10 Best Son House Songs, the Preacher Turned Blues Legend

Folk-blues musician Son House is one of the delta blues’ original members. Beginning his performing and recording career in the 1930s, he was part of a deep south blues movement alongside greats like Charley Patton. His background as a preacher heavily influenced his work, whether he was interpreting a blues standard or writing his own. During America’s folk revival in the 1960s, he experienced a revival of his own when music enthusiasts discovered his work and made him an integral part of festivals and events in both the states and Europe.

During this time, he re-recorded many of his now-famous tracks, and these would go on to influence many contemporary rock bands, much like folk-blues musician Lead Belly influenced ’70s rock bands like Led Zeppelin.

For a deeply spiritual, soul-stirring clinic on how the delta blues was intended to be played, check out the best Son House songs below.

10. Downhearted Blues

“…it’s hard to love someone, when that someone don’t love you.” While Son House was an amazing songwriter, he was also a fantastic “interpreter,” meaning he took songs other people wrote and delivered a rendition so unique, he made the tune all his own. With ‘Downhearted Blues,’ he added his own lyrics to the original story and turned a song that was written for a jazz performance into a deep south blues symphony. Singer Bessie Smith got a hold of it first in the early ’20s. Her version became a hit. It’s suggested Son House recorded it not long after her, but it wasn’t until he laid a new rendition down in the 1960s that it really took off for him. His guitar work is very unique. He favored open tunings like G and D (that’s how he got that gloriously boggy sound), and his strings were often slightly out of tune, working in harmony with his wavy voice. His slide work was even purposefully haphazard at times, creating an experience for the listener rather than just a recording.

9. Louise McGhee

“I didn’t have no blues but I wasn’t satisfied.” The delta bluesman married young, and the relationship didn’t pan out. Stating he felt “used” in a previous interview, perhaps Son House’ failed marriage to a Louisiana woman influenced his song ‘Louise McGhee,’ a marginal track focused solely on heartbreak. The muddy, unapologetically Mississippian tune finds Son House reliving the time he waited for his sweetheart to return to him. As “the hours… seem like days,” he finally gets up the nerve to move on. Appearing on an album released in the late ’90s, ‘The Original Delta Blues,’ it’s part of a track listing featuring performance material from 1965. This album would become what many future rock musicians played on repeat. Songwriters like Jack White were heavily influenced by this release. A Son House original is even White’s favorite song. Keep reading to find out which song it is.

8. Empire State Express

Another percussive, rolling rhythm lends itself well to ‘Empire State Express,’ which finds Son House singing about riding the rails, possibly to try and track down yet another woman he’s courting. With this effort, you realize the unique nature of Son House’s contributions to the blues genre. While even many early delta players finessed their way over guitar melodies and bass lines, Son House powered through them from first note to last. This commanding approach left listeners in awe, feeling like they were watching the human version of a thunderstorm right before their eyes during his sets. The most endearing part of it all is that through all his power he kept a startling vulnerability through each production, leaving no emotional stone unturned for audiences. When he recorded ‘Empire State Express’ in the mid.-1960s, it proved to be another solid addition to his unparalleled original blues collection.

7. Levee Camp Blues

A slow thumping blues shuffle, the entire time you listen to ‘Levee Camp Blues’ you feel like a freight train is churning towards you. Featuring another troubled relationship that doesn’t work out for the bluesman, he leaves his good-paying job down at the Levee to find respite from heartbreak. Some versions of this gutsy number contain screaming harmonica, giving it more of a band-like feel. But fans of Son House know that he’s his best when it’s just him and his guitar, wailing together. If you weren’t already a fan of slide guitar, this performance will no doubt make you a believer. House manages to create a percussive feel alongside the fingerpicked notes due to the sheer physicality of the way he plays. This particular song earned him the occasional nickname, “The Godfather of the Blues,” in the past. We’d say the nickname is well-deserved.

6. Forever On My Mind

A more polished Son House can be found on this posthumously released track ‘Forever On My Mind.’ Thanks to Dan Auerbach, one half of blues-rock minimalist duo The Black Keys, through his indie label Easy Eye Sound he’s released quite a bit of never-before-heard Son House material. The blues player’s dobro rings throughout this languid lamentation. In the same wheelhouse as ‘Downhearted Blues,’ Son House bangs away and sings about heartbreak like a man whose broken heart has never quite been put back together. Take yourself to church once again with this tune, House’s gospel-tinged melodies will get your soul to new spiritual heights.

