Son House, the legendary Delta blues singer and guitarist, was an original voice coming out of Depression era Mississippi. He embodied the isolation, poverty and alienation of the Delta, which translated into his visceral and gripping expressions, forming the bedrock of the blues idiom. His influence looms large in the annals of American popular music.
House was born on the Mississippi River Delta, on a plantation between the towns of Lyon and Clarksdale. The Delta, formed by the Big Muddy's deposits of silt, is a flat belt of fertile land that has been used for farming since the eighteenth century. Before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, in 1865, Delta plantation owners had been major purchasers of human labor. After they received their freedom, the displaced former slaves maintained their musical and storytelling traditions, spirituality, endurance, and humorall of which found a voice through the blues.
Still, the music that emerged from these common beginnings was not embraced by all blacks; the Delta blues belonged to the poorest and most illiterate. It grew to sophistication on street corners and in the rowdy and often dangerous drinking places called juke joints. The performers were usually drifters who could find work anywhere during harvest time. But the most popular became local starsand often infamous. In Deep Blues, blues scholar Robert Palmer explained: "Blues was so disreputable that even its staunchest devotees frequently found it prudent to disown it. The church and the blues were not supposed to mix. This was an ethical dilemma that haunted Son House all of his life.
By the age of 15 House was giving sermons. By 20, he was the pastor of a Baptist church near Lyon. And though he was passionate about religion, House never committed to a career in the church. He rambled from job to job, picking cotton, gathering tree moss, always looking for the least strain. Though his father, Eddie House, Sr., and his uncles had their own horn band, Son House never viewed music as a professional option.
By 1926, after a romance had taken him to Louisiana, House had returned to Lyon and was considering going back to the church. Around that time, while doing some rambling and drinking, House had seen a local bluesman named Willie Wilson play bottleneck guitar. He was dazzled. "This boy," House remembered in Guitar Player, "had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, you know." He recalled, "'Sounds good!' I said. 'Jesus, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things.'" With a dollar and a half House went out and bought himself a battered guitar. Wilson taught him how to tune by ear, another player, James McCoy, gave him lessons, and the rest he picked up on his own.