Thursday, June 23, 2011

Funny Things About Serious People: Son House, Skip James, and H.C. Speir

Unlike most bluesmen, Son calls each of the standard tuning keys by their right names, save for C, which he calls F. (Booker White calls E G, C cross-G, and A Ab or Db; Robert Pete Williams, Rubin Lacy and Skip James all refer to E as C natural.) However, in other matters Son approaches the delta blues norm. For instance "minor" means any note or chord on or above the fifth fret, and "major" any note or chord below it. . . . In addition, Son uses a rather vague system of string classification, using soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Skip is more definite; from the sixth string to the first they are 6) bass or subtone, 5) baritone, 4) alto, 3 + 2) tenors, 1) soprano. Skip also refers to triplets, 16th, 32nd, and 64th notes, tonics, subdominants, and 2/4 and 4/4 time, all incorrectly. It turns out he bought an "Exegesis of Musical Knowledge" from H.C. Speir in 1931 and skimmed it.

-as told by Al "Blind Owl" Wilson, 1960s

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for featuring this excerpt from Alan Wilson's study of Son House! May I inquire as to your source?

    To read more of Alan's writing, I'd recommend the family-authorized tribute website at I've been honored to make a few contributions there, and it contains copious information, photos, videos, and more. I think you and your readers will enjoy it a lot.

    I've also written a bio of Wilson, "Blind Owl Blues", which contains brief excerpts from some of his writing. Most notable is a letter to a friend with recollections of encounters with Skip James, Fred McDowell, and others at the Newport Folk Festival. You can check out my book at

    In the 1990s I also wrote an article on Wilson's role in the rediscovery of Son House. It's now available online here:

    Thanks again for this wonderful feature. It's always nice to see the classic-era bluesmen remembered.