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Preaching Blues

by Jim Burger (4613)

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Size 5.1 MB
Style Blues
Gear Johnson M-998 steel-body resonator
Crate CA-30 acoustic amp
Shure SM-57 mic
CoolEdit recording software
In over a decade of intense blues listening, I've never heard a song bluer than Son House's "Preaching Blues". This is my attempt to do it justice...

Son House is one of the founding fathers of the blues -- a contemporary of Charlie Patton and a predecessor and some-time mentor of both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Few, if any, can match his vocal intensity and his guitar playing, though simple, is a perfect complement -- it is very successful in building up tension to match his vocal outbursts, and let's not forget that creating and resolving tension is what the blues is all about!

Unfortunately, other than a brief 1930 recording session (4 sides) and a session with legendary blues historian Alan Lomax in 1941-2, little of Son's early work was recorded. He was rediscovered in Rochester, New York in the 1960's and enjoyed a comeback during the blues revival of that era, from which numerous recordings exist, although his guitar ability had declined somewhat by that time.

The Preaching Blues was among the sides he recorded in 1930, and my version is loosely based on this recording. He also recorded a much longer version in 1965 which I haven't heard in a while and has very different lyrics. The lyrics of his original version describe an internal struggle between the life of religion that dominated the early 20th century south and the inherently irreligious life of the bluesman. My favorite line sums it up beautifully: "Whiskey and women just would not let me pray!"

As far as I know, Son played this in open Eb, capoed at the 2nd fret. I play it in open D, which is the same tuning -- if I want to sound just like him I can capo at the 3rd fret, but open D works OK for me and I don't like to use a capo much.

The guitar part on this song is very simple. Although the vocal line implies a regular 12-bar blues progression, the guitar part is all just a I chord. Since I'm playing it in D it's all D. Each 4-bar stanza consists of 2 bars of vocals followed by a wailing 2-bar lick. The lick consists of a slide up to the 12th fret of the 1st string, then a slide to the 3rd fret of the 1st string (in the 1st bar of the lick), then the same thing over again followed by a slide to the 5th fret of the 2nd string (in the second bar of the lick). I sometimes also play this exact same lick on the 4th and 5th strings, since they are tuned exactly the same as the 1st and 2nd strings, just an octave lower.

I'm playing on a Johnson M-998 steel-body resonator guitar using a metal slide on my pinky. I don't have any kind of fancy recording set-up and my resonator does not have a pickup. I just play and sing into a Shure SM-57 Mic, run it through my Crate CA-30 Acoustic Amp (where I add a little reverb) and send it from the line out from the amp into the line in on my computer, where I use CoolEdit recording SW to record it. I don't know how to edit anything, it's all one track, all one take.