Deep Blues – Son House, Hollers & Slide Guitar

I love blues music. I believe that anyone with an interest in either music or history should learn to appreciate what is, perhaps only debatable to jazz, the largest influence on all of today’s popular music.

Listening to, discovering, reading about and even trying to play the blues is absolutely my most enduring hobby and passion. Beginning innocently enough, passion may have overflowed into delusion, to the point in 2011 I found myself playing old country blues, deep blues, around town (unsuccessfully) and ended up recording an album. This album was written, performed and produced in tribute to the old blues recording artists of the 1920’s and 1930’s who were asked to come “sing into a can” for their shot at a small level of regional fame and a few dollars. I limited myself to two takes for each song, and took with me the more resonant of the two. I don’t know what compelled me to make such decisions, but they were made. Now I’m looking back at the journey I took in discovering this music, the deep blues, and how it affected my own. I’ve grown wiser in the years since, foremost by recognizing that I don’t know very much, so I turned to people who do know things for some help contextualizing my journey. Information in this blog post is a mix of my personal experience, personal recordings, some light web research, the book Chasin’ that Devil Music by Gayle Dean Wardlow and a heavy reliance on Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues, a book which can’t recommend highly enough.

I discovered the blues for myself about a decade ago. Like most modern people, there isn’t really any logical reason why my modest struggles should be awoken by the heartbroken singing of an oppressed, stigmatized and persecuted class of performer, artists who had long since passed, but it did. The music was so different, so raw and otherworldly, but at the same time familiar. As you can tell, I struggle to put it to words with any degree of eloquence, so I’ll just stop trying at the end of this sentence.

Blues isn’t made by broken people, it’s made by those who are resilient, and you can feel the durability of their souls through the music if they’re willing to let themselves go far enough.

During college, I was mainly focused on delaying my departure into the realities of the real world and listening to the music my friends had opened my eyes to during my freshman year of college after a musical childhood that could only be compared to a piece of white bread with a single line of yellow mustard. I lived at home, worked, went to school and that was about it. One of the joys I had during this time was taking a paycheck to the bank, pulling out $20 and running to the nearby used record/cd store. This is where I discovered the blues for myself. And not the watered down, aesthetic blues from guys in the Chicago suburbs wearing fedoras, cosplaying a certain duo of comedians while calling themselves “Big Daddy Cargopants and the Blues Crew”, but real blues. I’m talking raw emotion distilled into audio. Deep Blues.

Luckily for me, scratchy, wailing old delta blues recordings weren’t really in high demand, but for some reason in my area there was an abundant supply. The store I frequented had a huge selection of unwanted overstock or used $1 and $2 cds that I would rummage through every couple of weeks. Eventually I came to amass a collection of plastic discs which have followed me into adulthood. To this day they bring me great pleasure to revisit and also serve the function of testing the limits of weight tolerance on the floorboards of my home office.

Son House – Hollers & Slide Guitar

My first Blues CD. I listened to some older recordings on youtube at first and couldn’t get over the scratchy, raw noises. These 1965 sessions, captured with mid-century recording equipment, seemed like a perfect compromise at the time. Even after I came to appreciate the old recordings, I still love these sessions. This is after Son House’s rediscovery and his guitar skill is a bit shaky, but he somehow seems completely comfortable and absolutely tears into the emotion of each song.

I found Son House for myself late in the game because I was also late to the game in listening to the White Stripes. I was really drawn to their cover of Death Letter. For a while I had no idea that it was a cover, but one day I was reading the liner notes and noticed the name credited to the song and started looking up who this “Son House” was. I recognized the name from many bands’ MySpace pages (I know, really dating myself here) as one of their key influences. My curiosity finally boiled over and I dove in, knowing nothing more than he was an older guy with a cool name.

The first blues CD I bought was Son House. This would be the only blues cd I specifically researched before purchasing, later it became more fun to buy on a whim and listen for the first time on my way home from the store, but I wasn’t as brave the first time venturing into the sounds of the Delta. My research didn’t help me.

My first experience wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t get into it. This guy can’t keep time, he can’t stay in tune- this is the master that all of my favorite modern artists bow to? Sometimes he forgot his words- it’s only a 12 bar blues! You just said that line, all you had to do was repeat it! Sometimes it felt like he remembered he had dropped a beat seconds before and shoved it back in like nobody would notice. Most of the time he just trudged on forward, like he hadn’t missed anything at all. What was I missing? Had my musical ear been destroyed by listening to music too loud or something? I was a few tracks into the cd but just didn’t get it. I listened to Death Letter, the song which brought me to Son House in the first place, and thought it was fine, a bit rough. I decided that I liked the White Stripes version better at the time. That was about it. Had I just wasted my bi-weekly music money on this?

