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 Jeff Droke – 2011

If there was ever a living and breathing personification of the blues, it would have to be in the form of the one and only Eddie James “Son” House.  He was one of the musical genre’s pioneers and his influence has been passed down to later generations via such acclaimed protégés as Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.  It is hard to imagine how either Beale Street or the blues would have progressed through time had it not been for the emotional heart-felt music produced by House.  Throughout the thirties, he lived in nearby Lake Cormorant in DeSoto County and would quite often venture to Beale Street’s Church Park to perform for tips. 

In there is anyone that deserves a brass note on Beale Street, it is the “Pride of Lake Cormorant”, Eddie James “Son” House.

 “Son House spoke to me in a thousand ways…..” Jack White






 Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
Till the blues come along, and they blowed my spirit away
Preachin’ Blues

There are very few artists in the history of recorded music that have possessed the raw passion and performed with the intense emotional energy of Eddie James “Son” House, Jr.  Along with fellow Mississippi Delta native Charlie Patton, House helped lay out the framework for the music that would become known as “The Delta Blues”.  The timeless music created by both House and Patton would directly influence blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and also serve as inspiration for later-day artists such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes.  In 1970, Melody Maker Magazine writer Paul Oliver described House’s legacy as follows: “for many, he was a bluesman from who could be drawn a direct line - House-Robert Johnson-Muddy Waters-Elmore James and so on.  For the blues enthusiasts the living witness to the Mississippi tradition, he is virtually set apart from normal critical appraisal. Playing partner to Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, inspiration of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, he is a key figure in the story of Delta blues with a timeless reputation”.  When interviewed by blues historian Dick Waterman, White Stripes front man Jack White stated he had only one influence and that was Son House.  The self-titled debut album by the White Stripes, released in 1999, was dedicated to House.

House was born March 21, 1902 in Riverton, Mississippi, a small delta town just outside Clarksdale.  His father served as a deacon with the Alan Chapel Baptist Congregation and his staunch church-going mother forbade her child from listening to secular music of any kind, especially the blues.  As a child, House attendee Sabbath School at Morning Star Baptist Church on Mississippi State Highway One, just west of Clarksdale.  During his youth, House was determined to spread the gospel as an ordained minster in the Baptist Church and he preached his first sermon at the tender age of 15.  He would spend the next few years of his young life preaching “the Word” at various Baptist and CME churches, as his family moved throughout the Mississippi Delta and Western Louisiana.  House remained a life-long committed Baptist and would continue to preach on a part-time basis throughout his music career.  One of the most treasured highlights of a Son House performance during the sixties and seventies was his soul stirring acapella version of the traditional gospel number John the Revelator. 

During his twenties, House began to take notice of the blues and taught himself how to play the guitar at age 25.  He witnessed a slide guitar player named Willie Wilson perform just outside of Clarksdale and was taken in by his performance.  House bought a guitar for $1.50 and after a few weeks of practice, he was joining with his mentor Wilson in local performances. House was impressed by Wilson’s music but his strict upbringing in the Baptist Church weighed heavy on his mind.  The churches in Mississippi’s African-American community took a firm stand against the “evil blues” that was being performed at “juke joints” and plantation parties.  During that time period, many residents of the Mississippi Delta would view those who performed music in an environment outside of the church as being “in league with Satan.”  House’s struggle between the Baptist Church and “sinful” blues music created an inner tension that helped to fuel the power and tortured emotion displayed in his performances.  House stated during a July 1965 interview with writer Julius Lester for Sing Out magazine “Brought up in church and didn’t believe in anything else but church, and it always made me mad to see a man with a guitar and singing these blues and things.”  



It wasn’t long before House began performing at “Juke Joints” in the Delta and gained notoriety for his intense vocals and string-snapping guitar accompaniments.  The “Juke Joints” that populated the Mississippi Delta during the Twenties and Thirties were establishments where African-American workers from nearby share cropper plantations could come and unwind on the weekends after spending the week performing field work.  The blues musicians performed songs that struck a cord within the soul of these workers with their tales of lost love and hard times.   The “Juke Joints” of the Mississippi Delta provided their patrons with worldly pleasures that were unimaginable to those that had endured the hardship of slavery during the previous century.

