Synchronicity corner: I returned home one day from an afternoon of office discussion concerning how primitive 1930s recording techniques have distorted our perceptions of what contemporary blues music really sounded like (well, you have to fill those dead hours between nine and five somehow, don't you?) to find this in my porch, as part of one of Diverse's "try it, you might like it" offers.
Eddie J "Son" House Jr recorded nine tunes for Paramount in 1930. All but four of them vanished into the mists of time, and House returned to his job as, variously, a tractor driver, railroad porter and cook, before laying aside his guitar in 1948, citing the post-World War II generation's indifference to the blues as his reason. Sixteen years later Columbia's talent scouts found him, scotching the rumour that he had died, and persuaded him that people were once again listening to his kind of music. Festival appearances on the same bills as Peter, Paul and Mary and Judy Collins followed, and then in 1965 this album, produced by John Hammond, the man who signed Bob Dylan and got to Robert Johnson mere weeks to late.
Blues lore suggests that in the 35 years between his two recording dates, House lost a modicum of his technique, and these renditions have been mildly sweetened for modern ears by the addition of future Canned Heat member Al Wilson's guitar and harmonica on a couple of tracks. In all other respects, "Father Of Folk Blues" is the genuine, depression-era article, freed from the restrictions of the 78 rpm disc (six of the nine selections endure for over four minutes, "Levee Camp Moan" clocks in at nine). Heck, it's even in mono!
So what does the legendary Son House sound like? I'm not a blues evangelist - I have "King Of The Delta Blues Singers", but it doesn't do a great deal for me. This, however, I like: "Death Letter" smacks in like a howling delta thunderstorm, rolling along on just six strings, a bottleneck and House's ravaged throat. The effect is somewhere between those scratchy, distant Robert Johnson sides and "Safe As Milk": if blues is a feeling, as somebody once said, this is the whole 3D surround sound widescreen experience. (Except, uh, in mono.) Son House's music crackles and dives, rages and moans, bumping along on the kaleidoscope of sounds he draws from his guitar and the encyclopaedias of experience in his voice. It is what it is, and what it always was. As it says on the cover, "This Columbia high-fidelity monaural recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old. If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true-to-life fidelity. In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of it becoming obsolete in the future". Amen to that.
SON HOUSE Delta Blues (Complete Blues)
Though it would be incorrect to call Son Houses 1965 debut album Father Of Folk Blues sanitised, the material gathered on this compilation represents an even more definitively definitive article. Recorded or, perhaps more correctly, transcribed in three bursts of activity between 1930 and 1942, these tracks are about as primitively authentic as music gets. At best they exude a kind of sepia glow, gently rounded and distorted, while some of these sides the two parters Preachin The Blues and Dry Spell Blues in particular appear to have been broadcasted from within a shellac sandstorm. On Walkin Blues and Shetland Pony Blues the guerrilla nature of these performances is laid bare as passing trains threaten to drown out the music, making similar tactics used by Godspeed You Black Emperor! look posed.
Despite these inevitable sonic deficiencies, the guttural power and crackling vitality of Houses music roar from the pits undimmed. On hollering hoedowns like Walkin Blues and Government Camp Blues he sounds like the very essence of the form, yet hes possibly even more compelling when stepping outside it, as on American Defense and Am I Right Or Wrong. Theres something especially chilling about hearing the former Parchman Farm inmate intone lyrics like Down South when you do anything thats wrong/Theyll sure put you down on the county farm. Its also instructive to note how Charley Pattons testament to his horses ability to foxtrot, lope and pace (The Pony Blues) was later echoed in Bob Dylans New Pony. Crumbling and corroded as it might appear, this is the sound of a goodly proportion of the bedrock of modern popular music being forged, from Robert Johnson to The White Stripes.