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Episode 36

Father of Folk Blues

Son House

All American music traces back to the blues, and deep at the root sits Son House. That the recordings on Father of Folk Blues even exist is something of a gray area that cuts to the heart of the great American myth, but wherever you land after hearing these stories, you’ll find that what matters most is what the great Muddy Waters once said of House: “That man was the king.”

Transcript

Note: our transcripts are mostly AI-generated for now. 

Cliff: Today we’re talking about Son House’s Father of Folk Blues.

Kyle: I don’t know that anyone who hasn’t known us a long time would know this about us, but frankly, I’m surprised that it took us this long to get all the way to the blues. At some point we did have to do it. I know we talked earlier in the season about the crux of our connection being the Allman Brothers, but that really does go back to the blues even more, being two Southern dudes. Now we’re getting to the age where not a lot of people who know me, knew me in college and knew that I co-hosted a blues radio show at my college radio station, so shout out to John Asante, but this is one… always, evergreen tweets, shout out to John Asante.

Cliff: Pin “hello to John Asante” to my Twitter profile. 

Kyle: I love the blues a lot, and I know we talked on one of the TuneDig Radio episodes about how much I love hip hop– more than I think I even realized I love hip hop– but one thing I’m extremely self-aware about is how much I love the blues and how much you also love the blues. And, you know, it is the, it is the Rosetta Stone of all American popular music. So we had to, get there. We had to get back to the core of the earth eventually. And if we were going to do that, there is no place that I think makes more sense for us to do that than with Son House. You know, there are people that might argue, why not do the collection of Robert Johnson recordings? Why not do Muddy Waters? Why not do Howlin’ Wolf? BB King? All of those are valid and we love all of those things, but if you want to talk about any of those things, at some point, eventually you’re going to have to get back to Son House. There is a book called Preachin’ the Blues that a cat named Daniel Beaumont wrote that is such a great document of the life of Son House that I think helps convey the importance, and tell so many of the stories that we would want to tell, but there’s an excerpt from it that I think really drives this point home.  In May of 1965, Howlin’ Wolf, one of the really famous Chicago blues artists, he was in LA taping an appearance on the show Shindig for ABC. The show’s producers asked the Rolling Stones to appear… now in 1965, enormous, Rolling Stones, right? They’ve started to blow up … asked the Stones to appear; Stones told them they would do the show if they got either Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf to appear on the show with them. So Howlin’ Wolf and Son House had known each other in the Delta. They first met sometime back in the mid 1930s, so 30 plus years before, when Howlin’ Wolf, who was eight years younger, arrived in the back of a pickup truck and began to play in the local juke joints. Totally different musical context than what we’re in right now. So Son House and this cat that we’re going to talk about, Phil Waterman, found the studio and managed to make their way to the set. Howlin’ Wolf had been rehearsing with the Shindig house band and was sitting in one of the theater seats when he saw Son House enter. He hurried down to greet his old friend, who he’d not seen since they played in the Oil Mill Quarters in Robinsonville, Mississippi, more than 20 years earlier. So the Rolling Stones– again, one of the biggest bands in the world at the time– were huddled on the stage between rehearsing numbers, notice Wolf’s enthusiastic greeting, and Brian Jones came over and tapped Waterman on the shoulder. He said, “Excuse me, who’s the old man that Wolf thinks is so special?” Waterman told him he was Son House and Jones nodded, “Ah, that’s the one that taught Robert Johnson.” NBD. That would be like, LeBron James seeing Michael Jordan and being like, “Oh, that’s the guy that taught Kobe Bryant.” That analogy doesn’t really work cleanly at all, but it’s sort of that kind of lineage of, Oh, oh yeah. Okay. I get it. He’s the guy that came before the guy that gave us everything.”

We just talked about the Melvins, and this is a lot like being the biggest Nirvana fan in the world and being like, “Oh, that’s Kurt Cobain’s favorite guy.” It’s a little bit like that. Now even him influencing Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to the degree that he did in the Delta doesn’t really cover it. So I want to get to that, to kind of the story around it and some of the context, cause I think the story of the blues is obviously the story of America, but I think it’s important to ground ourselves the music itself first and work our way outward. One, because we so often spend the first half of the episode just being like, setup and context and all that sort of stuff. And two, if you have no context, I think this is an example of, if you really sat down and focused and tried to listen just to the music, you could quite potentially have a “holy shit” epiphany relig– like you could get religion off of listening to these recordings because, it’s nothing but the real thing.

Cliff: And just to give a little extra flavor and feel to what you were just describing specifically about Robert Johnson, I want to play this little clip from an interview with Son House where he’s talking about when they all used to hang out together before this was a whole thing. And they were just kind of like learning from one another, and they were, you know, effectively like going around just playing on each other’s bills, right? Hitting different clubs, doing like a miniature version of touring, whatever the Delta blues equivalent of that was, and a couple of times in this clip, he’ll mention “little Robert,” who… he never mentions his last name.

He just talks about “little Robert” had gone away for a while and then came back and would annoy everybody because as soon as he could find a guitar, he would start playing on it. And he was apparently really terrible at it. And so everybody just thought of like “little Robert” who would always annoy everybody by picking up a guitar and always had a guitar on his back, walking around, constantly playing without having any idea how to play it yet. And then that became someone who was sort of, one of the pinnacles of guitar playing for the entire blues genre after that. But like, he never says his last name; it was just “little Robert.” And then the end of the interview, Son House’s manager just pops in. It’s just like, “Hey, just a quick note. That would be Robert Johnson.”