Unfortunately, the patrons at these “Juke Joints” could sometimes become a bit rowdy and during a Son House performance at Lyon, Mississippi during 1927, that was the case.  An enraged man began firing a gun inside the establishment and House killed the attacker in self defense.  A Coahoma County Court Judge in Clarksdale, sentenced House to 15 years of hard labor at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm), an 18,000 acre work facility located in Sunflower County.  He served two years of his manslaughter sentence before being granted an early release in 1929.









 I said, soon every mornin' I lie's feelin' sick and bad
Thinkin' about the old time, baby, that I once have had
Son Goin’ Down

After his release from Parchman, Son House moved farther north up US Highway 61 to the small Tunica County town of Lula. There he began a musical collaboration with the man known as the “Father of the Delta Blues”, Charlie Patton.  Patton lived on the Kirby Plantation and was an established blues legend throughout the Southeast.  Patton possessed a rhythmic style that would set the standard for all Delta Blues guitarists to follow.  House and Patton became close friends that shared a mutual admirations of the blues, alcohol and performing.  During May 1930, Patton took House along with fellow blues musicians Willie Brown and Louis Johnson to Paramount Recording in Grafton, Wisconsin.  Paramount had sat up shop in the old Wisconsin Chair Factory, located on the banks of the Milwaukee River.  At the time, Paramount Recording was one the leading recording services for African-American talent and was responsible for about one-quarter of the genre’s output.  As sales progressed, the company was able to construct a new damp-stone studio during the fall of 1929. 


On May 28, 1930, House, accompanied by only his steel-bodied National Resonator guitar, recorded eight songs:  The Dry Spell Blues (parts 1 & 2), Preachin’ the Blues (parts 1 & 2), My Black Mama (parts 1 & 2), Clarksdale Moan, and Mississippi County Farm.  At that time the only method available for recording was the direct-to-disc method which produced a master copy used for subsequent stampings.  The records produced from the stampings would spin at 78 revolutions per minute and had a total recording time limit of about four and a half minutes.  The time limitation inherent to this process is the reason why three of House’s songs were divided into two parts.

House’s Paramount recordings provide testament to his intense guitar technique and powerful vocal styling.  He would play the songs utilizing his right thumb to sound the bass note with sting-snapping power while attacking the other higher stings to obtain his trademark sound.  House used a copper slide on his left ring finger to articulate the higher notes of each song performed.  It is also important to note that slide guitar playing generally requires a somewhat gentle touch and House’s playing style was anything but gentle.  The fact that he was able to achieve the proper slide sound with his left hand while hammering the strings with his right hand is in itself quite a feat.

In 1941, when Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax questioned blues guitar great Muddy Waters as to who was the best guitarist, Robert Johnson or Son House, Waters replied “I think they were both equal.”  Waters went on to state “Whenever I heard he was gonna play somewhere, I followed after him and stayed watching him. I learned how to play with the bottleneck by watching him for about a year.”




Paramount’s recorded output was notorious for inferior sound quality and unfortunately, none of the Son House recordings sold well. House stated in a 1968 interview with Bob West “…we didn’t get much out of our first recordings. My check was $40. I remember it was $40 and expenses, which was a lot of money then. I was a big shot”.   The country’s economic depression also attributed to a general decline in music sales and very few of House’s original Paramount Recordings exist.  As the decade progressed, changing musical tastes among African-Americans in the Southeastern United States would also help to signal an end to the era of the Delta Blues.

Kirby Plantation, Charlie Patton’s old home, is still in operation and is now called the Kirby-Willis Plantation.  It is located on US Highway 61 in Robinsonville, Mississippi, in the shadows of the Tunica Casinos, themselves a somewhat glitzy version of the fabled “Juke Joints”. Unfortunately, Paramount Recording fell victim to the Great Depression and ceased recording activities in 1932.  All that remains of the studio used by the four Mississippi bluesmen is the stone foundation.  It is located along with a historical landmark sign in Grafton at the corner of Falls Road and 12th Avenue.





