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.

The Jinx Blues

Note: The following article was written by Bob Eagle, and originally posted to the “Blues-L” forum in January 2001. Other than a couple of very minor edits, here’s the article as it was originally published.

Here’s some exploratory ramblings on the word “Jinx” and its (possible) connections with the blues/Son House/et al.

JINX is the usual spelling in blues titles for a term which was earlier spelled “Jynx” in English. The term “jinx” has several specialized uses in blues parlance.

The term “jynx” entered the English language via Latin, but in a form effectively unaltered from the Hellenic Greek. The Hellenic “x” ending denotes the singular form, with the plural form (in English) spelled “jynges.” The “x” ending, being pronounced the same as “ks,” has led to the singular term sometimes being spelled “jinks,” probably erroneously.

The Greek word referred to the genus “Jynx,” a genus of birds allied to the woodpecker and known colloquially by the name “wryneck,” because of their ability to turn their head over their shoulder. This meaning had entered English usage by 1649.

However, such birds were used in witchcraft, and hence the term was also used in English, by 1693 (in the plural), to refer to charms, or spells. The term “wryneck” could also refer to a charm worn around the neck.

The term “jynx” was also used before the Christian era in Chaldea (the southern area of modern Iraq) as the name of an order of spiritual intelligences which formed part of the ancient Chaldean philosophy. That usage of the term had entered the English language by 1655.

However, as the glory of Chaldea preceded that of ancient Greece, the Chaldaic usage probably predated the Greek. Presumably the Chaldaic usage passed into Greek lore after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area. Assuming that the Greek usage is connected with the Chaldaic usage, the wryneck may possibly have been regarded as a personification of the Chaldaic spiritual intelligences, and therefore took their name. In turn, that could explain the bird’s use in witchcraft, and why the term came to refer to a charm or spell.

Blues parlance does contain some examples of usage common to the usage of the term in white society, where a “jinx” is a person (or, less frequently, an inanimate object) whose presence brings bad luck, whether by some intrinsic lack of luck or by action.

Examples are: Ora Brown’s JINX BLUES (Paramount #12481, recorded c. May 1927); and Augustus (Track Horse) Haggerty’s I FEEL THAT OLD BLACK WOMAN IS A JINX ON ME (Library of Congress, recorded November 20th, 1934).

The term is also used in blues in the white sense, “to hex.” It is interesting that the meanings of “hex” include (as a verb) “to practice witchcraft (upon);” and “to bewitch;” and (as a noun) to mean a “witch;” and a “magic spell.”

It is also used in blues in the sense of a “hex,” used as a noun: for example, Gabriel Brown’s THE JINX IS ON ME (Gennett #5023, recorded May 2nd, 1945)

But also, as used in blues lyrics, “jinx” has some specialist meanings.

One principal meaning of “jinx” in blues usage is to denote a spirit of superhuman powers and (usually) mischievous bent, almost akin to a lesser devil. Compare its usage, with the meaning being obscured by bizarre syntax, by Charley Patton in his SCREAMIN’ AND HOLLERIN’ THE BLUES (Paramount #12805, recorded June 14th, 1929), most copies of which are credited as being performed by his persona, THE MASKED MARVEL:

“(If) I woke up in the mornin’, jinx all ’round your bed; (twice)
Turned my face to the wall and I didn’t have a word to say.”

In REVENUE MAN BLUES (Vocalion #02931, recorded January 31st, 1934) he sings:

“I wake up every mornin’ with a jinx all around my bed; (twice)
(spoken: “You know I’ll have them jinx hereafter”)
“I have been a good provider but I believe I have been misled.”

