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Originally published Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 7:02 PM

Book review

'Preachin' the Blues': the life and times of enigmatic bluesman Son House

Daniel Beaumont's new biography "Preachin' the Blues; The Life & Times of Son House" tells the colorful story of one of the most mysterious and influential of all America's blues musicians. Beaumont discusses his book Thursday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Daniel Beaumont

The author of "Preachin' the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N. E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
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In June of 1964, three white blues fans drove to Rochester, N.Y., and knocked on a door, hoping to find a lead in their quest to track down a blues legend. They'd already searched the Mississippi Delta, but had gotten a tip that their quarry had gone north seeking work, following a migration taken by many African Americans in that era.

They knocked and asked if the occupant knew where they might find Son House. The man replied, "This is him." The young men were astounded: Son House, considered one of the greatest blues players, had been missing for two decades, and they hadn't been certain he was alive.

It is this meeting that begins Daniel Beaumont's powerful biography of House, "Preachin' the Blues; The Life & Times of Son House" (Oxford University Press, 206 pp., $24.95). Beaumont is a Seattle native and a graduate of the University of Washington who teaches at the University of Rochester. Many histories written by professors sag under the weight of sociological details, but this narrative is gripping. At times it resembles a detective novel, as the author seeks details on the shadowy House.

Son House was one of the most seminal figures in American-roots music, and his history is full of archetypes that define the blues. With his recordings of "Preachin' the Blues" and "Death House Letter," House created a legacy, but he also was Robert Johnson's guitar teacher and influenced Muddy Waters.

House was born in Mississippi in 1902. Around the time he discovered the guitar, House began working as a preacher. Those two pulls — the Saturday-night women and booze, and the Sunday pulpit — became the dominant forces in his songwriting. House couldn't quite quit preaching because it paid better than music — "He really could sing, and he really could preach," one friend observed. Finally his boozing resulted in his ejection from his church — like many of the details of House's life, the exact story, and timing, is a matter of debate.

We do know that House was convicted of murder. He spent a term at Mississippi's infamous Parchman Prison Farms for the crime, but no one knows exactly how long (records for many African Americans in the South in this era were scarce). What is clear, and a point Beaumont emphasizes, is that the brutality House faced at Parchman became part of his oeuvre, showing up in "Country Farm Blues."

House was released from Parchman less than two years later. It was a pattern — of murder, and quick release — that helped create a cycle of violence in the South. In one of his rare interviews in his later years, after his discovery in Rochester gave a second act to his career, House explained it this way: "They put him in jail, (then) the white man would get in his car, and go down there and tell them, 'I need him.' Put in a good word for him."

The killing floors of the juke joints are colorfully painted by Beaumont, but his book most comes alive in the telling of the 1930 Grafton recording sessions where House cut his first recorded songs. "Preachin' the Blues" achieves what any music biographer most aspires to: It makes a reader want to seek out the music it describes. And even in an iTunes age, when Son House's "Levee Camp Moan" can be found with a click instead of a drive to Rochester, it's still a journey with rich rewards.

Seattle writer Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

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