds as though it could split the earth asunder, it is also the sound of a soul utterly alone.

Like his contemporary and friend Charlie Patton, House told the stories of his life and his times in his songs. "Levee Camp Blues" talked of the dangerous workplaces along the Mississippi where infidelity, cruel bosses, drinking, gambling, and death were the only constants. Recorded in a general store at Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, by blues historian Alan Lomax in 1941 -- when he was 39 -- Son House sang about the emotional fallout World War II rained on soldiers and their families in "American Defense." That song even shows House's pre-blues roots, in the banjo strumming minstrelsy tradition. Twenty-four years later, after the '60s American folk-blues boom gave his career new breath, he authored and recorded a lament for the assassinated John F. Kennedy that again hewed closer to the minstrel's craft than the blues.

Even at that advanced point in his life he was still singing songs like "John the Revelator," a praise for the Biblical author set only to his voice, handclaps, and stomping feet, and "Preachin' Blues," a jab at the hypocrisy of organized religion, in the same set. It was a conflict House seemed to feel in every fiber of his body -- an impulse to get with religion and the feeling that it was an all-around sham. It reflected his corporal attitude: he was man who lived a very real life of hard labor and hard times, hard drinking and hard love. And he came from a culture where the church was the axis of society. Yet in deciding to be a bluesman, he exempted himself from welcome by the church-going community.

But for me the deep, chilly heart of House's music can be found in two songs: "Death Letter" and "Grinnin' in Your Face." The first is about love and regret -- about a man who gets a letter telling him his woman's dead, about his shock at seeing her laid out "on that cooling board," and the heartwrenching realization that he shouts out at its end: "I didn't know I loved her, 'til they laid her in the ground." If that sounds very heavy, it's because it is. Imagine loving someone but not being able to articulate or understand it until she's dead. Imagine the pain of having never told her, of never being able to tell her or touch her, and of eventually carrying those unrequited feelings to your own grave. What songwriter today can even begin to approximate such complex, heart-dragging emotions? And to pin them to House's voice, which seems to be shouting the story from the deepest pit of his soul? No wonder our era's Diva of Darkness, avant siren Diamanda Galás, has taken to covering the tune. This is the kind of razor-edged truth that real life's made of. So's "Grinnin' in Your Face," which tells of the betrayal and cunning that surrounds us, reminding us that "a true friend is hard to find." And there's a rippling want in House's quavering voice that lets us know he arrived at that conclusion after plenty of searching.

Hearing House perform is an emotional experience equaled by few in recorded music. Two CDs remain the measure of his power: Delta Blues, Alan Lomax's original Library of Congress recordings from 1940 and '41, on the Biograph label; and Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions, a compilation of the Death Letter LP and leftover tracks from the same dates, put out by Columbia in '92. Just before Christmas '95, Capitol added to the House legacy with Delta Blues & Spirituals by Son House, a live recording made in England of some of his most famous songs, plus conversation in which House's blues spirit seems to have been nipping spirits. Not a great performance, but an entertaining one -- it's fun to hear House explaining the carnal nature of the blues, and the dynamics of relations between the sexes.

By now, I hope you're sold on the importance of Son House and, if you don't already know his work, will go buy one of his albums and let a song like "Death Letter" change your life, or at least your value of it. Especially now that his former manager, Dick Waterman, has seen to it that money is getting out of Columbia's paws and into the hands of House's survivors, including his widow (his fifth wife).

But imagine being able to see House perform live -- potent and rocking in solid form before a small studio audience, filmed with clarity. It's awe-striking to watch him close his eyes and seemingly leap into a different world to summon forth "Death Letter" or "John the Revelator," his feet stomping time in unison, his right hand flying across and prodding the strings into a heavy grind and sweet keen. And all that's caught in a half-hour program split between House and Bukka White as part of Vestapol's Masters of the Country Blues series. Shot in 1968, it captures House old-but-vital, 20 years before his death at age 86. And though this tape is essential to anyone who loves music, let alone the blues, there's an even hotter performance on video -- a bootleg from an old New York public-television program that's circulated a bit. The show's split between House performing solo and a young Buddy Guy with his hot Chicago band. Here House is asked to comment on what Guy's group is playing. He makes a remark reminiscent of what Cab Calloway said about bebop. Cab called Bird's thing "Chinese music"; House calls Guy's music "monkeyjunk." But that doesn't stop him and Guy from duetting at the video's close, sitting side by side, House's dobro and Guy's acoustic guitar speaking a language both men understand.

Playing with Son House is an experience few have had. Besides Guy and the handful of musicians he recorded with, I know of only two others. One was Willie Brown, House's old running partner in the days when Robert Johnson was an aspiring musician who'd come to see them ignite crowds at fish fries. The other is Cambridge's resident country-blues dynamo, Paul Rishell, who met and played with House at Waterman's apartment for three days in April 1977.

"When I met him, he was a like a feral old man," recalls Rishell. "Very powerful. He had this sort of wild look in his eye, like Charlie Manson. He was scary. Here was a man who carried a gun and had once shot another man through the head and gone to prison for a year. He had five wives. And the strength of his humanity struck me; he was no longer an abstract blues musician, someone whose records I'd studied. I felt like he was on a hairtrigger, too. Like he could spring up from his chair and be on me in a second if he wanted to. He was just such a powerful presence. And somehow, I'm not sure, he gave me a stronger sense of the blues as an African music, something from another place.

"I was told that I could pour him a drink if he asked, but I couldn't let him drink it. He told me, `I got soft brain, boy. You know what that is?' That was from drinking too much liquor over the years; all he had to do was sniff it to get high. And when you'd leave the room, he'd shoot the whiskey down, and then he'd start talking in a French patois and want to go out. Apparently he'd spent some time in Louisiana and picked that up."

"When Son was singing songs about religion and the church," Rishell continues, "he was looking for loopholes. Like W.C. Fields. When Fields was dying, someone asked him why he was reading the Bible. And he explained he was looking for loopholes. Son said he was saved by the blues. But you know, he was an outlaw, like Jesse James. See, for most of his life, he couldn't live in his own community. When he was growing up in Mississippi, the church was a safe place, a sacred place. It wasn't until the integration struggles of the '60s that they started firebombing black churches. Before that, the church was the sanctuary, the be-all and end-all of the black community.

"Son was ostracized by that community. It says in the Bible, the carnal mind is an enemy of God, because it's not subject to the rule of God, to God's laws. And the carnal mind . . . that's what the blues is all about. The blues looks for Heaven on Earth, not a reward in Heaven. The blues says, `I'm gonna do it now! I'm gonna get high and get laid and I'm gonna play music!' And Son was a 100 percent carnal man. That was his whole thing, but in his old age he was ashamed of it. And it was a conflict for him.

"He told me that he was once living with a woman, and she was sick. After coming back from work one day, he told her, `I'm going out; you wanna come?' `No,' she said. `I'm too sick.' When he came home and went to bed, he could tell she was still sick. And he told me, `I woke up in the morning, and had to go to the commode. And I opened the door to the outhouse, and she had died there, sitting on the board.' I asked, `What did you do?' `Nothin' for me to do; she was dead. So I left; I just left.' Completely matter-of-fact.

"My deepest fears were his everyday life. Losing somebody like that, or getting lynched or murdered or shot at a dance or something. He lived like that and wrote his songs and made some money and -- in the days when it wasn't so easy for a black man -- traveled wherever he wanted. He was proud he'd been to Hollywood, just because he wanted to go. Even then, after he'd toured Europe in the '60s, he was still proud of the fact that he'd always gone wherever he wanted to go."

Funds are being raised for a memorial gazebo for Son House in northwest Detroit, near the Mt. Hazel Cemetery, where he lies. Donations can be made to the "Son House Memorial Trust Fund," in care of Robert Jr. Whitall, 9340 Charest Street, Hamtramck, Michigan 48212.

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