In his book Deep Blues, Robert Palmer describes Eddie "Son" House as "a failed preacher, convicted murderer, solid if rudimentary guitarist, and extraordinary blues singer," and I think that probably covers all the bases except "chronic alcoholic."
House is definitely not someone who'll dazzle you with his guitarwork. Most of the time, the best that can really be said about his strumming is that it gets the job done, moving the song along serviceably. Where Son House is magical is in his voice–a primal cry of anguish that doesn't sound like it could ever be satisfied. House was born in Mississippi in 1902—maybe, anyway; he claimed it was the mid-1880s, but legal records say otherwise, and it doesn't really jibe with the rest of his biography. He tried preaching when he was a teenager, but the lures of drinking, music and associated pleasures (in this case, an older woman from Louisiana) was too strong, and he spent the rest of his life playing music, getting into bad trouble, repenting and dedicating himself to God, then repeating the cycle. Just listening to his songs, you can hear how deeply torn he was; I think he must have been a deeply unhappy person, but if nothing else he got some great music out of his pain.
His most famous song was the chilling "Death Letter Blues" (and about which I take back what I said about his guitar). There are several good performances of it to choose from floating around the Internet—check out these two (1, 2) if my favorite version, below, piques your interest:
I'd imagine most A.V. Clubbers are familiar with the White Stripes' cover of "Death Letter" on their album De Stijl; here's a live version of Jack and Meg playing the song, with an interlude into House's "Grinnin' In Your Face." (Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson has a great smoky-slow cover of "Death Letter", viewable here, and here's Andrew Bird covering "Grinnin' In Your Face.")
Here's House a cappella on the gospel songs "John The Revelator" and "I Want To Live"; his rambling, drunken introductions tell you more about the demons that drove him than I could in 30 pages.
House's discography was very small until his rediscovery in the 1960s, with just a few songs recorded in 1930 and a couple more for archivist Alan Lomax in the early '40s. But his influence was much greater than that. A couple of years after he began playing music professionally in earnest, House shot a man, apparently in self-defense, during a house party, and was sentenced to 15 years at Parchman Farm prison. He got out in 1930 after a well-disposed judge reviewed his case, advising him to flee town and pick his life up somewhere else. He did so, and turned his life's worst mistake into one of his best decisions, because it was down the road in Lula, Mississippi that he hooked up with the great Charley Patton. Patton was a few years older than House and had established himself not only in his own career but as a talent scout, and on Patton's recommendation House joined him on a trip to a Wisconsin studio where he made the only records of his early career. During this period, House also picked up an acolyte in the young Robert Johnson, who counted House among his most important influences. (Though, notes Palmer, he was "still a novice and often an object of ridicule when House, Patton and [Willie] Brown were drunk and feeling mean," and soon left to make his own way.)
Here's "Yonder Comes The Blues":
This one's listed variously as "Downhearted Blues" and "I Had A Woman In Hughes"
Here's "Forever On My Mind," recorded at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival:
That Newport show is also notable for a particularly stinging exchange between House and Howlin' Wolf, who'd been House's protégé in earlier years but had earned huge success as one of the architects of the 1950s Chicago electric blues scene while House had frittered away his time in jail and later as a Pullman porter until the '60s folk revival. The exchange is not online as far as I can tell, but it occurred during Wolf's set, just before the performance of "Meet Me In The Bottom" I linked to previously, and can be found on the DVD Devil Got My Woman: Newport 1966 and the documentary The Howlin' Wolf Story. (Here's a fuller description of the incident.) I can't actually hear most of what House says during the exchange, but basically Wolf was irritated by House making noise in the audience, and first tried to silence him with a joke: This man got the blues, right there. See? That's where the blues comes from. [Son House nods] Because he done drunk up all of his." [Laughter from audience.] House, nettled, argued back, leading Wolf to the devastating dismissal Well, you see, you had a chance with your life, but you ain't done nothin' with it. [pause] See, and you got to have the blues. … We ain't talkin' 'bout the women. We talkin' 'bout the life of a human being. How they live. See, now you don't love but one thing and that's some whiskey. And that's plum out of it. House responds with I love more than whiskey! Now, I loves her. [Pointing to woman next to him.] Now, she ain't whiskey. [Laughter from audience]. But Wolf has said his piece, and launches into his song.
Poor health made House retire in the early 1970s, and although he outlived Wolf by 12 years it's hard to imagine the extra time made his life any happier than Wolf's. But we'll give him the last word here, with a 1970 BBC recording of "Grinnin' In Your Face":