The Other Columbus: The greatest blues song ever knows your pain

A deep dive into the deeper grief driving Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’

Scott Woods
Blues legend Son House lived his life — a large part of it in Rochester — battling between sin and redemption.

Blues legend Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” is the greatest blues song ever recorded. It is not the most famous blues song — more people probably know the lounge-tinged strains of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” — but greatness isn’t measured in sales. House’s “Death Letter Blues” isn’t even the first blues song with that title. And to really drive home in the opposite direction, having been definitively recorded and released in 1965, the song also isn’t the earliest or most influential blues song ever, dropping 22 years after House’s first retirement from the music game. Yet no song better captures what the form is capable of.

No other blues song seems to take more satisfaction in walking a listener through every stage of both blues math and grief. If you are listening to the right version (it will be exactly 4:21 seconds long and appears on many compilations), the song stumbles drunkenly into play out of the gate with a five stroke/pluck movement. The beginning is intentionally slow and didactic, as if House is trying to show you how to play the song. This moment only lasts four seconds before the regular rhythm kicks in, but in that refrain is everything you need to know about the music half of the tune. Everything else is all sermon.

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Listen along with these lyrics as we go. His voice is half the magic:

I got a letter this mornin', how do you reckon it read?

It said, hurry, the gal you love is dead

I got a letter this mornin’, mm, how do you reckon it read?

You know, it said, hurry, hurry, on account of the gal you love is dead.

And there it is. No foreplay, no warning; just a letter about a dead lover first thing in the morning. That’s the setup. Everything else after this first verse is grief processing, is pure and uncut blues. And House’s gravelly preaching is the perfect blend of teacher and victim. To wit:

Oh, I grabbed up my suitcase, took off down the road

When I got there she was layin' on a coolin' board

Talk about a gut punch. Granted, the narrator already knew that his ex-lover was dead before leaving, but there was something about seeing her as soon as possible that was necessary. Still, no matter how fast he tried to get to her, she was already lost to him before the journey began, and in two lines House delivers a kick in the teeth. By the time he gets to the object of his affection, she is laid out on a cooling board, being prepared for her funeral. She is in the coldest, most sterile state she could be in before the earth reclaims her. She is all body, no soul. Whatever laughter or passion she possessed has been chilled out of her. 

Looked like there was 10,000 people standin' ‘round the buryin' ground

I didn't know I loved her 'til they laid her down

A couple of verses later, House takes us right into a funeral scene, but really, he takes us into his state of mind. Despite the proceedings and whoever else is present, all he can really process is how much he loves her now that her absence is real. We aren’t meant to assume that he didn’t love her before, but whatever feelings he had before they laid her into the grave pale to the rush of love that only comes with the ultimate loss: the knowledge that the person you love can never be seen or touched again.

Well, I folded up my arms and I slowly walked away

I said, farewell honey, I'll see you on Judgment Day

You know I didn't feel so bad, 'til the good ol' sun went down

I didn't have a soul to throw my arms around

As a former preacher, Judgment Day ain’t just some hip image that House pulls out to be poetic. He believes in the cosmology of Second Comings and Jesus, and knows that man cannot know when Judgment Day may come. Could be tomorrow, could be a hundred years from now. And while he suspects he will see his former love when that day comes, the weight of such dark unknowing is a crushing sensation, so much so that he is forced to curl into himself in embraces and folded arms. Consider the last time you saw a grown man walking down the street clutching himself, or even at a funeral. It’s not a thing we are socialized to do. In “Death Letter Blues,” Son House lets you know it happens, and that no man who knows true love can be spared the crippling bend of a permanent loss. We may wait until we cannot be seen, but the crush of utter loneliness will come.

You know, it's so hard to love someone don't love you

Ain't satisfaction, don't care what you do

A lesson in the midst of all the pain, crystal clear in its math. You can run from the pain of such loss, but you cannot hide. Get your arms ready, because you’re going to be doing some self-hugging, friend.

Well, I got up this mornin', the break of day

Just huggin' the pillow she used to lay

I said, sooo, this morning, mm, yes, the break of day

You know I hugged the pillow where my good gal used to lay

Like I said. Something else to note when you listen to the repeated lines: They start to break down into near incomprehension. The deeper he goes into the description, the less he can talk about it. He is starting to sing less and moan more, delving deeper into feelings which cannot be named, but must be expressed nonetheless. By this point, we are into the thick of the blues. The deep marsh, the whipping wind of the cotton limb and the tobacco leaf.

Got up this mornin', feelin' round for my shoes

You know, I must-a had them walkin' blues

A lot of people think this couplet was lifted from a Robert Johnson song, but that's only because Johnson's version came out first. House wrote it back in the 1930s. It’s all good, seeing as how Johnson learned from House and the blues is the original sample-based music form.

Well, hush! Thought I heard her call my name

It wasn't so loud, so nice and plain

Ah, yeah, mmmmmm

Mmm hmmmm

This section drops at 3:50 and is the crowning lyric of the song. The narrator is completely exposed, a raw nerve of grief and perhaps delusion. He stops the proceedings with a harsh “hush,” like a parent might spit at a child caught playing under a pew in the middle of a church service. He needs everything to stop because he thinks he hears something, a voice calling to him through the darkening shroud of pain. Has she returned to him, or better/worse, for him? Is it Judgment Day? Was he wrong all along? No, alas. He corrects himself, gathers his composure once more, but not entirely. The second half of the verse, which would traditionally be a repeated riff on the first two lines, has completely devolved into humming and a moan. He is truly a man broken to his core by grief, unable to even form words. All that is left is a howling knot of wooden sorrow shaped like a man, forever thinking of a love he can never get back.

“Death Letter Blues” is not a dancing song, but your toe will tap, and that, too, is a spell. Grief must be grounded lest it run wild in you, and the ever-present rhythm — provided only by House’s slide and slap technique — anchors your heart so that your soul knows where to return after all its walking. There is no more perfect song for when your woman has left you, or when you just feel she has, or you suspect she wants to. 

“Death Letter” is a guide if you have been left behind, and an oracle if you’re on the fence. “Here is what you can expect to feel if you open yourself up to the world,” it says, “so you better get right with something if you want to make it through the living parts.” It is not a message reserved only for love, for the record (though Son House would disagree, even as he contradicted himself). Note how many blues songs know about your trash boss or that feeling you get when you settle into the driver’s seat and want to run away from everything you know. That is the therapeutic mission of the blues: to put music to your trials and your trials to music. And there is no other form of music that does it better. And of all the blues songs in the world, there is no more perfect one than this.