Born Eddie James House Jr. on 21 March 1902 in the Riverton community near Clarksdale, Mississippi, Son House was one of the most influential Delta bluesmen of the twentieth century. His protégés included Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) as well as a number of post-1960s blues revivalists.
House’s father was an amateur musician who played guitar as well as tuba in a local brass band. House’s parents separated when he was eight years old, and House moved with his mother and two brothers to Louisiana. Leaving school after the eighth grade, House worked temporary jobs, and by the age of fifteen he was preaching in Baptist churches. He eventually returned to the Clarksdale area to visit his father, and for several years thereafter House wandered around the Delta working as a sharecropper. Initially disliking his father’s blues music, Son House preferred church music as a teenager, singing in a choir and learning shape-note singing from an uncle. But after he realized that singing and playing the blues at various venues was an easier way to earn money than sharecropping, he began to perform. In 1928 he studied the guitar—particularly slide techniques—from widely respected Delta musician Willie Brown.
House spent about two years in the second half of the 1920s imprisoned at Parchman Farm, apparently after killing a man in self-defense, though the details of the incident remain unclear. By 1930 he had returned to performing music throughout the Delta, and he met bluesman Charley Patton, who told House about the Paramount label’s interest in recording blues musicians. In May of that year House traveled to Paramount’s studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he made his first recordings. While few copies sold on the commercial “race records” market, House’s three double-sided Paramount 78s featured his dynamic vocal interpretations and his innovative slide guitar arrangements of blues learned from other Delta musicians, particularly Lyon bluesman James McCoy.
House’s Paramount recordings attracted the attention of folklorist Alan Lomax, who in 1941 journeyed to the Delta to record House performing blues solo and with Willie Brown and a small band. Returning to Mississippi the following year, Lomax made additional field recordings of House’s blues music. Recorded onto acetate on portable equipment and intended primarily as documentation for the Library of Congress, these recordings were not widely heard for years.
In 1943 House moved to Rochester, New York, where he lived in obscurity and stopped making music for two decades. He was rediscovered in June 1964 by three white blues aficionados, Dick Waterman, Nick Perls, and Phil Spiro, who encouraged House to resume performing. Since House had forgotten much of what he knew about guitar playing, Alan Wilson, a white guitarist and student of House’s records, demonstrated his former performing style. House soon began performing at coffeehouses and festivals, and he made new recordings of his blues repertoire for the Columbia label. In 1965 he appeared at Carnegie Hall, and he toured Europe in both 1967 and 1970. Although poor health slowed him, House continued to tour through the mid-1970s. Thereafter, he lived in Detroit, where, after years of suffering from both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, he died of cancer on 19 October 1988.
- Daniel Beaumont, Living Blues (September–October 2003)
- Daniel Beaumont, Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House (2011)
- Paul Oliver, Popular Music 8 (1989); Jeff Titon, Living Blues (March–April 1977)
- Dick Waterman, Living Blues (January–February 1989)