Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Homage to Wolf

by Callum Grealish

The birth of the distinctive blues giant, Howlin' Wolf took place one hundred and four years ago today. There is no doubt that the genre, stemming itself from the spirituals and field hollers of enslaved African-Americans, has had a profound, although often neglected, effect on the music we listen to today. Blues itself gave life to rock and roll, soul, and influenced other genres such as jazz, one of the most predominant genres of the twentieth century. There would be no Elvis Presley nor James Brown without the influences of these handed-down and often melancholic songs, with 'blues' taking its name from the colour depicting a depressed or sorrowful mood.
Howlin' Wolf, born Chester Burnett, had blues of his own as a young man. He was expelled from the house by his mother for laziness around the farm aged thirteen, and he claims to have walked eighty five miles barefoot en route to his father's house. Upon his return as a successful blues artist he took a trip to see his devoutly religious mother, who had not seen him since childhood. She rebuffed Chester and drove the 6'5” man away in tears, calling his songs the “devil's music”.

Howlin' Wolf's stage presence played a large role in his act and image, unlike many other blues artists. He was unusual in physical style, shown here facing the crowd on his knees.

Burnett, who addressed himself simply as 'Wolf', had a striking musical style. His music is riddled with growling, guttural vocals that seem to match his dominating appearance. He would often throw his guitar around over his shoulders and between his legs on-stage, and these guitar notes he played were aggressive and are often characterised by powerful single notes rather than chords. His physical presence certainly conveyed the man to be more of a crude force of nature and emotion, rather than simply a blues musician.
In terms of popularity, he could only be matched by the equally famous Muddy Waters, whose personal rivalry with him is well known. “Muddy's a nice man,” remarked Burnett, “but he's jealous. He really hates to see anyone play better than him.” Wolf's sound appealed to British artists too: The Doors, Jeff Beck, and most notably the Rolling Stones, were all great fans of him. His long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin actually idolised Chester, and met him by falling through a window after he was balancing on Coca-Cola boxes to catch a glance of him, as he was too young to enter the concert – an example of just how popular the man had become.


Blues was certainly capable of generating very dark songs, such as 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' by Rev. Gary Davis (pictured). His influence spans to Bob Dylan and Grateful Dead.

Many authentic blues musicians did not achieve the comforts of commercial success that Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters did. Perhaps some of the other real blues lies in artists like Rev. Gary Davis, who was blinded as a child, and had a father who was shot dead by a policeman when he was ten. One particular song is echoed with genuine sadness: 'Lord, I Wish I Could See' is an example where Gary recalls his loss of sight as a young boy. Similarly, Blind Willie Johnson had lye thrown in his face by his step-mother, ruining his life (although perhaps enabling him to have a musical career). He sadly died after contracting malarial fever in the Texas heat when his house burnt down in 1945, displaying the real absence of the nowadays glamorous musician's lifestyle for most blues artists at the time.
The authenticity of the suffering told within original blues adds to its appeal, and blues in the later twentieth century did not have quite the same success nor specialness, probably because it lacked the raw attraction of the earlier sounds. Later blues artists were certainly skilful, yet the personal experiences central to the meaning of blues were usually absent. Some of these troubled blues artists remained virtually undiscovered until later on, and usually died before reaching fame. Sadly, a personal favourite Sleepy John Estes barely reached financial or musical success until near his death, and he spent the last portion of his life in blindness and complete poverty, before finally being discovered - where he suffered a stroke and died while preparing for his first ever European tour as an old man. It's not surprising that the word 'sleepy' was attributed to his tendency to withdraw himself from his surroundings during times of suffering. Some speculate he simply had narcolepsy, but the first option sounds more interesting.

Despite their regrettable lack of commercial success, it was these early, soulful compositions that would lead the way into many popular genres that we know today. Traces of Howlin' Wolf can surely be found in modern bands and singers alike. It's difficult not to believe that blues shaped rock and roll and therefore is responsible for genres such as rock and metal, and the other various sub-genres that derive from it. The credit to music that blues has is crucial, it's perhaps one of the only positive creations that slavery and hardship in the Deep South produced.

“Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don't live it you don't have it. Young people have forgotten to cry the blues. Now they talk and get lawyers and things.” - Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958)

Dave Allen (OP) adds:

1. Howlin Wolf toured with Chris Barber's Jazz Band and Hubert Sumlin in late(ish) 1964 and here's the cover of R&B Monthly with shots of them at London's Marquee Club. The editor Mike Vernon became a major blues producer in UK in late 60s (Blue Horizon)

2. A photo showing Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and others at a club in Liverpool - from the American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan. The excellent line up was Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Cousin Joe Pleasants, Rev. Gary Davis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. They played at the Portsmouth Guildhall in April 1964. Here is a is a clip of Muddy from a Granada TV show of the same tour. There is certainly something of Sister Rosetta on Youtube too (see here).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Callum - I really enjoyed this post. I'm guessing you're at the Grammar School. I was there around fifty years ago and falling in love with the Wolf, Muddy etc and it's a love affair that has lasted a lifetime. I wasn't alone either. At school I had a great pal, Pete Gurd, who was a fine acoustic blues guitarist, I played harmonica and sang and we used to play that stuff. Sadly Pete died in his early 20s but I'm still playing from time-to-time. You mention Rev Gary Davis. The first live blues gig I ever saw was in 1965 at Portsmouth Guildhall and featured Mr Davis and folk-blues man Josh White. Soon there were opportunities to see the 'real' bluesmen all over England - I caught Muddy, Little Walter, Son House, Skip James, Albert King - wonderful days although I missed Wolf who did tour and had a minor hit record with "Smokestack Lightnin'". The only comment I'd make about your piece is that while the blues grows from sorrow and injustice it isn't itself depressing, it's cathartic, uplifting. However tough the week, dancing to the blues on a Saturday night - fish fries, juke joints or South Side clubs - helped to make life tolerable.
    Incidentally, talking of anniversaries, fifty years ago today (Thursday 11 June 1964) John Lee Hooker and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers played at Kimbells R&B Club in Southsea - it's now the Casino (Osborne Road)

    Dave Allen


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