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Preachin' The Blues: The Life & Times Of Son House by Daniel Beaumont

(Oxford University Press)

Jul. 27, 2011
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Daniel Beuamont is a brilliant historian and critic and his Preachin' The Blues: The Life & Times of Son House (Oxford University Press) is an absolute necessity for everyone interested in the origins of the blues. Beaumont delineates a life and career marked by internal demons and external realities; the end result is a fresh understanding of where this music comes from, and why, as well as how it influenced American culture. We get to know Eddie “Son” House once and for all and yet by doing so, due to the author's steady writing hand, the mystery of him and his music become enhanced.

Beaumont begins his account with Son House's “rediscovery” on June 23, 1964 by folklorists Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Sprio (whose stories are interwoven with the historical fabric of the text), setting the context within the urgency of the '60s folk/blues revival. So while Preachin' The Blues is definitely about House's life and music, it's also an incisive commentary on the unusual times into which the by-then long retired bluesman was thrust.

Son House was a youthful Baptist preacher in the Mississippi Delta. Upon hearing the blues in 1927, played in a haunting style known variously as bottleneck or slide guitar, “House's startling change [was] remarkably similar to a religious conversion—except that in this case it is closer to losing one's religion,” Beaumont writes.

In 1928, House shot a man to death and landed in Parchman Farm prison, a long way from the pulpit he once occupied. In a 1930 song he gave the name of his victim, but the recording was lost for 75 years. And so House's remarkable life comes and goes, researched with educated dedication and the sensibility of a private detective as the book takes shape much the same as did House's life—piece by mysterious piece, continually revisited and re-examined. It is mundane to say that a work of non-fiction reads like a novel, so let this critic instead report that Preachin' just plain would be a novel if it could not be truly verified. The footnotes are copious and easily located at the bottom of the page and, in effect, craft a secondary text by virtue of their thoroughness.

House recorded some of his songs in Grafton, Wisconsin. The exact dates of these sessions are uncertain but the author's conjecture is August 1930. “House described the microphone as resembling a 'watermelon'—the microphone had a shell around it to improve its reception.” He recorded “Preachin' the Blues,” described by Beaumont as “a remarkable portrait of House's psyche … The only possibility of reconciliation [between having and losing religion] seems to be to make blues somehow fill the emptiness.” The Grafton records positioned Son House as a master of lyrical allusion and a possessed guitarist, often leaving musical form in the wasteland of subject matter but never abandoning a refined sense of timing and melodic challenge. There is a desperation in these songs, and an irresolvable paradox, that continues in such other numbers House recorded in Grafton as “Clarksdale Moan,” “Mississippi Country Farm Blues” and “Walking Blues.”

The startling day-to-day details of House's life, so eloquently unveiled by Beauamont are one thing, but his immediate and lasting musical influence on artists such as Robert Johnson is quite another. It is as though he walked out of the woods with music that sometimes relied upon extant sources, but often sounded like his own discovery. Son House was a preacher who lost his soul to the blues. This is so much more devilish than Robert Johnson's mythology of the crossroads at night where the devil is met to exchange blues for soul.   


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