Son House: Death Letter Blues

July 17, 2006


I don’t hear people talk about Son House, but then maybe I don’t hang out enough in blues circles. I grew up with an album by Son House that had this song on it (“Death Letter Blues”). The rhythmic language of the guitar and his voice is amazingly slippery. There are places in the song I can’t tell where the downbeat is, or whether what I’m actually hearing is the offbeat. You’ll see that he has a slide around one of his fingers which gives it that Delta blues feel. He uses both fingers and his thumb in his left hand (classical guitarists don’t use their thumbs), and his right hand gracefully switches between plucked, strummed.

Behind the bizarre guitar figuration is a simple blues progression, but it is beautifully smudged and obscured by the various accompanimental vamps. The mode in the guitar in minor pentatonic which clashes when the voice sings the major third. Son House’s voice refuses to sit still: it is constantly active. Listen to it: nowhere will you hear long “beautiful” tones like a “trained” singer executes. (I imagine if we could look at it graphically, it would look like an earthquake graph!). The instrument House plays is called a resonator guitar. The metal resonator over the sound hole gives the instrument its distinctive sound. The instrument is used primarily in blues and bluegrass.


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