Kyle: I mean, if people called me just “lil’ Kyle” and said that I sucked at guitar, I’d probably make a deal with the devil, too. Like, fuck y’all, I’m going to… I’m going to be the guy. 

Cliff: Little Robbie, just playin’ “Wonderwall” all the damn time. Driving us up the wall.

Kyle: I’ve never really thought about any of the blues guys being the equivalent of the punk guy that pulls out the acoustic by the campfire.

Cliff: Yeah. Thank everybody. And this is Green Day’s “Good Riddance”.

Kyle: We’re gonna cut right to the feelings that you’re all having about acoustic guitars and just make all the songs about death and drinking.

Cliff: Ha Okay. ha.

Kyle: All right, so this record, it came out in 1965 on Columbia Records, produced by John Hammond, who was Columbia’s go-to jazz and blues producer guy. It was recorded over three days in 1965 in New York City, so, again, extending the tradition of records that we talk about, that were, just kind of catching lightning in a bottle. So this is Son’s last studio recording, but for a long time, it was the only Son House that I’d… I’d ever heard. I didn’t know there were early days, young Son House recordings out there, frankly. And the only reason that I knew about this, I gotta give you your credit, is you had a blog in high school where you posted all kinds of crazy music. It was where I heard Sunn O))) for the first time– ” S-U-N-N” Sunn– and, Love Supreme. And some of the recordings that are on this record were on the compilation that you shared back then, so I’ve been listening to this since I was a teenager, and to be specific…

Cliff: That compilation, for what it’s worth was, uh, The Original Delta Blues, with a subtitle of… which, this always threw me… Mojo Working: Blues for the Next Generation. Like, well, that’s a little academic, but yeah, that was the one I remember, ’cause that’s the one I came across. So like, those were the versions I heard first. We usually shared music by talking directly to one another. This was one of those cases where you kind of like grabbed something off the top that I didn’t know we had in common.

Kyle: Right. Yeah, and we didn’t realize that for quite a long time, how Son was like a core blues guy for both of us. To be specific, if you look for Father of Folk Blues on Spotify or Apple Music, you won’t find the exact thing; what you will find is Father of the Delta Blues. And really it’s, it’s now the complete 1965 recordings are what you’ll find. So, he cut 21 tracks over those three days, and the core of what we’re talking about really today is the nine tracks that were available in that first 1965 vinyl that came out and, if you’ll indulge me in nerding out for a second, there is a 200 gram 45 RPM mastered press. I wish I could remember who put it out, but that’s kind of the gold standard. If you want to go all the way with it, I think it’s worth spending the $50. Normally I would not advocate this, but it’s worth spending that money and going sight unseen, if you have a really great vinyl setup, buying that particular cut of wax and putting it on, on your nicest speakers really loud. But if you don’t have that setup, it’s worthy of a really loud headphone listen. I also think, for a bit of contrast, having only heard “old man Son House” for the majority of my life, it’s also worth the stark contrast between that and, what are called the “Grafton sides” ’cause they were recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin, 1930 recordings that he made for Paramount. He accompanied Charley Patton on a trip to go and record. So there are a couple of things you hone in on. Of those sides, I recommend listening to a song called “Preaching the Blues” to hear his younger, fuller, less destroyed by time and alcoholism voice. And then for the speed and ferocity and tightness with which he played bottleneck slide guitar, there’s a song called “Mississippi County Farm Blues” that, pound for pound, is like one of the best blues songs I’ve ever heard in terms of blues guitar playing. So with that, let’s talk about the undeniable pure power of some of these songs. Where would you start? I guess, do we, should we start at the top with “Death Letter”?

Cliff: I mean, we certainly can. Uh… I think we usually try to avoid the start here…

Kyle: …by track.

Cliff: Yeah. But in this case, I think we’re okay to start there. Death Letter Blues” get described as his “signature song” anyway, so I think that’s an okay place to start. And plus it got covered by a number of people who would represent versions of blues, you know what we’d call probably modern blues now: the Derek Trucks, Government Mule, uh, but also White Stripes, and the Dead covered it as well. Those are great places to start. Overall though, I think the most important framing for this, as someone who spent a lot of time listening to Son House and had a similar experience to you with the, ” Oh, wait a minute, there are like these decades apart versions of this guy, and I did not know I was only listening to one or the other for awhile.” Listening to Son House takes… we’ll touch on a number of things, I think, about song structure and the way that he writes and performs. But, you know, you mentioned good, loud, headphone listening. The reason you do it here is similar to the way you would do a Led Zeppelin or somebody who really does like, or even a… Steely Dan, there we go. Someone who did meticulous studio work and it’s ironic here because Son House was anything but meticulous, but what you pick up on, like for instance, if you turn it up loud enough, a lot of songs you’ll hear his foot  and that tap… these are all really important ways to kind of consume Son House. The rhythm is never aligned with a metronome. The tuning of the guitar is never aligned with 440 hertz, which you’d normally hear from everything, except Prince on occasion, who like as a basic troll, like Prince was, would occasionally tune to a different hertz, but like, you know, Son House would just basically pick a reference note and then tune the rest of the guitar to it and then make up his own rhythm. And then sometimes he didn’t play guitar at all. So he’s got this real, like washboard one man band feel to a lot of the stuff that he’s performing, but it’s always a performance. Every recording is the equivalent of plopping him in the middle of a room and saying, “I don’t know, dude, show me what you got for the next little bit; play whatever comes to mind. So kind of in that sense, like I think having that head about you when you listen to Son House results in every song, nearly every song, having that same kind of, layer after layer that unveils itself. I know that was a super roundabout way of basically saying, no, we shouldn’t start from a particular song, but we have to, because there’s no way to avoid it, but that’s kind of how I feel about it. Like it’s always something that gives you a little bit more, the more you give to the listening, and that’s really something that’s, I mean, it’s just blown me away because on paper, what is it? 

