Authored by Daniel Beaumont, the excellent Preachin’
The Blues: The Life & Times of Son House is published this month by Oxford University
By Sam Baltes
Of the myriad legendary
musicians to emerge from the Mississippi Delta during the early 20th century, Son House ranks among the most important. Successor to Charlie Patton,
mentor to Robert Johnson, and inspirational figure to Muddy Waters, House
played a pivotal role in forging the blues aesthetic. In this first full-scale
biography devoted to House, Daniel Beaumont does a commendable job of capturing
the essence of the man and his music.
It seems to be axiomatic that
dismal locales produce compelling artists, and the Mississippi Delta bears
testament to this. During the early 1900s the region was epitomized by lynch
mobs, torrential flooding, and widespread poverty. In spite (or because) of
these soul-crushing factors, the region also harbored some of the most significant
musicians of the 20th century, among these, Son House. House, born
into a sharecropping system that was “at best, a break-even proposition,” early
on looked for a way to circumvent the vacuous hardships that the occupation
entailed. As a youth he disdained the blues and maintained an abstemious lifestyle
— he channeled his stentorian vocals toward preaching, which provided a
respite from hard labor. This was ephemeral though, and after developing a
taste for whiskey, women, and bottleneck guitar, he underwent an apostasy and
became determined to “play one of them things.” This decision irrevocably altered
House’s life, and the cognitive dissonance that resulted from it leant his songs
a unique fervor.
The most engrossing section
of the book deals with House’s early career. Shortly after his commencement as
a bluesman, House was incarcerated for killing a man (allegedly in self
defense). He was sentenced to the infamous Parchman Farm, where under the aegis
of sadistic guards he served two years of intensive labor. Following his
release, House was “ramblified,” and upon drifting into the town of Lulu, he caught the eye
of Charlie Patton and the two became compatriots. While the relationship
between House and Patton has been touched upon in other books, the breadth of Beaumont’s depiction is unrivaled.
House’s feelings toward Patton are made
clear — he harbored an undying respect for him, but was irked by the man’s
flippancy. New information is also dispensed concerning House’s relationships
with other bluesmen such as Willie Brown and Howlin’ Wolf. Beaumont is passionate about showing the
importance of House’s music and provides a detailed breakdown that illustrates its
impact on subsequent musicians like Robert Johnson.
Unfortunately, the period
between House’s retirement and “rediscovery” was uneventful, and the book drags
when chronicling these years. House moved to New York, quit performing, and besides boozing
and terminating another man (allegedly in self defense), didn’t get up to much.
This part of House’s life was haphazardly documented, and often his word (which
is frequently contradictory) is all you have to go by. The monotony of this chapter
is less the fault of Beaumont
than the subject, but it’s a bummer regardless.
The book picks back up after
House’s return to music. In an unusual turn of events, the folk revivalism of
the early ‘60s led suburbanite college students to seek out bluesmen who had
drifted into obscurity. As a result, House received the recognition he never
obtained during his youth and it’s interesting seeing how he responded to the
adulation laid upon him by affluent white kids. Despite being a hopeless alcoholic
during his last years, House filled concert halls, moved vinyl, and outlived
virtually all of his delta contemporaries before finally succumbing to lung
cancer at the age of 86.
An “ex-preacher, an
alcoholic, a convicted killer, and a bluesman,” Son House was a troubled man with
an indomitable constitution. While Beaumont’s
prose isn’t the flashiest, he does House justice with an illuminating,
well-researched biography. Preachin’ The Blues is a must for House
fans, and an enthralling read for anyone interested in the blues.