Why Did We Use a PBS-Affiliated Compilation for Son House?

posted by Tom Moon on August 02, 2008 at 5:15 pm
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Or.... Thoughts on the Fast-Vanishing Legacy of Son House.

Blues legacies have always been fragile. But given the current downturn in the record industry, they're in danger of suffering potentially irreversible neglect.

The basic equation: When Nickelback isn't selling skadillions, the labels can't afford to bankroll reissues of material from the 1930s. Right now it's still possible to find important recordings from the big names, but that's changing.

Consider the case of Son House, a Delta blues pioneer who began preaching at age 15, influenced several generations of performers through his work on the juke-joint circuit, and recorded a handful of essential records. Some of which are already hard to find, and when they disappear, key pieces of House's story will fade, too.

House began his music career in the late '20s. He was among the bluesmen documented in depth in 1941 by musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, and, after a period of exile, returned to the studio in 1965 to record Father of the Delta Blues, essentially recutting the Delta classics he'd pioneered four decades earlier.

At each stop on that journey, House made riveting and arguably essential music, but until a companion CD to the Martin Scorsese-helmed blues history for PBS, there wasn't a single title that represented each phase of his career.

Despite my misgivings about compilations - and a blogload of specific quibbles with the PBS canonizations of blues and jazz - I selected this Son House overview for 1000 Recordings. My initial reasoning was accessibility: There's at least some chance this title will be available for a while. But there were other considerations.

Scorsese's team did a good job of cleaning up the masters - the early material, drawn from a scarifying 1930 session, has never sounded clearer. More significantly, this compilation is the first to bring together those early tracks, a chunk of the most stirring stuff from the Library of Congress trove, and several key pieces from House's 1965 session. In less than an hour, it's possible for a mildly curious listener to encounter the arc of House's career, to hear his chilling, disarmingly direct voice in several settings, each as devestating over time.

Those enchanted by Son House after hearing this compilation are urged to seek out:

The Complete Library of Congress Sessions 1941-1942

Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions

Delta Blues and Spirituals

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