Kyle: Well, performance is a great word for it. I have tried for a long time to describe it… or not really been able to describe it, ’cause it feels like intangibles. It’s just like, “I don’t know, if you listened to it, you’ll get it,” right? But performance is definitely the thing. And it’s so stripped back. I mean, it’s so elemental and nothing. The songs, you know, we can talk about specifically the songs where there is no guitar are arguably some of the best Son House, where it’s just voice and clapping. But if you start with “Death Letter”, the thing that I would want to emphasize is really only focus on the guitar, right? If guitar is not always there, “Death Letter” is one of the really amazing Son House guitar songs, and you almost have to watch video of him to appreciate what you’re hearing, ’cause he’s, he’s the guitar equivalent of John Bonham. He’s beatin’ the shit out of this thing. And that there’s any finesse at all to his playing and to the two voices of it is something of a miracle, cause it’s so percussive and that he can land on anything and wrap his voice around it… He has said in live performances that you can see or hear on recording that he can make the guitar sing anything that he does, and there’s a really interesting kind of connectedness to his instrument there. Um, so it’s super right… hard right hand, and the sliding is really aggressive. Apparently he used a copper ring early on and then moved to a piece of copper tubing, so it wasn’t delicate. Like you mentioned Derek trucks, it wasn’t like a glass piece. It was copper. And so it was really frictious. And then you listen to “Death Letter” a couple of times through just focusing on the guitar and it really can be kind of consuming to do that. And then you switched to the vocals and there’s like 10 verses on this thing. And if you listen to all the different versions that he ever did live or whatever, over the years, it’s, they’re never quite exactly the same two times. And I think that was one of the coolest blues tricks that Led Zeppelin ever picked up where it was a little something different every time, but you were evoking kind of the same thing. The lyrical content of the song is crazy. I mean, my wife and I were just talking the other day. Like, can you imagine getting a handwritten letter in the mail telling you that  “the gal you love is dead”? It’s at once a document of its time and also just a weird and interesting way to think about death. The Preachin’ the Blues book talks about his preoccupation with death and how he just kind of talked about it more or less all the time, especially when he’d been drinking. So, in a lot of ways, then, that song is a really good orientation to the worldview and the musical style of Son House. It’s kind of all there in that first track.

Cliff: Yep. Actually, I’m glad you brought back up the Derek Trucks comparisons, specifically to slide guitar. Cause one of the things Son House brings is an unexpected result from a total lack of musicianship. I mean, Derek Trucks is… it’s almost not even controversial to say… he’s the greatest living slide player. But his technique, like, you’ve been able to see him grow up from a child, right? I mean, he was playing in the Allman Brothers when he was a kid, basically. And so he has some of the greatest technique in the world. But when you watch Son House, not only is he, you know, using a copper ring for whatever reason, not only does he not really have a standard technique to where, even when he plays guitar inside of the same song, it’s not equal in terms of volume or output. But when you watch his fretting hand, his slide is tilted, which is sort of like the opposite of how you need to be able to play slide guitar. You need it to be parallel with the frets to have this expected sound at all. And somehow he manages not only to have a unique and powerful playing style, but in a way– and here’s a comparison I didn’t really expect to make until really recently– he actually plays guitar a lot like some of the post-hardcore revivalists of the last like 10 or 15 years, where instead of necessarily putting lead lines together, they’re kind of hooking riffs with like abrupt separations, like a lot of dissonance to kind of break up a riff and go back into it. And that’s sort of what he does often, especially with his slide playing: he’ll play something really basic and easy to follow and then just kind of destroy it, slidin’ all the way up the guitar, and then go back to it. And it creates this sense, like you said, of really the guitar following him, like everything is following whatever he feels like in that moment. Much more so than when we’d normally say that about a musician kind of being in the moment and letting it flow. Nah, a hundred percent is coming out of whatever he feels like doing moment to moment, which means, like you said, not only is every song unique, but even every verse is unique within every song. And that was one of the things that blew me away.

Kyle: That’s a super cool blues thing. I think my favorite example that’s like that is, there was a Hill Country cat. I don’t know if he’s still alive, but in the Junior Kimbrough era of things, named Cedell Davis, and he had a palsy of sorts and his hands were crippled. And he played with a butter knife as a slide, ’cause it was a thing that he could grip and you hear a lot of that same objectively atonal stuff, like totally out of tune. And yet he built his whole voice around it. And I don’t think there are a lot of genres or, you know, musical modes of expression where that’s as acceptable as it is here. But it’s really all about having your own voice. I mean, there, there is something super punk embedded in the core of that idea. And it’s also the Johnny Cash “we’d play faster if we could.” These guys I don’t think spent much, if any, time being academic about “this is the kind of guitar player I’m going to be” or anything like that. So I think there’s a huge musical lesson embedded in that: just, I don’t know, just fuck around and see what happens.

Cliff: Fuck around and find out.

Kyle: That’s right. I mean, truly!