Other examples of the use of “jinx” in blues occur in:

Tampa Red’s JINX DOCTOR BLUES (Vocalion #1596, recorded January 28th, 1931);

Buddy Moss’ JINX MAN BLUES (Banner #33432, recorded August 9th, 1934);

Kokomo Arnold’s OLD BLACK CAT BLUES (JINX BLUES) (DECCA #7050, recorded January 15th, 1935);

Casey Bill (Weldon)’s JINX BLUES (Vocalion #03496, recorded September 3rd, 1936);

Red Nelson’s WHO PUT THESE JINX ON ME? (DECCA #7256, recorded September 9th, 1936);

Black Boy Shine’s GAMBLIN’ JINX BLUES (Vocalion #03687, recorded June 15th, 1937);

Son House’s JINX BLUES, Numbers 1 & 2 (Library of Congress, recorded July 17th, 1942);

Johnny Temple’s JINKS LEE BLUES (BLUEBIRD #B-8913, recorded September 11th, 1941);

Big Joe Williams’ JINX BLUES (Storyville LP #SLP 163, recorded October 16th, 1963) and JINX BLUES (Milestone LP #3001, recorded during 1964).

Son House’s JINX BLUES, NUMBER 1 and JINX BLUES, NUMBER 2 (Library of Congress, recorded 1942) share virtually only the title verse in common with each other, that verse being augmented by a number of floating verses which generally describe the lonesome feelings of the rejected lover. House’s songs employ the melody and, in the case of JINX BLUES, NUMBER 2, a verse from Willie Brown’s FUTURE BLUES.

Ignoring small variations, Son House’s title verse runs:

“I woke up this morning with the jinx all around, jinx all around, around my bed; (twice)
You know, I thought about you now baby, and it like to kill me dead.”

Taking into account the sense of the augmenting verses, House is using the word “jinx” primarily to mean evil spirits, unless “jinx” is intended to convey an enveloping blanket of gloomy thoughts. The word “it” seems to refer to his reaction to his thoughts, rather than to “the jinx.” Several of House’s augmenting verses describe “the blues” in terms of it being a feeling rather than as a personification of evil.

Taking up again the Chaldaic notion of a “spiritual intelligence,” one possible explanation for the above blues usage for “jinx” is found in the notion of the two inner “voices” sometimes used in popular stories to highlight an inner personal conflict: one voice, the conscience, is intent upon influencing the person to be “good,” while the other wants to lead the person into error or mischief.

The notion is similar to the Latin term, “genius,” which originally referred to either of the two opposed, but personal, spirits or angels which were presumed to “attend” each individual.

However, the personalization may derive from an African concept similar to the “genie” of Arabic lore, or the “genius” of classical text. In the case of “genius,” each person was regarded as being possessed of a good and an evil genius that struggled for control of the soul and the mind. The terms “jinx” or “the blues” may represent the evil genius within the individual.

In Arabic, there is a term “jinnee” (sometimes “djinn” or “jinn”) which described a spirit at a level lower than that of the angels. Solid evidence is lacking, but the Arabic word may be related to the Latin word “genius.” The modern notion of a “genie” appears to have come into English as a result of the French adaptation of the Arabic.

Therefore it is suggested that the above blues usage of “jinx” refers to the more sinister of the pair of spirits seen as attending the blues performer. It is suggested that a person regarding himself as the victim of bad luck or misfortune would usually feel that the more sinister spirit was continually attending him.

Despite the fact that Charley Patton, in his REVENUE MAN BLUES, sings “a jinx,” the context of both Patton’s quoted songs, and the title of Red Nelson’s song, and the title verse of House’s songs, is that there is more than one jinx, as is illustrated by Patton’s reference to “them jinx” and by Nelson’s reference to “these jinx.” Possibly the word should, after all, be transcribed as “jinks,” rather than “jinx.” As an extension of that notion, it is possible that, in black usage, the term “jinx” is related to the verb used in Scots dialects, “to jink,” which means to trick, or to dodge or move elusively. In the context of modern contact sports, its usage is to mean to trick the opposition by nimble movement. This usage may be related to the idea of “high jinks,” referring to boisterousness or merry-making.

It is also faintly possible that the use of “jink” as meaning “to play a trick upon” some body, was applied to the situation where fate plays a trick upon someone, leaving that person feeling dejected or “blue.”

The term “jinx” is sometimes used interchangeably for the term THE BLUES. An example of the use of the latter term to refer to spirits occurs in Coot Grant’s HEY DADDY BLUES (King Jazz unreleased/ Storyville (Dutch) LP #SLP 153, recorded September 18th, 1947).