He looks like he’s having a seizure, flailing his guitar like a man possessed, trying to beat the demons out of his instrument. Videos of Son House performing “Death Letter” are a frightening spectacle. Wailing like a lost soul, House delivers a chilling narrative of viewing his former beloved stretched out on a cooling board, a board with ice packed underneath used to preserve corpses in the days before refrigeration.
House considered himself an authority on the blues and its causes, as evidenced in a clip from the 2003 documentary, The Howlin’ Wolf Story: The Secret History of Rock and Roll. The segment, recorded by Alan Lomax at a juke-joint session he orchestrated at the 1966 Newport Festival, shows a very inebriated House theorizing the only real blues consisted of interaction between male and female. He gets solo on-camera time for that, but when he tries to interrupt Wolf off-camera as Wolf is trying to perform “Meet Me at the Bottom,” he gets his comeuppance.
“That’s where the blues come from,” Wolf growls, glaring at House. “You had a chance with your life, but you ain’t done nothin’ with it. So you got to have the blues.”
House blusters a drunken reply, but Wolf quickly shuts him down. “We ain’t tawkin’ bout women. We talkin’ about the life of a human bein’. And how to live. See, you in love with one thing, and that’s some whiskey.”
In spite of his love affair with whiskey, House managed to turn out some stunning performances live and on tape before he died in 1988. The ones included Forever on My Mind are from 1964, from a taped performance at Wabash College in Indiana obtained by House’s manager and blues curator Dick Waterman. Waterman has entrusted Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound with the task of restoring and releasing his archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and this is the first installment.
The previously unreleased tapes show a more reflective side of House than his later performances revealed. The version of “Death Letter” included here is much calmer than most of the video footage available online, more a reflection than a lamentation. It’s a fascinating reveal from a master storyteller holding you in thrall with a face-to-face encounter with the ultimate heartbreak. “Forever On My Mind” is beautifully bleak, brought back from the edge of despair by House’s sparse but perfectly placed string pulling.
The Son House performances collected here sound more a small house concert or a back porch picking session, rolling slow and easy. You’ll want to stroll through these at a leisurely pace and let them soak in thoroughly.