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Review: Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, by Daniel Beaumont

Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House
by Daniel Beaumont
[Oxford University Press (2011)]

If there wasn’t a Son House, you might have to invent him. Born in Riverton, Mississippi in 1902, Son House (Eddie James House, Jr) was preaching the Christian gospel at age 15 in many Baptist churches around the Mississippi delta as his family wandered from one plantation to another, but he soon developed a love for the guitar and the blues, and joined playing partners Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Willie Brown performing in jook joints and nightclubs in the area.

He also developed a taste for corn whiskey and wild women and trouble. After killing a man in Lyon, Mississippi, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor at the notorious Parchman Farm jail. After his release he managed to get a recording contract on Paramount Records, but his songs never made any money, and he was soon dropped from the label and faded into obscurity.

Then, in 1941, Alan Lomax found him and recorded him for the Library of Congress, but Son House disappeared again soon after the recordings. Drifting across America, Son House was soon working in a field picking potatoes in Long Island, NY, when he shot a man in self-defense in 1955. A grand jury dismissed the case after listening to testimony from the sheriff and House, and he escaped to Rochester, New York, working as a chef and railroad porter.

When blues researchers found him in 1964, he had to re-learn his songs from Alan Wilson (Canned Heat), and he gradually began to play the blues circuit again, visiting festivals and coffeehouses. In 1965 he performed at Carnegie Hall and was “lionized” by young blues fanatics interested in learning about his years playing with the old-timers of the blues. He lived quietly in Detroit in his later years, barely able to play or recall his earlier years. He passed away on October 19, 1988.

Daniel Beaumont‘s account of Son House’s remarkable and topsy-turvy life makes for absorbing reading, which will not disappoint die-hard blues aficionados who crave the growl and grunt and raw exuberance of one of the earliest blues masters.

—TJ McGrath (Woodbridge, CT)

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