 You just bear this is mind, a true friend is hard to find
Don’t you mind, people grinnin’ in your face
Grinnin In Your Face

As the Thirties progressed, House moved to the north delta town of Robinsonville.  “When we came back from recording, I went back down to Lula and stayed about a couple of weeks, and then I came right back to Robinsonville where Willie was” stated House in his 1965 interview with Sing Out!  Magazine’s Julius Lester “He was my commentor. He like to comment. He never liked to sing much. He was a good commentor.”  House and his close friend Willie Brown were able to make a living by performing at parties and plantations in the Robinsonville area in the early thirties.  During that time period, the two musicians befriended a young harmonica player named Robert Johnson.  On the weekends, House, Willie Brown and Johnson would travel to Memphis and perform at Church Park on Beale Street for tips.  Johnson had become so taken with House’s guitar playing ability, that he switched his instrument of choice from harmonica to guitar.  Unfortunately, the future blues legend did not come quick in mastering his new instrument and would be chided by his two mentors when they were drinking. 

“We'd all play for the Saturday night balls and there’d be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson.” stated House to Julius Lester “And when we'd get a break and want to rest some, we'd set the guitars up in the corner and go out in the cool. Robert would watch and see which way we’d gone and he would pick one of them up. And such another racket you never heard! It'd make the people mad, you know. They’d come out and say, Why don't y'all go in there and get that guitar away from that boy! He's running people crazy with it."

In 1931, Johnson moved back to his birthplace of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, where he began to become an accomplished player through hours and hours of practice.  When he returned to Robinsonville, House was amazed at the musical transformation that Johnson had gone through.  House has been quoted as stating “He sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that.”  Even Johnson seemed to help popularize the Faustian myth by embellishing stories of how his guitar prowess transformed so dramatically.  House’s protégé went on to become notably regarded as the most important figure in blues music.  Rolling Stone guitar player Keith Richard is quoted in the liner note for the 1990 Robert Johnson box set “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it."







 Yes, I went in my room, and I said, and I sat down and I cried,
Yes, I didn't have no blues, but I just wasn't satisfied
- Downhearted Blues

In 1932, Son House married Evie Goff (June 13, 1905 – April 15, 1999), a young lady that was employed as a cook by a Lake Cormorant, Mississippi doctor.  House told Betsy Bues during a July 1964 interview “I stole her right out of the doctor’s kitchen”.  This union would be House’s fifth and final marriage.  The couple lived in Lake Cormorant, a small Highway 61 town located just south of Memphis in Desoto County.  During this time, House worked at various farm-related jobs on the cotton plantations that surrounded the area.  House and Willie Brown also continued to perform in Tunica County, DeSoto County and Memphis for the remainder of the decade.   On many weekends, House would play the “devil’s music” during performances at Lake Cormorant’s Clack’s store on Saturday night and then preach God’s Holy word on Sunday mornings at the adjacent Samuel Baptist Church.

In August 1941, the famed folklorist Alan Lomax joined together with faculty from Nashville’s Fisk University in effort to record some of the remaining Delta Blues musicians, especially Robert Johnson. Lomax, Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress, had experience in recording blues and folk musicians throughout the Southeastern United States.  Lomax set up his recording device at Clack’s Store in Lake Cormorant, a small establishment that served as a railroad depot, commissary and farm supply store.  The old Illinois Central’s Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad line between Memphis and Baton Rouge ran directly behind the store and the noise created by passing trains can be heard in some of the Clack’s Store recordings.  House was accompanied by Willie Brown (guitar), LeRoy Martin (harmonica) and Fiddlin’ Joe Martin (mandolin) during the recording sessions.  The musicians recorded Camp Hollers, Delta Blues, Fo’ Clock Blues, Government Fleet Blues, Levee Camp Blues, Shetland Pony Blues and Walking Blues.  

