Saturday, September 23, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #052: Son House: The Original Delta Blues

There are two brilliant scenes in the otherwise-awful film Crossroads (Walter Hill, director of Hard Times, The Warriors and The Long Riders, among other greats, slipped up on that one) in which Ralph—apt name for the appropriate critical reaction!—Macchio plays a Juilliard guitar student who throws over playing Bach in order to run away to the Delta and learn the blues, and which climaxes with a truly wretched cutting contest in which Macchio’s callow-young-boy-in-a-porkpie-hat supposedly bests the Devil’s guitar-player—typecast with the great Steve Vai—by playing Bach.

Ralph! Or, more onomatopoeically: Bleaarrghh!

But there were two scenes that made the hairs on my forearms stand up. The first is the opening of the film, a beautifully-shot sepia toned evocation of Robert Johnson’s 1936 San Antonio recording session, when, according to Ralph Peer, Robert insisted on playing with his back to the room, facing the corner. Though, as Ry Cooder pointed out, this simply meant that Robert understood about “corner-loading” to amplify the bass—that nevertheless became the iconic image of Robert—so shy, so driven by his voodoo demons, his soul sold to the Devil—that he couldn’t even face his audience…and it became the iconic image of the LP of remastered 78s released in the ‘60s as King of the Delta Blues Singers. That image, and the stories of Robert as a terrible wanna-be harmonica player who “went away” for a year, and came back playing like a man possessed, which Son House claimed was because he’d “sold his soul to the devil,” were all over his song catalog—and we wanna-be blues guitarists in the ‘60s loved the story. It confirmed all the romantic legends we wanted to find in the blues, and that, truthfully, we wanted to find in ourselves. For the film, it was a great opening scene, made far greater by the smart inclusion of Ry Cooder as music director and guitar soloist. Most of the blues heads I knew hated the movie but loved that scene.

The other great scene, one that most people didn’t comment upon, was the spookiest in the whole film, for me: the POV jumps from Joe Seneca’s old bluesman remembering a 1930s encounter with Mr Scratch, the Devil’s henchman, at the crossroads, through a brief, hallucinatory montage, to the present-day Delta: Macchio and Seneca, young bluesman and old, standing in the dusty silence of the crossroads—an ancient place of power in African mythology—under a brown Delta sky, when a coal-black Camaro pulls up, and the tinted power window whines down, and the same Mr Scratch, 60 years later, dressed in a $2000 suit, glances sidelong up at them and says “Well, well, well, Willie Brown—fancy meeting you here!”

The blues has always occupied a “space in-between”—between our reality and the worlds inhabited by the old African pantheon of the orishas: Eshu and Obatala, Ogun and Oshuan, Shango and Yemanja, and the world of haints and spooks: Legba and High John the Conqueror; of the orishas’s new home in the swamps and cotton fields, piney woods and riverbanks of the Mississippi Delta. The reason most of us callow young bluesmen didn't sound right was because we didn't know that world--and, maybe, because we didn't know that other world.

The blues is about parallel worlds and their boundaries and dichotomies: black and white, North and South, rich and poor, Jesus and the Devil, prayer and sex, free and bound, and—overwhelmingly and at its very core—the inextricably intertwined continuum of joy and grief. The blues lives on those boundaries and it thrives—and depends—on the places in-between, where its symbols, and its players, and even its archetypes like Mr Scratch who’ll meet you at the crossroads—the boundary between four different directions—play at full rein. That’s what the blues does—it helps people negotiate the inevitable experiences of joy and grief. The greatest of the bluesmen learned to seek those boundaries and even to revel in them, to dance and drink and fuck and fight and sing in that liminal place “in-between.” Some took that liminal power as their arrogant due—like Charlie Patton; some learned to live there with a grin and a wink—like Peetie Wheatstraw, the “Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Some seemed to have been annealed by suffering to a place of spiritual peace—like Blind Willie Johnson. Some were simply too tough for the devil to defeat them—like Blind Gary Davis and my old friend Blind Arvella Gray.

Still others learned to live at that boundary, to inhabit both sides of that liminal divide, but never happily—rather instead to teeter back and forth on the sharp edge between God and the Devil, between lost and saved, between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Little Richard, in his greatest years, was like that, one year screeching about sassy transvestites and “good booty” and the next, upon hearing the news of Sputnik, hurling his jewelry into Sydney Harbor and going back to the church. So was (and is) the great Al Green: recording songs that were the soundtrack for half the seductions of the Sixties, and then, upon being assaulted by a woman armed with hot grits, going back to gospel.

Some never seemed to find a home, no matter how great their genius, and ended their lives in madhouses (like Buddy Bolden) or crawling on their hands-and-knees, barking like a dog, like Robert Johnson, the Tupac of his day (see Elijah Wald’s great Escaping the Delta for a radical and brilliant re-visioning of who Robert was and where he was trying to go before he was poisoned).

