I like old songs. And I like modern cover versions of old songs. But which is best? The old or the new? There’s only one sensible, mature and adult way to find out: A Death-match of course! FIIIIIGHT!
This will be the first of an occasional series of Death-matches where I pit old songs against their adolescent, stroppy and sometimes spotty offspring. We’re going to match the artists up against each other, remind ourselves about who they are, listen to the songs, and I want you to decide who’s best. Not because I can’t decide for myself, but because
its a cynical way to encourage interaction it’s a great way to see whether the old songs are still relevant to a new generation. For you, the readers, it’s also a great way for you to laugh at the potential complete lack of interaction on the Every Record Tells A Story site.
Or as Keith Richards put it with rather more class in his “Life” biography: “What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it is this is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation on the theme. And so you suddenly realise that everybody’s connected here…. And the further you went back…and with the blues you go back to the ’20s, because you’re basically going through recorded music, you think thank God for recording. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us since writing.”
And on that note, I thought we’d a) keep with the “Death” theme and b) start with some early blues:
Song number One: Death Letter:
Son House v The White Stripes
Previous Fighting Form:
Son House: Played 1: Won 1.
Tougher than a fillet steak at a Little Chef (and that’s very, very tough). Son House served jail time for gunning down a man who had begun a shooting spree in a juke joint. He was released after two years given he had shot a) in self defence and b) had prevented more people being shot. That’s how we treated our heroes back then, folks…
Meg White: Form unknown.
Looks too quiet and nice to go around hurting people, but they do say the quiet ones are sometimes the worst…
Jack White: Played 2: Won 1, Tied 1.
The White Stripes frontman was involved in a brawl with Von Bondies singer/guitarist Jason Stollsteimer in 2003 at Detroit’s Magic Stick club, which he unquestionably won, if the subsequent photos of a beaten up Stollsteimer are any guide. However, his ex-wife Karen Elson proved to be a slightly tougher opponent, with some interesting battles in court that neither side could claim much credit from.
Having looked at their fighting form, let’s take a closer look at the opponents, starting with Son House:
Eddie J. “Son” House jnr’s career is remarkable not only because he was a superb blues singer, but also for his having disappeared without trace for sixteen years, before being tracked down and his career relaunched.
A Delta Blues legend was born when he recorded nine sides for Paramount Records in 1930 shortly after being released from jail for the incident mentioned above. Like many African Americans of the time Son House migrated North – in his case from Mississippi to Detroit.
He was recorded by blues archivist Alan Lomax * in the ’40s, and was considered a huge influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, but his acoustic-based country style of blues became unfashionable when electric “Chicago Blues” became popular and, disillusioned, he hung up his guitar in 1948, subsequently working as a grill cook and railway porter on the New York Central Railroad.
Having effectively disappeared from the music scene for sixteen years, in 1964 he received a knock on the door from three blues enthusiasts / record collectors. They had scoured the US and the Mississippi Delta looking for him, only to discover he had been living in Rochester, NY. They played him his old tapes and persuaded him that the folk/blues movement was desperate to see him perform. Following a comeback appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival House recorded an album called “The Legendary Son House: Father of Folk Blues” with Alan Wilson from Canned Heat, an album produced by legendary producer John Hammond snr. **
I stumbled upon this album at a record fair recently, and the whole story is written on the reverse of the cover.
I also have a copy of the Peel Session Son House recorded on 11 June 1970. It’s fantastic stuff, and John Peel serves as a link to both artists, as The White Stripes also played a Peel session (or two) and John Peel was a strong supporter of The White Stripes in their early years. At The White Stripes’ Maida Vale Peel Session, (which I think remains perhaps the best live recording of The White Stripes that I have heard) they played a great version of Death Letter. John Peel said about The White Stripes that the most exciting thing about seeing them live was “the possibility that something might go horribly wrong” and he wasn’t wrong.
For their part, The White Stripes were huge fans of Son House, to the extent that their debut album was dedicated to him. House’s “Grinning In Your Face” (on both the John Peel Session and the “Father of Folk Blues” album), inspired a teenage Jack White to play the blues himself and White has been quoted as saying his artistic goal is “to trick fifteen year old girls into singing Son House”. Yet their paths were opposite: with Jack White being raised in Detroit and migrating South (Nashville).
The White Stripes’ studio version of Death Letter appears on their second album De Stijl.
So which version is best? Is the original Son House version definitive? Or did The White Stripes take a sad song and make it better?
- * Alan Lomax took a field recorder out with him to capture folk and blues musicians perform for the benefit of the US Library of Congress. As a result, we have an excellent record of the genre through the ages.
- **Hammond signed Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin to Columbia records and would later bring Stevie Ray Vaughan there too.
- Sources: Ben Thompson interview with The White Stripes, Daily Telegraph, June 2007.
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