In July 1942, Lomax returned to the Delta and recorded an unaccompanied House in nearby Robinsonville.  That recording session produced American Defense, Am I Right or Wrong, Country Farm Blues, Depot Blues, The Jinx Blues (parts 1 & 2), Low Down Dirty Dog Blues, My Black Women and Pony Blues. Lomax has been quoted as stating “Of all my times with the blues, this was the best one”






In 1943, House moved to Rochester, New York and gained employment in railcar construction for the New York Central Railroad.  The Second World War had created quite a number of industrial and transportation jobs in the country and it also opened up a whole new world of economic opportunity for African-Americans.  House wrote Willie Brown about his new career and encouraged Brown to move north to join him.  Brown remained in Lake Cormorant and died of heart disease on December 30, 1952 in Tunica at age 52.  Brown is buried at Good Sheppard Church Cemetery in Pritchard, Mississippi.  

The forties were a time of drastic change in America society.  The Great Depression had just ended and the country found itself fighting brutal wars in both Europe and the Pacific.  The technology and cultural changes brought about by the Second World War could fill volumes.  In one decade, America’s air military assets went from 160 mph biplanes to 700 mph jets.  Music listening patterns may not have changed that drastically but by the end of the war, the Delta Blues was looked at as “old people’s music”.  The younger generation was more interested in songs with a faster beat and artists like Son House retired from sight.

Clack’s Store was located on the west side of Old Highway 61 just south of Harrah’s Parkway.  The building was demolished in 1993 as the area underwent a major transformation with the arrival of the Tunica Casinos.  The photo at left shows the land that was once occupied by Clack’s store.  The renovated Samuel Baptist Church is visible in the background.  The Illinois Central route that ran behind the store is also abandoned with little recognizable trace remaining.  The sign from Clack’s Grocery now resides at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.







 When you hear me singin' my ol' lonesome song
These hard times can't last up so very long
Dry Spell Blues


In the mid-sixties as many American’s fell victim to the British Invasion, there was a small group of music fans searching diligently for the past.  Included in this group were Nick Perls, Richard Waterman and Philip Spiro (pictured at left with House), all hailing far from the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta.   Some music historians might refer to their search as a “Beatles Backlash”, since the Fab Four and its seemingly endless clones were clogging the airwaves.  As the sixties progressed, a folk revival took root and along with it came a renewed interest in the blues.  Unfortunately, many bluesmen from twenties and thirties had either died or simply disappeared from the public and settled into mundane normal lives.  In 1961, there was a ground shed event that would help bring about a rebirth of interest in the Delta Blues with the release of the Robert Johnson LP King of the Delta Blues.   Johnson, a disciple of both Charlie Patton and Son House, had recorded the songs during 1937 and they were finally making their way into public some 24 years later.  The early sixties were a time of burgeoning change in both American and British societies and Johnson’s recordings stood ready to influence the coming generation of rock musicians.  

Soon many listeners and critics alike began trying to determine the source to the genius of the fabled Robert Johnson and his brilliant recordings.  Of course, that would lead them back to his two main influences, Charlie Patton and Son House.  Unfortunately by the time that the Delta Blues was finally beginning to reach a larger audience, both Johnson and Patton were dead.  Only Son House would be able to provide the new generation of fans with a glimpse into the past. Alan Wilson, a young blues enthusiast from Cambridge, Massachusetts (who would later himself find fame as both a guitar player and vocalist in the quintessential blues-rock band “Canned Heat”) encountered Memphis bluesman Bukka White, who told him that House had last been seen in Memphis a year or so earlier.  Wilson relayed this information to another Son House devotee also living in Cambridge, Philip Sprio.

During the summer of 1964, Sprio joined with two other young blues enthusiasts in an effort to locate the enigmatic Son House.  New Yorkers Dick Waterman and Nick Perls joined with Spiro and headed to Memphis in a Volkswagen in attempt to locate House.  Wilson was unable to join in the search as prior performance commitments keep him in Cambridge.  Much to their surprise, the trio would eventually find House close to their home, living in a third-floor walk-up apartment at 61 Grieg Street in Rochester, New York’s Corn Hill neighborhood.  The apartment has since been torn-down and the section of Grieg Street where House lived is occupied by an apartment complex at 596 Clarissa Street.







