Son House

From New World Encyclopedia

Edward James "Son" House, Jr.
Born March 21 1902(1902-03-21) (?)
Riverton, Mississippi, U.S.A.
Died October 19 1988
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.
Genre(s) Delta blues
Country blues
Blues revival
Slide guitar
Instrument(s) Guitar
Years active 1930 - 1974

Edward James "Son" House, Jr. (March 21, 1902[1] – October 19, 1988) was an American blues singer and guitarist. A seminal Delta blues figure, House was a well known performer in the Mississippi blues scene in the 1920s and 30s and was a major influence on the playing and singing of legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson. Occasionally serving as a Baptist preacher, he recorded for Paramount Records and the Library of Congress in the 1930s and early 40s, but retired from the music business for more than two decades until his rediscovery during the blues revival of the 1960s. He enjoyed substantial popularity in the late 60s until ill health forced him to stop performing. His guitar stylings and songs remain influential today.


Location of Clarksdale, Mississippi

Early years

The middle of seventeen children, Son House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Around age eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana after his parents separated. Religiously motivated from an early age, young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career. Despite the church's firm stand against blues music and the sinful lifestyle which revolved around it, House became strongly attracted to the blues. He taught himself guitar in his mid-20s after moving back to the Clarksdale area. He was inspired by the work of Willie Wilson and soon became a leading exponent of the Delta blues style of slide guitar, as well as a powerful blues singer. He began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams, around Robinsonville, Mississippi and north to Memphis, Tennessee until 1942. He would become a major influence on the playing of his younger contemporary, Robert Johnson, whose playing strongly resembled that of House.

After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time in prison in 1928 and 1929. House's version of the story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 28, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree. House was wounded in the leg, but shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison.

House recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942. He then faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s.

Second Career

After a long search of the Mississippi Delta by various blues collectors and folk music promoters in the early 1960s, House was "re-discovered" in June, 1964 in Rochester, New York where he had been living since 1943. House had been retired from the music business for many years. He had been working for the New York Central Railroad and was completely unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings. He subsequently toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe and recorded for CBS records.

Like Mississippi John Hurt and other recording artists from the Delta, he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s. He played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with fellow bluesmen Skip James and Bukka White. He appeared in folk venues throughout the U.S. in the late 60s, and in the summer of 1970 he toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. A recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.

Ill health plagued his later years, and in 1974 he retired again, later moving to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. He was buried at Mt. Hazel Cemetery on Lahser, south of Seven Mile. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a fitting monument on his grave. He had been married five times.


Resonator guitar played with a bottleneck

House's innovative style featured very strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of a bottleneck, coupled with singing that was strongly influenced by his Gospel background, as well as the "hollers" of the Negro work gangs. His singing remained strong and compelling well into to his second career. The music of Son House, in contrast to that of other blues artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, was emphatically dance music, often played on a resonator style guitar and meant to be heard in the noisy atmosphere of a barrelhouse or other dance hall. In his day, he was the leading exponent of the slide guitar style, until Robert Johnson, his student, went beyond him.

Often overlooked in House's repertoire is his religious music. Unlike some other bluesmen, Son House did not feel that he had to leave religion behind simply because he played the blues. "The Bible is a good book to read," he told an audience in introducing his "John the Revelator." Even his straight blues performances often carried a moral and religious quality that other bluesmen eschewed. "I'm going to change my way of living, so I won't have to cry no more," he said in "Death Letter."


Son House was a major influence on the legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Johnson was still a teenager when he met house in the late 1920s. House was a pioneer of the slide guitar style that Johnson himself would come to epitomize. Indeed, House reported that he was not impressed with Johnson's musical ability at first, describing the young future "King of the Delta Blues" as "mouthy" and "a chatterbox." Johnson was clearly influenced by House in a major way. House's song "Preachin' The Blues Part I & II" served as inspiration for Robert Johnson's '"Preaching Blues" and "Walking Blues," and many of Johnson's guitar and singing riff's are recognizably derived from House.

