Howlin’ Wolf and the Blues, Then and Now

Most of the songs on Howlin’ Wolf’s self-titled collection released in 1984—and which apparently corresponds to Wolf’s second album for Chess Records—were written by songwriter-musician Willie Dixon. A favorite song of mine, “Who’s Been Talkin’,” was written by Howlin’ Wolf, and it is about a relationship break-up told through a woman’s plans to leave and travel, a leave-taking partly inspired by gossip about the male narrator’s behavior.

By Daniel Garrett

Howlin’ Wolf
(self-titled recording)
Chess/MCA Records, 1984

Various Artists
American Blues
Putumayo World Music, 2003

In one of Howlin’ Wolf’s songs, he wonders how long his trouble is going to last, and speaks of how trouble knocks at his door: trouble is a perceptible and persistent force. Howlin’ Wolf is a quintessential blues man, and yet he is an original talent, and inimitable. Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976) is a figure of trouble, sex, and wit; and his voice is big and rough. Erotic fascination seems the subject of “Shake for Me,” as it is in “The Red Rooster,” though it appears in the second song in the metaphor of a red rooster disturbing the barnyard in every way. (The album packaging gives the title as “The Red Rooster,” but the song is known also as “Little Red Rooster.”) Wolf’s performance is laid back, lightly descriptive, and jocular, as he suggests the sexual and social tension implicit in the metaphor, singing with the authority of personality and experience. Claims of love that seem akin to both material and spiritual possession are the subject of “You’ll Be Mine.” Most of the songs on Howlin’ Wolf’s self-titled collection released in 1984—and which apparently corresponds to Wolf’s second album for Chess Records—were written by songwriter-musician Willie Dixon. A favorite song of mine, “Who’s Been Talkin’,” was written by Howlin’ Wolf, and it is about a relationship break-up told through a woman’s plans to leave and travel, a leave-taking partly inspired by gossip about the male narrator’s behavior. Who has been telling his secrets? Wolf sings “Goodbye baby, hate to see you go” and “You know I love you. I’m the causin’ of it all.” Another song is full of characters, and it’s a party song, but one in which excitement seems the equivalent of aggression—in which there is little difference between partying and causing trouble—and that song is “Wang Dang Doodle.” (Maybe fighting is a pleasure you allow yourself if you do not have the social space to confront your most vital issues. Years later, in “Street Fighting Man,” the Rolling Stones would sing, “Summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the streets.”) There is the declared promise of loyalty in times good and bad in “Little Baby,” a song in which Wolf’s phrasing is forceful and eccentric, and he enthusiastically sings, “You go, and I’ll come with you little baby.”

In the classic and wonderful “Spoonful,” there are metaphor, grooves, and humor in the song’s acknowledgement of various precious things—diamonds, gold, and water: and “just a little spoon of your precious love satisfies my soul.” Trouble coming and seeming to defeat a man’s spirit is the subject—or the atmosphere—of “Going Down Slow,” in which the narrator sings, “Please write my mama, tell her the shape I’m in./ Please write my mother, tell her the shape I’m in./ Tell her to pray for me, forgive me for my sin.” Running for one’s life seems the theme of “Down in the Bottom.” Late night adventure and sex and what the “men don’t know, but the little girls understand” are part of the story told in the song “Back Door Man,” in which various women who are attracted to the narrator come to his aid when he gets in trouble with other men. Another good song is “Howlin’ for My Baby,” and the collection closes with “Tell Me,” a song in which Wolf wonders how long his trouble is going to last.

Today, the blues tradition is carried on by several artists, and some of them are represented in the 2003 Putumayo collection American Blues, which features the work of Arthur Adams and B.B. King, Keb Mo (Kevin Moore), Ruth Brown, Taj Mahal, Robert Cray, Otis Rush, and Solomon Burke, among others. (The A& R person for the anthology is Jacob Edgar, and the executive producer is Dan Storper.) Connecting the past and the present is the first song of the collection, a duet between the legendary B.B. King and the younger Arthur Adams, on a song—“Get You Next to Me”—about the anticipation of love. Adams has a softer vocal style than King’s but their singing echoes each other in a song first released in 1999. Keb Mo’s “Hand It Over” is a gospel blues, a prayer. With ache and strength in her voice, economic trouble means time to face the blues for Ruth Brown in “Good Day for the Blues,” in which she explores an all-too common situation, and sings, “I just threw my last dime in the wishing well.” Louisiana-reared musician Henry Gray, who established a reputation in Chicago and played in Howlin’ Wolf’s band, offers a classic blues lament about romantic disappointment in “How Could You Do It,” a song from 2001. Taj Mahal’s 1972 recording “Cakewalk into Town” is humorous. “She’s Into Something,” featuring Robert Cray and Albert Collins, about a woman doing better than the man she left, is more appealing than I remembered the music of Robert Cray being: I had thought of his music as a stew with too much water and not enough spice. Sugar Pie Desanto sings with authority and emotion and sounds to me like a cross between Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson in “Hello, San Francisco,” which has a narrative detailing a Chicago woman whose man has found another woman and lives with that woman in California. Raful Neal’s duet with his daughter Jackie on the song “Call Me Baby” has a standard (and satisfying) blues sound. “I got the blues because my baby done left,” sings Otis Rush in “I Got the Blues.” “Sunpie’s Romp and Stomp” is the zydeco music of a man called Sunpie Barnes, and it features harmonica playing and uptempo rhythms. Mellow, sad, and pretty; a prayer, really, is Eric Bibb’s “Needed Time.” Bibb, a musician who plays many instruments, including guitar, mandolin, and organ, gives one of those sincere vocal performances that is a fundamental mark of excellence in music. “Why Blues” is Tabby Thomas’s son Chris Thomas King’s contemporary (1999) take on the blues, a song that seems more soul music than straight blues. Susan Tedeschi’s open, full, sultry voice offers a sense of drama that is nearly theatrical in “Just Won’t Burn.” Solomon Burke sings “If one of us are chained, then none of us are free,” in the poignant and rousing “None of Us are Free.” Burke’s voice is in good condition and his intensity is great as he sings “if you don’t say it’s wrong, then that says it’s right.” “None of Us are Free” is a song about social conditions, here and abroad, and it is a terrific recording and an astute end to the anthology American Blues.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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