Watch Son House’s Unmissable “Death Letter Blues” TV Performance

Son House (1902 - 1988) on stage, 1967.
(Image credit: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images)

Son House (1902-1988) was a contemporary of some of the greatest Delta blues players that ever lived. Both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were protégés, copping their style from his earlier groundbreaking efforts.

While House achieved localized notoriety early on, by the mid-‘40s music was no longer his main pursuit. However, his ‘rediscovery’ during the ‘60s folk/blues revival led to newfound success. Often quoted as a source of inspiration for hip blues guitar players, this renewed interest in the real-deal Delta bluesman meant his spellbinding talents were captured on film for posterity.

In this clip (featured on the Vestapol DVD Legends of Country Blues Guitar, Vol. One) House performs a killer version (no pun intended) of what has become known as his signature song, “Death Letter Blues.” Lyrically, "Death Letter" goes beyond heartbreak. Indeed, it’s a bona fide horror show. And the tense, frantic style in which he performs the number adds to its horrific undertone.

The tools of the trade are, in classic Delta blues style, a National resonator and slide. Check out this truly masterful performance…

 

The life of Son House was a colorful one. We all might think we know what a tough gig is, but while playing a juke joint in his mid-20s, House was caught up in a fatal shooting. Though hit in the leg he managed to defend himself against his assailant who was mortally wounded. Consequently, the budding guitar hero was handed a 15-year stretch at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. He was, most fortunately, let out a year or two later.

From here he went on to record for Paramount Records alongside "Father of the Delta Blues" Charley Patton. These 1930 recordings are the stuff of legend…

Pick up a copy of Legends of Country Blues Guitar, Vol. 1 here (opens in new tab).

Son House 'Raw Delta Blues' album artwork

(Image credit: Not Now Music)

Pick up the Son House Raw Delta Blues album here (opens in new tab).

Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as GuitaristTotal Guitar, Guitar World (opens in new tab)Guitar Player (opens in new tab) and MusicRadar (opens in new tab) in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.