Cliff: Well, and it’s… one of the most fascinating things about Son House. And hopefully we’ll tell a little bit more of his story here, so we can really suss this out, but like, the wildness of remembering that when Son House was learning the first time, which we’ll clarify later, but when we was learning the first time to play blues guitar, there was no canonical blues thing to go look at. Their, I mean, even access to books would have been nearly impossible in his context if there were books that had been written that would teach him this stuff, but literally they’re creating it from scratch. They’re sitting around playing with the guitar whenever someone had one that they could share. They’re learning using whatever time they have to learn how to play. And they’re writing things from absolute scratch. And so like, to me, that’s one of the most powerful things about Delta blues in general. It really was a transition period between the older ways that songs were being shared. It’s kind of hard to describe at that time. Like, I don’t really even know how to connect it, exactly, to Black music prior to that moment. Right? But now they’re creating a totally new version from nothing. There’s no one else to learn from. No one else is hearing this music, unless they’re in those little rooms, you know, with a few of these guys to start with. So really until we get to some of the revival points, we just have total unmitigated creativity. And because of the proximity of all these people being creative to one another, there was enough coherence to where it became the thing that we know now. That’s just something we’ll never experience in our entire lives. We’ll never know what it’s like to not have access to a thing and create it from absolute scratch together like that.

Kyle: It’s sort of like a big bang in that way. Well, speaking of religion, let’s talk about some of the religious numbers on the thing. So of the nine tracks, I think we’ve, you know, we’ve talked about “Death Letter”. There are really three of the nine, so like third of it is kind of overtly religious, and let’s set “Preachin’ Blues” aside for a second, because I would argue that that is really Son’s signature thing, especially for the people who saw him in a live context. But the two are the two without guitar, and one is his cover version or whatever of the spiritual number “John the Revelator”, which you have almost undoubtedly heard some version of, or some interpolation of over the years. And “Grinnin’ In Your Face”, which if you’ve ever seen It Might Get Loud, that’s the one that Jack White plays on the record player and says, you know, that’s been my favorite song since I was 18 years old. But those are the opportunities, not only to get into that headspace of Son, like any good Southern man of the early 20th century, grappling with religion and good and evil and all that sort of stuff. But I think specifically they’re an opportunity to really punch in on Son’s vocals.

Cliff: Yeah, “John the Revelator” was the one that hit me at that time. It was unlike anything I had conceived of before. And one of the reasons– I hate that this is a thing that I’m going to nerd out on for a second, but it’s important to hear, like what actually caught my attention about “John the Revelator” in Son House’s version specifically, which I think gives a little insight into him as a person in his story. So like you mentioned, “John the Revelator”, this is not his original song, right? He’s doing basically a cover of it. But it’s all contained within this one song. It’s like so much blues history in concept. So one of them is, he keeps the chorus, basically, the refrain, but he changes two really important things about this song from the original version, which, the original version sounds fundamentally different from his. And so, thinking about the space, like the musical space between the original version with a full backing guitar, with a full call and response with a female voice. And now Son House is making a version of that’s just him and no guitar, and he’s just setting his own rhythm and kind of yelling about it. So not only does he change it from being a call and response song, which is an interesting choice because that’s sorta like the whole point of that back and forth feel, right? “Who’s that writing?” Yeah. So he changes the feel of that entirely to be from the position of one person, which is interesting because the song itself is about John the Revelator and his whole perspective about things that happened. The second thing and here’s where like, bear with me, if you’re about to check out, cause like, this was what caught me, and then I learned to appreciate everything else about Son House. He changes all the lyrics, uh, to all the verses because in the original version of “John the Revelator”, quite literally, John the Revelator is related to the person John who wrote the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. So that’s where his name comes from. There is a little bit of disagreement about it, but for the most part, it’s assumed that John the Revelator was also the writer of the Book of John. But the original version of “John the Revelator” focuses on what gets told in Revelation. It’s extremely spiritual, and to be honest with you, very dark and fire and brimstone is the way that we would describe it now, which had a very different cultural context back then. So the original version was much more of like a traditional spiritual song that was kind of non-controversially talking about a single book of the Bible, uh, and talking about some weird end time stuff. Well, Son House takes out all of the verses about the Revelator part of John and instead infuses verses from the Book of John or the Gospel of John, which, y’know, has four analogs, there are four Gospels. And so him bringing him the stories of like, Jesus being resurrected and Mary and Martha were there, like none of these were in the original song. And in fact, in a way, it doesn’t make any sense to be talking about John the Revelator writing this book, because he literally didn’t, in terms of that wasn’t his name in that context. So we went all the way down the rabbit hole on a book of the Bible here. But my point of it is like, it draws out so much about Son House because that’s when I was like, what’s he saying? What’s kind of the point of this thing? And that’s when I learned so much about, oh, this guy, he, this was a preacher. So he was a preacher, he turns into a bluesman, he sort of never really engages with like,  “Oh, is it hard to balance the two?” He never really seems to care about that. Uh, he just sort of says, like, I do both. I flip between them if I so choose, and I don’t need to reconcile them that way. And so like that, to me, was such like a microcosm of the whole thing. Just conceptually, just from that one song, but then to hear it realized as an acapella clap, kind of like you’re telling a story really without the backing of a song at all, or a structure, was, I mean, it’s just really impactful to me to this day, to be hearing him talk about it because it’s so… it feels so much like you’ve hit like a small country church and there’s a guy who’s like a real human being up there and he’s kinda giving you some history, he’s also being real with you. And there’s nothing else about it. There are no slides, there’s no video. It’s just a dude telling you a story and then trying to help you relate whatever’s going on in your life to like, what was written about in this old, old story that’s sort of about nothing. it just became this ever expanding universe of the Delta blues for me. So much started there.