However, House also admitted that after learning the rudiments of House's own style, Johnson left town for a few months and returned as a virtuoso who had far outstripped his former teacher. "Me and Willie (Brown) got up," he said, "and I gave Robert my seat. He set down...And when that boy started playing, and when he got through, all our mouths were standing open. All! He was gone!" (Wald, 2004)

House claims that he tried to warn Johnson against going back out on the road, because of the rough life of a traveling bluesman. Later, House would contribute greatly to Johnson's legend by reporting his own opinion that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in order to gain his prowess on the guitar.

House's own slide playing, in fact, was rivaled only by Johnson; and his singing, if less nuanced than his protege's, was more powerful. Having left far more recordings than Johnson did, his influence today in some ways is even greater than Johnson's. The most successful slide players, from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf of the Chicago blues scene, to the best white players of the next generation—Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt among them—all acknowledge a debt to him.

More recently, House's music has influenced rock groups such as the White Stripes, who covered his song "Death Letter" on their album De Stijl, and later performed it at the 2004 Grammy Awards. The White Stripes also incorporated sections of Son House's version of, "John the Revelator" into the song Cannon from their eponymous debut album The White Stripes. Another musician deeply influenced by Son House, is John Mooney, who learned from House when he was still living, as well as from his records.

Several of House's songs were recently featured in the motion picture soundtrack of "Black Snake Moan" (2006).


Son House's recorded works fall into four categories:

  • Several songs recorded in 1930 for Paramount Records, for commercial release on 78s (includes "My Black Mama" parts one and two and Clarksdale Moan)
  • Alan Lomax's non-commercial recordings ("Library of Congress Sessions") in 1941 and 1942, a total of 19 songs
  • Studio recordings from 1965 and later following his rediscovery
  • Live recordings, also from this period

These have been collected, issued and reissued in various ways


  • The Complete Library Of Congress Sessions (1964) Travelin' Man Cd 02
  • Blues From The Mississippi Delta (W/Short) (1964) Folkways 2467
  • The Legendary Son House: Father Of The Delta Blues (1965) Columbia 2417
  • In Concert (Oberlin College, 1965) Stack-O-Hits 9004
  • Delta Blues (1941-1942) Smithsonian 31028
  • Son House & Blind Lemon Jefferson (1926-1941) Biograph 12040
  • Son House - The Real Delta Blues (1964-65 Recordings) Blue Goose Records 2016
  • Son House & The Great Delta Blues Singers (With Willie Brown,) Document Cd 5002
  • Son House At Home : Complete 1969 Document 5148
  • Son House (Library Of Congress) Folk Lyric 9002
  • John The Revelator Liberty 83391
  • American Folk Blues Festival '67 (1 Cut) Optimism Cd 2070
  • Son House - 1965-1969 (Mostly TV Appearances) Private Record Pr-01
  • Son House - Father Of The Delta Blues: Complete 1965 Sony/Legacy Cd 48867
  • Living Legends (1 Cut, 1966) Verve/Folkways 3010
  • Real Blues (1 Cut, U Of Chicago, 1964) Takoma 7081
  • John The Revelator - 1970 London Sessions Sequel Cd 207
  • Great Bluesmen/Newport (2 Cuts, 1965) Vanguard Cd 77/78
  • Blues With A Feeling (3 Cuts, 1965) Vanguard Cd 77005
  • Son House/Bukka White - Masters Of The Country Blues Yazoo Video 500 :
  • Delta Blues And Spirituals (1995)
  • In Concert (Live) (1996)
  • Live At Gaslight Cafe, 1965 (2000)
  • New York Central Live (2003)
  • Delta Blues (1941-1942) (2003) Biograph Cd 118
  • Proper Introduction to Son House (2004) Proper (contains everything recorded on years 1930, 1940 & 1941)


  1. His date of birth is a matter of some debate. Son House himself claimed that he was middle aged during World War I, and, more specifically, that he was 79 in 1965, which would mean that he was born around 1886. However, all legal records place his birth on March 21, 1902.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People. Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0306812965
  • Ferris, William R. Blues from the Delta. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978. ISBN 9780385099189
  • Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta. Penguin, 1982. ISBN 978-0140062236
  • Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad, 2004. ISBN 0060524235

External links

All links retrieved February 3, 2023.


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