Jack White and Meg White were about as far from the blues as humanly possible on February 8th, 2004. Not only were they dressed to the nines at the music industry’s most glamorous night, The Grammys, but they were also nominated for a number of awards, including Album of the Year and Best Rock Song. Their then-current LP, Elephant, vaulted them comfortably into the mainstream, largely on the back of their monster hit ‘Seven Nation Army’, and by the time the initial promotional cycle for the album concluded, The White Stripes had their first platinum release.
With all this success and acclaim, it would have been easy to forget that The White Stripes were two hard-scrabble kids from Detroit who played mostly blues-inspired garage rock. Sure, ‘Seven Nation Army’ was an irresistible riff rocker, but Elephant was eclectic enough to feature country folk campfire songs (‘Well It’s True That We Love One Another’), spoken word avant-garde pieces (‘Little Acorns’), punk rock freakouts (‘Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine’) and their signature predilection towards pure blues (‘Ball and Biscuit’). When they were tapped to perform ‘Seven Nation Army’ during the show’s broadcast, they decided to pay homage to their roots, specifically to an artist Jack White has heralded as one of his all-time favourites.
While exploring the music that had the greatest impact on him during the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, White put on Son House’s ultra-minimalist ‘Grinnin’ In Your Face’. “By the time I was about 18, somebody played me Son House. That was it for me,” White explains in the doc. “This spoke to me in a thousand different ways. I didn’t know that you could do that – just singing and clapping. And it meant everything. It meant everything about rock and roll, everything about expression and creativity and art. One man against the world in one song.”
White became an ardent disciple of Son House from that day forward, and The White Stripes were never afraid to show off their fandom of the delta blues singer. The band’s self-titled 1999 debut LP featured ‘Cannon’, House’s take on the traditional gospel song ‘John The Revelator’, with the Whites dedicating the album to House’s memory. On their follow up, 2000’s De Stijl, another Son House song was included, ‘Death Letter’. Both ‘Death Letter’ and ‘Cannon’ held permanent places in The White Stripes ever-evolving live repertoire, and the two songs were played back to back at the band’s final concert in 2007.
As The White Stripes found themselves as far removed from their origins as they ever had before on Grammy night, the duo integrated a tribute to Son House into their performance as a way to remind the audience, and perhaps themselves as well, where the band had started. Halfway through ‘Seven Nation Army’, Jack kicks into the riff for ‘Death Letter’, and Meg joins in with gleeful reckless abandon. A pointedly stark song about seeing the girl you love get lowered into the ground, it was a daring move to interrupt the band’s only tangible connection to the mainstream in order to give viewers an education in Blues 101, but that’s why The White Stripes were the patron saints of the genre in the 21st century.
Check out the mashup of ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘Death Letter’ at the 2004 Grammys down below.