Kyle: And I think that even the most deeply, avidly anti-religious person who ever listened to this podcast… this could be the entry point to understand… like, we’re two dudes who grew up in Southern churches, and me specifically in small, older Southern churches, like the one we would have seen Son in, where it’s just… it’s a part of the vocabulary of how you engage with these forces that you can’t see with your eyes, but that you know are real. But to your point, I think the thesis that Son proved with his whole existence is that you contain all of these light and dark forces within you. And so what, right? You have to hold these things in contrast at all times. And the only way that it’s going to become a big deal is if you make a big deal of it, like just be the person that you are, right? You are both of these things in equal measure. So, uh, he was very Zen in that way. I mean, he was a hopeless alcoholic, so I don’t think he ever like squared, you know, he never necessarily squared it in his own mind, but I think that’s the takeaway from it. And that segues to the other religious song, which is “Preachin’ Blues” or ” Preachin’ the Blues”, was the title of it in his first career. But you read the stories about him doing the song live, and this was his “Freebird”. Like this was the one that he kind of did every show and he had a five to 15 minute monologue that went before it, every time he played it, and to know that Son was a preacher is to unlock the key of that, right? He did a sermon. He worked a sermon into every show. And the people, the revivalists, the rediscovers, so to speak– I’m using aggressive air quotes there, because we’ll talk about the politics of that. Um, at first they were like overly concerned about, Oh my God, “this is the ramblings of a drunk madman.” And then they realized over time, like, “Oh, he’s doing a bit.” They’re like, this is like a song. This is the jam leading up to the song. Because it actually had a cadence and there were some same points that he hit every time. And in that book, there’s more or less an exact transcript of the thing as it’s captured on recording a couple of different times. So it’s just really interesting that, especially in the Sixties, he’s playing to this white, liberal audience, mostly at coffee houses and on college campuses. And he brought fire and brimstone Mississippi attitude, and it was kind of like, I don’t have time or energy to give a shit about how that’s received. That’s just part of the deal. So I love the whole pure id of it, and I hope that people sit with that, neither good nor bad. Just like, as an artifact of what it is. Cause I think it’s really interesting if you just take it in in a Ken Burns kind of way.

Cliff: Yeah. And Son House’s is-ness,” for lack of a better term, like really evades your attempt to take him seriously at any point, because even what you’re talking about with giving a little sermon before the song, like there are just as many, if not more examples of him being embarrassingly drunk and rambling instead. Right? So it’s just like at every point, even down to the fact of like, to me, nothing is funnier than the fact that Son House outlived basically everyone who would yell at him for being just an abject failure. Right? There are literally videos of people telling him to shut up in front of audiences ’cause he’s just yelling and drunk. 

Kyle: Look up on YouTube, and we will share on social media, Howlin’ Wolf, 1966, Newport Folk Festival, ” Meet Me at the Bottom”, where he’s yelling at old dude, drunk Son House! 65 year old Son House! And Howlin’ Wolf’s not anywhere near that old. He’s like a full decade younger and he’s yelling at him. He said,  “You had a chance to do something with your life and you didn’t.” That shit is full on cringe content, man.

Cliff: I mean, he went straight Southern mom on him, just like, “you had potential… and you wasted it.”

Kyle: “All you love in this world is whiskey.” I mean, it went on for, it went on for a long time. It was a real, it was a long talking to, and it’s just in a small… like… you have to watch this video. It’s in a small room and he’s like in a diner chair and he’s trying to get the song going and explain it. And Son won’t shut up and stop trolling. And so he like launches all the way in; it’s wild. It’s a… it’s a truly wild video.

Cliff: Worth pulling up that video too, just to see the Firebird he’s

Kyle: Oh God.

Cliff: also awesome.

Kyle: And to hear his voice. Like just, there’s not a millisecond of Howlin’ Wolf’s voice that I don’t want to listen to. I wish he would… I wish he were allowed to narrate every audio book I ever listened to. With no Howlin’ Wolf, there would be no Tom Waits. Anyway…

Cliff: Speaking of Tom Waits. Wait, speaking of Tom Waits, have you heard his cover of “John the Revelator”? Okay. All right, good. That one’s fun because even though it’s on a compilation, that is ostensibly a Blind Willie compilation, who originally wrote the song, Tom Waits gets it. He’s doing the Son House version. There’s no confusing it; he’s using all of the lyrics from the Son House version. You can even feel it. But you can also… it’s also a super great example. You know, we were able to talk about Tom Waits together. Tom Waits loves to sit right there on that edge, for me, of just like, Oh my God, this is way too much. And then also it’s brilliant. And I can’t quite decide between the two of them. And this song is like a great example of that. He’s channeling the Son House energy, but he sort of borrows the atonal singing from Blind Willie’s original version, which is one of the weirdest parts about that song to me. It’s like Blind Willie is hardly singing any notes at all. He’s kind of just yelling in a real gruff way. And then there’s a female singing in the background, kind of carrying the whole thing. So the Tom Waits version is a really interesting interpretation of it. On the other hand, if you’ve ever heard of what Depeche mode calls its version of this song, just like close your browser immediately. A really great example of just really not getting it. Cause they like use it as a pallet to be like “religion is stupid,” which is like, okay, but you’re sort of missing all of the nuance of the song that you’re using. 

Kyle: And also, you did “Personal Jesus”. So just leave that shit over there. Wait, did you say Depeche Mode or Duran Duran?

Okay.

Cliff: If I say Duran Duran, that’s a, that’s actually a trigger in our audio system. Our podcast

Kyle: Shut it down.

Cliff: Yeah. It deletes all the episodes off the internet.

Kyle: Shut it down. Everyone we’ve said everything there is to say. 

