Thursday, April 26, 2012

Preachin' The Blues reviewed by Mark Thompson

Preachin' The Blues
The Life & Times of Son House
Daniel Beaumont
Oxford University Press
193 pages

Often referred to as the father of folk blues, Eddie “Son” House is one of the giants of the early days of blues music. His 1930 Paramount recordings have long been accorded classic status. But, as author Daniel Beaumont painstakingly documents, House remained conflicted throughout his life over the path he chose.

Born in 1902 near Clarksdale, Mississippi, House was “churchified” at a young age and he started preaching when he was fifteen years old. House escaped the back-breaking labor in the plantation fields by virtue of his skill at spreading the word of God. During this period, House was steadfast in his condemnation of the Devil's music. But the road turned rocky as House developed a taste for liquor and a fondness for women.

Life changed one evening as House strolled around the streets of Mattson, MI. Passing a house-party in full swing, House was awestruck by the sound of a bottleneck slide on a guitar. In some tellings, House credited Willie Wilson as the musician entertaining that night but later in life he would mention James McCoy as his prime influence. Both men have been lost in the mist of history. House quickly purchased a guitar and began teaching himself how to play, relying on music knowledge acquired from church.

House soon became skillful enough to play with Wilson. But his career was interrupted in 1928 when he shot and killed a man while protecting a friend. Convicted and sentenced to time on the infamous Parchman Prison Farm, House managed to get released after serving a short time on the condition that he leave the are for good.

Soon House encounters another legend-in-the-making, Charlie Patton, starting that leads to House making his first recording sessions for Paramount Records in Grafton, WI where House is accompanied by another great, guitarist Willie Brown. They record “My Black Mama” and “Preachin' the Blues”, both in two parts. These tracks are the foundation of House legacy. Brown and House form a partnership that lasts for more than a decade, during which time they have a profound influence on Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Author Beaumont spent a lot of time pouring through public records and interviews with House to verify information. He examines how Alan Lomax secured House's participation in the Fisk College – Library of Congress recordings in the early 1940's while Lomax was under investigation by the FBI for subversive activities. Even more impressive is the work Beaumont did to uncover details of House's life once he leaves Mississippi in 1943 and settles into obscurity in Rochester, NY for over twenty years. The author details the search conducted by Nick Perls, Phil Spiro and Dick Waterman that eventually leads to House being “rediscovered”, gaining him elite status during the folk blues revival. Beaumont does not shy away from discussing House's drinking problem and the onset of dementia. He also speculates on the impact that the conflict between religion and blues music had on House's artistry. This biography stands as a well-researched and fair portrayal of a legendary musician and his profound influence on blues music.

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