The Son House Ingredient
During a three year tenure on second guitar in the Monster Mike Welch Band, I was introduced to a phrase that has since become a regular part of my vocabulary (as well as my psyche): The Son House Ingredient. "The Son House Ingredient" is a phrase coined by (as far as Mike and I could tell) legendary blues bass player (and Mike's bandmate in Sugar Ray & The Bluetones), Michael "Mudcat" Ward.
The Son House Ingredient is a philosophy of music; it's a way of approaching music and is perhaps hard to concisely describe, but I'll try. The Son House ingredient is not about technique, but about what you use it for. It is not about the notes you play, but what you say with them. The Son House Ingredient is what makes music gripping, emotional, and important to the human spirit and soul. In my mind, the Son House Ingredient is the heart and soul of blues music. Rather than use more flowery adjectives to describe this (perhaps) intangible thing, let me explain how it is embodied in Son’s music, and the easiest way to do that is to begin with the man himself.
Eddie “Son” House Jr was born, as far as anyone can tell, on March 21, 1902, in Riverton, the northern part of the Mississippi Delta. Son House was raised in a landscape that was rich in more ways than just cotton fields, and he became a defining part of what I call “first generation” delta blues; a group including Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, etc. Son’s music (delta blues in general), is a rhythm heavy, dance music; characterized by a strong backbeat (as opposed to the more complex ragtime rhythms of Texas or N. Carolina blues), frequent slide guitar, and a raw, guttural singing style. Son first recorded in 1930, then recorded again in 1941 and 1942 for the Library of Congress (probably his very finest). In 1942, after a national recording ban and the death of his good friend, Willie Brown, Son House retired from music and disappeared into the North.
In the folk-blues boom of the 1960’s, Son was rediscovered and started recording again. It had been 20 years since he had played the guitar; he was an older man, and didn’t have the dexterity he used to. He had developed a serious tremor in his hands, and had an uncontrollable shake. On top of it all, he was deeply religious and believed that blues music was the “devil’s music,” and was sure he’d spend eternity in hell for his blues.
But the music he made is absolutely riveting. There you can begin to see the Son House Ingredient. Son’s tremor and shakes didn’t matter… It didn’t matter if he was hitting the right notes on the guitar, or whether or not the guitar was even in tune… Sometimes Son wasn’t even singing words, but moaning instead... Son played his music with conviction, and the listener felt it and was moved. Even without understanding a word Son sang, one could feel the story; the loss or salvation. Without the right notes, without words even, Son House transmitted the “soul of the man.” That is the Son House Ingredient, and something I strive for with every note I play. Music is universal; it’s not just for the musicians, and the Son House Ingredient speaks to that universality; it’s something that speaks the human in the musician, not the musician in the human. The next time you feel moved by a piece of music, maybe you’re responding to the Son House Ingredient?