The last thing that I want to hit on in terms of the songs before we get into the story– cause I do, I do want to talk about just his journey– is the Al Wilson of Canned Heat connection. So Pre-canned Heat, right? This is the early sixties. I say this as somebody who later in life has become an enormous Canned Heat fan and think, of all the white boy blues bands to ever do it, they actually were one of the best. If we never cover Boogie with Canned Heat on this podcast, this is my official recommendation to buy it on vinyl. Listen to it. That shit kicks ass.

Cliff: Yeah, we got to honestly say that we both like Canned Heat so that we can really convey how hard this story is to tell.

Kyle: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And specifically, Al Wilson  plays kind of a narrow role… an integral role… in his time in the band, but only sings vocals on the big Canned Heat hits. So Al Wilson, they called him “Blind Al” in Canned Heat, is a stupefyingly obsessive student of the blues. And he is one of these cats that is part of a group calls itself the “Blues Mafia,” right? They move from jazz and folk to trying to go the next level up and find these like old obscure Twenties and Thirties 78s of blues artists, especially Southern Black blues artists. And he has studied Son House, Charley Patton, uh, Bukka White… sort of, the early generation, one person and an acoustic guitar stuff. And when they stumble across Son House, he’s older, he’s wrecked by drink. He can’t remember how to play his own song. And he like physically can’t play a lot of his own songs unless he’s really drinking a lot. But there, there is a quote from that Waterman cat, who was one of the three people who traversed the country trying to physically find Son, he said, “Al Wilson taught Son House how to play Son House. There was a period of time in Rochester, New York, where they sat down together and Al would be like, ‘Well, you know, this is how it is on the recording.’ And Son would light up. He’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I remember now.'” And so eventually they like, coaxed the riding a bike thing out of him. And one really interesting thing that comes to bear because of that– and purists will have different interpretations of this move– is he plays on a couple of tracks with him. So he plays blues harp on the last track “Levee Camp Moan”, which is an almost 10 minute kind of blues drone that’s amazing. But the song that I never really appreciated until I started listening to it more fully is “Empire State Express”, a song about trains and. I wasn’t even really thinking that hard about it until I started listening and realized that there were two guitars on this thing, the same way that I missed that there were two drummers in the Allman Brothers originally, there’s fully two guitars and it took me half of one listen to be like, “All right, which one is Son, and which one is Al Wilson?” And there’s one, I think in the right channel that’s scrapey and aggressive and punky, and you’re like, “Oh, well that’s Son.” And then there’s a kind of higher up on the fret board, more smooth and metered, but it’s sitting back in the pocket and it’s just kind of like creating a framework for Son to go off of. And so that’s a little two guitar jam, I think somewhere toward the middle of the cuts, is that… I think that ends Side A on the record.

Cliff: What else about the story interested you? Because think we’re both familiar with it. I think we both don’t want to go kind of word for word, especially cause like, if you’re going to go that deep, just read the book,  but it’s hard to kind of give the right summary for it, especially kind of beyond what you’ve mentioned here. It’s like you get that weirdness of, early 20 something, “teaching Son House how to play his own songs” and probably doing some very odd sense of like, okay, it’s like this, but then if I played it more like you and wasn’t quite as good at guitar, here’s probably what it would sound like instead, so try to play it that way. Well, maybe I’ll say, like… the part of that story that kind of makes me really stop and think is after they’ve taught him a little bit and they’ve convinced him like, Hey, actually there’s like an entire audience. There’s a market of people who want to hear from you  and they, they don’t care if you feel like you’re old or, you know, like you mentioned, he’s got a tremor, so he’s gotta be drinking some to be able to play his own music at all. And there’s just like this ready-made market that you can drop Son House into. And I I kinda reeled, especially in modern years, like hearing that part of the story and just thinking like… it’s not just that Son House used to play for a Black community, and then in this new world where he gets rediscovered and re-records and gets put on bills, he’s now playing quite literally to like all white people. It’s not just that, although that in and of itself was pretty wild, but then the idea of like, actually though, he lived outside of like a capitalistic way to make art entirely first, and then was dropped squarely into it as an asset. Like, hey dude, you actually have a thing that has value, but since you didn’t know the right people, no one has been paying you for this this entire time. Like we have come to let you know that there’s a whole part of the American market that’s willing to give you money if you’ll do what they say and come play in their houses and come play the music they want in the lineups that they want. And it’s just this very uncomfortable but extremely accurate portrayal of some of the stuff we’ve talked about, including in like the Cream episodes, of our experience of blues, as people alive right now, is inextricably linked from white people trying to sincerely figure out how to keep it going. And like, there’s just no way for us to go back and sift those things apart. And Son House gets us the closest because there’s a literal decades long gap between the two experiences. And it’s such a fascinating place of music highlighting our history… I feel like we discover it every episode, you know, music is telling us stories all the time. And to me, that’s… that’s one that really just kinda catches me. And I ended up just kind of sitting there and thinking about it for a bit.

