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Son House's masterpiece 'Death Letter' tracked through time

Son House album cover, he is looking up to his right.

His life reads like a blues song … 1920’s, a young preacher playing the blues, despite his church’s opposition. Kills a man in self-defense, 2 years in prison, and comes out to team up with the best-known blues man of the day, Charley Patton.

After limited commercial success of his own, he fades from view, working on farms and railroads. Thirtyfive years later, some dedicated blues fans track him down and he begins performing around the world, finally getting recognition as a blues master.

He played blues with the fire of a preacher.

Son House was more than an influence; he was an inspiration for early bluesmen Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as well as those who heard him during his later incarnation. Unlike his partner Charley Patton, who was a flamboyant crowd-pleaser, House’s music was more brooding, dark and personal. Saying that it’s passionate and gut wrenching does not come close to the conveying the power Son House could summon with just his voice and guitar. Son House recorded “Death Letter” in 1965, and this is live performance of the song from about the same time:

Cassandra Wilson is generally thought of as a jazz singer, but her influences include blues, folk and country music. Her 1996 version of “Death Letter” has a modern rhythm section, and folk textures like banjo and jaw harp that give an understated reading of the tune.

The White Stripes are one of the most successful bands of the “garage rock revival” of the late 1990’s, churning out minimalist rock with influences from punk to metal. Clearly indebted to the blues, they dedicated their first album to Son House, and the next to Willie McTell. They recorded “Death Letter” in 2000, and here is a live clip of the song:

Sugaray Rayford was a gospel singer until about 2000, when he started playing blues. Now the lead singer in The Mannish Boys, he brings the same preacher’s intensity to his 2011 recording of “Death Letter”.

Here are the complete versions of “Death Letter”, tracked through time:

  • Son House “Death Letter” 1965
  • Cassandra Wilson “Death Letter” 1996
  • White Stripes “Death Letter” 2000
  • Sugaray “Death Letter” 2011

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John Kessler