One of my favorite records of all time (like, top 30, and that means a lot coming from me) has to be the album Son House recorded after he was "rediscovered" in the 60's by middle-class white kids who had fetishized the alien concept of poverty (to steal a bit from Klosterman), Father of the Delta Blues
. The record store I frequented in college, Fantasyland, had a killer blues section that wasn't usually too hard on the old wallet, so I would sometimes buy stuff just because I liked the cover (this was also how I discovered the incredible Mississippi John Hurt, but more on that some other day). I mean, look at this cover! How could you resist? The give-a-fuck pose, the world-weary face that somehow still had a faint glimmer of swagger, the washed-out color photo, the weird metal acoustic guitar, a million Southern summers in every line in his face...gotta be one of the best record jackets of all time.
I spent the next week listening, transfixed. It was so strange and fucked-up sounding to my novice ears. I loved the strange rhythms and the interplay between guitar and vocals, like he could only do one at a time, or how it sounds like a coiled snake ready to bite, or the pauses between guitar runs like he was taking a breath to think about what he was going to next, or how he changes sections willy nilly, like impulsive hairpin turns. Oh, and that VOICE so warm and craggy. His voice tells more stories than words ever could. He used to be a preacher, and you can hear it the sheer projection that is the a capella "John the Revelator" (complete with off-time hand claps that still completely work).
He'd recorded before, of course, thanks to the tireless efforts of Alan Lomax, a visionary responsible for the archiving of big chunks of our cultural history that would have been lost due to the prejudices of the day. He found Son House, a former preacher who'd left the world of preaching for the sinful world of "the devil's music" after a two-year stint at the notorious Parchman Farm for shooting a man. House claims it was in self-defense, and the fact that he did two years of a fifteen year sentence shows it probably was. After a series of sides on Paramount, Lomax picked House to be part of his astounding, crucial Library of Congress recordings (he also got sessions from other luminaries like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly). Those sessions (represented here by "Fo' Clock Blues") are really good, but they also sound borderline generic. House borrows too much from his primary influences, and it sounds representative but fails to achieve that feeling of "great."
With the folk and blues revival in the 60's, House became an in demand player again, hitting up events as big as the Newport Folk Festival. Of course, he wasn't the same man he's been in the 40's. His drinking was more pronounced, yes, but 25 years of playing bars, juke joints, and back porches had turned him into a real performer, someone who could catch a fire on a six string. His newfound fame led to a deal with Columbia that resulted in Father, which as I've said before, is jaw-droppingly good. (The reissue of the album includes all tracks recorded during the sessions, and it's uniformly quality.) A lot of uptight blues purists who think the genre ended at the peak of the Chess years will say that House's output was best in the prewar years, but those people are assholes. Anyone who tries to pinpoint the resounding death of a genre generally is.
I'm honestly surprised he lived as long as he did. In the late 60's, his alcoholism had advanced to the point that one drink would get him sloshed, rendering him almost incapable of performing. However, he managed to outlive almost all his peers, sucumbing in 1988 to a combination of Alzheimers and Parkinsons. His legacy of a man who forged a major part of a huge genre while quietly despising himself (he never was able to shake his belief of the blues being Satan's symphony) is one of the classic American stories, and one you should look into if you're sufficiently intrigued.