Kyle: I want to point to one excerpt from the book and then skip rocks over a few of the highlights of kind of his arc that get us there, so bear with me for a minute. There’s an excerpt where, uh, they say, “Despite the fact that earnings from touring must’ve been a significant piece of income for House and his wife Evie, strangely enough, according to Waterman, neither seemed to care that much whether he worked. As Waterman put it, ‘If I found work for him and came and picked him up and took him out on the road, that was okay. If I left him alone and didn’t call and didn’t come, that was okay, too. Neither one of them had any strong feelings on it, one way or the other, and Son had no feelings of being a well-known artist. He had no sense of celebrity.'” It kind of reminds me of Sturgill Simpson starting his career so late because he was from Kentucky and everybody played bluegrass guitar there. And it’s like, “well, who the hell am I to ever be a person to make a million dollars doing what everybody does on their porch on Sunday night?” Like it’s just a fundamentally different orientation to the reason that you make music, to your point, right? It just kind of never even occurred to him, I don’t think. Like even when he recorded those first recordings in 1930, I think that was just because he liked to hang out and drink whiskey with Charley Patton. I don’t think he was ever like, “I’m going to make money on this.” I mean, the culture around Black people specifically being able to do anything like that in 1930 was so fundamentally different. So it’s a hard headspace to even start to get in. So some of the steps that I think speak to the point, which is: we came so close to having no exposure to Son as soon as he died anyway. He was born in 1902 near Clarksdale, Mississippi. He and his father both were religious dudes and musicians, in differing measures. He hung out with Charley Patton and that’s kind of part of the story. The other interesting part of the story is his brushes with the law and things that kind of took him off the grid for a little while. In 1928, he shot a dude at a house party and was sentenced to five years at the Mississippi state prison known as Parchman Farm. if you’ve never read about Parchman Farm, that’s a piece of American history you absolutely should know about. There’s a lot of blues lore and songs around Parchman Farm. And then he recorded some with Alan Lomax in 1941, I believe. He was a tractor driver on a plantation in 1941 as a sharecropper when Alan Lomax and John Work III came by for a Library of Congress study and recorded Son House, Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams at the Clack Store, a commissary and train station. And you can actually hear the locomotive in the background Lomax later said, “Of all my times with the blues. This was the best one.” So there was a recognition then, and then the dude drops off for 20 more years. Uh, there was some time in there in the 1950s where he winds up in a labor camp– nobody really knows how– on Long Island in New York. He stabbed and killed a person in self-defense. As best the anecdotes can tell many, many years later, it’s because he was older and from a different part of the country, and so they thought he was a target and tried to attack him and he poked back cause he’d already killed the dude once before he had to do what he had to do. So he argued self-defense and that case was dismissed. But he had lived this whole other life, right? And the vast majority of his life was spent away from music, so that there’s such powerful music in him and that it was like not central to his life, I think is a really interesting thing to know about him and, I think, speaks to his sensibilities not being refined, uh, because it’s like, why would I give a shit? I’m just doing what comes out of me. So the Blues Mafia guys that we’ve talked about were named Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, and Phil Spiro. Perls was from New York City, Waterman and Spiro were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they’re in their mid twenties, right? So, upper-class Jewish academic type dudes. I love the preface about them. “They sought early American cultural expressions, uncontaminated by the quote unquote ‘culture industry’ and its drab middle-class sensibility.” So you get a cold wind of a culture vultures, right? Like backpacker dudes that like hip hop to an uncomfortable degree. And so there’s maybe something to sit with there, but they were such avid collectors of these 78s that Perls he started a record label called Yazoo to release recordings by these quote unquote “rediscovered” artists, um, and he had something bordering on an obsession for Charley Patton in particular. But the author pointed out also that their disdain for contemporary music blinded them to the fact that current artists of their time, like everyone from the Everly Brothers to Jimmy Reed to Ike Turner were in the direct musical lineage of the artists on the 78s they revered. So there’s like a weird… a weird purism to it. But the important part of that story is: they set out on a quest– after Mississippi John Hurt was air quotes “rediscovered” in 1963– during Freedom Summer, which is another piece of American history to look up. On June 10th, they got in a red Volkswagen Beetle and they left from the Northeast to go to Mississippi and then looped all the way back up and “discovered” or came across Son in Rochester, New York on June 23rd. So two weeks in the brutal heat of summer and were in Mississippi right around the time the three civil rights activists were murdered as part of Freedom Summer. But the best part is the way that it culminates. Phil Spiro said that Son seemed to be a bit puzzled as to why we’d been looking for him and how we knew of his music. Nobody else had shown any interest in him in the last 20 odd years, which is unbelievable. So then there’s, you know… they book them for live gigs, they got them on the Newport Folk Festival bill that year in ’64, he wound up in the hospital that whole weekend, and then they spent time relearning the repertoire and doing gigs and stuff like that along the way. And then got him signed to Columbia, which is kind of a great story, where they toasted Robert Johnson, ’cause he was kind of involved in the way that came about. And he recorded these songs in New York, and that was his last studio recording. And he played for, I think, six more years… and then just fucked off to Detroit with his wife. And lived there from early seventies until ’88 when he died. He died in 1988. It’s like so recent. It’s one of those things that’s kind of akin to, you know, Ruby Bridges, the little girl who started school integration in America, her mom just died very recently, And it’s like every photo from the 20th century should be in color because them being in black and white really makes the history feel farther away than it was. Like… this… this was all a lot more recent than our minds might make it seem.