5. The Pony Blues

Gritty, spirited slide work takes centerstage with ‘The Pony Blues’ as Son House hums vocal runs alongside swampy basslines. Originally written by delta blues founding father Charley Patton, many blues artists over the course of the 1930s-1960s recorded their own renditions of the classic. From Howlin’ Wolf to blues-rock band Canned Heat, this is one of those songs that’s got major staying power. For Son House, he focuses on a lyrical story that features a metaphor. A black mare stands as the song’s thematic main imagery, with the main character relating closely to the “travelin'” animal. From the horse’s time spent at the race track to helping our protagonist track down his girlfriend (without much luck), the close companionship takes on a deeper meaning by the end of the song. Like many early blues and country tracks, the horse represents both freedom and pride, two virtues we find our singer reflecting on in this first-class number.

4. Preachin’ Blues

“I’m gonna preach these blues.” Son House is considered to be one of the delta blues movement’s most important forefathers. So it’s quite surprising to know that until around 25 years old, the musician couldn’t stand blues music. He grew up in a deeply religious household, following the path of his preacher father. Because of this commitment to their faith, the House family often viewed contemporary music as dangerous. However, that all changed when Son House, then still going by his given name of Eddie, had a falling out at the church he was ministering, and through what some may call divine intervention, he heard someone playing slide guitar for the first time soon after his religious exit. He would spend the rest of his working days rectifying the two, cultivating a love for the blues and still preaching to those who’d listen. One of his popular tunes, ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ recounts his time spent with the Baptist church.

3. Grinnin’ In Your Face

This Son House original transcends the blues artists’ legacy. ‘Grinnin’ In Your Face’ isn’t just a popular Son House single; it’s one of the delta blues’ most treasured pieces. The songwriter’s background as a preacher is unmistakably present in his performance. You feel like you are listening to a sermon rather than a song when you play this track. With just his fluttering, buoyant voice and gospel-inspired handclaps to keep the beat, Son House delivers one of his most emotional lessons. A song about not paying attention to those around you who persecute you on illegitimate grounds, it’s a part of the original delta blues scene dating all the way back to the ’30s. However, popular recordings include those made during the folk revival of the ’60s, when Son House was brought out of the shadows and thrust into the spotlight, ultimately heading all the way to Europe for a tour with fellow “folk-blues” artists. Remember when we mentioned Jack White’s favorite song ever written is a Son House tune? You finally made it to the answer. Stating that it’s “One man against the world in one song,” ‘Grinnin’ In Your Face’ remains the rocker’s favorite song even today, long after he was first introduced to it at the tender age of 18.

2. John the Revelator

Delivering another epic sermon, we find Son House performing one of his several historic pieces a capella style with ‘John the Revelator.’ Originally recorded by early bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, the tune weaves a biblical story together in the vein of the last book of the bible, Revelations. While the song’s story comes straight out of the bible, its ghostly melody and scriptural imagery conjure up deeply spiritual responses as well, leaving the listener with a holy experience one might find at a tent revival. The song manages to capture the entirety of southern culture at the time it was recorded in the ’30s. A fire and brimstone theme is present underneath the entire piece, while Son House’s pensive vocals and hand claps draw the reader into what feels like delta blues baptism by fire.

1. Death Letter Blues

Recognized as Son House’s signature single, ‘Death Letter Blues’ is also one of the blues canon’s signature historic pieces. If you need a crash course in what the blues is all about, just listen to this show-stopper. And it truly was. Son House incorporated the song into his popular set list from the 1960s American folk revival days, on several occasions playing different versions of the song during the same show. The mournful effort also features his legendary slide guitar work, still unable to be properly replicated to this day. He didn’t just play slide. He embodied it. Videos of his live sets showcase this, as he works his entire body in tandem with the guitar effectively evoking all the pain, pride, and grit of his ancestors before him with his magic. The story details a letter he receives in the mail, which informs him his lover has passed. As the song continues, it plays out like an epic, our heartbroken hero on a physical and spiritual journey while trying to come to terms with both his and her fate. Our number one pick for the best Son House songs countdown continues to be a top favorite for blues fans everywhere.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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