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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, October 20, 2008


Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the death of Son House, in Detroit, at age 86; and today the 25th anniversary of the death of Merle Travis, at Park Hill, Oklahoma, at age 65. Travis has no entry in the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (but see Song & Dance Man III, page 725 for some Dylanoid connections). Son House's entry runs like this:

House, Son [1902 - 1988]
Eddie James House Jr. was born on March 21, 1902 on a Delta plantation at Riverton, Mississippi, grew up to become a Baptist pastor before the age of 20, initiating the drama of a lifetime’s enacted pull between religious and secular passion. He learnt guitar only after returning to Mississippi from some years spent in Louisiana; in 1928 he was sent to Parchman Farm for mortally shooting a man, reportedly in self-defence, but was released within a year. He met up with the equally powerful CHARLEY PATTON and with Willie Brown, travelled with them to Grafton, Wisconsin, where on May 28, 1930 he recorded his classic début session - a session of ten tracks that proved him an originator of the dark and heavy Mississippi Delta blues style. He continued to play with Patton and without him, but never returned to the studios in the pre-war period. He was field-recorded in Mississippi by ALAN LOMAX in 1941 and 1942.

‘The Jinx Blues Part One’, one of his 1942 tracks, rages like this against the dying of delight: ‘You know these blues ain’t nothin but a low-down shakin’, low-down shakin’, achin’ chill / I said the blues is a low-down old achin’ chill / Well if you ain’t had ’em honey I hope you never will. / Them blues, them blues is a worryin’ heart, worryin’ heart, heart disease / Just like a woman you be lovin’, man, it’s so doggone hard to please.’

It’s typical of Son House (though also of Patton) that he should expand the lyric with these long, erupting, erratic surges of repetition. Another vocal effect he employs time and again, yet always effectively and without ever quite losing its element of surprise, is in not repeating or approximating the whole of the first line of a verse as the second line, but instead beginning that second line with an ‘mmm-mmm-mmm’ and then repeating only the end-portion of the first line, which often has a different resonance when divorced from its other half. Though he’s by no means alone in doing it, this inspired, intelligent word-conjuring is one of the things that makes him great. He has a way, too, of using common-stock formulations yet always making his songs sound like works in progress, and he has a rare expressive intensity.

In 1943 House moved to the slums of Rochester, New York, where he gave up playing, sold his guitar and was eventually amazed to be ‘rediscovered’, let alone find that he was regarded by these strange young middle-class white people as a great artist. He recorded anew in Rochester in 1964, in Chicago later that year, in New York City in 1965 and a number of other times afterwards, the last being in London in July 1970. He played the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL in 1964 and 1965.

He is a giant figure in 20th century American music, the single most potent stylistic influence on ROBERT JOHNSON - who as a boy used to hang around him, listening, before he could play a note himself - a model for MUDDY WATERS and a creative, forceful performer in his own right.
To be specific, Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ recycles ‘My Black Mama’ by Son House, who was himself calling it ‘Walking Blues’ in the 1930s before Robert Johnson used the title for his own song (the title ‘My Black Mama’ was because the ‘black mama’ lyrics House took as his starting-point came from one of his mentors, James McCoy); and House’s 1942 field-recorded ‘Walking Blues’ re-emphasises this lineage. But the story doesn’t end there. Extraordinarily, in 1985 the collector Mike Kirsling found 42 Paramount test-pressings in the roof of a house in Illinois, and more left out in the snow. (As he took them home he prayed ‘Please God, don’t let them be by white singers!’: some were, some weren’t.) Among them - it’s almost too good to be true - was a Son House recording of ‘Walking Blues’ itself from 1930 - indeed recorded the same day as his ‘My Black Mama’ - a record not known to have existed, and confirming the song as an item in House’s repertoire at least six years before Robert Johnson recorded it.

Specifically too, Muddy Waters’ first recorded side, August 1941’s ‘Country Blues’, is also founded upon House’s 1930s ‘Walking Blues’. The similarity between Waters’ bottleneck playing on this and Robert Johnson’s on his ‘Walking Blues’ has been widely noted - but both are extremely similar to that on Son House’s ‘My Black Mama’, and the field-recorded interviews with Muddy Waters make it clear that it was Son House who taught him bottleneck guitar. (All this is detailed in a 1981 article ‘Really The “Walking Blues”: Son House, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and the Development of a Traditional Blues’, by John Cowley.)

Even in old age, debilitated and at times distracted, he was a person of great dignity. Among the Columbia sides made in 1965 is the gorgeous, touching ‘Pearline’, on which House sounds infinitely older than his 63 years but turns his frailty to transcendently poignant advantage, his clawing, arthritic slide guitar glistening like tears across the track.

Interviewed in San Diego in autumn 1993, Bob Dylan said: ‘The people who played that music were still around... [in the early 1960s], and so there was a bunch of us, me included, who got to see all these people close up - people like Son House, REVEREND GARY DAVIS or SLEEPY JOHN ESTES. Just to sit there and be up close and watch them play, you could study what they were doing, plus a bit of their lives rubbed off on you. Those vibes will carry into you forever, really, so it’s like those people, they’re still here to me. They’re not ghosts of the past or anything, they’re continually here.” Indeed.

Son House moved to Detroit in 1976 and though he outlived almost all the rest, including many of his successors, he died there on October 19, 1988, aged 86.

[Son House: ‘My Black Mama Part 1’, ‘My Black Mama Part 2’, Grafton WI, 28 May 1930; ‘Walking Blues’, Grafton, 28 May 1930, unissued until Delta Blues 1929-1930, Document DLP 532, Vienna, 1988; ‘Walking Blues’, Robinsonville MS, 17 Jul 1942, CD-reissued Son House: The Complete Library of Congress Sessions 1941-1942, Travelin’ Man TM CD 02, Crawley, UK, 1990; ‘Pearline’, NY, 12-14 Apr 1965, Son House - Father of Folk Blues, Columbia CL 2417, NY, 1965; reissued on 2-CD set Son House: Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (produced by John Hammond), Roots N’ Blues Masters series, Columbia Legacy 4716622, NY, 1992 (incl. re-recordings of, among others, Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’ & Patton’s ‘Pony Blues’).
Robert Johnson: ‘Walking Blues’, San Antonio TX, 27 Nov 1936, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia CL-1654, NY, 1961.
Muddy Waters (as McKinley Morganfield): ‘Country Blues’, Stovall MS, c.24-31 Aug 1941 (field-recorded for the Library of Congress), vinyl-issued on the compilation Afro-American Blues and Game Songs, AFS L-4, Washington D.C., 1962 & Polydor UK 236.574, London, nia, CD-reissued Rounder CD 1513, Cambridge MA, 1999; also CD-reissued The Complete Plantation Recordings: Muddy Waters: The Historic Library of Congress Recordings 1941-1942, MCA CHD 9344, London, 1993.
For the 1985 Paramounts discovery story see Bob Hilbert: ‘Paramounts In The Belfry’, 78 Quarterly no.4, Key West, FL, 1989. John Cowley: ‘Really The “Walking Blues”: Son House, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and the Development of a Traditional Blues’, Popular Music Vol. 1, ed. Richard Middleton & David Horn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.]


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