Son House: Delta Blues: The Original Library of Congress Sessions from Field Recordings, 1941-42
The ‘Sixties folk boom brought a lot of surprises – while new performers grew famous, old figures (bluesmen, etc.) were "rediscovered" and returned to the stage. The biggest surprise was Son House, in 1964 – it was actually the third time he’d been rediscovered! First recorded in 1930, House found music a hard life and became a laborer; Alan Lomax found him in Mississippi and recorded five titles. Lomax returned the following year ; this time Son is alone and has some new songs, including a blues for World War II. The sound startles: you can almost see the past, and the sharp ring of the National Steel. The songs seem unearthed, new and heartfelt as the blues itself. It’s a potent brew, with the passage of time making it only stronger.
The ’41 session took place in a general store near Memphis; with Son is his old partner Willie Brown, plus some local musicians. A major presence is Fiddlin’ Joe Martin; his mandolin trills steady as the grainy voice tells his woe. Some girl cries at the "Levee Camp"; Martin does the weeping. "Government Fleet" is a simpler plaint: harp gets it going but up close is Son’s guitar, thumping out a bass line. Someone shouts encouragement (Brown?); the words are muffled, though the message is clear. "Walking" has the tune of "Levee Camp", and the classic theme of the restless soul. Almost on cue a train rattles through; the tracks ran next to the store. With "Delta Blues" we get a duet: Williams shouts and Son gets busy. (An apparent miscue is fixed with a new rhythm part, seemingly spur of the moment.) He floats big loping notes on the solo; Williams lurches in fevered response. A great effort; the session may be over but, as it turned out, Son House had only begun to play.
The solo tracks are more varied, showing Son’s guitar to good advantage. The low string plays bass, the high one melody – and spooky slides when needed. Also new is the voice: deep on "Special Rider", embellished with trembles. The sound of Muddy Waters, who called House a big influence. (Hear that rooster crow at the end – he approves!)
That wobbly bass string is perfect for "Dirty Dog"; sneaky, tough, and hard to forget. This he answers with high wiggles: unexpected, and ghostly. "American Defense" gets a nice sing-song feel – and waltz time! It might be his best lyric: "American defense/ Will earn you some cents/ Just have to take care of your boys." A different taste, and hardly blues, but welcome in its own way.
"Am I Right or Wrong" has a nice ragtime feel, and a mistreatin’ woman troubling poor Son. It’s over too fast, ending on a chord that might be a flub. "Walkin’ Blues" is not the ’41 song; this one has cute little chords, splashing like feet through a puddle. He grabs his suitcase and runs down the road; a sad tale, but how cheery the theme sounds! "Pony" starts on a thick hum, answered by snaking strings. (The words are close to "Shetland Pony", heard earlier.) The tone is quiet, sounding more weary as we go on.
And we close with a stunner: two takes of "The Jinx Blues", where a blunt snap takes the part of drummer. Notes descend all around the rhythm; Son repeats a short rhyme with weight in his voice. We never find out what the jinx is; elusive for sure, and most compelling. Then the story takes another turn: House did some walkin’ himself, moving to Rochester, New York in 1943. He took a railroad job, and escaped public attention for twenty years, until his last rediscovery. If you weren’t around then, discover him with this disc. You’ll be glad you did.