When asked in July 1964 by Betsy Bues of the Rochester Times-Union about a comeback, House stated “That’s what I want to do.  I think it’s great. I am going to try to make it as great as I can.  And I think I can.” During the mid-sixties, competition from America’s Interstate Highways combined with the emerging commercial airline industry forced the railroads into a cost-cutting mode.  In 1964, House was laid-off from the New York Central Railroad and had taken a job at Howard Johnson’s Motel Restaurant as a cook.  The Motel is no longer standing but restaurant (pictured above at left) is somewhat ironically called “The Delta House” and is located at 2550 Buffalo Road in Rochester. 









I went in my room, I said I bowed down to pray
I said the blues came along and drove my spirit away
Death Letter

In 1964, Richard Waterman became Son House’s manager and Alan Wilson (pictured at left) helped House retune his musical talents back to his glory days in the Mississippi Delta.  This compelling story of second chance received feature coverage in Newsweek Magazine.  Soon House was featured at the Newport Folk Festival and had a recording contract with Columbia Records. “Son House had not really played guitar much since the forties” stated Waterman in May 2011, “Alan Wilson would set down with Son and refresh his memory on how he had played each song recorded during the thirties and forties.”  Waterman recalls an exuberant House proclaiming “I’m getting my recollection back!” as he began to once again play the tunes from the past. 


The legendary bluesman would make a triumphant return to the studio during April 12-14, 1965 accompanied by Alan Wilson.  House and Wilson recorded 21 tracks at New York’s Columbia Recording Studio, located at 207 East 30th Street. Waterman states “It was a solo record for the most part.” Alan plays second guitar on Empire State Express and harp on Levee Camp Moan.”. Wilson was 21 years old at the time of the recordings and would later be called “the greatest harmonica player ever” by blues legend John Lee Hooker.  House utilized a National metal-bodied resonator guitar and a copper slide during the sessions.

The album contained nine tracks and would be appropriately called Father of the Folk Blues (Columbia 2417).  It was produced by John Hammond, a Columbia producer who was responsible for the 1961 Robert Johnson LP King of the Delta Blues Singers.  The entire output of the 1965 Columbia recording session would be released in CD format by Sony during 1992. 

Blues historian Richard Waterman recalls a May 1965 encounter between the Rolling Stones and Son House.  “Mr. House and I were visiting Los Angeles in 1965 when we found out that Howlin’ Wolf was in town recording a ABC Television show called “Shindig” stated Waterman, “When we got there, Wolf was excited to see House and was soon hugging his old friend. When Brian Jones approached to inquire who the older gentleman was, I stated it was Son House.”  Jones, an avid blues historian himself retorted back to his band mates “It’s bloody Son House!”

House began touring across both the United States and Europe during the mid-sixties and early seventies.  House’s comeback performances represented a vital link between the early stages of recorded music and the new generation of musicians it had spawned.  In a brief few months, House had gone from relative obscurity to performing in front of packed houses filled with thousands of young appreciative fans.  House outlived contemporaries like Willie Brown and Charlie Patton, second-generation protégés Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as well as third-generation blues guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. 

House performed his last concerts at Rochester’s Genesee Co-Op on Monroe Ave during 1976.  As his health faded, House and his wife moved to Detroit to be close to their relatives.  He spent his final years living sedately in an apartment at 14201 Second Street in the Highland Park neighborhood of Detroit.  The legendary bluesman would go to meet his maker on October 19, 1988 at Harper University Hospital not far from the western banks of the Detroit River.







Balfour, Alan, Booklet Notes to Son House - John The Revelator - The 1970 London Session – (Liberty LBS-83391, April 1992)

Cheseborough, Steve, Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues (University Press of Mississippi, 2009)

Komara, Edward, Blues in the Round – Black Music Research Journal (University of Illinois Press, 1997)

Rothman, Michael, Son House Now: An Afternoon With The Father Of Country Blues) (Living Blues Magazine, July 1974)

Wardlow, Gayle, Chasing that devil music (Backbeat Books,  1998)