I’m listening to Son House right now—for the first time.
The blues. That’s a hard one for me because it’s been obscured by blues the “genre” that was calcified by White collectors in the 1960s, then exploded into rock and roll as practiced by Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, etc., none of which, other than Jimi Hendrix, moves me that much.
The meaning of Son House is a bit lost to me : the big voice and especially the guitar playing—which has been imitated to the point of cliché. It’s hard for me to uncover what he’s actually doing.
When I listen to Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and John Lee Hooker, there is a mystery in that music—a strangeness that no popular imitations have captured. Those guys sound so deep, so ancient (or “ancient to the future” to use the AACM/Art Ensemble of Chicago phrase), so individualistic and subtle. They create a feeling and a world with their music. I don’t hear that so much when I listen to Son House.
But, I don’t blame him ; I blame the myriad blues fests that have destroyed this sound, and I blame myself for not being able to get beyond them, back to him.
There is a blues cry used by Black musicians who exist outside of the genre “blues” : the singer Sidney Carter, the fife and drum calls of Otha Turner and Sid Hemphill, the old clawhammer-style banjo playing and rubato blues singing of Dink Roberts and the musicians represented on the compilation album Black Banjo Songsters, the Georgia Sea Islands master musician Bessie Jones. That’s some blues . . .
The pained expression.
The powerful rhythm.
I read an R. Crumb comic about Son House from the collection R. Crumb Draws the Blues when I was a teenager. I loved Crumb’s drawings, but I was a bit freaked out by the intensity of the perverse nihilism in his other comics. R. Crumb Draws the Blues was a bit more relaxed. His drawings brought that era to life so completely.
If I close my eyes I can see Son House.
In 1998, when I was 17 years old, Hilton Als wrote an article in the New Yorker that touched on the idea of the blues, but not the idea of blues as Black southern musicians singing a certain style. Instead, he wrote about blues as simply a deep, pained expression of the soul—a kind of universal soul-holler. In his article, Als critiqued White artists who were doing cheap (he felt) imitations of Black music (singling out Beck & Eric Clapton). Instead he praised artists like PJ Harvey and Laura Nyro, who he thought of as true White blueswomen because, instead of trying to imitate the African American style, they excavated and developed a personal blues from their own cultural backgrounds.
At the time, I thought Als’s article was essentializing, so, on a whim, I wrote a letter to the editor of the New Yorker via email. My argument was that Als was cordoning off musical spaces from one race to another, and I didn’t see why one culture should not take direct musical inspiration from another. Also, I found the musical magpie quality of Beck’s music inspiring and creative. I was irked that Als was passing him off as simply being a sarcastic imitator.
Lo and behold, I got an email back saying that my note was going to be published. The editor went through my letter with me, toned it down, focused the argument, helped me make my case more clearly. By the end it looked like a real New Yorker letter.
But, now I think maybe Als was right. I’m still not sure about all the elements of his argument, but I think the article was a lot more nuanced than I perceived, and my reaction was simplistic.
Als’s blues is sung beautifully in his book White Girls. I think you should check that out.
Son House . . . Going to listen again tomorrow.
Maybe then I’ll be able to hear what he’s doing for real.