The Alternative Elite

As a Hilary Duff video on the Disney Channel hypnotized my nine year old sister last night, I observed the painfully mechanical, flashy visuals that accompanied the song’s tiresome, repetitive melodies (The beat of my heart!/ The beat of my heart!/ The beat of my heart!). I was filled with a sense of disappointment and heartbreak. Why can’t anyone make a record not just to suck twelve dollars from my sister’s piggy bank, but to actually communicate some real, honest-to-God emotion and feeling? When I find myself swamped in this frustration and antipathy over the current state of popular music (which I occurs more and more frequently) that I take refuge in the Blues. But not just any Blues will drown my pain. I’m talking real, gritty, dirty, Me & The Devil Blues. For any music to be worth paying any attention to, especially the Blues, there needs to be a serious sense of urgency- a feeling that the man is playing for no other purpose than to desperately lick his wounds and bait the Hounds of Hell off of his trail. For the most part, recordings that contain this element of painful authenticity are limited to those made by the bluesmen of the mid-1920s to the early 1940s. Men like Skip James, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie Johnson, who produced some of the most raw and candid records of the last century. Son House’s Original Delta Blues is the last stand of this epic and lost art form. The Robert Johnson collection, King of the Delta Blues Singers, released in the mid-60s, sparked a massive blues revival on both sides of the Atlantic, exerting an incalculable influence on legendary rock artists such as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. With this newfound reverence, even worship, of the work of the founding Bluesmen, a widespread search began for any of these forgotten heroes who could still pick up a guitar. Unfortunately, as a result of the hard lifestyle that plagued many of these men, most of them had passed away. Son House, however, endured. Born in 1902 near Lyon, Mississippi, House developed a passion for the Baptist Church and became a preacher. He suffered a falling-out from the Church however when he had an affair with a much older woman. Subsequently, and quite appropriately, House learned to play the Blues. House shot and killed a man in 1928 and was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Upon his release, he resumed playing and became an enormous personal influence on Robert Johnson. After recording for the Library of Congress in 1941, Son House retired from the Blues scene. Once the aforementioned Blues Revival sparked, though, House was called upon to revisit his troubled past and record, which he agreed to do. Thus, for three days in April 1965, armed with only his powerful, weathered voice and a steel-bodied National guitar, Son House brought back the glory days of the Blues. Although he had not recorded in over twenty years, House sounds completely natural and extremely powerful. He conveys the emotions of a man who has stared the Devil in the face all his life and is desperately seeking to finally close his eyes. The songs themselves, all written by House except for the traditional spiritual “John The Revelator,” are brilliant pieces of storytelling. They manage to escape the tired, repetitive method of Blues songwriting of many of even the greatest legends. Additionally, House is unafraid to explore the songs to their fullest capacity, as most of the songs are more than five or six minutes long, including the epic nine-plus minute “Levee Camp Moan,” in contrast to the quick, two minute blitzes done by most of his contemporaries. Like most of my favorite albums, I was at first intimidated by The Original Delta Blues. The hardened vocals, which particularly shine in the two a cappella cuts, “John The Revelator” and “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” are tough to digest initially. Moreover, the album’s length made it difficult to appreciate the entire collection in one sitting. However, once the listener overcomes these minor hurdles and becomes fully acquainted with the album, the music possesses a raw power and candor that most musicians can only fantasize about. If indeed we give up hope on modern popular music, and the charts are dominated by a thousand Hilary Duffs, at least we have men like Son House to remind us why people picked up a guitar and started singing in the first place. Go ahead and preach, Sonny.