But the greatest of all these—greater even than Patton, his role model, and Robert Johnson, his disciple— was Son House, who was both a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher and the greatest, most ferocious, and most transported of all the bluesmen. Robert was afraid of him, and one of the seminal stories in the Johnson mythos is of the young aspirant showing up to Son’s juke-joint gigs, wanting to sit in on harmonica, and being chased out of the joint by Son and Willie Brown (who Robert name-checks in Crossroads Blues).

Son House was born two miles outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi around 1902 (he claimed to have been born in 1886, but that may well have been purely so he could claim to be as senior as the Delta legend and reigning champion bluesman Charlie Patton). He was a Baptist preacher from the age of 15, but, by his own account, he liked the bluesman's lifestyle too much. He recorded for Paramount in the 1930s and for the notorious Alan Lomax in the early ‘40s. He was one of the original Delta bluesmen who was “rediscovered” (a peculiar term--did they not know where they themselves were?) in 1964 by blues revivalists Nick Perl, Phil Spiro, and Dick Waterman. (There's a beautiful account of this in Eric von Schmidt's fantastic Baby Let Me Follow You Down, topic of a future "100 Greats" post).

Yes, Son was the greatest of them all—and maybe the most conflicted. There was nothing more powerful in the Delta than Jesus and the music (Son's a cappella version of John the Revelator is the scariest version of Revelations I've ever heard)—and that’s why the overseers at Parchman Farm (the notorious prison farm where Son, like so many bluesmen, did time) kept a close watch on both. That there was no-one among the bluesmen more powerful or more intense than Son, was because, I’m convinced, he really did believe that playing the blues was his one-way ticket to hell. He wasn't playing around: he knew he was damned.

And that’s what gave his music such intensity: here was this courtly, soft-spoken old man in a starched white shirt and a string tie, with the gaze-averted, careful manner that Delta blacks learned to use with white folks, sitting on the soundstage of a German TV studio with a National steel guitar on his lap. And he says, quietly and but with absolute conviction, “the blues is not what these young people think it is.” And then he sighs, and flexes his left-hand fingers with the slide, and hunches his body, and simply explodes, as he howls the opening lines of Death Letter Blues:

I got a letter this morning/ How do you reckon it read
Said ‘Hurry hurry, the gal you love is dead.’

And that spooky midnight Delta boundary place is right there, in the cold sterile black-and-white set of a German television studio. It’s in the way his body rocks back and forth as he stomps his feet, the way his right-hand (a sharecropper’s powerful hand) flails at the strings as if he’s going to tear them right off the guitar. It's the Crossroads, between heaven and hell, between life and death, between joy and grief. It’s that place to which some of the greatest, some of the darkest, and some of the most transcendent musicians can go, sometimes in the most banal of circumstances.

I once met an old Azeri accordion player who’d lost half his jaw to cancer and who couldn’t speak English who did it within the first couple of notes he played in a Midwestern radio studio. He sat down in a swivel chair in front of a microphone, waited for a nod, stretched out the bellows, and he was gone, from the first chord. During the tri-lingual interview afterward, he calmly chain-smoked the cigarettes his handlers complained he had been forbidden. And then, when it was time to play again, he went away again--within a few seconds.

That liminal space was in the darkness, the suffering, the history, the sounds, the funk of the Mississippi Delta, the dark damp place which had been a primordial jungle which was only carved into farms when white trash from the Southern Appalachians had realized they could push west, stake land claims, and, in a couple of generations, set themselves up as ‘aristocracy’—but would have to brutalize their slaves worse than anywhere else in the Americas in order to do it. It's in the work-songs and blues, stomps and spirituals, that Delta blacks created in order to cope. It’s in those musics' sense of long dark nights in slave-quarters and sharecroppers cabins and filthy lumber camps, with only the skeeters and fireflies, and the old, old stories of the Orishas and their New World descendents, for company.

That music told the truth: in the Delta, you best watch yourself at the crossroads, and you best believe it when a woman warned you not to cross her, and you best believe in the tricks and the charms of High John de Conqueroo and the Mojo Hand that had come to the South with the vodun religion of Haitian refugees, and you best believe that if you played the blues on Saturday night you best pray for your soul on Sunday morning. In that place, and that time, and that society—you really could go to hell for playing the wrong music.

But, if you were Charlie Patton, or Muddy Waters, or Bill Broonzy, you might even decide that, compared to your present situation, neither Hell nor the Devil seemed like such a fearsome proposition. And you might shake hands with Mr Scratch by-and-by--if it meant you could hitch a ride out.

That was the place in between, the place that Son House knew, and knew enough both to fear and to exult in—the place where joy and grief meet, which is where art begins. Art results from the transmutation of suffering, through effort, into beauty. And that's why the blues is beautiful--not pretty. Like life.

That is the fierce joy, the ferocious abandon, the liminal ecstasy possible only in the call-and-response that crosses the “place in-between,” when music and dancing—sound and motion—Jesus and the Devil—Brahma and Shiva—creation and destruction—shake hands across the divide. It is that very handshake, captured most compellingly in the music of Son House, that makes the blues, and all of existence, possible.

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