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Author Topic: Son House Ontario Place 1964  (Read 3470 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Son House Ontario Place 1964
« on: March 14, 2006, 11:43:10 AM »
What follows was originally submitted to Blues Unlimited in 1964 but never used. Four years later they published it in their 1968 booklet, Backwood Blues. The title to the review was applied by BU, hence the parentheses:

SON HOUSE
(AN EARLY 'REDISCOVERY' CONCERT AT WASHINGTON'S ONTARIO PLACE)
JOHN MEID

As far as Son House goes, he was superlative - though he didn't think so. He cut off one number (though it was long enough as it stood) saying, "If you can't hit 'em right, no point in going on with it"; referring to his guitar playing. Near the end of the last number of his first set (there were only two sets, with a 55 minute intermission) he seemed to be affected with the 'senile tremor" or whatever it was called in BU. One of the entourage quite helpfully coached House a bit, helping him pace himself. He's a little guy, not much bigger than Mississippi John, about Skip James' size. The first thing I noticed about him were the gaps between his front teeth and the bright gold fillings. That, and his shoulders seeming disproportionately narrow. I was quite pleased that his voice is so good. I would agree with Welding that House gets great mileage out of his technically limited ideas. The rather limited technique never gets in the way. I disagree with whoever it was in BU who said that House perhaps gets his sharp guitar sound from his coming down so high on the strings. You can get that kind of sound with your hand real close to the strings. It's all in the way you snap the strings when you pick them (with the right hand, I'm talking about). It was quite exciting and moving to see a man put so much passion and intensity into his playing and singing. On one number, at the end of each chorus he would make a full strum, a la flat pick, with his fingers and in so doing he would actually pivot slightly to his left (at least above the waist, of course) to get more leverage on the strings as he then came back to the right to hit the guitar. He really put everything into it. His ideas are of course flat-pick ideas, almost entirely, but I'm sure that if he were given a flat-pick to use (assuming he would accept it, which I doubt) he would sound much different. His bottleneck goes on the fourth finger rather than the little finger. I think his using the steel-bodied guitars gave the bottleneck a slightly tinny sound. It took me a little while to get used to it. Or maybe the trouble was with me, I don't know. Seeing House in person reinforces my opinion (expressed in friendly disagreement with Don Kent) that despite a couple of superficially obvious "borrowings" Robert Johnson doesn't really "derive" very much from House, doesn't use House as a "source of inspiration". I guess I'm in the minority on this, but it seems to me that when you get down to brass tacks they have two very different approaches to singing and playing.

Offline Johnm

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    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: Son House Ontario Place 1964
« Reply #1 on: March 14, 2006, 03:41:59 PM »
Hi all,
This writer's notion that Son House's ideas were all "flat-pick" ideas is peculiar, to say the least.  The way Son popped the bass when playing in Spanish and pulled on the strings as he did his upward brushing motion could not be executed with a flat-pick except by utilizing fingers as well, in which case, why use a pick? 
I saw Son House for the first time at the 1964 Philadelphia Folk Festival.  I was watching the Friday night concert with some friends, and an older African-American gent plopped down in the grass next to us to watch the show.  I remember being excited thinking that it might be John Hurt, but losing interest somewhat when I saw that he was not Hurt.  I remember his enthusiasm for a Swiss dance troupe with the guys in lederhosen and the women in dirndl dresses.
Imagine our surprise the next day, in the Blues Workshop, when Dick Waterman announces the rediscovery of the great Bluesman Son House, and we find out that our neighbor of the previous night was indeed Son House.  He launched into "Death Letter Blues" and pinned everybody's ears back.  It was pretty amazing to have that force of nature sprung on you.  Even at that age (I was 13), I'm glad that I had enough sense to know instantly that the essence of what he was doing was not about technique.  If you ever saw Son House perform, I don't think you would forget it.
All best,
Johnm

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