Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. was born on March 21, 1902. Although not as famous to the average household as Robert Johnson, it is undeniable that Son House was one of the most important musicians of the Delta Blues genre and incredibly influential on later musicians, Robert Johnson included. House is known for the intensity and passion of his playing and singing, which may have been somewhat influenced by his time preaching in the church. Ironically, in his youthful days he was so into religion that he passionately hated the blues, which he saw as profane music. But by the age of 25, he had changed his mind and took up the blues himself, to everyone’s good fortune. Together with Charley Patton and Willie Brown, he became one of the leading musicians of the Mississippi Delta, although he was not particularly well known on a national level.
House would play for both white and black audiences, with the latter often taking place in Mississippi Juke Joints. One young man who went to see Son House every chance he could get was an aspiring blues artist also from Mississippi by the name of Muddy Waters. One particular Juke Joint, The Oil Mill Quarters, also often had another patron that would become of great importance to the blues – a young man by the name of Robert Johnson. Often, Johnson would plant himself on the ground right in between Willie Brown and Son House for the sake of studying their guitar playing like a master pupil. Johnson was interested in the playing of Son House, Willie Brown, and Charley Patton too – basically, any of the greats that he could catch and latch onto, he would try to absorb as much as possible.
Robert Johnson formally met Son House when he was around 19 years old; often he would be in the Juke Joint blowing a harmonica. House appreciated that the young man had some skill on that instrument, but knew that what Robert Johnson really wanted was to play the guitar. The Juke Joints would be a bit rough and Johnson’s family would often be concerned about him going there to listen, but he essentially paid them no mind and would often sneak out of the house when they were sleeping to go watch Son House and his musical peers play.
Robert Johnson got the idea in his head that Son House and Willie Brown should let Johnson play guitar during their set breaks when they would go outside to smoke. And he would – but the results weren’t pretty, and patrons of the Juke Joints would complain about the terrible rackets that Robert Johnson would make with the instrument. Although House would scold the young Johnson for causing these musical disturbances, Son House admired how much Johnson wanted to learn how to play and ultimately began to give him some private lessons. Willie Brown would also give Johnson some lessons. After some time passed, Robert Johnson left town for awhile, but when he returned, he was like a new guitarist. Son House was floored at the incredible abilities that Johnson had gained in that time, which he discovered when Johnson had begged House to let him sit in and play one night.
Robert Johnson would incorporate portions or entire Son House songs into his repertoire. The song “Walking Blues” was a combination of musical and lyrical elements from House’s tunes “Walking Blues” and “My Black Mama”. Other covers included “Up Jumped the Devil” and “Preachin’ the Blues”. But House’s influence on Johnson goes beyond just covers – you can certainly hear the influence of House’s guitar and vocal styles in Johnson’s playing. So, in many ways, Johnson was a real protege of Son House.
Another protege of Son House was a bluesman by the name of Howlin’ Wolf. In 1938, Wolf came to Robinsonville where House was at the time, and the two musicians began to gig around the same circuit, including shows at the Oil Mill Quarters. This ultimately lead to Wolf playing harmonica along with House and Willie Brown. Musical friendship blossomed into socializing in other contexts too. At one point, Son House, Willie Brown and Howlin’ Wolf were dating a trio of sisters.
Muddy Waters considered Son House to be his most important influence in the blues. Wolf thought that Son House was essentially the greatest blues musician and caught him play when he could; he was especially fond of House’s bottleneck slide style of playing. Muddy Waters said of Son House, “That man was the king“. We think so too.