Happy Birthday to Son House!

In honor of the birthday of Son House today, we asked Paul Vernon, founder of the “The Real Blues Forum,” if we could re-post this excerpt from his autobiography, Last Swill and Testament (which we highly recommend by the way!). It is an experience, we imagine, that many blues lovers wished they could have had. We hope you enjoy it….

The 100 Club night I recall most vividly was the one on the final day of June 1970 when Son House played to a room more packed and sweaty than I had ever sweltered in before. My previous experience of seeing him live, at Hammersmith in 1967, had been frustrated by my distance from him and his lack of onstage time. On this evening I bought three pints immediately and commandeered a table at the very front of the stage. I had a sturdy bladder in those days. No tarty pre-gig flitting from conversation to conversation for this lad tonight, Son was serious stuff, and I was staking out my territory. I was joined by a couple of regulars, Tony Trent (‘ere, mate, have you ever paused to consider the life of a trainee proctologist?…) and Ray Bolden (“good evening, wankers”), but that night, as far as I was concerned, it was just Son and me.

He was 62 by the time he was rediscovered, and this was almost six years beyond that. We might reasonably have expected him to coast a little. Frankly, he could have just broken wind and left again and I’d still have applauded him simply for being Son House, with all that that meant. Here was the man who played and knocked around with Charley Patton and Willie Brown; here was the man Muddy Waters stood in awe of and was prepared to say so; here was the man who had set foot in the Paramount studios way before most of his audience was born and created a small body of music so powerful that it continues to reverberate throughout the Blues today. Here, in a nutshell, was a pure source of the Blues, a surviving essence. I was sitting six worshipful feet from him.

He clambered slowly onto the stage, taking his time getting seated, and then somebody handed him his guitar, the beat up old National that you see in all the photos and film. With a benign, quizzical smile he looked around him at a sea of expectant, largely white, faces, an audience he had grown used to in his new career. He began to talk and as he did so the buzz from the crowd fell away, shepherded by a shushing that began at the front.

He talked quietly, gently, like a benign grandfather addressing his many offspring on matters of importance. His manner was sweet and retiring, almost shy. He rambled some, but it didn’t matter -this was Son House. Then, having finished what he had to say about the Blues not being about jumping a rabbit and running him a solid mile, but about a man and a woman in love, he struck a chord on his guitar as if to wake it and took off into “Death Letter Blues”, his audience now only a fog as his deep sense of the Blues suddenly and completely overtook him.

He became a different person when he sang and he did it immediately. There was no gentle transition from the quiet speaker to the man possessed by his subject, it was as sudden as a door slammed shut. His whole body moved with the music, he and his guitar inseparable. His eyes were closed and he just wasn’t with us any more, nor was he singing for us. He was somewhere else in his life, singing to himself and for himself, in the deepest recesses of his being. We were simply observers of the complete baring of a soul.

This was not entertainment in the way that J B Hutto or Lightnin’ Slim were. Watching Son House sing the Blues you had to witness it for what it was, a private catharsis made public. When he finished singing he seemed to come out of a trance, a look of surprise on his face. “Oh, yes, I’m back here, of course”. For several minutes he had spiritually left the building, leaving his body to transmit to us, via remote broadcast, what he was experiencing. When he returned, he was exhausted, as if he had just completed a long and arduous journey, which indeed he had.

Then he would do it all again for “Empire State Express” or “Preaching the Blues”. He was the most extraordinarily deep Blues man I ever experienced. Electrifying, in a real sense – being in Son’s presence while he sang made me tingle, it sent involuntary shivers through my body and tears welled in my eyes, as they still do when I visit his recorded and filmed legacy. I saw him several times during that tour, talked to him at length one afternoon at a press reception I simply dared to walk into, and shook his hand on more than one occasion: I needed to do all that, to listen to and talk to and clasp the hand of the man who was, in every sense, the greatest surviving original Blues singer. In doing so, I connected with the deepest of Delta Blues on every level I could. What a privilege.

Pictured: Son House, November 1964. Photo by John Rudoff, M.D.

For more on Son House, including an overview of his career and other recollections by people who knew him and saw him perform, be sure to check out Blues Unlimited #177 – Deep Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Son House.

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