Son House had always been torn between God’s music and the devil’s, as blues was often called, even in the black community. The saints and sinners that did battle in House’s soul produced some of the most riveting blues of the period. House played guitar with furious intensity, as if his life depended on it, and he sang with equal conviction. With Son House, the blues possessed an emotional intensity that was not easily replicated.
Levee Camp Moan
“The real old blues don’t call for no jumpin’. If you go to jumpin’, that ain’t the Blues. They can name it the Blues, but it ain’t the Blues. The Blues is just by itself. That’s the Blues… When you done got lonesome an’ worried. Don’t know what to do. Thinkin’ about your loved ones an’ people that you wanna be nice to you an’ you been nice to them, but they ain’t and you’re deceived by them… I trusted them with everythin’ I had. I done everythin’. I turned my heart to them with faith an’ belief an’ then they get up an’ deceive me. Now you don’t know whether to cut their throat or to cry…”
– Son House
Between Midnight and Day
“By the time I was eighteen, somebody played me Son House. That was about it for me. This spoke to me in a thousand different ways. I didn’t know that you could do that — just singing and clapping and it meant everything. It meant everything about rock n’ roll, everything about expression, creativity, and art. One man against the world in one song.”
– Jack White
Grinnin’ In Your Face
“What he was singing made so much sense to me: don’t care what other people are saying about you, what they think. It was what I had been struggling through my whole life. I never liked the same music anyone else did. It all exploded for me after Son House. Robert Johnson became extremely beautiful. And I kept digging, to Charley Patton.”
– Jack White
“You cry an’ you cry alone. Weep alone. Then you wanna shut up in the room someplace. You don’t want no company too much. You not mad with the other people, but you wanna lock your door an’ get in there where you can cry a good fashion. Hear somebody knockin’ on your door. You don’t wanna hear ’em. It’s not you’re mad with ’em — you don’t want no company right now. You wanna sit down an’ concentrate your own mind. You don’t want no botherin’. Wish they would go away.”
– Son House
Death Letter Blues
After his performances drew a crowd, a woman named Sara Knight invited him to perform on her cafe porch and also introduced him to Charley Patton. Patton was already well known in those parts — he had recorded a couple of 78s. House and Patton soon became drinking buddies and, after teaming up with another local bluesman, Willie Brown, a short, wrinkly-faced, brown-skinned man with watery eyes, the trio began to hit the juke joints around the region.
They had wild times, those three. They would sling their guitars over their shoulders and walk four or five miles to their next gig. Saturday night was money night: they’d line up three straight-back chairs right next to each other at a juke joint and they’d play and play and go outside to cool off and let the sweat dry and come back in and play some more…
Death Letter/Grinnin’ in Your Face – The White Stripes
Tolinski: Jack, you said in a previous interview that it’s easier to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan and difficult to play like Son House. Could you clarify what you meant by that?
White: I guess what I meant was, the blues scale is one of the easiest things you can learn on the guitar. It’s the old cliche — ‘It’s easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master’… I’m not impressed with somebody playing a blues scale at blinding speed, but I am impressed with Son House when he plays the ‘wrong’ note… Somehow it’s more meaningful to me when I hear him miss a note and hit the neck of his guitar with his slide… He means every last note and is projecting it. He’s not showing off his technique. He’s trying to create a real emotional moment.
His singing voice was that of a man — not a minstrel currying favor, not a clown courting an audience, not a field hand trying to get in good with his boss. House’s bold, dark voice was that of a man expressing himself to the world — without compromise, and his aggressive guitar attack was a fitting complement.
“Love hide all fault an’ make you do things you don’t wanna do. Love sometimes will leave you feelin’ sad an’ blue. Sometime that kinda blues will make you even kill one another or do anythin’ that kinda low. It goes here, on this side. [The heart]. That’s where the blues starts.”
– Son House
John the Revelator
House brought together the sacred and the profane, he found the musical moment where Saturday night meets Sunday morning. House’s lyrics, which were personal and emotional, made the blues about more than suffering, more than celebration — he imbued the form with an introspective quality, exploring the torments of the soul without choosing sides or making easy judgment… Many churchmen and bluesmen saw the world in black and white; Son House sang in shades of blue — dark, rich, varied hues that could capture the range of human experience.
[Unless otherwise noted, excerpts taken from A Century of the Blues by Robert Santelli and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Christopher John Farley, Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues as well as Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski]