Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf
By
Ken Kase
11/21/2004 8:14:13 PM

"See, like me, probably--later, I be done forgot about; dead and gone. Well, they got some kids gonna come up in charge of the future...After I'm dead and gone, you see, well, these undergrowth'll be sayin', 'I heard of this cat, but I never seen him. Here his name and here his picture in the book!'"

Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf
James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (Pantheon)
www.randomhouse.com

Exploring the origins of the blues is a little like dabbling in pre-history. Documenting events in the formation of the music and the people who made it means wading through an intricate network of mythology, hearsay and mystery where truth and fiction intersect. Very little was written about the blues in the early twentieth century, partially because many of its greatest performers and the people who clamored to hear them in the formative years of their careers were illiterate and partially because scholars and critics of music at the time (due to sometimes overt hostility and racism) saw little value in the music itself. We are now entering a period where the blues is increasingly becoming the subject of serious scholarship. To understand American music, one must understand the blues and its pervasive impact on American culture.

Moanin’ at Midnight: the Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (Pantheon) is the first book ever written devoted telling the story of the life of Howlin’ Wolf, one of the most influential musicians ever to storm the continent. Its arrival is long overdue, as many of the key players and observers of The Wolf’s story have passed on. Segrest and Hoffman have produced a meticulously researched book that expels myths, constructs a sturdy chronology and tells some great stories.

“Paying dues” is a term that often comes up when discussing the lives of musicians, but takes on a vivid and perilous meaning when applied to Chester Arthur Burnett, born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910. Howlin’ Wolf was born into an America of Jim Crow laws and the backbreaking work of southern sharecroppers who picked cotton for untold hours and reveled in their precious off hours singing, drinking and developing an emotional, potent musical artform that would ultimately influence people of all races.

Suffering horrendous abuse at the hands of his father and rejection and eventual disownment from his mother, Burnett learned the blues from the best teachers in the world. Charlie Patton, the legendary acoustic blues player who made his first recording in 1929, taught the young man how to play guitar. Patton, whose showman’s sensibilities would manifest themselves in stage acrobatics such as playing guitar behind his head, throwing it in the air and catching it in time for the next chord, would have a strong influence on The Wolf. Wolf’s extraordinary voice is best described by his name and his stage act would reflect Patton’s penchant for theatrics and his stage presence would be notorious for his patented howl, convulsive crawling and relentlessly physical command of the stage.

Wolf would travel throughout the Delta, into Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee playing juke joints between more steady work chopping cotton at harvest time. Back then, working as a traveling musician was fraught with danger and hitting the road to play rough roadhouses full of gamblers and whiskey drinkers meant taking your life into your own hands. But The Wolf clearly had a passion to perform and his tenacious, streetwise and insatiable nature would prove indispensable in his rise to the realm of blues legend.

Along the way, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) taught him how to play the blues harp, a talent of Wolf’s that is unjustly underrated. He had the good fortune to play with Robert Johnson during Johnson’s brief life and soaked up songs and styles everywhere he went.

Moanin’ at Midnight chronicles Howlin’ Wolf’s rise to fame and stature through anecdotes compiled from numerous interviews and a variety of sources. The testimonies from a dizzying array of southern bluesmen, some of whom are known only to the most hardcore blues fanatics, can be confusing to the novice reader. But the stories they tell are compelling, informative and often humorous tales of fantastic performancea, violent episodes, near death experiences and personal portraits that make The Wolf and his legend come alive.

Although generally well-known, it’s startling to be reminded of the fact that the British Invasion and all subsequent styles and innovations would have never been possible had a group of formidable bluesmen not made a mass migration to Chicago to make their living. The Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and countless other blues legends made their mark, both in performance and recording, in the Windy City. The recordings they produced for Chess Records would mesmerize a fringe white American audience and captivate the imaginations of a whole generation of British musicians who would play a large hand in reminding Americans of their great musical heritage. As frontman, Wolf himself personified the strutting sexual and physical histrionics that would become part of the rock and roll playbook. And yet, most rock and rollers might only know him by name and reputation.

By far, the stories surrounding the blues scene on the South and West side of Chicago are the most fascinating, as Segrest and Hoffman depict tales of band feuds, battles over women and turf and countless road stories giving a scintillating portrayal of a seething and volatile hotbed of talent in the fifties. Sometimes violent, humorous or both, the anecdotia about bad behavior from blues luminaries contribute greatly to the overall story.

The authors have produced something of great value in Moanin’ at Midnight. They have compiled an invaluable amount of information about the history of the blues and painted a unique and often moving portrait of one of its greatest movers and shakers. It is a uniquely American story of triumph over poverty, racism and personal tragedy and provides great insight into our social and musical culture, both past and present.

 

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