On either a second or third listen, determined to understand the appeal of this music, I ended up repeating one song over and over, and that would eventually change how I listed to music for the rest of my life. The track “Grinnin’ in Your Face” hit me like no other music ever had before. The youtube clip above is a copy of the same version. The reverb on his voice- it sounded like he was singing alone sitting in the middle of a cathedral. He clapped along with his voice, and sometimes didn’t. He didn’t bother to establish or keep anything resembling a beat like I had become accustomed to by listening to modern music. This was recorded in a modern studio, how did they not take another shot at it? His timing broke only a little more often than his voice did. What was this? Why couldn’t I stop listening to it?

Below: My attempt at recreating a blues holler. I believe that these unaccompanied hollers are some of the most raw and heartfelt examples of deep blues music, so covering someone else’s song felt disingenuous since I don’t have the same life experience. I tried to put my own rawness into words about my own vices and worries.

Author Ted Gioia would likely argue that I couldn’t stop listening to it because it was the root of all the popular music I had ever consumed in my life. “Music the world over was transformed by the songs made here,” says Gioia, referring to the Delta region of Mississippi. An oppressed people’s culture from the most often forgotten part of one of the poorest states in America’s “most enduring legacy” might very well be blues music, and its seen and unseen impact on all music that has come after. The African-American experience is the undoubted champion of every Top 40 song on the radio today. A people whose own country has treated as less than human for centuries rose underneath the boot of oppression and fundamentally changed all music twice (jazz and blues, almost simultaneously), and their descendants would do it again a little more than 50 years later (hip-hop). (Gioia) Without the blues and jazz, we may still be listening to marches, waltzes and ragtime, content with our ignorance of what it means to truly break down the rules of music.

This holler that I found myself listening to was deeply rooted in Africa and translated over to the American experience through the brutality of slavery, Jim Crowe and beyond. It shouldn’t be surprising that Africa birthed human beings millennia ago, and from there also came the most raw expression of humanity I’ve ever experienced. However, what is surprising, is the journey that this musical tradition had to survive and overcome to become what we know as blues music. The souls of millions, bending, while never breaking, and throughout it all creating the most enduring legacy of culture that America has ever produced.

It almost felt like I wasn’t allowed to listen to a song as hard and raw as “Grinnin’ in Your Face”. How did this song even speak to me? Hollers like this can be traced back to old call-and-response working songs, field chants of equal part practicality and artistry. This ancient practice stems from the root of humanity and can be seen in other parts of the world, but only in America did it combine into blues. If America was anything in the late 19th century, it was a crossroads of global culture unlike anything the world had ever seen. Simultaneous but not necessarily shared suffering of different impoverished ethnicities were organically combined to create both jazz and blues. There’s a story about an African-American composer named WC Handy recalling a time that he first heard blues music, and from then on, there was blues! But that story seems much too clean cut to me, similar to the Abner Doubleday myth regarding the founding of baseball. It might be true that the story happened, but the blues wasn’t discovered at any one time, it developed organically over generations combining disparate elements that eventually felt like they belonged together.

“Son House was a man of sharp contradictions,” says Ted Gioia, and it defined everything in his life including his music. His mix of personality traits and life experiences come together to resemble a manufactured backstory usually reserved for backstories of troubled but redeemable characters in a melodramatic YA novel. He was born in either 1902 or 1886, we aren’t sure, and at one point studied to be a baptist preacher. Most of his young life, he believed that even touching a guitar would be a sin. His speaking voice was so soft you had to lean in to hear him, and his singing voice was so loud you had to back up to protect your hearing. This devoutly religious man ended up serving a stint in jail for mysterious reasons. Some stories claim he shot a man in self defense after wrestling the man’s gun away. A 1930’s recording suggests that Son House knew very well why he was in prison, “They put me in jail, wouldn’t let me be. They said I killed Vera Lee.”

