Friday, September 15, 2023

Archive Review: Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17 (2013)

Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17
Delta blues legend Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. had two very distinct musical careers – one during the 1920s and ‘30s when, as a friend and contemporary of Charley Patton’s, he traveled the Southeast as an itinerant bluesman. The other career occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s when, after being “rediscovered,” House was championed as an authentic folk-blues innovator and booked into coffee houses and festivals. In between these two eras, for a few days in 1941 and 1942, lies a third, lesser-recognized aspect of his career. Although the handful of sides House recorded in 1930 for Paramount Records would be deemed commercial failures, they grabbed the attention of music historian Alan Lomax, who recorded House for the Library of Congress during two trips to Mississippi.

Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17

As the story has been written, Lomax had travelled to the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi in late August 1941 to record a young musician by the name of McKinley Morganfield, who would later find fame as the great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. Fiddle player Henry “Son” Sims, who played with Waters on the Lomax field recordings, had much earlier recorded with Patton and told Lomax where he could find House. Tracking the bluesman down in Robinsonville, where he was driving a tractor on a plantation, Lomax managed to assemble House and his band – including guitarist Willie Brown and harmonica player Leroy Williams – at Clack’s Grocery store in nearby Clack, Mississippi on September 3rd, 1941 for a raw, authentic recording session.

Lomax captured a number of performances on fragile acetate that day, and they’ve thankfully survived history to appear on Document Records’ Field Recordings Vol. 17. Although limited by the primitive recording equipment of the era, as well as the very nature of the field recording, the sonic magicians at Document have cleaned up the sound a good bit so that these performances sound old, but immediate and exciting. Among the high points of this first LOC session is the complete band cranking out a reckless version of “Levee Camp Blues,” House’s guitar battling with Williams’ harp for the lead, his vocals displaying the energy and quivering emotion of his earlier Paramount sides. “Walking Blues” offers up a powerful House vocal performance with some fresh, innovative guitar interplay taking place in the background while “Delta Blues,” featuring just House and Williams, spotlights House’s high-lonesome vocals and considerable six-string skills while William’s crying harp notes provide nice embellishment.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

When Lomax returned to Mississippi for a second session with House, he would record the singer alone with his guitar in July 1942. The emphasis here is on House’s unique vocals and influential guitar style, and several tracks stand out as classic slabs o’ Delta blues. The sound on “Depot Blues” is a bit muddy, but the guitarplay is exquisite and House’s vocals incredibly nuanced, and the solo version of “Walking Blues (Death Letter)” is especially haunting, with some interesting vocal phrasing and hypnotic guitar. Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17 provides an essential missing link between the legend’s two disparate careers, and documents some mighty fine Delta blues in an authentic setting as well. Grade: A- (Document Records, released August 14th, 2012)

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