Cliff: And I think that touches on something I think is worth relating to about the blues specifically. We’ve already covered a lot. We talked both before we hit record and probably a few times afterwards about… there’s really no amount of information about Son House or this period of Delta blues that’s like right or wrong. This is a lifelong journey to learn more if you want to. Um, we also could have been more succinct than we are now if we wanted to, but like, we have a real, like, reverence for the blues, and I think it ties into what you were just mentioning about like, it feels so long ago, but it wasn’t. I think that sensation of like vibrating between old history and modern reality kind of gives it this feel that we have for it. Maybe no one will feel that way again, because generations after us can kind of look at it more like real history, whereas, like, it’s so stressful, almost, mentally to let Canned Heat and Son House collide in a real story and then imagine that it hasn’t been that long since it happened at all. And I think because of that reverence though for the blues, because there’s not only an unspeakable quality about how kind of surreal it was that it happened, but also… it’s hard to relay, but… you know, the lineage of slave songs into the blues, into what music became after that is itself very sacred and is something that you don’t want to just spend a lot of time, just like shooting your mouth off about. And yet at the same time, like we can see it and appreciate it. To me, it started to feel like I was trying to write down how to describe this kind of unspeakable quality about the blues. And the only thing that came to my mind was the Language of Adam in Lovecraft Country, where it’s like… it’s a source code of the universe. Like it tells you how everything works. You can make things from nothing using its very simple, easy to understand kind of like component parts, but… It’s used for magic. It’s learned through lineage and it’s owned through like bloodlines. And like, all of blues, and all of that lineage, and all of its ability to hold stories from a time, you know, not that long before the Delta blues, when like you had to hide things in songs because you might not be allowed to sing them. You’re not allowed to read and write. And so like the blues carries that, and just is the beginning point of music becoming a little bit more free spirited and a little bit less, you know, heavy and contemplative and serious. And so like for Son House, it’s such a dense moment of that blues history and of that sort of unspeakable quality about this otherwise like really straight forward storytelling type folk music that’s so fundamentally different from almost anything else we experience. To me, it’s like blues, and to a slightly lesser extent jazz, contain these like absolute indescribable “is-ness”-es that we can just kind of look at and hold and try to learn a little bit about, and there’s never any inclination and that you might be able to totally get it or understand all of it. Like it’s always going to be bigger than you. And like, to me, that’s always been my posture about Son House. I feel like that’s kind of where me and you meet about our love for the blues. We experience them very differently. We have really different backgrounds, uh, in the sense of like, you know, me coming from probably more like musically technical perspective of understanding it. But you get the feel of it much more than I ever did. And I feel like that’s where me and you really share this and in the places where we can try to relay to other people, like, if you have space for it in your heart, really… not even your brain, but in your heart… the blues is a thing that will pay off for you to learn more about and to sit with and to genuinely like listen to, uh, in a really respectful and almost like passive way of just like letting it say what it needs to say.

Kyle: Yeah. To end where we started, I think it’s important to reiterate with a finer point that everything you need to know about life and where we are right now as human beings and also everything you’ve ever loved musically in some way is all embedded in this, as you put it, source code. So it’s worth your study, and hopefully it ignites something in you. And it’s not a one-time thing, but it’s the start of, Oh man, this is a well I can keep going back to again and again and again and enriching myself as a person and as a fan of music, uh, will come in equal measure the more invested in this stuff that I get. I really don’t think there’s a better use of your time musically, ever, than the blues. So enjoy.

SEASON 5 EPISODES

TuneDig Episode 38: Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown”

Reggae music is easy to take for granted, but its impact is underappreciated and massive — in the case of dub in particular, everyone from Radiohead to Johnny Rotten to Run-DMC owes it a debt. Augustus Pablo and King Tubby together created what’s regarded as “one of the finest examples of dub ever recorded.” Join us as we dive into the culture, history, and unique engineering experiments that made it possible.

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TuneDig Episode 37: Rihanna’s “ANTI”

By every measure — sales, awards, chart-toppers, global name recognition — Rihanna is objectively as big as the Beatles ever were. In fact, ANTI is so big it’s still on the charts, a record five full years later. Take a closer look with us at “the record you make when you don’t need to sell records”, and get a taste of the true freedom that comes from focusing on your inner voice when faced with insurmountable expectations.

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TuneDig Episode 36: Son House’s “Father of Folk Blues”

All American music traces back to the blues, and deep at the root sits Son House. That the recordings on "Father of Folk Blues" even exist is something of a gray area that cuts to the heart of the great American myth, but wherever you land after hearing these stories, you’ll find that what matters most is what the great Muddy Waters once said of House: “That man was the king.”

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TuneDig Episode 35: Melvins’s “Stoner Witch”

The futility of describing the Melvins has stretched critics in the direction of absurd words like “Dadaist” for nearly 40 years now. They’ve belligerently flogged any attempt to pinpoint their essence simply by being themselves, but "Stoner Witch" remains a reliable mall directory for the Melvins’ vast and wild discography. Grab yourself some pretzel bites.

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TuneDig Episode 34: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

We should talk about Dolly the way we talk about Prince. Her extraordinary kindness and unique kitsch both make her universally loved, but what gets left out of the conversation is the very thing that made her famous: the music. Join in as we focus attention on the sonics and songwriting of the low-key masterpiece "Jolene".

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After stepping away from talking about albums in 2020, we took time to regroup and reground in why we started this thing in the first place.

Join us as we share our renewed perspective on music coming out of Hell Year and tee up the special group of albums we’ll be diving into over the next few months. There’s a little something for everyone.

RADIO EPISODES

SEASON 4 EPISODES

SEASON 3 EPISODES

SEASON 2 EPISODES

SEASON 1 EPISODES

BONUS TRACK EPISODES

Kyle and Cliff

BONUS TRACK: How We Got Here

We got a bunch of interesting listener feedback in our off-season, and it encouraged us to shed some light on why we do things the way we do ‘em. Also, we reflect on our first writeup, which was ... interesting.

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ABOUT US

We're Cliff (left) and Kyle (right). We’re two dudes born and raised in ATL with day jobs in tech and entertainment, respectively.

We met in middle school, and in one way or another, music’s been the thing that’s kept us close for the two decades since — whether it’s sharing and talking about new music (like this podcast, except in our texts or over beers), going to shows, or working with our favorite record stores to help them survive and thrive.

We started TuneDig as a little art project that connects us more deeply ourselves and to the world through the infinite gift of music. We hope you’ll join us for the conversations, let us know what you think, and share discoveries of your own.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.