Son House

Mississippi bluesman Son House (photo in public domain)

The image still resonates for me. Bart Becker described a young fellow leading a frail old man to center stage. He sat the old guy in a chair and took off his hat. Then he walked offstage and came back carrying an acoustic guitar.

What happened next was one of those moments when fireworks go off in our brains, when we know the world will never be the same again. Son House picked up his guitar and “transformed from a little old man who couldn’t walk 20 steps by himself into a churning bundle of raw, exciting, sensual energy”.

The 80-year-old Mississippi bluesman poured every cell of his soul into the music. Becker had played in bands from the time he was in seventh grade. He had spent every extra dime on records. Music was in his bones, but he had never sat under the spell of music so profound it was “the inarticulate speech of the heart”.

By the time Becker wrote those words he had gone on to become music critic for the Seattle Times. I read his piece in the April 1, 1987, edition. I know the date because I still have the yellowed article. The paragraph he wrote about two-thirds through the article is engraved on my heart. Whenever I taught a new group of storytellers after that, I shared it with them. And now, as I sit down every day to pour my soul onto the page, I hear the words again.

Becker wrote:

“What Son House dropped on me was that art is alive, not dead. Creativity, whether primitive or futuristic, is not schooling and technique and logic and analysis; it is intelligence; it is unselfconscious, natural, spontaneous, free expression. Art is subversive, it’s about not following rules. And greatness has nothing to do with popularity and the marketplace. In Son House’s case, he had made a few recordings some 50 years before that hardly anybody ever heard, even then. When you dare to open up and express yourself, you have already not failed. It takes guts to dig into yourself looking for real truths, and the success is in the deed itself.”

Whatever you do that reaches right down into your soul, whatever is born of that ache for expression, is the gift you bring to the world. It is the gift only you can offer.

Dig deep and fearlessly. The world needs the truths you’ll find there.

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