Bob Dylan and Son House

The people that played that music were still around…[in the early sixties], so there were a bunch of us, me included, who got to see all these people close up – people like Son House, Reverend Gary Davis or Sleepy John Estes. Just to sit there and be up close and watch them play, you could study what they were doing, plus a bit of their lives rubbed off on you. Those vibes will carry into you forever, really, so it’s like those people, they’re still here to me. They’re not ghosts of the past or anything, they’re continually here.

interview with Gary Hill Reuters News Agency 10/13/93

Last week we explored the influence of Skip James on Bob Dylan. I learned a lot from that exercise, so I’ll continue in that same vein with James’ mentor, the fabulous Son House. While there are few direct connections between House and Dylan, there’s more than enough to keep the Dylan fan interested.

I’m not going to regurgitate a lot of biographical information on House that can easily be found on other sites. In short, he was born in Mississippi, spent years as an anti-blues-music preacher, then changed his mind, and became the thing he once hated, a blues musician. He connected with Dylan-favorite Charley Patton, and played many juke-joint shows with him. At one of the joints, he shot and killed a man. He spent a couple of years at the notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary. After his release, he recorded several tracks with Alan Lomax, the legendary field recording specialist with the Library of Congress. Sometime after the Lomax recordings, he stop performing and moved to Rochester, New York, working various regular jobs. Like James, he was rediscovered during the sixties. He played at the Newport Folk Festival several times.

House’s musical style was somewhat unusual. First, he played bottleneck. House had been impressed by a local bottleneck musician, Willie Wilson. “This boy,” House remembered in Guitar Player, “had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, you know.” He recalled, “‘Sounds good!’ I said. ‘Jesus, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things.'” Second, he primarily used a steel guitar, a National Resonator, which really made his sound stand out from the crowd.

Of the recordings I’ve listened to so far, the Lomax field recordings are the most interesting. Of course, the recording quality is not great (the remastered version is better). However, accompanied by Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams, the performance not only has a lively, spontaneous quality, but the ensemble playing seems – to me anyhow – to point towards the modern. electric blues and even the rock ‘n’ roll era to come. Listen to Delta Blues, 4 O’Clock Blues, and Government Fleet Blues to hear what I’m speaking of.

Now for the connections with Bob.

Charlie Patton recorded Pony Blues in 1929. House recorded his version, The Pony Blues, for Lomax. Dylan, of course, was certainly familiar with both tracks. His song New Pony, an oddball blues track on the otherwise contemporary-sounding Street Legal, was certainly influenced by both. The line “she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace” is a direct quote from The Pony Blues.

More connections. Dylan covered House’s Death Letter Blues in 1963. James modeled his Special Rider (discuss in last week’s post) on Death Letter.

Dylan’s Call Letter Blues (which would eventually morph into Meet Me In the Morning) doesn’t directly quote Son’s Death Letter Blues, but the general gist is very similar.

Finally, Son House was a major influence on blues legend Robert Johnson, who was a major influence on Dylan. In his youth, Johnson copped licks directly from Son House. See below – cut-n-pasted from Expecting Rain, which cut-n-pasted from discussions on the newsgroup, once a hotbed of information on Dylan).

Robert JohnsonBob Dylan
The blues is a low down aching heart disease, killing me by degrees (Preaching the Blues)Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees (Where are You Tonight?)
I can tell the wind is ???, leaves trembling on the tree (Hellhound On My Trail) Far past the frozen leaves, the haunted frightened trees (Mr. Tambourine Man)
Let’s put our heads together, whooh fair brown, then we can make our ??? money green (Little Queen of Spades) He should have stayed where his money was green” (Where are You Tonight?
She is a little queen of spades, and the men will not let her be” (Little Queen of Spades) Well, I return to the queen of spades, and talk with my chambermaid” (I Want You)
All my love’s in vain” (Love in Vain)Is your love in vain?) (Is Your Love In Vain)
I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite (Stones In My Passway) I gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite” (Tough Mama)
You can squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg” (Traveling Riverside Blues) I bit into the root of forbidden fruit, with the juice running down my leg” (Where are You Tonight?)
I don’t want no woman, wants every downtown man she meets” (I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom)Who don’t make herself up to make every man her friend” (Need A Woman)
You better come on in my kitchen, it’s going to be raining outdoors” (Come On In My KitchenI feel the breatchen)a storm, there’s something I got to do tonight you go inside and stay warm (Tight Connection To My Heart)
I’m gonna ??? your hood mama, ‘m bound to check you oil” RJ: “I’m gonna??? your hood mama, I’m bound to check your oil” (Terraplane Blues) If you need your oil changed, I’ll do it for you free” (Dirty World)
Mr. Highway Man, please don’t block the road” (Terraplane Blues) Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall…your old road is rapidly fading, please get out of the new one…” (The Times They Are-A-Changin)
Woke up this morning, felt around for my shoes” (Walking Blues) BD:”Woke up this morning, there were tears in my bed” (George Jackson)
“When You Got a Good Friend” ‘She’s a brown-skin woman just as sweet as a girlfriend can be’ “Outlaw Blues” ‘She’s a brown-skin woman but I love her just the same
“Last Fair Deal Gone Down” ‘It’s the last fair deal gone down, Last fair deal gone down” “Changing of the Guards” ‘Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, My last deal gone down’
“Hellhound on my trail” ‘There’s a hellhound on my trail, Hellhound on my trail’ “Caribbean Wind” ‘Sea breeze blowin’, there’s a hellhound loose’

Further Reading

Further Listening

1 thought on “Bob Dylan and Son House”

  1. Arthur 尹佩雄 Yin

    Outstanding piece. Thank you. I remember standing in the lobby of the Ash Grove in the first Son House appearance in the West Coast.

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