Revered for his skills on the guitar, House didn’t even though he didn’t pick one up until after he turned forty years old. His contemporaries as well as the revivalists who discovered him decades later were captured by his playing and state it as masterful, but it really doesn’t seem that way to the uninitiated. House plays seemingly rudimentary music, and it doesn’t even seem he’s particularly skilled at what he plays. But deep blues fanatics can hear the mastery, and they find it in the bending of his notes. That’s what blues does, it bends notes, bends time, bends your emotions, all to the point of breaking, and then releases you back a place where you’re more comfortable. Blues isn’t made by broken people, it’s made by those who are resilient, and you can feel the durability of their souls through the music if they’re willing to let themselves go far enough.

Above: Son House performing Death Letter like a true master. Below: My cover of Son House’s Death Letter. I may not be considered bonafide enough to pull off playing such an iconic song, but I love trying. Yes it’s a little rushed and my voice isn’t powerful enough, but every time I play this song I’d say that the experience for me equates to roughly a month of meditation.

Son House’s resistance to involving himself with the “Devil’s Music” finally gave way when he heard a bottleneck guitar for the first time in the 1920’s. He came across a couple of players, one of which had fixed a medicine bottle to their finger and “and he was zinging it, you know. I said “Jesus, I like that!”…”I Believe I want to play one of them things.” African-American composer WC Handy, the supposed first link of the blues to popular music noted in his autobiography that he sat next to a poor guitarist on a train, “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. … The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly...accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard”. The sound of a bottleneck guitar might resemble a pacific island steel guitar sound, but the style in which is it played is as far apart as the Mississippi Delta is from Hawaii.

The most famous track by Son House is Death Letter, and it’s easy to see why. Not only has it been popularized by many modern artists, but even House’s rendition has a fairly consistent – easy on modern ears – beat and rhythm. This is the song I feel that he sings with the most passion while accompanying himself on the guitar and that passion definitely goes a long way towards this song’s enduring legacy. My favorite part of this song, though, is how many different version there are. This song has been recorded by House maybe a dozen times, and each time the lyrics are different, the tempo is altered – it seems to all depend on his mood. And each time, you learn a little bit more about the story.

The story of Death Letter can quickly be summarized as this : A man receives a letter telling him that a woman, the woman he loves, has died. He goes to either visit or identify her body, attends the funeral, and then returns home depressed. And in the most popular recording of the song, that’s what people think it’s about. But some of the more difficult to find renditions have a few lines added in that aren’t always there:

Lord have mercy, on my wicked soul 
I wouldn’t mistreat you baby, not for my weight in gold

Well I love you baby like I love myself 
If you can’t have me, you can’t have nobody else 

Well it’s so hard to love someone who don’t love you 
Aint no satisfaction, no matter what you do

Love’s a wicked fall makes you do things you don’t want to do 
Aint no satisfaction, leaves you feeling sad and blue

Son House- Death Letter (select lyrics from multiple recordings)

I think that these alternate version add a bit of mystery to this song. I think that these additions suggest that the character in this song is not only lamenting the death of the woman he loved, but is regretting his responsibility in her death, he’s dealing with guilt or attempting to rationalize his actions. This is purely speculative, of course, but could this be a reference to Vera Lee? It’s interesting that many of these lines show up on the 2nd take of the 1965 “Father of the Delta Blues” recording session. House is playing the song the second time through, he is much more relaxed, much more comfortable with the environment he’s in during the second take. The song goes longer, he seems a bit more soulful, and perhaps a little more of the story came out than he usually lets on. It is safe to say that the White Stripes version of Death Letter is no longer my favorite version, but is now the uncut, 2nd take of the 1965 Columbia Recording Session. Oh god I’ve become an insufferable snob.

Below: The final song on my album dedicated purely to Son House’s style. This is in his slower, reflective songs like “Levee Camp Blues” and “Downhearted Blues”.

Of course I don’t know if what I’m piecing together from Son House’s rare recordings is true. If it were, I’m sure some of the dedicated blues historians who have scoured the country for years gathering evidence and testimonials of people who were there would have picked up on this. But bending is what the blues is all about, and maybe that’s what I’m doing here. From Robert Johnson (or Tommy Johnson) selling their soul at the crossroads, to singers writing about their prominence with women or how they shot a man and got away with it, sometimes blues bends the truth and creates legend, which is undoubtedly a piece of what makes the music timeless.

Coming in part 2 – We go deeper in to Deep Blues! Son House was a master of his voice and emotion and his particular style of guitar playing, but deep blues also holds some of the most conventionally talented guitar players that ever lived. We’ll look at some different blues singers and go over how I dishonor their legacies by trying to play songs in their style.